Twenty years ago, the first book in the Harry Potter series was published. Now, two decades, seven books, eight films and various offshoots later, its filming locations are just as popular and the stories continue to resonate across generations. What is it about this magical adventure that’s captivated the world?
On June 26, 1997, a children’s book called Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by JK Rowling hit the shelves. It’s hard to believe, but this eventual bestseller had an initial print run of just 500 copies. Now, the Harry Potter series has sold over 450 million copies all over the world—at last count.
Little did anyone know, least of all the publishers Bloomsbury, what a success it would be. That not only would the books be turned into films starring some of the world’s most respected actors and launch the careers of Daniel Radcliffe and co, that prequels and sequels would follow, but that an entire theme park—the Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Orlando—would be constructed around the magical world the books inhabit.
…If you strip the stories to their core, they are simply wonderful adventure stories. And more than that, they transport you to a fantastical world, to an undefined time, catalpulting you into another dimension.
Not to mention the visitors who continue to flock to countless filming locations such as Alnwick Castle a.k.a. Hogwarts in Northumberland, northern England, pretty Lacock Abbey, the setting for Hogwarts in two of the films, and London’s Kings Cross station, where a suitcase half-jammed into a wall pays homage to the legendary Platform 9 3/4. And last year, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, the story of a grown-up Harry Potter, debuted on the London stage to great acclaim, winning numerous awards.
So how is it that, 20 years later, the series still has the power to enthral? Perhaps it’s because if you strip the stories to their core, they are simply wonderful adventure stories. And more than that, they transport you to a fantastical world, to an undefined time, catapulting you into another dimension.
From a travel perspective, they cleverly address the notion of ‘the other’ and the importance of staying open-minded. In fact, those who travel extensively often say it’s the antidote to prejudice; that the more you see, the more you realize just how much we all have in common. In the Harry Potter books, there are instances of Muggles, non-magical people such as the Dursley family, fearing the magical world because they don’t understand it, while Lord Voldemort and his Death Eater followers are hellbent on creating a ‘pure’ magical race, purging the world of anyone who doesn’t ‘fit’; but neither attitude wins out in the end. The focus on friendship and love also comes into play, via the unlikely trio of Harry, Ron and Hermione, or Hagrid and Harry, and even Snape and Dumbledore. Above all, there’s hope in every book. Amid the darkness, Death Eaters and soul-sucking Dementors, is an underlying quest for hope and a better world.
It’s what travel is about—learning about ‘the other’, friendships, exploring new worlds and being open.
It’s about not judging people or places on first impressions—consider the unkindness of the Dursley family towards their nephew/cousin Harry, simply because they are suspicious of his world, one they are unfamilar with. Consider the unlikely helpers—a seemingly aggressive hippogriff called Buckbeak, the slightly creepy centaur, Bane or first impressions of Sirius, initially presented as a murderer. All turn out to be gentle, kind and helpful. There are numerous lessons about treating others with respect too: Harry talks to Dobby, a ‘mere’ house elf, as an equal and is rewarded for it. It’s a similar concept when you’re traveling—learning about ‘the other’, treating people with kindness, finding friendship, exploring new worlds and being open to new ideas.
The books also touch on the notion of home. When you’re away, it’s often easy to feel at home—if in the right company. For Harry, home is never 4 Privet Drive in Little Whinging where he has lived for most of his life with the Dursleys; home becomes Hogwarts, or the Weasley’s chaotic, full-of-love family house. The books also highlight the importance of experiences and making memories; Harry may have a vault full of gold, but that’s not what makes him happy. It’s summer holidays with his friends, flying on his broomstick, and time with Sirius.
What Rowling has done is turn to myths and folklore to show us our world through her magical one, sometimes referencing world events and history. Using goblins, elves, Death Eaters and ‘resistance’ fighters, she highlights contemporary issues of division, prejudice, multi-culturalism and societal structure in one fell swoop—or seven, if we’re counting. Characters reflect the social hierarchies which exist even now; be it economic ones via rich goblins and worker elves, or racial ones between Mudbloods, Halfbloods and Purebloods. Simultaneously, the classic good-versus-evil mechanism propels the story along to an ending that’s very Rowling, not at all Hollywood, but both real and reassuring.
They may be the the number-one selling book series of all time. The films may have made more money than other film series. JK Rowling is the first author to become a billionaire. But its monetary success is not the story here. These books are an adventure, a glorious magical journey into the unknown. And like any adventure, real or magical, it never gets dull. It’s sometimes scary, sometimes inspiring—and sometimes just pure fun.