Every Muggle in America has read her books--and that may be Harry Potter's ultimate magic trick: Kids are reading again

By Troy Patterson
Updated December 24, 1999 at 05:00 AM EST

The historical record will show that at the wired end of our weird century, in the surge of digital this and dot-com that and the reign of the moving image, a mammoth cult sprang up around a series of children’s books. The first three novels written by J.K. Rowling—the first three of seven volumes following a boy named Harry Potter to graduation from the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry—own the top three spots on the New York Times hardcover fiction best-seller list. There are now 17.4 million copies of her books (each more than 300 pages long) in print. At readings this year, tykes squealed with hysteria while Rowling (sounds like rolling) signed, say, 900 books at a stretch. Some witch-hunting types want Harry out of schoolrooms. Some rival authors want him banished to a children’s best-seller list, despite evidence that he’s holding adults spellbound, too. The movie rights for the first two novels, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, sold to Warner Bros., and rumor has it that Steven Spielberg is interested in making the film. All in all, this is a publishing frenzy without precedent.

”I’ve been puzzled by this,” says Jack Zipes, a professor at the University of Minnesota and an expert on fairy tales. The Sorcerer’s Stone ”is written very well, but it’s also very simplistic and very formulaic. It may be that Rowling’s touched a nerve. We’re living in a world where imagination is succumbing to rationality and technology, and here’s a [wizard] as the last defender of the imagination. What the book suggests is that there’s a potential inside you that’s not been tapped because of an oppressive environment.”

Orphaned when the forces of the Dark Lord Voldemort struck down his enchanting parents, our hero Harry Potter grows up in the dreary home of his aunt and uncle, who are Muggles, or mortals (with a shade of Holden Caulfield’s righteous phonies implied). Each book advances Harry through another dramatic year at Hogwarts, the site of tutelage in sorcery, battles against Evil, and boarding school high jinks. There are elves, werewolves, and banshees; there’s an odd lexicon of beasts and lots of fake-Latin spells; there are adventures unknowable to the minds of Muggles and resistant to the tags of critics. ”It’s not just an exaggerated fairy tale or a wacky fantasy,” says Arthur Levine, who bought Harry’s U.S. rights for his self-named imprint at Scholastic. ”The novel speaks to a part of the human condition, which is that we all sometimes feel like we’re actors in a bad script and want to escape.” Or, as Zipes interprets the saga, ”It’s a daydream of being able to break out and develop our creative powers.”

The professor could just as well be speaking of the writer as of her writing. By the time Joanne Rowling, now 34, started The Sorcerer’s Stone, she was a single mother living on the dole in Edinburgh, Scotland. The idea of Harry occurred to her on a train. ”She wasn’t trying to write a book for children,” says Emma Matthewson, her editor at England’s Bloomsbury Children’s Books. ”She was writing the book for herself.” In fact, she’s written one for millions. The record will show that two of the most forceful mass-media events of ’99 were serialized epics that tapped into mythic archetypes as old as civilization itself. It doesn’t seem too presumptuous to say that Rowling’s Harry Potter will prove as durable as George Lucas’ Star Wars saga. Call it magic.