Even those who think the Harry Potter series is utter rubbish cannot deny the amazing success enjoyed by the children’s fantasy series. J.K. Rowling is currently one of the richest people in the world. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the final book of the series, sold millions of copies its first weekend out, and will no doubt sell many more. The question is, why is the wizard boy with the lightning-bolt scar so hugely popular? The answer is simple, and perhaps a bit depressing (or maybe a little soothing) to writers themselves – Rowling followed a formula handed down through the ages: the hero’s quest. This formula works because it places the hero in familiar surroundings, then gradually acclimates both him and the reader to a new world and the task at hand, ensuring a transformation from ordinary person to extraordinary hero, thereby giving the reader hope that he, too, can make such a transformation. Identifying with 11-year-old Harry at the very beginning of Book 1 is easy. He feels helpless, misunderstood and bored. Children and adults alike, even those who aren’t forced to sleep under the stairs, understand these feelings. They long to be transported to a more exciting world where there lives have Purpose. That is the second part of the formula. After putting the reader in a familiar world with familiar problems, she then transports him to a magical land full of possibility. In allowing Harry to escape his dreadfully unsatisfying life, she allows the reader to escape his as well. Harry’s initial world – the world of Muggles, or non-magical people – is not the only instance in which Rowling uses the familiar to the story’s advantage. She does it throughout the series by providing archetype after archetype: Hermione is the classic Know-It-All. Snape is the ultimate Mean Teacher. And the headmaster Dumbledore is the Classic Wizard, the wise and benevolent teacher.
Even magical items, such as the Weasleys’ clock which tells the family members’ whereabouts, are twists on familiar items. Magic is used for everyday chores like cleaning up the kitchen. Though full of magical elements like textbooks that bite, this is a world the reader can feel comfortable in. But not too comfortable. Voldemort is still lurking in the shadows. With his pale, serpentine visage, Voldemort is alien enough to incite the primal fear of the Other – the devouring monster or the foreign conqueror – yet he is still human enough to incite real, concrete fear. At first he does that through mystery, magic and shadow. In the end, he uses power and policy, transforming himself from mere boogeyman to actual menace. Vanquishing him becomes the young hero’s quest, and everyone loves a quest because it gives Purpose. The hero quest works as a formula because it is, essentially, a pep talk. Watching Harry grow from a confused, awkward 11-year-old into a talented but still largely confused 17-year-old who defeats such a frightening, powerful bad guy gives the reader hope. It causes the reader to believe in his or her own potential. It makes the reader feel powerful, and capable of making positive change.