The boy who just keeps living
Harry Potter is 23. Or, he's 30, or he's 33, just about, or maybe 34 going on 35. It's hard to tell. He is, however, nearing a generation old at the lowest count.
It was 1997--twenty-three years ago, at this writing--that J.K. Rowling celebrated the publication of the first volume of her Potter books, Harry Potter and The Philosopher's Stone. The Potter books, which changed children' literature--and children' literacy--have left so deep a mark on our culture that no one, reasonably speaking, hasn't heard the name and knows at least a few putative facts about The Boy Who Lived, as well as his subsequent career in print and on screen. Rowling is not as famous as her creation, which is probably understandable (we come first for the story, after all), but it is also widely known that she began her writing project as an impoverished single mother on public assistance, and is now wealthier that the Queen of England--and quite a few of the rest of the world, necessarily, besides. She is the Author who Succeeded, and has become a celebrity whose opinions on social issues are noted and occasionally controversial.
Harry Potter, or the interest in his story, has since grown into a series of side-projects--by Rowling or in collaboration with her, as well as by others of varying shades of legitimacy--that have, themselves, become viable commercial enterprises, whether as dramas on Broadway and the West End of London, as fleshed-out details of the main story. A tide of similar works, either directly imitative or adjacent to the Potter books in theme or subject, has reconfigured the landscape of children's literature and spread its influence not only into adult entertainment, but onto television and computer screens around us. So, just a few years shy of the Harry Potter Quarter-Century, it's been a remarkable two and half decades by nearly all useful measures.
Daniel Radcliffe, the boy actor who played the part of Rowling's hero on screen, is now 30, which means that he was born seven years before Harry Potter made his debut in print as a ten- or eleven-year-old. Radcliffe may never escape the shadow of his part in the eight Potter films--and who could, after eight films, each a popular success greater than the books Rowling wrote (measured by reception and ticket sales at the first run of each film) and which have made their own inroads in popular entertainment and created their own circles of influence away from the world of children's books. This doesn't seem to bother Radcliffe, however. He appears to be entering mid-adulthood as a balanced and self-possessed professional. When we consider those who have endured early fame as he has, there is some relief in that. He was recently seen on Broadway (where he has appeared already several times and in a variety of repertoire), and if he will always carry with him an association with Rowling's Boy, then he has also had a career the success of which, for the moment, seems assured. Worse things have happened to an actor.
And Harry himself--in print or on screen, were he alive today--would be in his mid-thirties and no longer a boy, though still living, since we know the rest of the story: he grows up, marries, has children, and settles rather dully into a bureaucratic job waiting for him at the Ministry of Magic in Rowling's magical universe. So famous is he that he is now the locus--the focus--of an alternate reality, a parallel dimension in which crude (and sometimes even pornographic) fan fiction coexists in uneasy critical proximity to a pair of evening-length plays presented on Broadway to the delight of those who still live with one imaginary foot in the fictional world Rowling created. They narrate, on successive nights, halves of a creaky and uninspired story that draws on Rowling's earlier works to project Harry at midlife--and in midlife crisis--as he confronts He Who Must Not Be Named (it's Voldemort, damn it--say it!) one last time, just as he always has. And since he is even older in the plays than his character--were he an actual, living person--would be today, we can even note that Harry not only lived, but kept on living, aging ahead of us iinto the future while we, his readership, have watched and read and aged less slowly along.
Harry, considered as the avatar of a cultural force, has endowed us with not only books and movies, but a series of video games, companion books and ancillary stories, realizations of textbooks and other material he and his classmates encounter in the books, such as 'authentic reproductions' of the magical knick-knacks with which his books are littered, lines of clothing and costume, works of art both fine and demotic, novelties to rival even and even a successful amusement park where children and fatuous adults can imagine, in subtropical heat under a Florida sky, that they are in the very British, very fictional places described in the books. Even the British Museum has mounted an exhibition on the history of magic retold in reference to the books Like it or not, we have all become citizens of the Wizarding World.
So Harry Potter, at whatever age, is still living--and we live with him. That is, in one sense, and from one particular perspective, what this series of blog entries is about. Having managed for two decades unintentionally to avoid reading anything by Rowling, I found myself in a position to remedy what many of my students had considered a gap in my education. Now, as a teacher and writer--someone for whom literary and cultural criticism has become the mode of thought in which I earn my keep--I am now sitting down to a serious and discursive consideration of The Boy Who Just Keeps Living.