Today marks not only the birthday of the (spoiler alert!) fictional wizard Harry Potter, but also the 48th birthday of his creator, the author Joanne “Jo” Rowling. Arguably the world’s most famous living writer, Rowling has proven herself to be more than a one-trick hippogriff with the publication of last year’s The Casual Vacancy, and recently, the revelation that she was the real author of the mystery novel The Cuckoo’s Calling. But Rowling’s motivations for becoming a writer are hardly cynical. It’s not like she wrote Harry Potter because she knew it would be a hit. There’s a profound abundance of honesty we’ve been given by Rowling, and though He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named divided up his soul seven ways, I think there are at least seven distinct gifts J.K. Rowling has given us, the readers. Here they are!
7. An epic that didn’t feel epic.
Say what you will about Rowling’s prose style (Harold Bloom doesn’t like it!) but she’s highly readable. There isn’t anything too fancy or indirect or subtle about the majority of her actual writing. And yet, this is such an advantage when approaching something as epic as the Harry Potter series. Unlike Tolkien or even Jordan, Rowling’s big epic fantasy series actually boils down to a series of quick reads. Books you can consume in one night. Sure, you could argue this is because they were for children, but I’d claim any Potter book a better page-turner over The Hobbit (another supposed children’s book) any day.
6. A Fantasy Remix
Another common criticism leveled at Rowling is her appropriation of familiar fantasy novel tropes to craft the world of Hogwarts, Harry Potter, and everything else. And yet, we’re constantly praising people like George Lucas and Steven Spielberg for ripping off Joseph Campbell and the classic hero’s journey structure. Rowling’s ability to weave in the familiar (magic wands!) with the unique (a patronus?) is what makes her Harry Potter books so approachable to begin with.
5. 100’s of Characters. All Memorable!
Though I worried I wouldn’t get everyone straight in Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy, through her no-nonsense descriptions, I was just fine. The same is true of the Potter books. Just how many individual characters are there in those seven novels? HUNDREDS! And though you might not think you remember all of them, you do. From Colin Creevey to Rita Skeeter, to Mundungus, even the minor characters have qualities we can remember. How did she pull this off? Magic, duh.
4. Freedom from Technology
Despite the fact the Potter books were published well into the 21st century, they remain firmly set in the 1990’s, meaning the Internet and cellphones are totally absent. While a temptation to present fantasy wrapped in technology might have been there, Rowling managed to make Potter timeless by moving the action away from the real world and into a contained wizarding world. For this reason, if no other, these books will be easily enjoyed by future generations who are downloading books directly into their brains.
3. A Famous Author We Can Like
Rowling doesn’t offer a lot of secrets up about how she wrote the Potter books, nor does she pretend to be important. She’s totally unpretentious and was famously quite poor when she decided to send the boy wizard on his magical quest. Now, she’s got the freedom to write other stuff, too. If you can’t get behind that, I’d say you need to be a little nicer.
2. Plot Twists!
Something no one talks about enough is how much the Potter books (and the new novel!) are adept at using plot twists. Though I think some of the turns in the Potter series are more earned than others, I’ll never forget how I felt at the end of the first book! Or the third! Or the sixth! Rowling’s ability to wow us in the end is not something forget. In fact, it’s often why most of us start reading to beginning with. What’s going to happen next!?
From her actual rags-to-riches story as a writer, to the hopeful journeys her characters embark upon, Rowling isn’t exactly a downer. Though much of the Harry Potter series is actually a meditation on death and loss, we usually end up smiling. Is the epilogue in the final book too much? Too cheesy? I don’t know, as a work of serious literature, maybe. But as something kids and adults will always love, it’s totally perfect.
Thanks Jo! Happy Birthday! (And Happy Birthday Harry!)
What will you do to celebrate Harry's B-day?