Breaking the spell

By JOYCE MILLMAN  |  July 24, 2007

How did a “children’s story” become the literary epic of our time? First of all, with a record 8.3 million copies of the final book sold on its July 21 release day, Harry Potter can’t be considered merely a children’s story. Rowling’s dazzling mosaic incorporates shards of myths, fairytales, legends, and ancient and modern history. It carries echoes of the stories of Jesus and King Arthur, of Star Wars and Lord of the Rings, and follows the path of countless Joseph Campbellian hero’s journeys. Harry’s story and the archetypal characters within it feel reassuringly familiar, yet thrillingly new. Yes, the magical setting resonates with 10-year-olds. But the books’ emotional richness and thorny moral questions (Deathly Hallows ambitiously delves into the implications of acting “for the greater good”) resonate with readers of all ages.

It’s often said that Harry Potter spawned a generation of readers, but that’s only half of the truth: it spawned a generation of close readers. Harry Potter is one of the most analyzed, discussed, and debated literary works ever, inspiring essays by thousands of literary critics of both the armchair and professional varieties. (For what it’s worth, I co-authored Borders’ Deathly Hallows–tied speculative anthology The Great Snape Debate.) Indeed, Rowling’s series has transformed reading from a solitary experience into a communal, interactive one. Which is why the Harry Potter phenomenon is not only a story of literary success, it’s also a story of modern technology.

The 10-year span of the Harry Potter books coincided with the blossoming of the Internet — don’t underestimate this as a factor in the series’ massive global popularity. There are a staggering number of Web sites devoted to Harry Potter, on which Potterheads come together to discuss the books, make predictions, present critical essays, and publish fan fiction (original fiction using characters from the books). But in the week leading up to the release of Deathly Hallows, the Internet proved a mixed blessing.

Despite the scrupulous policing of fans pledging to remain “spoiler-free,” Deathly Hallows was leaked online early and illegally, as a series of photographed pages posted on a file-sharing site. Online Potter fans were enraged. Then came Rowling’s condemnation of the New York Times for running a (basically spoiler-free) review of Deathly Hallows before the release date (common practice, as anyone who reads book and movie reviews knows). The Deathly Hallows spoiler flap marked a historic moment in the relationship between traditional media and new, signaling that the old rules are inadequate and the new rules are still in flux. For some Netizens, all’s fair in the freeing of information. For others, it isn’t enough to simply exercise restraint and not peek — the temptation to peek must be removed as well. Which, given the fact that the Internet is a 24-hour drive-through window of temptation (and that’s why we like it), isn’t going to happen anytime ever.

But the Internet also led Harry Potter fans into a kind of temptation far beyond spoilers. If you have spent time in the wondrous playground of Harry Potter Web communities, happily taking part in discussions, reading or writing theories (mea culpa), or following fan fiction, then you, like me, might have finished Deathly Hallows feeling an odd sense of anti-climax. This is not J.K. Rowling’s fault. It’s our own. Because there were only so many possible directions in which Rowling could have taken the series, and, over the years, Internet fans have managed to guess and expound upon nearly all of them.

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