The Boy Who Lives On: Harry Potter’s Place in Popular Culture

Voldemort has finally been vanquished for good. Harry Potter has been assured an enduring future. The wizarding world, we are left to imagine, will heal and rebuild. Life and love stand victorious over death and evil. And while the publication of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows closes the book on the most famous wizard of our age, audiences the world over are left to reflect on a 10-year adventure and wonder what comes next.

As is to be expected, the most immediate debate has already taken the form of arguing over quality. For some, it’s a question of whether the final chapter of Potter’s tale lived up to the escalating expectations of fans, while for others it’s a question of whether J.K. Rowling and her stories are deserving of their fame and the impulse to immediately canonize them into the annals of great literature, children’s or otherwise (for as surely as there are Creevey-like fans, there are multitudes of Snapes dismissing author and books as nothing special). But while such arguments are ripe for both critical analysis and Internet flame wars for years to come, it seems the issue of Harry Potter’s impact on popular culture needs to be acknowledged now, before memories of the character’s importance fade.

While the frenzy towards a finale has built over the last several years, and increasingly so with the publication of each successive book, it became more and more common to hear of the Potter books as a “phenomenon”, which in context usually meant wildly popular and/or commercially successful. But in fact, Harry Potter as a phenomenon in the literal meaning of the word is more than just a cash cow, it is as illustrative an example of popular culture and how it works as anything in recent years. The phenomenon of Harry Potter transcends books, author, films, and any of the attendant merchandising that it has spawned to become a node of cultural concepts that includes all of these and more. Whether you revere the series or abhor it, or fall anywhere in between, you have an opinion about it. Or, if you are in the population that has ignored Potter and his products, it is still likely that you have an idea of them, even if limited to media exposure and the ideas of others.

This is, at its most fundamental, what popular culture is: the communication of ideas and information and their circulation through a populace. It is a shared experience, even though, as Harry Potter shows, you don’t need to be a reader or movie watcher to be a part of that experience. Even second-hand information gathered from TV or the newspaper that the Potter saga is a story about magic involving some kids is some understanding, if limited. Harry Potter’s world may have captured the imagination of audiences, but the phenomenon of Harry Potter captured the shared imagination that is popular culture.

Due to some semantic ambiguities of the term, there are a few misconceptions about popular culture. It isn’t necessary for the Potter books to have become universally acknowledged for them to have claimed a place in popular culture — there isn’t a quantifiable tipping point where that status is measurably achieved. If the Potter series had remained merely a strong force in the subculture of children’s book readers, or even the larger subculture of popular fiction readers, it still would have managed to gather enough cultural capital to qualify.

Nor is it a question of being well-liked or having generated a large fan-base — with little more than bad fashion, a strategic sex tape, and well-publicized troubles, Paris Hilton achieved a similar level of popular culture ubiquity within the same timeframe, yet it’s doubtful that there are anywhere near so many people who consider themselves actual fans of Hilton. Rather, popular culture status is measured in the degree of awareness some focal point commands, and that awareness of Harry extends well beyond Pottermania.

What this means is open to as much debate as is the quality of Rowling’s books. The fact of popular culture has been politicized for centuries, whether as dangerous and subversive, oppressive and hegemonic, or as vital and stabilizing. J. Peder Zane’s “An Old-Fashioned Icon in a Fragmented Culture” essay here on PopMatters attests to this (even if in a strangely Amero-centric fashion for a series as first British and secondarily global as Harry Potter’s), and that’s ultimately where the existing and yet-to-come analysis of the series content will come into play. But in advance of that, some recognition of the different forces that contributed to Harry Potter’s popular culture status seems to be in order, and in no particular order, here are a few; in effect, a set of “thank you”s from a fan of both Potter and popular culture.

Major Media Outlets

Without the attention of the news and infotainment complex, it’s possible that this series wouldn’t have elevated beyond the best-seller stage. Potter wound up generating its own publicity, which made the job of editors and reporters easier, but those outlets deserve credit as vital carriers of the Potter meme, making its success the story as much as the story within its pages. (I myself would have remained ignorant of Rowling’s work for longer had it not been for a story on NPR about the Prisoner of Azkaban release, so special thanks are due there, personally.)

The Editors at Bloomsbury and Scholastic

By taking a chance on a manuscript from an unknown author that others (poor unfortunates) passed over, these folks, particularly Arthur A. Levine, set the wheels in motion. While the size and scope of the thing was in all ways unforeseeable, they were the spark and share in the architectural credits. Let this be a lesson: Even in the business of publishing, taking risks pays off, and may no other editors underestimate their audience’s ability to handle something that seems “too literary”.

Religious Protestors of Potter

Nothing generates interest like an attempt to condemn something as too dangerous. The Potter books would likely have been popular without the attempts to demonize them, but it certainly brought added attention to the books. Of course, anyone who has bothered to read them knows that the idea of the books being pagan propaganda is ridiculous on any number of levels (Rowling’s own religious affiliations, and the Christian themes in the books among them), but such attempts at religious condemnation have revealed the vulnerability of those people’s faith and their notions of a God who fears imagination in a most Dursley-ish fashion. Not only that, but these calls to arms have helped spawn such excellent ancillary reading as John Killinger’s God, the Devil and Harry Potter: A Christian Minister’s Defense of the Beloved Novels and Connie Neals’s The Gospel According to Harry Potter: Spirituality in theStories of the World’s Most Famous Seeker.

Book Banners and Burners

Similar to the above, attempts at censorship where Harry is concerned not only generated news, it also brought attention to the plight of banned books. At once, the Potter books were made more alluring, as well as subsequently elevated into some excellent literary company. Perhaps now that the series has concluded, readers will return to the Banned Book shelves for further reading. (Some leeway is granted to those school libraries that banned the books in an attempt to limit fighting and inattentiveness in students, but surely there are other, better ways?)

Bookstores Everwhere

Sure, Potter is big business to retailers, and promoting Potter is self-serving in that regard, but by encouraging the sense of community among fans in a number of ways, from release parties to activity days, they not only increased the shared experience of Potter fandom, they also paved the way for future books by making the bookstore a prized destination in a new generation of readers.

The Warner Brothers Corporation

While many readers may have mixed feelings about the movies developed from the books, there’s no way to deny that the profit motives of Warner Bros. helped to propel much of the hype and media attention revolving around Harry Potter, as well as produce a vast assortment of merchandise that kept Harry in the public eye between books. Commerce’s role in popular culture may be problematic in its own right, but it’s certainly effective.

Internet Fan Groups

The ability of fan sites to pick up news, post images, and host endless discussions on the finer points of the series proved to be an invaluable source of community and fervor for legions of Potter fans worldwide. Harry Potter’s cultural success is intimately tied to its existence in the Internet era, benefiting from an immediacy and speed not available to predecessors like Star Wars. From varied fan art to thousands of pages of fan fiction, the Potterverse has been expanded to vast interactive proportions through the Internet, something not lost on Rowling herself, who devoted much time to honoring these fan communities and supplying them with valuable information.

Jim Dale and Listening Library

Through sheer talent, Jim Dale breathed a new sense of life into the Potter series through his masterful work in reading the audio books. Earning Grammy awards and a place in the Guinness Book of World Records helped raise the profile of the Listening Library audio books, and his incredible performances contributed to the growth of audio books as an art form in their own respect. By reading these books and treating them as theater, Dale made each word of Rowling’s writing live in an imaginative way that spoke more to the intricacies of story than the movies could ever hope to achieve. Through his contributions, Dale created a Harry Potter experience that is perhaps second only to reading the actual books themselves. (Note: Dale’s performances are only released on the US edition of the audio books, while the UK releases are read by the much-loved Stephen Fry. I haven’t had any exposure to Fry’s version, so I can’t compare, but Fry’s talents are well-documented, so extending an honorary thank you seems reasonable.)

J.K. Rowling Herself

Certainly, we have Rowling to thank for the books and the story of Harry Potter and the wizarding world, but Rowling herself proved to be an excellent story, the fabled rags-to-riches tale that inspires our imagination on more mundane matters. Beyond her success, Rowling played an expert game with fans and news organizations, playing coy when it was necessary to let the excitement and mystery of the series grow and foment. As a sphinx-like media figure, Rowling handled the mantle of being the central pillar of Pottermania in a way that drew audiences into her own love of Harry, while defying any notions of the “death of the author” — even in a series that had become a part of global culture.

In contrast to opinions like those offered by Chris Barsanti in the PopMatters Re:Print blog, popular culture’s imagination may seem fickle, easily distracted by fads and fashions, but its memory is surprisingly long (the market for nostalgia media is proof of this in action). While the worth of the books may remain subjective, the deeply-rooted and enormously wide-spread position Harry Potter has claimed in the pantheon of popular culture is undeniable. As the few mentions above highlight — and there are more not mentioned here — the Harry Potter series has connected to the world beyond the words on a page and extended itself well beyond the covers of a book.

In that sense, the Harry Potter phenomenon is also very much phenomenal. While popular culture is replete with stories, ideas, products and communities, few concepts reach as far as Harry Potter has done to factor into the consciousness of so many around the world. And the web this forms between us all helps ensure that Harry Potter will remain The Boy Who Lives On.