Just in case you have been living on another planet, I will explain that this series of books has become a worldwide publishing phenomenon, topping the various bestseller lists for long periods at a time. J.K. Rowling has achieved a combination of plot and character, of action and people, of love and hate, so well-balanced that everyone is pleased. The basic storylines are simple, but are delivered with sparkle. If you are looking for something with a “weighty literary matters” tag, look elsewhere, however. The genius of this author is to keep several threads of story woven together without confusing the reader, and without condescending in vocabulary or characterisation.
Harry Potter is orphaned at the age of one, his parents killed by the powerful dark wizard Lord Voldemort whose spell unaccountably rebounds off the baby Harry, leaving his attacker helpless and half-dead. Harry grows up with his extremely suburban uncle and aunt, and knowing nothing of this until his eleventh birthday when Hagrid a half-giant wizard arrives to take him to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. There he makes friends and enemies, likes some teachers and hates others, and discovers he is an average student. With his friends, Ron and Hermione, he watches Lord Voldemort return to power and throw the world of wizardry into a panic which will set friend against friend and brother against brother. Each book in the series covers one year of Harry’s school life as he discovers his strengths and weaknesses and opens his eyes to the world around him.
Magic is obviously a key element to the stories, and yet one which seems hardly to intrude at all. What the author does not do is to centre the story on the mechanics of the magical ability which all the principal characters have in common. Rather, the ability to do magic is both a source of some simple humour and an all-embracing plot device. Take away the magic and there is still a story, only one not nearly so enjoyable.
Undoubtedly friendship is at the heart of the attraction of these books, not least because it is not overstated. The friendship between the three main characters is rarely demonstrative, is often tested by their differences of opinion and approach, and remains a solid rock around which the currents of the different plots flow. As the principal characters grow older, they start to have feelings for members of the opposite sex and this is neither precocious nor ignored. Friendship here is more important than courtship.
Behind the appeal of these books is a really quite simple struggle between good, championed by Albus Dumbledore assisted by Harry and his friends, and evil, represented by Lord Voldemort aided by his cohorts, the Death-Eaters. Almost everyone lines up on one side or the other, either allying themselves with one of the sides or opposing one of them without actively supporting the other.
Something else which sets these books aside from others for the same age group is the unspoken understanding that a certain level of possessions and of technology is not necessary for a happy existence. The technology behind the castle’s heating and lighting is simple, the food is straightforward and plentiful, the surroundings are interesting if unspectacular. The school can be cold to the point of icicles. The homework given is demanding. While there are occasional grumbles about things, the characters are not driven by their need for comfort.
The question of Harry’s own actions and their virtue is raised from time to time. My general attitude here is that his vices are mostly peccadilloes of the school-story variety: sneaking out at night, fighting in the corridors, lying to cover his tracks, a moody anger and occasional self-obsession. These are balanced by a sense of responsibility and loyalty, a general attitude of industry, a sense of generosity towards his friends, and a feeling of gratitude towards those who help him. However, more people read these books than read any other book on the face of the planet, and so there seems to be a correspondingly great responsibility on the part of the author when it comes to her protagonist. Any parent who entered into a discussion on this most discussed of characters would do well to realise he is not entirely without faults.
In summary, if there had to be a series of books which outsold every other, I would far rather it were this one than many others I have seen. Virtue, vice, and the difference between good and evil are more to the fore than they often are elsewhere. I do not claim the books are perfect, but I am happy to recommend them to all and sundry.
Tim Golden is a computer programmer in London. He is also the editor of the Good-to-Read website.