J. K. Rowling’s charming story is definitely a tale of a ‘them’ and ‘us.’ The camp of the Muggles being the ‘them’ and the magical troop of the fabulously gifted being the ‘us’. Naturally, the reader is included in the more interesting group. For who as a child has never wanted special powers and to be part of a secret crowd who move about under the noses of the unsuspecting?
On the other hand, Muggles are dullards, conducting their lives to the beat of a very boring drum. This is best typified by Harry’s rival in his adopted household—the obnoxious Dudley. Aptly named, Dudley’s senses have been dulled by all the trinketry bestowed upon him in his spoilt life, to which Harry is forbidden any access. Harry’s senses are very much attuned and suspect another realm, which soon opens up. Here the chosen dwell in a parallel world.
Harry Potter is a story with greater physical dimensions: buildings unnoticed, lane ways concealed, train stations hidden from view in an architecture unimagined by the unsuspecting. All stories have their own particular magic, here there is magic within the magical.
Rowling develops her narrative with wit and humour, using a deft touch as though she had command of a wand herself. The names she gives her characters are as striking and mesmerising as Harry Potter’s is simple and elegant. There is no pretence about Harry, having grown up in a cupboard under the stairs. Yet, Harry can’t be an ordinary boy. He’s destined for great things. Or is he? His abilities don’t come automatically; he still has to study and work hard. His young life is filled with adversity and loneliness. He’s bullied and made to feel different in a negative way. When those ‘closest’ to you conspire to turn everything into ashes, how can you make anything work? How can Harry make magic work when nothing else in his life does?
The change comes when he leaves home to board at his new school ‘Hogwarts’. With a change in the people around him, the irrepressible Harry rises above his ordinary beginnings, in what is ultimately a story of hope. He shows incredible bravery against the darker side of human nature: the potential of those with power to do evil and the susceptibility of those in position to be corrupted. The character of Harry works because of his honesty and purity of heart.
In the story, a pub called the ‘Leaky Cauldron’ is the gateway to the wondrous and magical Diagon Alley and yet, Harry observes, people simply didn’t notice the portal. “The people hurrying by didn’t glance at it.” What is Rowling trying to tell us? That people live life with our heads down, sweating the small stuff? That people don’t see the ‘magic’ around them, like a wildflower in the forest, the colours of the sea, the light after a storm, or the sound of rain? The description of Diagon Alley conjours a vivid imagery. I’m reminded of the Dutch illustrator Anton Pieck who painted similar scenes of old time shops and atmospheric festive occasions, and like Harry, was awestruck when he visited the big city as a child. Everything is steeped in an old world charm.
Rowling builds the story’s drama nicely and with constant pace. The reader realises there is something special and inevitable about Harry early on and waits with eagerness for it to unfold. We become involved with the three main protagonists who grow in stature as they meet each new challenge. Harry becomes an important member of the Quidditch team, a sport like football (soccer) except it’s played in the air, in a 3D field; here you have to know how to fly. I’m immediately reminded of scuba-diving, because it’s the closest thing to flying I can think of.
When we open our minds, unforeseen worlds open up. Happy reading!