Imagine you’re one of the many people who rejected a manuscript titled “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone” by a then-amateur writer known as J.K. Rowling. The pain those editors felt upon its subsequent massively successful publication must have been immeasurable. Doubly so when the novels became blockbuster movies and a theme park. Can’t get worse, right? Harry Potter simply must fade away eventually. Or must it?
It’s been a number of years since Harry Potter has ended and yet here we are, in a world where plenty of people still put their Hogwarts House in their Tinder profiles and Instagram bios like some sort of definitive proclamation of their personalities. As a matter of fact, I’d feel pretty confident in saying that some people take their Sorting as seriously as their Zodiac signs. But in a world full of Gryffindors, Hufflepuffs, Ravenclaws and Slytherins, how can one series be so universally loved by all of the above?
Some might venture to list a thousand and one reasons why *Harry Potter *was successful. I think that’s a waste of time. Any number of reasons could be the secret ingredient, really. The mystery aspect of the books? The world-building? Character growth? Plot? Perhaps it’s the intrigue of a magical world tucked away in an unassuming places. It worked for Narnia.
My point, I suppose, is that it doesn’t matter what made it successful. What matters is what renders Harry Potter virtually untouched by the passage of time. I have a prediction, a prophecy, if you will. Harry Potter will last forever. It’s a bold bet, but I’m not the only one to place it. Even Doctor Who has gone ahead and called the shot in the episode The End of the World.
That said, here’s the question that really matters: Why is Harry Potter immortal?
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Image credit: https://amp.insider.com/images/5cefe262594ea55cfb40cc52-750-562.jpg
I have a humble hypothesis on the longevity of literature, and it’s a hypothesis in three parts.
Any literary work, provided that it’s successful enough to have been exposed to a large array of people, will be long-lasting if:
- In a simple and memorable way, it reflects or teaches fundamental truths or morals of the human experience.
- It generates a significant cultural impact.
- It incites sufficient reactionary passion.
We won’t linger too long on the first two points, given that they’re more observational points than actual conjecture on my part.
For the first point, you might take into consideration Aesop’s Fables, or Grimm’s Fairy Tales. Such stories have lasted for many many years, and though there might be many reasons, I believe this is a primary reason why.
Cultural impact in the second point could mean a plethora of things. The criteria for what is “impactful” is purely subjective, and even more complicated when one asks “which cultures?”
Generally speaking, however, you can think of any book you had to read in High School. All of those are on the curriculum because of cultural impact, whether it be commentaries on race issues, sexuality, mental health, or something like politics. But those aren’t the only parts of culture that can be impacted. If a book is good enough to gather acclaim in its time and start a wave of like-minded literature or commence a niche, one can say it had an impact on the literary culture. Books like The Lord of the Rings, which really launched the fantasy genre, would fall into that category.
The third point is perhaps the most vague, and frankly flexible. Moreover, it’s also a point that could fit in with any of the other two. In fact any one of these reasons could function by themselves or in combination, but this one is particularly pliable. Thus, it will be the cornerstone of today’s conversation.
Passion is relative, and relatively important. A book that incites passion, positive or negative, will be quite memorable. But is it enough? Passion snubs quickly. Which is why the three aspects listed above are the elements of longevity and not immortality.
Words are, contrary to popular belief, material things. They are temporally-bound and thus subject to the fate of all material things. Their apparent intangibility is derived from our own interpretation of them, not from any intrinsic “power of words.” That is, it’s the emotions that words incite that are truly immortal, our memory of them.
So what happens, then, when the passion a story ignites outlasts its source?
Some would say that fandom is a new thing, that it only appeared with the rise of the Internet. I disagree. I think fandom has been around for a long time. Or, at least, fanfiction has. I’m going to take a risk and propose that fanfiction has existed, in some capacity, ever since we’ve been able to share stories verbally.
It shouldn’t be too much of a stretch to imagine that many of the stories told before writing was mastered would be modified or changed when shared with others. Perhaps because of misinterpreted words or forgotten details, or maybe even knowingly. But would verbally-shared stories that vary in small details be considered fanfiction? No, not necessarily.
However, I think that the Oral Tradition has a lot to do with it. Well, to be more precise, I believe that the transition from the oral to written traditions has a lot to do with it. And to illustrate my point I’m going to turn to one of my favorite literary figures: King Arthur.
King Arthur’s tale began in the oral tradition as ancient Welsh tales of a mighty warrior-king. However, when writing became prominent, things began to change. Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote about King Arthur in his History of the Kings of Britain, portraying the tale of Arthur as part of real British history.
Monmouth is famous for mixing reality with myth, and portraying the concoction as history. Though a sleight against objective and factual chronicling, it properly introduced Arthur and Merlin into the world of literature. But Monmouth’s version of the tale of Arthur was not definitive. As a matter of fact, while one of the first versions of the Arthurian story, it isn’t even the most important one.
Medieval writers were not afraid, in general, of copying ideas from other writers that came before them. And though many copied Monmouth, many more began making changes to the narrative. They asked different questions. Brought in more elements from the original myths. Got rid of magic. Added more magic. Most importantly, they let the story of Arthur evolve with the times. Above all, the most vital thing these writers did was shift the focus away from just Arthur. They began telling stories about the other members of the Court of Camelot parallel to medieval society’s own concerns with chivalry, honor, and love. King Arthur became the figurehead of an Arthurian universe of stories. Sort of like the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but instead of Thanos, the main antagonist was dishonor. This created a space for many writers to tell their own Arthurian tales.
Eventually, Sir Thomas Malory compiled various french Arthurian romances into what’s now considered the definitive version of the Arthurian tale, Le Morte d’Arthur. It enjoyed plenty of success given that it coincided with the popularization of the printing press in Britain. And though it seems to have been the definitive version of the Arthurian tale, it wasn’t to be the last. T.H. White released his Once and Future King in 1958, and that enjoyed immense popularity too. Disney even made a movie based off of it called The Sword in the Stone. You might have heard of it.
Sword in the Stone Poster. Image credit: https://cdn11.bigcommerce.com/s-yshlhd/images/stencil/1280x1280/products/6041/157812/full.swordinthestone-1786__65823.1556888397.jpg?c=2?imbypass=on
Really, movies get made about the Arthurian legends once every decade or so. At least. And they’re not all necessarily very good. But the point of this tangent is that anybody who has written, or will write, about King Arthur is not doing anything much different than writing fanfiction, and that’s really not a bad thing. All of these fanfictions are, in fact, the reason why King Arthur has been a household name for centuries, and will likely continue to be so.
If you’re still with me after all that, I’d like you to take a moment to consider, briefly, that “fanfiction” has been around for a long time now, albeit in a very loose form. When did it solidify as a concept? When did it manifest into itself? Really, you can blame…
In one fell swoop, humanity was delivered the single most comprehensive method of communication in existence. It’s instantaneous (these days), and it can be used to share just about anything you can imagine. For better or worse, anything.
It’s a bit of a double-edged blade, but regardless of what weird things you’re into, you can find a place on the Internet to congregate and discuss those things with your fellow weirdos. You can revel in it, even.
If you’re someone who reads books, and loves them enough, almost invariably, depending on the person, reveling in literature leads to attempts in writing it.
And, in a simultaneously punishing and pleasant way, the barrier to entry for publication is lower than ever before. With the power of the Internet, people can make things and publish those things to a niche audience directly and on a large scale. (This website being one such vehicle to those ends.)
You can see how fanfiction came to be, well, what it is today. And I think Harry Potter has played a large role in that.
Why is this? Well it might have to do with a certain intrinsic quality that exists in J.K. Rowling’s writing. It probably does. Something about it is just… fanfiction-able. But another fair (read: more reasonable) answer is that it has a lot to do with timing.
By the time the Harry Potter books ended, the generation that grew up with the novels was well versed in the Internet & Internet Culture. The Internet, itself, was rapidly rising in popularity and influence.
When people who loved Harry Potter came to the last page of “The Deathly Hallows” and felt like they wanted more of the Wizarding World, they just… wrote more.
And though not all of it is necessarily good, and though they can be filled with Mary-Sue’s and crappy ships and bad writing, all of that aside, some of them are great and unique and somehow enhance the collective appreciation for the originals. And, honestly, we shouldn’t look down on fanfiction for having bad apples. I mean, “real” books can be just as bad. You know the ones.
But, just like in real life, if you take the time to properly sort through categories and pairings or genres or what-have-you, in order to find the best rated works of fanfiction, you will encounter something interesting:
Some of them are just as good as the original work.
Fanfiction is magical. I consider it to be among those small miracles of humanity that speak to the greatness, passion, and horrible grammar that we, as a species, can achieve.
Because the fact is, we’ve been making fanfiction for a long time. And if a story is good enough, if we feel passionately enough about it, that story will never cease belonging to the fans just as much as to the author.
Harry Potter is no longer just a story about a boy with green eyes and a lightning bolt scar. It’s an idea, a world floating in our collective imagination, anchored by the love and respect fans have for the original work.
You see, Harry Potter has surpassed the material nature of words printed on a page. It’s a fandom now. So when we wonder “Why can’t Time touch Harry Potter?” Well, I suppose we can say Time can’t touch Harry Potter because of Love.