It’s hard to imagine life before Harry Potter when words like “Muggle” and “Quidditch” weren’t a part of the everyday vernacular.
If a classic is considered a work of demonstrably enduring quality, then as the next generation of Harry Potter fans bubbles to the surface, it seems that Harry Potter is well on its way to cementing itself as a fixture.
Part of this is helped along by the $25 billion franchise, which, according to CNBC, now boasts two theme parks, tours at the London studio, newly illustrated versions of the books and scads of wizarding paraphernalia.
Then there is the resurrection of the wizarding world. With the movie “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” coming out Nov. 17, Rowling has cracked open the canonized story, promising a series of new movies, stories, essays and insights into the magical world on her website Pottermore. The summer release of the script “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child,” a play currently showing in London based on a story written by Rowling, became an instant best-seller, selling more than 4 million copies in the first week, according to The Wall Street Journal.
A lot of the fervor continues to be driven by fans in their 20s and up who cut their reading teeth on the original Harry Potter series. Yet, judging from the number of pint-sized wizards traipsing in Hogwarts robes on Halloween, it’s easy to see that Potter-mania has spread to the next generation.
The universal story
“Children and adults can see themselves in the stories,” said Amy H. Sturgis, an assistant professor of liberal studies at Lenoir-Rhyne University, in a recent interview. “The moral dilemmas, the decisions that Harry and his friends are faced with, the big themes of doing what is right, not what is easy — these are timeless. Everyone can identify with them. It’s not a story that has a limited shelf life.”
It’s the universal nature of the story that has allowed it to seep off the shelves and into the classroom. Sturgis has been teaching various iterations of a standalone college-level course on Harry Potter since 2003.
Even before the final book was out, Sturgis seized on the idea of using the Harry Potter series as an excellent instruction tool. She saw the stories as a cultural literacy test for readers.
“I thought it would be so useful to teach because J.K. Rowling built it out of so many pre-existing pieces: classical mythology, Arthurian romance, gothic romance, detective, coming-of-age, hero’s quest and the British school days novel," Sturgis said. "She is so well-read and so well-informed that all of those parts that she used, she used very well.”
It helps that readers approach her class with a high degree of enthusiasm for the story. In addition, the depth to which the Harry Potter series can be studied makes for excellent class discussion, Sturgis said.
“I thought at the time, and still think, that Harry Potter rewards rereading,” she said. “You don’t just encounter Harry Potter once and then go on. You come back to it.”
Sturgis said because Rowling drew from so many literary traditions, it’s only natural that Harry Potter fans have built their extensions of the original story.
“It’s a natural outgrowth of the kind of stories she tells. Her stories are not original. For this new generation, it doesn’t just end with Harry Potter. There are so many outlets. It encourages active participation,” she said.
Indeed, what the fan base has created from Harry Potter is nearly as fascinating as the series itself. There’s U.S. Quidditch, a national governing body that services more than 4,000 players who participate in Rowling’s invented sport. The players run around the pitch with brooms between their legs, tossing a ball (the Quaffle) and trying to catch the Snitch (in the case of the Muggle version, a runner dressed in bright yellow with a flag attached to his or her waist.) With an emphasis on coed teams, one of U.S. Quidditch’s missions is to champion gender-inclusive sports, according to usquidditch.org.
There’s the Harry Potter Alliance, an advocacy group that does everything from petitioning Warner Brothers to sell fair trade chocolate to raising funds for supplies to Haiti, according to its website.
And of course, there are the fan websites where everyone from casual readers to diehard Harry Potter fanatics can congregate to extend their Harry Potter experience.
Yet, even those sites thrive on a specific teaching tool.
“That’s most definitely our mission, to continue to spread love, friendship, bravery and acceptance,” said Kat Miller, marketing and creative director for Mugglenet. “We really do believe in the lesson that J.K. Rowling and Harry Potter put into the world."
Started in 1999 by then 12-year-old Emerson Spartz, the Mugglenet community now reaches about 16 million fans via social outlets on a weekly basis, according to Miller.
Yet even with a fan base that large, Miller said the community feels like one big family. Miller said many of the fans turn to the Harry Potter world for solace.
“It’s an escape — it’s a world and a story that they can get into," she said. "They can vacate their life for a little bit. “
Yet the reason readers keep coming back, Miller added, has everything to do with Rowling’s writing.
“(Rowling) created characters that are real, that have depth, that are relatable," she said. "The fact that they can do magic is superfluous to that fact that they have true feelings. Everyone knows someone who is a Hermione, or who is reckless like Sirius, or grouchy like Filch.”
Harry as a teacher
Yet despite its overarching themes and widespread appeal, some teachers still have conflicting attitudes about teaching Harry Potter in the classroom, said James Kelley, an associate professor of English at Mississippi State University-Meridian and contributing author to the book “Teaching with Harry Potter: Essays on Classroom Wizardry from Elementary School to College.”
Kelley has done extensive research on using Harry Potter as a teaching tool in schools. What he found is that while many teachers are fans of the books, they are still reluctant to classify Rowling’s writings alongside the likes of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Zora Neale Hurston. That means that Harry Potter gets limited coverage in the context of literary text. Teachers might use Harry Potter as an entry point to talking about archetypes of heroes, but the series doesn’t carry the same weight as the established works of literature.
Kelley doesn’t think this is necessarily a bad thing. He said there should be a balance between teaching established literature alongside the popular. The themes of Harry Potter are evergreen, and it is only a matter of time before the Harry Potter series works its way into the classic category.
“The distance and intervening years allow us to look back on works and think critically about them,” Kelley said. “Thirty years from now, they won’t be able to get away from Harry Potter. It’s going to be one of those big texts. It’s going to be like ‘To Kill a Mockingbird.’”
While adults and researchers may debate about the literary merits of Harry Potter, for kids like Zeke Jacobs from Layton, Utah, it’s the adventure that still makes the story as appealing as a hot butterbeer.
Zeke, age 8, said he devoured the first book in a single day, because “I’m the fastest reader in my class, and in the school.”
He likes the books for the derring-do, and of course, the magic.
“The spells are awesome,” he said. “Everything they do is like a new adventure. I like how they do stuff that’s really risky.”
It’s an obsession that Christy Jacobs, Zeke’s mother, can get behind. She’s watched each of her four boys go through various stages of Harry Potter adulation and couldn’t be happier.
“I love that it is so real to them. They lived in this world," she said. "It’s so fun to see their imaginations go crazy. These are real kids that are relatable, not old-fashioned witches and wizards.”
And the elements that make Harry Potter such a powerful teaching tool in the classroom extend to the home as well.
“The story resonates. It’s full of truth,” Jacobs said. “There’s good and there’s evil. That’s part of the appeal.”
As for the upcoming Fantastic Beasts movie, Jacobs said her kids are thrilled.
“Anything with the Harry Potter label on it will draw them in," she said.