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Chapter II The Harry Potter Phenomenon
2.1 How did it start?
The Harry Potter phenomenon started slowly, as we have seen Rowling had a lot of trouble trying to publish the book and 12 publishing houses turned her down but she had perseverance and she really believed in the books, in the story and kept on trying. The content of the books was so unique, so fantastic from anything else that it triggered a mass phenomenon.
We can ask our selves: what becomes a phenomenon? First of all we need to understand the term ‘cultural phenomenon’ or ‘media phenomenon’. A phenomenon is not an invention of the present, of the times we live in, but it has existed ever since a human collective conscience has existed. Someone found something useful and it was so good and necessary that everybody started using it. For example the invention of the telephone, or the computer, we may not think it this way but the invention of those things brought with them a whole phenomenon. I mean even if Alexander Graham Bell wouldn’t have invented the telephone it would still be invented by someone else as it is a very useful and revolutionary device. People need this device and have needed it ever since the beginning of the world. The invention of TV or photo camera are things that the humans needed ever since they know it but couldn’t materialized their desire. People would paint in caves things they liked, things they did, things they believed in, they had this desire to capture their everyday life and immortalize it somehow. As time passed people got more and more skilled in the art of painting and could reproduce the reality better and better; technology advanced as well and continued to pursue this ancient desire and now thank God we really managed to invent a device that can capture the reality exactly as it is. The camera is something so useful and needed by the humans that almost every human being posses at least one camera. Phones are equipped with cameras, with voice recording features, with internet etc. Why is that? Because we want to immortalize our experiences, we want to record special events and ordinary as well, we want to take pictures with the people that we love so we can keep them with us forever, we especially like to look back at our past and by having photos taken in the past we can really transport ourselves better. By taking pictures we can leave behind to our descendants proof of our existence, of how we were, how we looked, what we liked etc.
This was only one example of how a phenomenon takes place, how it starts. A phenomenon exists only when it is recognized by the masses. If only a few people, or some groups adhere to it then it is not really a phenomenon. A phenomenon is something that it is so useful, necessary and was needed by the humans for a long time but couldn’t really achieve it and then when somebody finally gets to invent/create it, it is rapidly assimilated by everyone. What Graham Bell did was only to continue the collective dream of being able to speak with another person even when that person is not near. The ones that invented the camera followed on a collective, pre-historical dream – that of reproducing the reality, the ones that invented the TV and the computer – same thing.
Now what J.K. Rowling did was to exploit our ancient desires to handle magic, to possess magic, to use magic, among many other features in her books but the magic is the one that triggered the phenomenon. When we look at the influences that her books have we find texts such as: British Folklore and mythology, The Bible, The Iliad, Mac Beth, Emma, The Chronicles of Narnia, The Sword in The Stone, A tale of two cities, etc. many of which have to deal with magic. Magic has always been present in the human consciousness, in the human imagination, what Rowling did is just to exploit these mythologies, these dreams, these manifestations of our imagination. What makes them still so captivating is that we cannot know for sure, even with all technology and knowledge of the physical world, that they don’t exist. Magic will disappear from our minds only when we will possess the ultimate knowledge of this world, of how it works, of how it came to existence until then our minds will always fancy around these aspects of an ‘alternate reality’.
The ‘alternate reality’ is the second main reason why The Harry Potter Phenomenon exists. The world that Rowling has created is so vast, so deep, so intense that it can be called an ‘alternate reality’. I’m not saying that one should really believe that magic exists and take a broom and jump of the roof with it hoping it will start flying, this is not what I mean when I say ‘alternate reality’, it is an ‘alternate reality’ that is to be found when plunging into that world by reading. It is so vast and it has everything in it that you can easily forget about this world and be captivated by that world. Now why do we need to forget about this world and plunge into another, imaginary one? The answer is simple: this world is too ugly and boring, at least the society we live in. We are forced to go to school against our will, we are forced to obey orders by our parents, by our teachers, by the society. We are obliged to work if we want to survive, we have to make a lot of concessions and all our dreams and ambitions are restrained by other people who laugh at as, by parents, by teachers – and all these things really make us sick, we need to escape, we need to getaway from everything in order to not fall into a deep depression. What is the best and safest way to do so? It is to read a book. But not all the books have this feature or capability to help you do so, not all the books depict such wonderful things in such a wonderful way as to make you plunge into them. And here comes the true merit of J.K. Rowling because she really managed to do this. And it is not me that is saying it, actually I don’t even have to say it – I’m not J.K. Rowling’s lawyer; but the fact that her books have become a global phenomenon says it all.
A phenomenon is something that comes at the right time and it is something that the humans always needed. From here comes the conclusion that we really need magic in our lives, that this society in which we live in is not so perfect and that we need to get away from it at least in our minds. Children come home from school completely exhausted from the many classes they had – boring long classes, they come home also with a lot of homework to do as if the hours spent in school were not enough and what is there to do, to really get away from it all? To read a book, a good book, another world to escape to. The same thing with adults: they have lived all their lives constrained and restrained by the society now they continue to work for the society, each with his job and sometime it is just too much there must be something to help them get away from it all.
Harry Potter is a Phenomenon because it has the power to fulfill this more or less conscious desire in our minds that of escape. Music has the same power, the same feature and maybe the same purpose. People normally sing about love, about what they don’t have and wish to have, about other places etc. When we listen to a song we get transported to the world the singer is singing about or we resonate by having the same feelings, sufferings etc. That is what makes up a phenomenon the mass resonation of something that has always intrigued, haunted and followed us but we didn’t know or have the power to express it.
In J.K. Rowling’s case, however, the success was not so instant and we could not talk about a phenomenon before the year 2000 when the forth book was released. She had local success with the release of the first book and second but the breakthrough did not come until U.S. discovered the books; then it started to become a cultural phenomenon. I said not before year 2000 and by that I mean that with the release of the forth book Harry Potter became a global phenomenon, the premieres of it were really huge all around the world and had widespread media coverage.
I think one thing that helped a lot the Harry Potter books to become a phenomenon was the internet. The internet pages that were created by fans had tremendous effect in spreading the publicity. Of course the first and main way of publicity was word-of-mouth, literally people would talk to one another and recommend this fantastic book but the phenomenon wouldn’t have started so fast if it wasn’t for the internet. Televisions can broadcast some events regarding the books, or radio stations talking about them but what is more truthful than real reviews made by fans who have read the books and were so stunned by them that they felt the need to make websites dedicated to them? If the televisions and radio stations were just doing their jobs these people were doing it because they loved the books. So the ones that have the main credit for triggering the phenomenon are not by any means the media or paid publicity. That’s what a true phenomenon is, it doesn’t need too much publicity, everything happens spontaneous and it will automatically have the support of everyone that came in contact with it.
2.2 The impact on the society
The impact on society is huge and in almost every field: music, movies, entertainment park, clothing etc. therefore in this subchapter I will describe every aspect in which Harry Potter has left its traces in society.
The Fan Sites: The oldest Harry Potter fan sites date around 1997-98. The sites are so sincere and clean that even J.K. Rowling admire them and occasionally awards the ones that are the best. The first site awarded by J.K. Rowling was ‘Immeritus’ – a website devoted especially to Sirius Black. Then Rowling awarded ‘Godric’s Hollow’ then ‘Mugglenet’ – a very good fan site containing: news, pictures, interviews, excerpts from books, quotations, has a very good design and contains all in all everything you need to know about Harry Potter. Another fan site awarded by Rowling is ‘hp-lexicon.org’ an useful site containing facts about each one of the books, it contains answered questions about various things regarding the HP world and as the name says it, it is like a lexicon with a lot of useful information. ‘The Leaky Cauldron’ – the website awarded by Rowling in 2005 has a very good design, works very well and is mainly focused on the HP news – Rowling likes it very much and says it is her favorite.
Rowling tries each year to award a site that does a good job in promoting and giving useful information about Harry Potter. At one time Warner Bros., the company that holds the rights of the Harry Potter trademark, tried to shut down all fan sites. This attempt was unsuccessful and the company later agreed that it is important that these websites continue to exist in order to keep the fans interested. Probably the company was feeling threatened by the popularity of those sites and wanted to have instead full popularity with their own dedicated site. Of course it’s all about money, they wanted to have all the revenues they could from every aspect involving HP and could not bear that others were making profit over their brand. The fan sites have indeed ads on their sites from which they get revenue but the money made is probably just enough to cover the expenses of maintaining the site online and it’s not about making a living out of it.
Fan Fiction: refers to works made by fans involving characters, places, story of the original work. These fan works are normally not accepted by the authors and they are tolerated only as long as they are not published because that would be totally illegal as it would mean plagiarism.
The Harry Potter books have a whole world of fan fiction works from the most innocent ones to real grotesque ones. There is a huge number of fan fiction works on the net more than a half a million and J.K. Rowling is not against these works but supports them. As we know Rowling is a huge supporter of imagination and believes it to be very important for mental health. There are many sites dedicated especially to HP fan fiction where users can read these works or upload their own creations. There is a fan fiction work called ‘The Shoebox Project’ to which many fans write and contribute to. It has over 20 ‘chapters’ and continues or tells ‘untold’ stories of the HP world.
The fan fiction has also a more negative aspect which J.K. Rowling does not agree with. There are a lot of stories of the ‘slash fiction’ genre which are depicting sexual relationships between characters, relations that normally do not appear in the books and are not even suggested. Nobody can stop others from writing and uploading such stories and therefore there are a lot of websites dedicated to this ‘bad fiction’.
Role Playing: is a main component in any fan community and it couldn’t be absent here. There is real life live action role play and internet based playing. Fans have come up with a so called ‘muggle quidditch’ which is similar to the quidditch game in the books but of course it is on the ground. The fans hold tournaments and give away prizes to the winners. There are also card games, puzzles and games of that kind invented for the fans. There is a vast internet based role playing community which puts up games related to the books, to Hogwarts, to the characters etc.
Wizard rock: is a specific genre of music which emerged in 2000 with the music band ‘Harry and the Potters’ and has since gained a widespread interest so much that today there are over 700 bands belonging to this genre. The listeners are mostly HP fans and the lyrics are mostly based on the books.
Harry Potter theme park: The Wizarding World of Harry Potter is the name of the HP theme park that had its opening 18 June 2010 in Orlando, Florida. It is a park having real life proportions where people can go and have fun eating the ‘Hogwarts’ specialties’, visiting Diagon Alley, visiting Hogwarts, the different shops etc. It has roller coasters, tours in the castle and visitors encounter the ‘whomping willow’,’ dementors’, and witness a quidditch match. The investement costed 200 million dollars and the park was built on a huge space. The park has received very good reviews both from the fans and nonfans and good reviews from newspapers and specialized reviewers. They reviewed it as a unique experience which is very close to the experience of the books and the films.
2.3 The controversies
-The first problems J.K. Rowling had surrounding and involving her books is copyright infringement accusations. The American author Nancy Kathleen Stouffer had written two books in 1984 which (at least the title) resemble to some realities in the Harry Potter books: “The legend of Rah and the muggles” and “Larry Potter and his best friend Lily”. The word muggle is a word often used in the HP books and the names Potter(“…and his best friend Lily”) and Lily have also a sounding importance in the books, Potter being Harry’s last name and Lily the name of his mother. The resemblances go much further than being just some similarities between names as the word Muggle was used by N.K. Stouffer to refer to a humanoid species and Larry Potter is a dark haired boy wearing glasses – very similar to Harry Potter. Other similarity found in N.K. Stouffer’s book is a castle by a lake – resembling Rowling’s Hogwarts. The interesting fact is that Stouffer never got to really publish the books, only parts of “The legend of Rah…” in a booklet to a company which soon went bankruptcy preventing her to get her books published in or outside U.S. Rowling first went to U.S. in 1998, 1 year after her book was already published and 8 years after she got the inspiration to write these books.
-A trial was started during which it was proven that Stouffer had manipulated her original work inserting the word muggle and other changes in her manuscript as to resemble the Harry Potter books. She was also found with false and untruthful testimony and was fined $50.000. She later tried to recourse but was refused by the court.
-Other problems surrounding these books rose when Warner Bros. demanded all the fan sites to be closed because their respective owners (which were children, teenagers) had no right to use the trademark. Somehow this thing was settled after some scandals in the media and Warner Bros. started to make a difference between a commercial use of their trademark and the non-commercial use as it is in the case of the fan sites.
-Unauthorized and fake copies of the books have been circulating in China. Apparently where it is success everyone tries to steal a little and be ‘part of the success’. “Harry Potter and Bao Zoulong” is the name of a Chinese fake sequel of Harry Potter which came out in 2002 and was published and sold publicly. This book had in fact no connection with the HP books it was a translation of The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien but with all the characters’ names changed to the ones from HP. The fake was rapidly denounced and Warner Bros. sued that publishing company which was fined to the extremely small sum of $3.400.
-In India also one author tried to publish a book called: Harry Potter in Calcutta where Harry gets to meet various figures from the Indian culture. Warner Bros.’ reaction was prompt and made the author stop publishing the novel.
-The attempt to stop copyright infringement was not so successful in the case of the Russian writer Dmitri Yemets who published a book called “Tanya Trotter and the Magical Double Bass” which intentionally resembles Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. Warner Bros. tried to get the book out of publishing and succeeded in not having it published in English but the book was still sold in Netherlands, Belgium and Russia. This ‘copy’ of Harry Potter has sold over 3 million copies and has a relative success in Russia where the writer has written 12 more sequels.
-A successful fan site which began its activity as a lexicon for the Harry Potter world wanted to get all the facts there published in book form which would therefore be illegal so Warner Bros. again had to defend the copyright infringement of their trademark. The case was much debated and judged and in the end it got a semi-positive result: they can publish the guide but under a name which suggests its nature: “The Lexicon: An Unauthorized Guide to Harry Potter Fiction and Related Materials”. This was possible as the Court and law cannot restrict others to write about others’ works and that this should not represent in anyway a copyright infringement.
-Another case which could have turned out bad for Warner Bros. was when the estate of Adrian Jacobs sued Bloomsbury for £500 million stating that Rowling has plagiarized a scene from ”The Adventures of Willy the Wizard: Livid Land NO 1” and used it in Harry Potter and the Goblet of fire. However in 6th January 2011 the lawsuit was dismissed because there were simply not enough resemblances between the two books. In fact Rowling hasn’t even heard about that book and that author until 2004 when the charges were made (4 years after her book was published). This was in a way similar to Stouffer’s case where she accused Rowling for plagiarism. What happens in fact, in my opinion, is that it is impossible to write something completely ‘from another planet’ as to not resemble in anyway other works or to retell some ideas, you do that unconsciously and when you write 4000 pages of fiction it is impossible for many ideas there not to resemble others’ but that doesn’t mean it is a ‘direct plagiarism’ it is not even an indirect one it is purely a coincidence because the world cannot be so infinite so that everyone can invent something that has never been said.
-Black mailing attempt which ended after a gun had been fired (yes we’re still talking about Harry Potter) is another issue in this world of copyright infringement business. A guard from a book distribution centre managed to steal a number of pages from the 5th book 6 weeks before its release and tried to sell them to a journalist from The Sun and/or try to black mail Bloomsbury. The appointment got serious when the guard fired his gun, luckily the journalist was not wounded but the guard got arrested.
-Other accusations came from Asda – a UK supermarket chain complaining that the books are too expensive and that they cost at least half more than what usually a bestseller for children would cost. I mean how stupid can such an affirmation be? First of all J.K. Rowling is not writing for children, she never intended to write for children if the books came out that way that’s a different thing. How can you compare other children’s bestseller books to Harry Potter when each of the Harry Potter books broke all the records in matter of selling number, selling speed and stayed in newspapers’ bestselling lists for years? And another thing, how many pages does an HP book have and how many does a usual children’s book have? What sort of material and format has been used for the HP books and what material for other usual books? So, in my opinion, Bloomsbury did a right thing to cancel all the orders made by Asda (about 500.000 books) if they started to quarrel about the price ($30/book).
Probably the main accusations brought to J.K. Rowling and the Harry Potter books are from religious groups; many different religious groups have something to say against the HP books:
Evangelicalism : The Evangelical Christian groups are targeting their accusations mainly at the themes of witchcraft and magic that the books are full of or exclusively about. They recognize the moral features of the books, the valuable lessons about courage, love etc. but they don’t like the world in which all these take place. They say that pagan rituals and witchcraft are clearly denounced by the Bible. They say that “the Potter books open a doorway that will put untold millions of kids into hell” or are comparing the Harry Potter books to “rat poison mixed with orange soda”. Other Evangelical Christian newspapers portrayed Rowling as a Satanist and her story inspired by Satan, that she has sold her soul to the devil and received much wealth. They made a picture of 3 children sitting in a circle with a Satanist symbol in front of them and with Harry Potter books near them; they made it circulate among Christians as a “proof” on their views.
Suggesting that reading Harry Potter makes you a Satanist: “Mrs. J. K. Satan-said that as she sat in a coffee shop one grey day, wondering what to do with her empty, aimless life, it hit her: ‘I’ll give myself, body and soul, to the Dark Master. And in return, he will give me absurd wealth and power over the weak and pitiful of the world. And he did!”
Catholicism: Catholic leaders had no official position on Harry Potter in the beginning later however bad reviews started coming: “It is good that you enlighten people about Harry Potter, because those are subtle seductions, which act unnoticed and by this deeply distort Christianity in the soul, before it can grow properly”; “Behind Harry Potter hides the signature of the king of the darkness, the devil”; “The books make a false distinction between black and white magic, while, in reality, the distinction does not exist, because magic is always a turn to the devil”; “Despite several positive values that can be found in the story, at the foundations of this tale is the proposal that of witchcraft as positive, the violent manipulation of things and people thanks to the knowledge of the occult, an advantage of a select few: the ends justify the means because the knowledgeable, the chosen ones, the intellectuals know how to control the dark powers and turn them into good… This is a grave and deep lie, because it is the old Gnostic temptation of confusing salvation and truth with a secret knowledge.”
Orthodox: the Greek Orthodox Church denounced the books as Satanic: these books “acquaint people with evil, wizardry, the occult and demonology”; “It is beyond doubt that Harry was made to resemble a young savior. Upon his birth people try to kill him, he is forever subjected to injustice but always supernaturally manages to prevail and save others. Let us reflect, who else … is held to be the unjustly treated God?”; Official liturgies were held to pray in order to heal the young minds from the attraction towards these books which dealt with ‘real magic’ and reading or reciting the spells found in the books was like praying to the devil and that the poor, innocent minds got possessed. A Russian orthodox writer defended the books saying that they contain moral, Christian values and that the books do not encourage to any pagan practices. This position was held by other orthodox priests as well.
Anglicanism: Representatives of Anglicanism had mixed reactions, from forbidding the churches to be filmed as to not have any connection to Hogwarts and Harry Potter to praising the books and seeing the clear difference between imagination and reality: “These sessions draw parallels between events in the world of Harry and his friends, and the world in which we are seeking to proclaim the gospel to young people […] To say, as some have, that these books draw younger readers towards the occult seems to me both to malign J. K. Rowling and to vastly underestimate the ability of children and young people to separate the real from the imaginary”
Islam: in 2002 the books were banned in schools in United Arab Emirates being labeled as un-Islamic, containing elements of fantasy and magic which are against Islamic values. In 2007, hours before the release of the final HP book the police force found and defused a bomb located near a shopping centre in Pakistan. However the police don’t know for sure if the target was indeed the HP premiere or not. 6 days after this event a newspaper in Iran criticized the Iranian minister of culture for accepting the HP books in their country claiming that the publisher of HP is of Zionist origin. The newspaper further described the books as a Zionist project on which was spent billions of dollars. In 2009 a documentary on Iranian television about Harry Potter said: “The creation of new stories, based on mythical themes of witchcraft and devil worship, has always been a tool used by contemporary Zionists, and it is once again used in recent years, now more visibly than ever, targeting innocent children and youth.”
Judaism: in the Judaic community Harry Potter has received mainly favorable reviews: in “a society in which adolescents are precociously adult, and adults are permanently adolescent”, Harry Potter has “reclaimed the kingdom of childhood, proving that you don’t have to betray to enchant”; the HP books are “a force for good”; etc. The only thing that angered the community was the setting of the premiere of the last book on a Sabbath day.
Rowling’s response to all these accusations: “I absolutely did not start writing these books to encourage any child into witchcraft. I’m laughing slightly because to me, the idea is absurd. I have met thousands of children and not even one time has a child come up to me and said, “Ms Rowling, I’m so glad I’ve read these books because now I want to be a witch.”; “People underestimate children so hugely, they know it’s fiction. When people are arguing from that kind of standpoint, I don’t think reason works tremendously well. But I would be surprised if some of them had read the books at all.”
In U.S. many schools banned the reading or possessing of Harry Potter books because of the fear of the occultism the books may contain. The HP books are, according to American Library Association, the most challenged books of the 21th century. A solution for the banning problem which has been adopted is to let the parents of each child choose what books their children can read from the school libraries. However parents and paranoid people were still against the books: “It’s against my daughter’s constitution, it’s evil, it’s witchcraft … I’m not paying taxes to teach my child witchcraft”.
It is interesting how people can react like that when there is something which apparently touches their religious beliefs but when it is something like teaching 7 graders about sex there is nothing wrong about that or when their children stay all day in front of the computer or go out and never tell with whom they hang out. It is far more dangerous to stay inside and read a fantasy book than to do all those things right?
Politics in Harry Potter:
Education versus indoctrination
Some say that after the 9/11 Rowling’s books have abounded of ideas regarding freedom of speech, the dangers of dictatorship, about heroism and sacrifice. One odd thing indeed for me too is that after the books were released Rowling said in an interview, when asked, that Dumbledore was in fact gay and that she always saw him that way. The audience applauded and cheered but many scholars had a different reaction and probably many fans too were hurt by this disclosure. There was no sign in any book that Dumbledore was gay and now suddenly she ‘reveals’ his sexual orientation, she says: “I always thought of Dumbledore as gay. … Dumbledore fell in love with Gellert Grindelwald, and that added to his horror when Grindelwald showed himself to be what he was … falling in love can blind us to an extent … he was very drawn to this brilliant person, and horribly, terribly let down by him.”; “It is what it is. He is my character and as my character, I have the right to know what I know about him and say what I say about him.” An American pro-activist organization, among others, said that Rowling is trying to indoctrinate young people to tolerate gays.
Racism, ethnic cleansing and Nazism
The books contain indeed these themes just look at the first one: Racism, is present from the first book when Harry finds out about the ‘muggle bloods’ and ‘pure bloods’, the fight at Hogwarts between the two and the overall coverage of these aspects till the end of the series. Draco Malfoy especially is a promoter of the ‘pure blood’ and he doesn’t lose a chance to remind the ‘muggles’ of their ‘filthy’ origins. Voldermort does only recruit pure bloods and wants to kill all muggle bloods, the founder of Slytherin wanted to cleanse the school of muggles and placed a huge snake in the basement used for killing muggles (in the second book). On the other hand the muggles, as if Rowling tries to defend them, are normally more skillful in magic than the pure blood wizards, they have a good sense of what is right and what is wrong, they are intelligent and moral. Has Rowling made all this on purpose, does it have any reference to the actual racism in the world? This is what she said in an interview: “I do not think I am pessimistic but I think I am realistic about how much you can change deeply entrenched prejudice, so my feeling would be that if someone were a committed racist, possibly Harry Potter is not going to have an effect.” And criticizing racism she said: “People like to think themselves superior and that if they can pride themselves in nothing else they can pride themselves on perceived purity.”
Regarding Nazism she compared Voldermort to Adolf Hitler and said: “Well, it is a political metaphor. But… I didn’t sit down and think, ‘I want to recreate Nazi Germany’, in the-in the wizarding world. Because-although there are-quite consciously overtones of Nazi Germany, there are also associations with other political situations. So I can’t really single one out.”
Evils of war
About this Rowling said: “I very consciously wanted to show what is one of the great evils of war, which is that totally innocent people are slaughtered… Another great evil of war is that children lose their families.”
Rowling has worked at the non-governmental organization Amnesty International which is fighting against the abuses on the human rights and this is somehow portrayed in the HP books through Hermione who tries to defend the rights of the abused house-elves and protect the magical creatures. Hermione is starting
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