On this day 21 years ago Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was released, summoning a magical franchise and casting a spell over a generation of kids who learned to love to read with help from Harry and his friends.
Feel as old as Nicholas Flamel yet? Well, let’s take a trip down memory lane to the Hollywood version of Year One at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry to jog your wizened memory.
All aboard the Hogwarts Express from Platform 9 3/4:
If the Harry Potter book franchise was an American kid, they’d legally be allowed to drink alcohol now.
But before you go all Gellert Grindelwald and start hunting for the Deathly Hallows’ Resurrection Stone, fear not.
I’m here to tell you Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, and J. K. Rowling’s subsequent smash hit series of kids’ books will remain among the most important contributions to children’s literature for generations to come.
And good things only get better with age, as Albus Dumbledore posited in The Order of the Phoenix.
The wise wizard once said:
Youth cannot know how age thinks and feels, but old men are guilty if they forget what it was to be young.
Perhaps Dumbledore’s theory applies in the most meta way to the success of the franchise of which he was at the helm as the white-haired headmaster for so many years.
At the time of its publishing, young people were drawn to the perfect plot, clever characterisations, scholastic escapism, and dark dramatics.
Meanwhile their parents bought copies with the grown-up covers in their droves, reading them slyly on public transport on their way to work, as they recaptured the magic and make-believe of youth.
The first instalment, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, sold 300,00 copies in the UK in its first two years. Bloomsbury say it’s the best-selling book in the series, which has collectively sold over 450 million copies to date worldwide.
The series has been translated into 78 different languages, including Albanian, Azerbaijani, Hawaiian, Braile and Manx, and one in fifteen people in the world now owns a Harry Potter book, Bloomsbury claims.
The Harry Potter books went viral in a world before Twitter retweets. Harry, Ron and Hermione were the Beatles of the book world, word of mouth were their radio plays, and J. K. Rowling was their George Martin.
By The Order of the Phoenix mass hysteria had clung to the author’s work like a Cornish Pixie, and now, 21 years later, the original first edition Harry Potter books are worth a fortune.
But, like any good kids’ book, the magic of Harry Potter was not in its commercial success, a mere consequence of J. K. Rowling’s ability to weave a moralising tale of good and evil into gripping prose.
Okay, so it’s not To Kill A Mockingbird, or Of Mice And Men, or Lord of the Flies, but it’s still one of – if not the most important – literary series of our time for one very important reason.
It taught a generation of otherwise over-stimulated kids to sit and read. Ravenously. Hungrily, we all devoured each and every page of the simply-stated narrative, gorged on magical metaphor and indulged in the intricacies of her subtle humour and wit.
We gasped as Quirrel removed his headscarf and salivated at Bertie Botts’ Every-Flavoured Beans.
We cowered under the watchful gaze of Snape, shook with anger at the injustices occurring within the four walls of Privet Drive, and willed Ron to win the chess match, crying as he sacrificed himself for Harry and Hermione.
We found comfort in the soothing tones of Dumbledore, learned to love Hagrid immediately after his encounter with Dudley, mourned the loss of family with The Boy Who Lived and sorted ourselves into Hogwarts houses, seeing a reflection of our own deepest desires in the Mirror of Erised…
And that’s just the first book; the most magical and formative reading experience for most literarily illiterate youngsters.
Even those of us who’d spent our childhoods with noses in books could recognise Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was special.
For me, the realisation came when my book-phobic big brother – who, until that point at the ripe old age of 13, had only ever read one other book, Harry and the Wrinklies – devoured the prose at the same speed as me.
In the year Channel 5 was launched, Teletubbies burst onto our screens and the Pokemon franchise turned one-year-old, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone gave us the antidote to technology, in black and white, through the written word.
It was a summer of reading before returning to school and swapping stories of our own.
From then on, we were hooked.
Diana Gerald CEO of BookTrust told UNILAD:
Harry Potter has had a huge impact on a generation of children who became so obsessed with reading that they would queue for hours to get their hands on the next book.
There are so many benefits associated with reading enjoyment in children and we encourage families and children to read as much and as widely as possible – the important thing is they find the book which works for them, whether that’s wizardry, football or futuristic thrillers.
We hope this ‘Harry Potter effect’ keeps inspiring a love of reading amongst children across the country and that future generations get as much joy from them as their parents.
They were important on a very personal level – and everyone had a favourite. For me, nothing beat the mystical mirth, Myrtle and mer-people of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.
While the sequels might have offered more flair, more sophistication, and a deeper understanding of the human (and giant) condition, you have to doff you witch’s hat to the original, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, for kicking the franchise off with a swish and flick.
After its publication would come six more books; we would visit the Burrow, meet Sirius, watch Sirius fall through a killer curtain of sorts, come face to face with Lord Voldemort and his evil cohorts, and loathe Bellatrix Lestrange while all the while admiring her dress sense.
We watched our first Quidditch World Cup, had everything we thought we knew about Snape turned upside down and witnessed Dobby becoming a free elf only to lose his life in the fight against evil, alongside other favourites, like Fred Weasley and Professor Lupin.
We read on as Harry, Hermione and Ron fell in and out of love, fought foes, tried their first Butterbeer, studied for their O.W.L. exams, and stuck together through thick and thin, despite the awkward slow dancing.
Meanwhile, in the real world of three-dimensions, J. K. Rowling would be compared to her hero, Jane Austen and one of the greatest children’s authors and imaginations of all time, Roald Dahl.
Then came the eight-film franchise and the spin-off, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them:
There were even video games, and yet Potterheads wanted Pottermore. So sparked the creation of Warner parks and studio tours and real life Quidditch competitions and themed bars. Lest we forget The Cursed Child.
There would be some controversy, in hindsight. Admittedly, under the new and welcome rules of diversity, the Harry Potter series doesn’t cut the mustard.
The award-winning novels are taught in classes in schools across the globe now, despite protests from a dark corner of Christian critical thought which filched the innocence from the pages, and accused the narrative of promoting satanism.
Still, we read on eagerly, right up until the bitter end and the rather cheap afterword. Just don’t mention Hollywood’s CGI take on the ageing process, in the name of Albus Severus Potter!
All the same, to quote the wise, shape-shifting teacher and mentor, Minerva McGonagall:
He’ll be famous – a legend – I wouldn’t be surprised if today was known as Harry Potter Day in future – there will be books written about Harry.
As ever, she was right.
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A former emo kid who talks too much about 8Chan meme culture, the Kardashian Klan, and how her smartphone is probably killing her. Francesca is a Cardiff University Journalism Masters grad who has done words for BBC, ELLE, The Debrief, DAZED, an art magazine you’ve never heard of and a feminist zine which never went to print.