J K Rowling's magic tales have become embedded in our cultural consciousness and will never be erased
By Nicolette Jones, Published in The Telegraph, 09 Jul 2009
It is 12 years since the first Harry Potter book was published and eight since the first film was released. Its impact has been greater than any other children’s book series, in ways that no one could ever have predicted.
Not only has the series made more money than any other children’s book ever published and turned a lot of children into readers, it has changed the way publishers and the media treat children’s books. It has put new words into the dictionaries, raised fortunes for charities, and introduced a children’s author for the first time into the top rank of celebrity despite, or perhaps because of, her unwillingness to court it.
Everything associated with it has become desirable: when Barack Obama was inaugurated, Daniel Radcliffe offered to give the president’s daughters a tour of the film set.
It took about four years from publication (and three books) for the series to start to pervade our culture, but it has now become common for films and television soaps and series to refer to it. And it is almost de rigueur for other children’s books to pay homage.
J K Rowling’s tale has become the default story that contemporary fictional children read. Sometimes it represents a reassuring, escapist normality. Jacqueline Wilson in The Worry Website (2002) has a character who is frightened by watching a horror movie and can’t get the monster out of her head; it intrudes into the cosiest activities. At bedtime: “Dad comes to read to Judy and me, but the monster paces the corridors of Hogwarts too, munching Harry Potter into mincemeat.”
In Jamila Gavin’s The Robber Baron’s Daughter (2008) a girl who is just beginning to perceive that her over-protected, home-educated life conceals from her a sinister reality, hides her anxieties and her defiant plans by reading Harry Potter in bed.
Anthony Horowitz’s reference in Point Blanc (2004) is playful. In preparation for the teenage super-spy Alex Rider’s second mission, Smithers the gadget man gives Alex a copy of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. “Thanks,” says Alex, “but I’ve already read it.” It turns out there is a gun in the spine with a stun dart in its chamber. Alex is instructed to point and press the author’s name. “It’ll knock out an adult in less than five seconds.”
There is a rare disparaging reference in Hilary McKay’s Forever Rose (2007). Rose is a reluctant reader. Others, including her sister, recommend Harry Potter, but a horrible teacher, asked if he has read HP, responds: “I am happy to tell you my life has not yet reached such a level of desperate futility.” Rose tries, but can’t get into it, though she likes the films. The only book Rose ends up enjoying is Le Morte d’Arthur.
And the allusions are getting cleverer. In Philip Reeve’s Fever Crumb (published this year) set in a post-technological future, monks in orange robes chant on the street the name of an ancient deity: “Hare, Hare, Hare Potter.”
Adult novels do it, too. For instance, in The Da Vinci Code “the bestselling book of all time” (the Bible) is misunderstood by a publisher to refer to Harry Potter. Sophie Kinsella, a fan, has characters reading or watching Harry Potter in most of her Shopaholic books. Jasper Fforde’s First Among Sequels has Harry Potter disappointing officials with autograph books by failing to show up at a “Council of Genres”. James Patterson, in the foreword to The Lake House, calls readers “muggles”.
In Lauren Weisberger’s 2003 novel The Devil Wears Prada, and in the 2006 film with Meryl Streep, the monstrous fashion magazine editor Miranda Priestly, hoping for an excuse to fire her assistant Andrea, sets the impossible task of obtaining an advance copy of the manuscript of the latest unpublished Harry Potter novel. Andrea succeeds: she knows someone who knows someone who knows someone who does the cover art.
Other than this, the best-known film reference must be in Love, Actually, when Hugh Grant as Prime Minister fulfills British dreams in pre-Obama days (2003) by making an anti-American speech to the US president: “We may be a small country, but we are a great one too. A country of Shakespeare, Churchill, the Beatles, Sean Connery, Harry Potter…”
Just as “muggle” and “quidditch” have made it into the Oxford English Dictionary, there are other references everyone recognises. In Theresa Breslin’s children’s novel Divided City (2005), Glasgow Royal Infirmary is described as “looking like Hogwarts, with its fascinating dark turrets and towers”. Similarly, in the St Trinian’s movie, Annabelle, arriving at the school, says: “Daddy, Daddy, you can’t expect me to stay here. It’s like Hogwarts for pikeys.”
When Joey suggests to Ross in Friends “doing what comes naturally” with his girlfriend under a blanket on a plane, Ross responds: “It’s a blanket, Joey, not a cloak of invisibility.” Carla in Scrubs blackmails Dr Kelso into having a conversation he wants to avoid with the threat of telling him whether Harry dies at the end of book seven. Karen in Will and Grace declares that she pretends to like the Gryffindors but secretly loves Slytherin boys. In Ugly Betty Marc greets Amanda, after a come-down: “Oh, if it isn’t Miss Fancy-Pants Celebrity back among the muggles.”
The best of the television references must be the one in Doctor Who’s “The Shakespeare Code”, screened before the last book came out. Martha says: “So, magic and stuff… It’s all a bit Harry Potter.” The Doctor, who can travel in time, replies: “Wait till you read book seven. Oooh, I cried.”
Later Shakespeare recites words that defeat witches and gets stuck on the final word. Martha prompts: “Expelliarmus!” “Good old J K,” says the Doctor.
Sometimes the fun is in putting vulgar jokes in the context of a supposedly pure-hearted children’s book: “Harry Potter kiss my ass” in the first 10 minutes of the film The Covenant; the adult cartoon South Park had a whole spoof episode of Harry Potter characters as a badass crew, and obscene references; Homer, in The Simpsons movie, calls his pig, which produces a lot of waste, “Harry Plopper”, to the hilarity of youngsters.
The tide of mentions may slow down now that the books are all published, though each film will cause a swell. Harry Potterisms may go out of fashion. The whole fuss could be shortlived, like the phase when everything we read or watched alluded to the Spice Girls or the Teletubbies. Then historians of the future will be able to date the products of our popular culture by the fact that they include references to J K Rowling’s work.
But whatever happens, there will never come a day when Hogwarts, muggles, quidditch and Voldemort are meaningless names and words as they were only a dozen years ago, just as we cannot erase Neverland, Wonderland, Narnia, chortling, galumphing, boojums, heffalumps and woozles from our collective consciousness. Almost more surprising than the money and the fame is this legacy: a permanent place in a corner of everyone’s imagination.
'Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince' is released on Wednesday 15th July, 2009