“The boy who lived” turns 20 years old today. Harry Potter, the turn-of-the-century literary sensation, topped bestseller lists and broke box office records across the globe, featuring seven book installments and their eight celluloid versions, and redefining the fantasy genre for a generation.
Readers in some 68 languages — including Ancient Greek, Latin, and Urdu — have explored Potter’s magical world since the first 500 copies of the Sorcerer’s Stone (or Philosopher’s Stone in the United Kingdom) first appeared in bookstores on June 26, 1997. In Germany and France, the series was the first in English to top national bestsellers’ lists. And in far-flung areas of the globe, parents began to name their babies after Harry and his friends. (In fact, the Mexican state of Sonora banned the name Hermione in an effort to prevent bullying.)
The internet has further accelerated the same globalizing trend that once vaulted Harry Potter into our lives.
The woman behind it all, author J.K. Rowling, continues to explore the fantastic world of Harry Potter on her website Pottermore. But since finishing the Potter series in 2007, the 51-year-old has shifted much of her energy toward online political and social commentary. In the past year alone, the author has shared her thoughts on Brexit, U.S. President Donald Trump, and terrorism with her 10.8 million followers on Twitter.
The leap from her timeless fantasy world to real-time current events commentary is a phenomenon in itself. Her cursory, witty jabs at the political establishment in both her native Britain and the United States are reminiscent of Mark Twain and Jonathan Swift’s political satires penned generations ago. Yet her voice carries further and faster than Twain’s or Swift’s ever could. The internet has further accelerated the same globalizing trend that once vaulted Harry Potter into our lives.
But even if Rowling’s tweets have made a splash, they may be the ultimate proof that any one thing that happens online can never match the power of a 400-page book or two-hour movie. After all, the commentators who wonder how a reality show star made it to the White House could just as well question the role of a fantasy writer leading the conversation on terrorism and geopolitics.