The Harry Potter series by J.K Rowling sold over 500 million copies, has a dedicated fanbase and many film adaptions. But why? What is it about the Wizarding World that makes it so popular?
When explaining the popularity of Harry Potter, it is tempting to assume ‘luck’ or the timeless nature of the Harry Potter books. There is truth in those assumptions. However, in this post, you’ll read an explanation for Harry Potter‘s popularity through the lenses of history.
The Postmodern City
During WWII, many historical cities were bombed heavily in Europe. Not only was there a loss of heritage, but in their place, high-rises and industrial style buildings were build. (Not everywhere). Also, topics such as baby boomers and immigration have caused population numbers in ‘big cities’ to belly up to unseen proportions. This changed the ‘feel’ of the cities. Suddenly, they became larger and more commercialised. We must consider multinationalism and corporatism, too. Big supermarket chains and department stores replaced small boutique shops. Publishers were bought by conglomerates, and McDonald’s and KFC’s ramped up their presence.
As this happened, London and New York City’s homeless problem got worse. Many young people were shunned out of the real estate market, told to ‘rent’ in their thirties and forties. Once booming factories in America and Europe moved to China, causing job loss. Farmers faced an increasing risk of suicide. Cities were also hotbeds for terrorism and pollution. Who can forget the Blade Runner-esque image of a smoke-ridden Beijing?
However, it is false to argue that ‘everything has gotten worse.’ Living standards have improved all around the world, including Africa. Innovation contributes to awesome technology. However, it’s a double-edged sword. We can’t accept the good without mentioning the bad. As a significant percentage of the world lives in the ‘postmodern city’ it’s understandable for fantasy fiction to offer an escape from it.
Which brings us to the Wizarding World. The Hogwarts School Of Witchcraft And Wizardry is not a skyscraper or a high-rise apartment building. No, it is a beautiful gothic castle with history. In it are numerous magical findings and bewitchments. Harry’s fondness for Hogwarts stems out of it being unlike his dour life in suburban Surrey.
The Wizarding World is packed with locations unlike the ‘postmodern city’ described earlier. A fan favourite, Hogsmeade, (where students go for butterbeer and fun on the weekend), has a medieval appearance. Those who’ve visited medieval towns in Europe such as Rothenburg ob Der Tauber (Bavaria, Germany) and Colmar (Alsace, France) may appreciate Hogsmeade. They are beautiful places, especially around Christmas.
The Harry Potter series allows escapism to the past, and shows us of a ‘better’, more magical way to live. But it’s not just Hogwarts and Hogsmeade. Even London in the Wizarding World is romanticised. (Remember: London is touted as a ‘global’ city in politics and economics. When I visited in early 2019, I was surprised at how ‘modern’ it was!)
Think of Diagon Alley. It’s similar to the Shambles street in York, Northern England. Other locations such as the Ministry For Magic lack the ‘contemporary’ touch of a postmodern city. Both the films and the books present London as ‘quirky’: double-decker buses, red phone booths, Victorian-era train stations, boutique shops. This is an ‘enchanted’ version of London. In an age with no charm, and cynicism replacing curiosity, is it any wonder that Harry Potter endures? It does not bore us with a postmodern city, but shows us what our environment could be.
Because of that, Harry Potter gives the reader optimism while reality is bleak.
A Medieval Education
Harry Potter reads like an adventure story, particularly in the early books. Our three heroes: Harry, Ron and Hermione must battle trolls, solve mysteries and stop villains. All while attending Hogwarts, a school like none other. That’s an important point, because Hogwarts is actually quite dangerous. With dangers lurking in corridors, forbidden sections in libraries, and dangerous creatures roaming ancient forests… Hogwarts is wild.
Which, to a generation of young children who are extremely coddled, is awesome. In today’s Western world, schools are run with tight, strict rules. Some schools even ban birthday cake and best friends. Worse, are ongoing fears about mental health and indocrination. Once you reach university age, fears about ‘trigger warnings’ and safe spaces enter, alongside nasty student politics. To say ‘education sucks’ is an understatement of the century.
But in Hogwarts, students are not constrained by fear. They face it: whether it’s a dementor, or a nasty teacher. Bullying occurs, but the victim can get revenge. Rules are poorly enforced, leaving the clever Hermione to find ways to get around them. Hogwarts is a fantastic school, because students are not doomed by bureaucratic concerns. It isn’t a ‘safe’ school, but it’s certainly a place of education.
Hogwarts is reminisicent of the great medieval universities of Oxford, Paris, Heidelberg and Bologna. It’s not just the stained glass windows: Hogwarts, like the majestic medieval universities, are places of great scholarship. A common misconception of the Middle Ages is a lack of scientific and intellectual discovery. That’s not true. Various thinkers are products of the medieval university system: St. Thomas Aquinas, William Of Ockham, Marsilius of Inghen, John Wycliffe and Roger Bacon, to name a few.
Of course, many problems facing the education sector today are not new. The medieval education system was far from perfect (look at the Student riots in Paris, 1229 AD) but lends itself well to romanticism. Hogwarts, like the Medieval universities, did not suffer from sterile or unambitious scholarship. It was adventurous, daring, deadly… far more exciting than any university today.
The War With No End
The peak of Harry Potter‘s popularity was in 2006-2010. During that time, various nations had military forces stuck in Iraq and Afghanistan. Ongoing rhetoric about China’s rise, North Korea’s nuclear arsenal and the upcoming Arab Spring were indicative of turmoil and change. More importantly: these changes had no end in sight. The world powers would spin their globes, without ever putting their finger on it to stop.
Yet Harry Potter‘s battle of good versus evil had a resolution to its second Wizarding War. There was an end to the conflict and fighting with good winning. At the end of the Deathly Hallows, three words are given: All was well. It’s remarkable how those words became so potent. It spoke to a generation of young people who saw no end to the catastrophies they were in, whether its global warming, the global financial crisis or the ongoing wars.
However, the sad truth is, in the aftermath of war… all is not well. I can’t name a single war in human history where everything was okay afterwards. Good, if it even exists as a single side, doesn’t always triumph. Not everyone heals and danger still exists. Even today, we still live in the aftermath of WWII.
Which is why Harry Potter’s ending is so fairytale-like. It’s pure fantasy, and although it may be enjoyable to read and a ‘satisfying’ finish to the blockbuster series, it is not an honest depiction of a postwar world. But Harry Potter’s success lies in such fantasies, and it’s simplicity doesn’t make it less powerful.
The Power of a Child (Standing Up To Tyranny)
The heroes in Harry Potter, and most of children’s fiction, are mighty for their size. They stand up to terrifying enemies and try to do the right thing, even when it’s difficult. As we watch news stories everyday and ask ‘what would I have done in this situation?’ Harry Potter can give us hope and inspiration that we’d do the right thing. From Neville Longbottom standing up to his friends… and then to Voldemort, Harry Potter is packed with moments of our heroes doing the right, brave thing. J.K Rowling even wrote in the Sword of Gryffindor, that only appears when someone is ‘true’ enough for it.
My point isn’t that J.K Rowling is wrong or even simplistic in her characterisation of children. Some are loathsome, like Duddly. But it’s interesting to analyse why narratives of children standing up to evil are so popular. Because if the smallest person imaginable can, well, what excuse does the rest of us have? When a person ‘faces’ evil, they may feel small or insignificant: like a child. The very best of children’s literature reminds us that regardless of how small we feel, we can fight back.
In a recent blog post about Anglosphere WWII literature, I discussed how film and novels tackle questions of morality. We look at children as if they possess a grand innocence, as if they have not fallen to the vices of greed, lust and hatred like adults. However, we must remember that children too, like adults, make mistakes. Part of what makes Harry Potter captivating is J.K Rowling’s ability to give flaws to her characters.
Luna Lovegood is not good at social nuance, and Hermione is ruthless. Harry is at times, cynical and detached. Although they may choose the heroic option, it certainly is not an easy choice.
Escapism In The Age Of A.I
Harry Potter is set during the 90s, yet most of its fans have no memories of that time (due to age). Rather, the main fans of HP grew up in the ‘information’ and ‘intelligence’ age with social media, sophisticated satellite maps, high-tech applications and artifical intelligence. This brings benefits and negatives. A benefit is how easily connected we are.
However, the negatives are obvious. Concerns about privacy are well known, as are ‘cancel culture’ in the age of social media. If I apply for a job, my potential employer will look at my social media feeds, including ones from when I was a teenager. Is that a good thing? Am I not allowed to make mistakes when young? Is there room for compassion and mercy?
Harry Potter allows us, although temporary, an escape from all the drama and excess of modernity. It’s popularity is evident of dissatisfaction with the current status quo. Harry Potter makes us imagine a modern world not trapped by technology. Whilst not the only explanation for the Wizarding World’s popularity, it is an understandable reason for it.
Harry Potter offers a break to the constant bombardment of advertising and the superficialness of social media. Instead of spending time on Instagram, you can re-read Harry Potter, where Dumbledore comments on love and goodness. That is refreshing in an age skeptical of those things even existing.
Modern and medieval history explains the popularity of Harry Potter in many ways. Ultimately, it’s a series with romanticised notions. That’s part of its charm.
What are your thoughts on history and Harry Potter? Comment below, I’d love to read your perspective!