Why does Harry Potter work so well?

This evening I got into a very intense conversation about “Harry Potter”. A colleague of mine had just binged through all the novels, having missed the phenomenon the first time around.

He told me he simply couldn’t see what the big deal was. What J.K. Rowling had written, in his estimation, was simply one more variation on the well trod fantasy-genre coming-of-age story.

I argued that there was a key difference, which I thought was integral to how powerfully Harry Potter was embraced by a generation of young readers. In addition to the whole “Sword in the Stone” trope of the orphan boy who discovers he is really the king (which is also the basic idea behind Cinderella, as well as many other classic tales), there is another far more potent ingredient.

Namely, in order to save the world, our young hero must first come to terms with a deeply disturbing fact: His power is linked intrinsically to the dark power of his evil adversary.

We see this, for example, in the way Harry is nearly chosen for the house of Slytherin, and in the way — to his great surprise — he can speak the serpent language Parseltongue. So even as young Harry learns to wield his growing power as he comes of age, he must reckon with the dark side of himself which makes that power possible.

This theme is also explored in “Star Wars”, as young Luke comes to realize his true kinship with Darth Vader. But in Harry Potter, this theme is front and center.

Our hero must battle the dark forces hidden inside himself before he can battle the dark forces outside himself. If that is not a perfect metaphor for the confusing state of puberty, I don’t know what is.

By the end of our conversation my colleague was convinced. Your mileage may vary.

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