Myths, magic and marketing

Looking at the stunning global circus that accompanies each new appearance by Harry Potter, whether in the form of a new book or a movie, it is easy to forget that at the center of this phenomenon lies an ancient, solitary and irreplaceable creature – the narrator, the author. The most impressive thing in the entire Harry Potter saga is not the commercial aspect (generating profits that run into the billions) but the fact that Harry Potter and his world exist at all. Ten years ago, the little magician existed only in Joanna Rowling’s manuscripts and imagination. As the whole world now knows, when she wrote her first book, «Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone,» Rowling was unemployed and the divorced mother of a young daughter. Rowling wrote because she wanted to write, with no guarantee that her effort would lead anywhere. She might have given up her efforts for any number of reasons. She may have found a job that would not leave her the time to write. She may not have been on her own, in which case she may have had daily obligations that would have distracted her and forced her to stop writing. She may have felt that it was not worth the effort because other authors before her had written better books. And yet she wrote. When she had finally finished her first manuscript, many publishers rejected it. It was only after much persistence that someone at Bloomsbury decided to sign her on. It is quite clear that the road to glory for Rowling was not strewn with rose petals. But since 1997, the books of J.K. Rowling have become the biggest publishing event of our age. The first six sold 325 million copies, beaten only by the Bible and «The Thoughts of Chairman Mao.» The seventh and final book in the series went on sale last Saturday, provoking feverish public and media interest across the globe, and is expected to break all records. The first five Harry Potter films, based on the first five books by Rowling, have become Hollywood blockbusters, harvesting profits of about 4 billion dollars for their producers. A writer can hardly hope for anything greater than that. And it is all the product of one person’s persistence, hard work and luck. It is evident that luck has played a central role in Rowling’s success story. We need only note that a few days ago, the director of the Jane Austen Festival at Bath, David Lassman, revealed that he had sent extracts of Austen’s books (with slight alterations) to 18 publishers to see if they would publish the unknown author who was supposedly submitting a new novel. Every publisher rejected the work. Only one reader realized that he was reading the beginning of «Pride and Prejudice» – even though this remains one of the best known openings in English literature. The conclusion was that in the age of Harry Potter and «The Da Vinci Code,» books that have been in the canon for two centuries, and have sold millions of copies, would have remained manuscripts.But good fortune and the marketing industry are not enough in themselves to create a phenomenon like Harry Potter. What is needed is the devotion of the public, the reader’s need to read this particular book, to follow the story, to find out what happens next in the book, in the series. The secret of J.K. Rowling’s success is that she created a whole world (furnished by this one but existing in another dimension) and based it on many elements and archetypes familiar – or vaguely familiar – from Greek myths and the later literary tradition. And in the center of this world, Rowling placed a good little boy who had been orphaned at an early age. The first book depicted Harry’s loneliness and his need to find his place in a difficult world. It was written in a way that reflected the author’s similar need. With the book’s success, both Harry and Rowling appeared to win their place in the world. The writer also created a new world in which young readers could make themselves feel more at home in their own world. At the same time, Rowling’s plot construction held them entranced with the story as it continued to unfold. The writer, alone, writes for the solitary reader. The commercial circus is secondary. That is why the strongest magic in Harry Potter’s world is not that of wizards and witches; it is the magic of writing, of reading, of the moment in which minds and spirits commune, overcoming any distance whatsoever.

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