Harry Potter Is Here to Stay
As part two of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows opens in theaters worldwide this month, we have reached the final chapter—of sorts. It's a phenomenon that began 13 years ago with the release of the first installment in J. K. Rowling's series. I'm a Potter pundit who has written and edited as many books about the Hogwarts saga as there are novels in said series. So you would think I'd be sad to see the tale of the boy wizard come to an end.
But I'm not, because the tale is not ending. Harry is here to stay.
What makes me think that Potter mania will not go the way of the Hula-Hoop and pet rock is the remarkable ripple effect of Harry's seven-year battle with the Dark Lord. The Hogwarts saga has reshaped our ideas of what a story can and should do, and writers and filmmakers have and will continue to respond to this new set of audience expectations.
Rowling's Literary Genius
With sales of well over 400 million copies—dwarfing all published works not written by God or Chairman Mao—the Harry Potter series is the shared text of our time. Rowling's creation has infused the imaginations of generations of readers—children, parents, and grandparents. The 4,100 pages in its seven books have been turned into eight Warner Brothers movies, becoming the most successful film franchise ever, ahead of Star Wars and James Bond.
This cultural tsunami suggests Harry Potter is not a passing fad. Rowling's storytelling reveals traditional artistry, with symbols and themes borrowed from Dante, Shakespeare, the Inklings, and other literary greats. Most remarkably, Rowling uses three literary devices that are hallmarks of the series: (1) a complex yet nearly invisible "ring composition"; (2) an alchemical drama; and (3) an engaging picture of the faculties of the soul. Let me explain.
• Ring compositon: The whole series, as well as each book therein, conforms to the touchstones of traditional story scaffolding. Anthropologist Mary Douglas, in her book Thinking in Circles, calls it "ring composition." She describes it as "a construction of parallelisms that must open a theme, develop it, and round it off by bringing the conclusion back to the beginning." Bible readers might call it chiasmus.
Rowling repeatedly hits the three marks of ring writing. The Potter series and each novel have beginnings and ends that meet up. They have "centers" that both return to the question raised in the beginning and answer that question in the end. And, each book and each chapter has its mirrored image or "reverse echo" in the book or chapter on the opposite side of the story divide. "Parallelisms" define these stories.
I think Rowling picked up this chapter structure from her close reading of C. S. Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia and Charles Williams's seven novels, which have a similar if not identical structure. Both Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (marketed and sold in the U.S. as Sorcerer's Stone) and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, for instance, are 17 chapters long; both have their story centers in chapter 9; and both show an echoing effect between chapters before and after this divide.
• Alchemical drama: Lewis and Williams, and Rowling after their example, write in circles not just because Boethius, Dante, and medieval poets did, but also because they aim to transform readers by giving them an experience of literary alchemy.