20 Years On, Here’s How Harry Potter Shaped The Millennial Imagination
The Debrief: Do we need Harry Potter’s portrayal of good and evil more than ever now?
Twenty years ago this week the first Harry Potter book was published, and a generation was given its touchpoint.
For anyone belonging to the Millennial generation in the UK, this is the cultural common ground that we share - whether you liked it or not, there is an awareness of the film and book and theme park and merchandise and whatever-else-you-can-think-of franchise that binds us like glue.
You don’t need me to tell you that Harry Potter is ubiquitous. In a survey commissioned this week for Harry’s big two-oh, only the skinniest minority of people polled hadn’t heard of the film’s stars Emma Watson or Daniel Radcliffe. Meanwhile, a comparatively massive 8% had no idea who Kanye West was, 7% didn’t know about Taylor Swift, and 9% had managed to completely miss Kim Kardashian.
Basically, Harry Potter is such a big deal that its stars - who are not highly regarded as actors - are better known than US superstars. That’s a pretty good metric for how relevant the stories are. If people were asked if they’d heard of Harry Potter, you’d be stunned if there was even one person among thousands surveyed who hadn’t heard of the boy wizard.
And for many millennials, Harry Potter isn’t just a household name, but something that shaped our lives. ‘We tell ourselves stories in order to live,’ Joan Didion once said, and Harry Potter is the narrative that many of us have hung ourselves on. We have pegged our values, beliefs, ethics and morals to those of the Hogwarts universe. In a secular age, Harry Potter gives many of us the tools to negotiate the world that religion failed to do.
People have attributed it with helping their depression, they proudly teach Harry Potter courses at prestigious universities, and one fan now runs ‘heroine training’ classes inspired by the goriously powerful and nuanced female characters in HP world (if you have read much fantasy, you’ll know that is a rarity).
JK Rowling’s universe came to pass in 1997 - as Britain strode out of weakening Conservative rule and into Tony Blair’s bright vision for the future. This is what set Harry Potter’s moral compass, when the country was lurching to the Left.The books began at a time of unprecedented peace, of wealth, and optimism. When the national mood was about wanting to look after single mothers and give poor kids a good education. Before reality bit and public services were still being privatised and - oh - we were about to start launching incredibly unpopular military offensives around the world. This was when the UK saw itself as a little more Gryffindor, and a little less Slytherin.
But don’t take my word for it, this is something that’s not just been discussed on the dark recesses of Tumblr, but by people who think about this kind of thing for a living. Philosopher Jean Claude Milner described the books as “deeply political”, class-oriented and Left-leaning. In 2007, as the last book was published, Milner espoused the quite rad theory that "Harry's uncle and aunt – Muggles par excellence – live like heroes of Margaret Thatcher's world, in a neat little estate where all the houses are identical.
"So we have on one side the Muggles, where oppression means power over things; and on the other hand Hogwarts, where knowledge enables one to resist the materialism of the Muggles - but also opens the way to power over people.”
JK Rowling helped model our adolescent brains, and perhaps our thinking has remained adolescent. When you look at the way our generation talks about politics, who can fail to see the kindly Dumbledore in Jeremy Corbyn, or the vicious Bellatrix in Katie Hopkins? The Tories are Slytherin, Labour Gryffindor and the Lib Dems adorable Hufflepuffs.
This mania for giving everything the Sorting Hat treatment helps explain why our politics today is so simplistic. Friends would talk about which house they belonged in, and I roll my eyes. Even YouGov - better known for prediction election outcomes - has been going through various celebrities and coming up with searing insights such as “Mary Berry is Britain's biggest Hufflepuff” - I don’t want to think about how much money YouGov spent to find out which house Andy Murray would be in (it’s Ravenclaw).
While it might all be rather tidy - being pigeonholed into one of four categories, the fight between good and evil, enemies becoming friends and friends’ enemies - well, there are worse stories we could have been brought up with.
Harry Potter was born with rose-tinted spectacles and with a destiny - to make the world a better place. That’s something many of us could use. It’s like CS Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia but without all the ramrod Christianity, or The Hobbit but without all the boring elves.
Good and evil is a binary choice, but so often we have to make yes-no decisions in our lives. If Harry Potter gives us the courage in our convictions to make a good decision, then that’s great. If finding your kind and sticking with them helps you understand who you are, and helps make you feel safe, then fill your boots. And you know what, I took the Sorting Hat quiz myself. It said I was Gryffindor. It felt good.
Harry Potter was about mild peril and doing the right thing. In an age of great peril, we need this resolve more than ever.
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You might want to think about the fact you're about to read something that wouldn't exactly get a PG rating