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It is always difficult to explain why particular books sometimes break out of their own restricted market to become cultural phenomena of a different order, but certain aspects of the Harry Potter series did lend themselves very readily to that process. Most books that become such near-universal subjects of conversation, which even people who never read books feel compelled to read, are individual volumes, whose internal stories are complete before their external stories begin, such as Dan Brown’s best-selling novel The Da Vinci Code (2003). Sequels and segmental series very often follow, but they can rarely be anything more than hollow imitations and formulaic recyclings. Rowling’s series, by contrast, was always planned as a seven-volume set that would evolve toward a single ultimate climax. It was, therefore, able to build on its medium-term success far more spectacularly than any previous breakthrough enterprise. In order to do so, though, it had to break the existing mold of children’s publication in more than one way.
Children’s publishing is usually organized according to the age ranges of its readers, so that a series of books marketed for nine-to twelve-year-olds will stay within that range. If the series has an eleven-year-old central character, that character will usually remain eleven throughout the series (even if, as in the case of Richmal Crompton’s William, the series extends over decades of background history). Rowling always intended to track her hero from the aftermath of his eleventh birthday to the aftermath of his seventeenth, marching across the marketing categories from the nine-to-twelve range to the summit of the “young adult” slot. Initially, the plan was for the target audience to grow older at the same rate, but Rowling was unable to deliver a book every year, so contemporary eleven-year-old readers of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone were twenty-one by the time that Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows appeared. This proved no inhibition to readers eager to follow the series to its conclusion.
Because the Harry Potter saga was an evolving rather than a segmental series, the endings of its first six volumes could be no more than subclimaxes, whose magnitude had to be carefully orchestrated to produce a crescendo effect. Such careful escalation is not easy to achieve; the pressure of melodramatic inflation propels most fantasy series to apocalyptic conclusions in three volumes. Rowling planned for it by carefully reducing her archvillain, Voldemort, to near-impotence as a result of his first, already-distant encounter with Harry, so that his gradual recovery of his powers within the texts is carefully matched to Harry’s slowly accumulated knowledge and maturity. By the time Voldemort is ready to make his bid to take over the clandestine society of magically talented individuals, which would automatically give him absolute power over the world of nonmagical “muggles,” Harry has enough wisdom, capability, and support from his friends to take him on, with one of those one-in-a-million chances of winning that so frequently come off in melodramatic fiction.
In spite of this ingenious adjustment, there would have been no scope for Rowling to increase the magnitude of the individual hazards that Harry has to face in the seven volumes had she not been able to shatter the limits of diplomatic constraint formerly applied to children’s fiction; seven escalating degrees of threat could hardly stop short of extremes of violence not normally tolerated in children’s fiction. In this respect, Rowling benefited considerably from the new license granted in the wake of a 1990’s boom in children’s horror fiction spearheaded by the work of R. L. Stine. This boom had helped transform Rowling’s American publisher, Scholastic, from a staid publisher of didactic aids into a trendsetter. Rowling was able to show such restraint in the early volumes that the death of Harry’s mentor, Albus Dumbledore, came as a genuine shock in the sixth volume, but it still secured the plausibility of the awful possibility that Harry might have to sacrifice his own life to stop Voldemort in the seventh. The reality of that possibility proved enormously valuable in maintaining the taut dramatic tension of the seventh volume.
The license borrowed from the children’s horror boom not only enabled Rowling to create some genuinely scary monsters to serve as minor adversaries in contriving her preliminary subclimaxes but also enabled her to develop another device crucial to the series’ melodramatic inflation. The early volumes all have a strong mystery component, in which it is profoundly unclear—to Harry and his readers alike—who his potential allies and covert enemies are. In some instances, as with Sirius Black, who is initially represented as a lethal adversary but turns out to be a key ally, such confusions are firmly resolved, but in many instances the uncertainties linger. One of the most remarkable features of the series is its continual blurring of moral boundaries.
Even Voldemort, the series’ epitome of evil, is depicted as a victim of awkward circumstance, and several of his faithful lieutenants prove capable of good deeds, or at least of crucial hesitation in doing evil. The chief subvillain, Severus Snape, is especially ambiguous in this regard. On the other hand, few of Harry’s allies are without their darker side, mostly in a less explicit fashion than Remus Lupin, who suffers under a lycanthropic curse. The fact that the apparently saintly Albus Dumbledore has his own moral weakness is ingeniously put to use in explaining why he is extremely reluctant to tell Harry everything he knows, thus prolonging all manner of mysteries. The intricacy of the series’ play with moral judgments was unprecedented in children’s fiction, although it did stop short of testing the ultimate taboo; Harry’s dead mother remains whiter than white, the true agent of his salvation in the first and final challenges.
The handling of the series’ mystery component is the author’s greatest achievement. Each of the first six books has two levels of mystery; there are puzzles which have to be solved in order to bring about the subclimax and denouement of that particular volume, and there are puzzles whose solution will not become clear until the end of the entire series. The puzzles of the second sort are required to accumulate, occasionally being refreshed or recomplicated, a process that puts a heavy strain on writer and reader alike. The fact that the “deathly hallows” vital to the understanding of the whole do not make their debut until halfway through the final volume suggests that crucial authorial improvisations were still taking place at that point, but the materials of mystery built up in the early volumes are never wasted. Loose ends and tantalizing hints left dangling at the end of the first and subsequent volumes were conscientiously and productively integrated into the...
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