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Harry Potter (Series) | Context


Boarding School Stories

The Harry Potter series is set in modern times with a modern tone and sense of humor. Its roots, however, reach into the past. In many ways the series uses elements of a typical school story, a genre of fiction that was enormously popular from about the mid-1700s through the late 1800s, especially in Britain. Thousands of boarding school stories were written during this time period, and one of the most famous was Thomas Hughes's Tom Brown's School Days (1857). As a setting, boarding schools provided an arena in which children and young adults were away from parents and so had to establish friendships and pecking orders on their own.

Specific features of boarding school stories appear in the Harry Potter series. These stories emphasize loyalty to one's school, team, and friends. They often focus on team sports and other competitions, both intramural and between competing schools. The students at Hogwarts are divided into four "houses"—Gryffindor, Slytherin, Ravenclaw, and Hufflepuff—each with its own Quidditch team. The Triwizard Tournament is a competition between three wizarding schools: Hogwarts, Beauxbatons, and Durmstrang. Heroes in typical boarding school stories often make a best friend early on, and a third friend comes in later in the story. Harry Potter first befriends Ron, and the two accept Hermione into their friendship after they all fight the troll together. Class differences among students, school bullies, minor shenanigans and rule-breaking, and harsh teachers are all elements commonly found in boarding school stories, just as they are in Harry Potter.

Orphans in Literature

Like Harry Potter, the heroes and heroines of classic children's literature are often orphans. American author L. Frank Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900) and its sequels feature orphan Dorothy Gale. Canadian author Lucy Maud Montgomery's Anne of Green Gables (1908) and its sequels focus on the life of young orphan Anne Shirley. American writer Mark Twain's The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876), English novelist Charles Dickens's Oliver Twist (1838), and British American novelist Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden (1911) are all famous literary works with orphan protagonists.

An orphaned main character gives a story an instant mood of seriousness. Something tragic already hangs about these young lives. Readers sympathize with the plight of the unprotected, the unloved, the pushed aside. When readers learn that Harry Potter is an orphan who has been brought up by his unloving, disdainful aunt and uncle, they are immediately on his side.

Orphans are outsiders on a quest for identity. They are often surrounded by people who take parental love and guidance for granted, and they may feel isolated by their differences. Since orphans lack parents with whom to identify, they often have to craft their own sense of self without the foundation of family to build on. In the Harry Potter series, Harry struggles to find out who he is, and part of that process is discovering what kind of people his parents were. Ron Weasley, surrounded by a loud and eccentric family, has no such concerns. Everyone knows he is a Weasley. Ron's trouble is differentiation—the opposite problem Harry has.

An orphaned protagonist must learn to navigate the joys and dangers of life on his or her own. He or she must find parents, siblings, and other family among those met along the way. Ron and Hermione serve as siblings for Harry. Both Dumbledore and Sirius Black act as father figures for Harry, and their deaths heighten the tragic aspect of Harry's character development and help make him a compelling hero.

Bureaucrats and Tyrants

In an interview, J.K. Rowling said she wanted to show the magical world has all the same kinds of problems as the nonmagical world, such as bigotry, hierarchy, and the concept of racial purity. As such, she drew on real historical figures to inform her portrayal of the politics and social dynamics of the Potterverse. British prime minister Neville Chamberlain was part of the inspiration for Cornelius Fudge, the hapless Minister of Magic who refuses to accept Voldemort's return and whose delay makes a bad situation worse. Chamberlain was the prime minister of the United Kingdom from 1937 to 1940. He stood by his policy of appeasement toward foreign powers, including fascist Italy and Nazi Germany, even as these powers invaded places like Ethiopia and Austria.

German dictator Adolf Hitler and Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin were the main inspirations for the tyranny of Voldemort and his army of evil spirits called Death Eaters. Hitler embarked on systematic and brutal genocide in the interest of racial purity. Stalin ruled the Soviet Union by inspiring absolute terror and imprisoning and killing millions of those he deemed enemies. Both were totalitarian leaders who had zero tolerance for dissent and whose force of character garnered a large following. In the last two books of the Harry Potter series, Voldemort displays similarities to both Hitler and Stalin as he pursues an agenda of not only ridding the magical world of Muggle (human)-borns and half-bloods, but also subjecting the Muggle world to his domination.

Growing Fame, an Adolescent Audience, and the Makings of a Phenomenon

The impact of the Harry Potter series can hardly be overstated. The first edition of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone was just 500 copies, and it enjoyed successful early sales in Britain. However, the first book's popularity quickly accelerated when the book was published in the United States under the title Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. By 2000 the first three installments of the series sat atop the New York Times best-seller list. They stayed there long enough for the Times to create a children's best-seller list. "Pottermania" is credited not only with creating an entire generation of readers, but also with changing the way books are published for, and marketed to, children and young adults. The Harry Potter series has spawned eight feature films based on the seven books, as well as parodies, amusement parks, fan fiction, websites, and a cottage industry of replicas, clothing, and merchandise.

One noticeable feature of the Harry Potter series is the change in book length from the first three books to the last four. The first three books range from just over 300 pages to just over 400. The remaining four books are each over 600 pages. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is the longest, at approximately 850 pages. The longer books allowed Rowling to tackle more complex plots, dig into in-depth character development, and elaborate in more gruesome detail. Not all readers loved this change. Rowling received some criticism for depicting nightmarish scenarios in works marketed to children. However, her readers were aging, too, and seemed ready to travel a darker road with the boy wizard as both he and they entered adolescence.

At the same time, Rowling gained more freedom as Harry Potter became a household name and her writing brought her the financial security to write full time. By 2000, bookstores had recognized the growing popularity of the Harry Potter books and were planning midnight release parties. These parties gave fans a chance to dress up in Harry Potter–themed costumes, play Harry Potter games, and wait anxiously for the clock to strike midnight when they could buy the new book and rush home to begin reading. In 2001 the first Harry Potter movie was released. Pottermania was in full swing.

Rowling continued writing at a furious pace, but she used some of her time to give back to her young fans, who were eager for news of Harry Potter. Her fan base used the new platforms of the Internet and social media to interact with each other and with Rowling. Forum sites devoted to Harry Potter filled with threads analyzing the books and speculating about future ones. RPG (role-playing game) and fan-fiction sites filled with elaborate plots based on characters in the books. Fans formed a number of strong opinions about whether Snape would turn out to be on Voldemort's side or Dumbledore's.

In 2004 Rowling participated in stoking fan anticipation of the fifth book in the series by offering a series of puzzles on her own website. When fans solved the puzzle, a door would open and a clue would be revealed: the title, a riddle, or a few lines of text. These revelations continued to appear until July 21, 2007, when Rowling posted a thank-you letter to those who helped her along the long path of creating the series just before the release of its seventh and final installment. She began the letter by addressing her fans: "Within hours you will know what happens to Harry, Ron, Hermione and the rest in their final adventure. All the secrets I have been carrying around for so long will be yours, too, and those who guessed correctly will be vindicated, and those who guessed wrongly will not, I hope, be too disappointed!"

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