The first thing I remember hearing about Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone was a friend’s enthusiastic endorsement that it far surpassed The Lord of the Rings in literary brilliance. I was 13 in 1999, and already an avid Tolkien fan, so I set out to read this overhyped book, excited to hate it and to prove the claim wrong. While it was clearly easy to prove Rowling’s inferiority to the old master, it was impossible to hate the book. Though it was nothing new–Rowling at her best imitates Roald Dahl–what I found was a delightful, lean, and imaginative children’s tale that clipped along to a genuinely impactful conclusion. It was no Hobbit, but I stayed up late finishing it on a school night.
But in the 20 years since the book was published, my generation has disagreed significantly with my sympathies. Rowling has, at least for the present, surpassed Tolkien in popularity and influence. Even after interest Tolkien’s classic was revived by a series of blockbuster films, it is the characters and mythology of Rowling’s works that have captured the imagination and defined the language of those born between the late 80s and the late 90s. Wands have replaced swords and Lightsabers as the weapon of choice for many young kids. Elves and Jedi play second fiddle to Wizards and Witches. The political scene is a conflict between Hogwarts Professors and Death Eaters. Ruth Bader Ginsburg is Professor McGonagall. Donald Trump is Voldemort.
Rowling never matched her books’ success with an increase in quality. After a trilogy of admirably succinct, episodic tales of Harry Potter’s adventures at Hogwarts, Rowling fell prey to the fan club that incessantly demanded more. Though subsequent installments kept the essential frame of a novel, (characters navigate predicaments in a linear sequence of events) their plots were stretched to their limits in order to reveal as much of the wizarding world as could possibly be bound between the covers of a trade paperback. The fourth installment surpassed the third’s word count by some 90,000, and the result strikes the reader as a work left criminally unrevised. Instead of chasing down some secret of the strange history of Hogwarts Castle, our heroes meander around the wizarding world, slowly uncovering what turns out to be a needlessly byzantine conspiracy plot involving too many made-up magical rules and relics to be genuinely satisfying. The stories from here on out ceased to be simple tales of discovery, friendship, and betrayal that happen to take place in a magical world, and instead increasingly concerned the world itself: its fantastical history, politics, and landscape. Perhaps sensing that this “world-building” style of narrative came at the cost of emotional engagement, Rowling also significantly upped the stakes of peril and violence her characters face. That turn decreased the series’s quality even as it increased its word count (the obese fifth installment surpassed the already very large fourth by some 67,000 more words.) The leaner film adaptations proved far superior to their source material, trimming the narrative fat and boiling the plots down to the essential, compelling elements beneath the many layers of superfluity. Were Rowling to rewrite the last four installments as novelizations of the movie versions, they would be marked improvements.
The decreased quality of the Potter books did nothing to dampen fan enthusiasm. While the plots started to turn on things like understanding how horcruxes work, where and when one may “apparate,” how prophecies may be “stolen” in crystal balls, etc. one through line was maintained throughout that kept audiences (particularly American audiences) invested. The key to the emotional resonance of Harry Potter in the United States was not its fantasy but rather its idyllic portrayal of the British school system. For American audiences, the world of upper-class British schooling may as well have been a magical world of possibilities. For millions of American teenagers caught in the utilitarian hell of compulsory public education, this was a drug. Told incessantly to be true themselves and all they can be, American youth are never told where they fit, who they belong to, and who they are. The result is loneliness and an intense need to belong. It is no coincidence that public schools in American inner cities are hotbeds of gang recruitment. Confronted with the millennia-old adolescent questions of “Who am I? Where do I belong? Who are my people?” American public schools respond with: “Be you! Be all you can be!” which is simply a failure to answer the question. Gangs’ markers of solidarity–colors, finger signs, handshakes, hierarchy–answer students’ longings. But the British education system comes with all the identity forming features of gang affiliation built in: your “house” comes with clothing, colors and a creed, prefects and student leaders are the hierarchy, and sports (in Harry Potter’s case, the violent wizard-rugby Quidditch) instead of turf wars supply the need for martial competition. Hogwarts provided, for millions of American adolescents, a window into a sort of academic life that actually answered students’ social longings. It was an escape from American alienation.
The setting of the series in a school also shifted the aims of its hero. Unlike Luke Skywalker, the consummate individual who discovers his inner power only to discover his own destiny, Harry Potter is welcomed into a community of people to which he belongs and he fights to defend that community. Between adventures, he does little more than live life in that community. The increased word count of the Potter books as the series progressed probably represented fans’ desires to do the very same thing. They didn’t want to read a story so much as just exist in a world ordered to satisfy their longings for community. Harry Potter became a place more than a character. This is driven further home by the fact that Harry is not a very good student and magic itself ceases to inspire him after he arrives at the school. Harry Potter gets to go to magic school then blows it off, instead opting to spend time with his friends and learn more about his family origins. But this is all very consistent with the Potter books’ theme: the beloved community of Hogwarts. Harry doesn’t care what he can do or why, he just wants a family.
It was just as well that the books’ community took center stage away from its titular character, since Harry himself ended up being a dull protagonist to put it mildly. Similarly bland is the world beyond Hogwarts which is just a slightly more colorful version of our own: they have banks, play sports, run shops, have kids, and nobody goes to church. There is no Narnian sense of purpose. Dumbledore is an aging hippie; no Aslan. Wizards are muggles by another name. Wizard racists make a tidy enough threat to compel the characters to action but not to define the point of magical life. One wonders just what everyone would be doing if there weren’t any Death Eaters to battle. Magic itself has no moral orientation. It’s just a tool to be used. The attractiveness of Hogwarts’ idyllic community distracts from these shortcomings and enchants an otherwise mundane wizarding world.
But in the end, that community is impermanent. Once their seven years at school are over, the fellowship disbands. The final scene involves Harry and his wife and his friends welcoming the next generation to Hogwarts. The characters’ purposes are fulfilled by bringing the next generation into the charmed community of Hogwarts. Our heroes cease to be heroes and pass into the gray world of bourgeois wizarding life as they age and leave the informing community of Hogwarts. Harry, Ron and Hermione’s adventures amount to a magical trust fund served to set up the next generation (read: next series of books) for their matriculation into Hogwarts. Harry Potter never surpassed The Lord of the Rings because that would suggest that Rowling played by Tolkien’s rules: the quest of an unlikely hero, an apocalyptic battle, an eschatological kingdom of heaven ushered in. It’s not even a coming-of-age story. Instead, Rowling shifted the focus to how good it feels to enter a beloved community. The wild reception of such a story ought to tell us something about what our young people are lacking, and what modern education fails to provide them with. It’s possible that Harry Potter has forever changed the makeup of fantasy fiction: no longer concerned with the hero’s journey or the final conflict of good driving out evil, but defining and preserving a beloved community which may not give you much information about what is right, wrong, or worth doing, but when you’re there you know you’re home.