Twenty years ago, Harry Potter, and all that comes with him, made its debut. His is the newest “universe” to become an indelible part of our cultural firmament, on par with Star Wars and comic heroes and the other cultural objects that have practically ascended into myth. There are plenty of reasons for that quick ascension: characters who grew up with their audience, the way the novels’ mythology deepened as the saga went on, and scads of merch-able items derived from the work that helped make the property marketable and omnipresent.
But one of the biggest is that J.K. Rowling forged such an inviting and exciting world, one that evinced a sense of wonder and, importantly, escapism, among those who visited it. The greatest fantasy in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone is in the idea that there’s an incredible hidden world, just waiting for us to find it. If we can only find the key, if only we were admitted entrance, there waits a realm of wonders to be discovered and adored.
Rowling knew how to adorn that mythic land. She filled it with the sorts of inventive tricks and treats that seem blasé to locals but wondrous to us muggles. She created an imaginative ecosystem of places and spaces much like our own, but with just enough of a magical twist to spur the imagination. Who wouldn’t want to become lost in the Wizarding World, a place filled to brim with surprises and thrills and adventures around every corner?
As we grow older, though, facts start to get in the way of our fiction. The blind, spirited acceptance of youth fades, and it becomes harder to lose oneself in that type of imaginative universe. We train our children to probe and critique and question, and that’s a good thing. But over time, it inevitably weakens our ability to turn a blind eye to the cracks in the fantastical foundations we encounters. It becomes a greater challenge to will our suspension of disbelief and to keep the real world out. Escapism becomes more difficult when that lingering voice in the back of your head — the one trained to offer skepticism and apply everything in a broader context — cannot be silenced so easily.
Even with that obstacle, most of the surface-level peccadilloes in the Wizarding World are easy to swallow. It’s not a struggle to forgive incongruities like how the rules of quidditch would make little sense for a genuine competitive sport, or how Ron’s siblings should probably have been more suspicious of how often the Marauder’s Map showed their little brother hanging out with Peter Pettigrew, or the whole can of worms that is the existence of time turners.
Instead, the problem comes when you grow up and cannot help but cross pollinate the world of magic-wielding do-gooders and fantastic beasts on the one hand, with the world of travel bans and harsh conflicts and mass starvation on the other. It becomes harder to give into the whimsy and take that much-needed escape into a fantasy world like Rowling’s. Instead, we start to say, “Okay Hermione, maybe you can’t create food, but surely someone could whip up an enchanted harvester to help feed Africa at pennies on the dollar, right?” Or maybe, at a more basic level, we just feel guilty for embracing that sort of escape while the world aches.
It’s one of the growing pains of adulthood. As we get older and more aware of the world beyond our front doors, we can’t help but start to see the fault lines where our childhood fantasies run into the harsher afflictions of the world as it really is. In times and places where the need for escapism is all the greater — to be able to turn off the horrors of the world for a moment and recharge — reality cannot help but seep in.
The difficulty of letting go becomes even clearer as a grown-up in Harry Potter Land (pardon me — The Wizarding World of Harry Potter™), the theme park realization of Rowling’s fantasy world. The minute you walk onto the grounds, you cannot help but marvel at the wonderful reconstructions of all the people, places, and things that have been transmuted from pulp and celluloid. “There’s the dragon that spits fire! There’s the goblins writing in their ledgers! There’s Hogwarts! Hogwarts!” It’s all there, down to the last detail, with Easter eggs and amusing references and surprises galore, the world that lived only on the page come to life in extraordinary glory.
But then you start to notice the little things. Most of the “authentic” shops that dot these fairytale avenues are filled to the brim with high-priced branded merchandise that could just as easily be ordered out of a catalog, with each shopkeep ready, willing, and able to accept your muggle money. There’s snow on the rooftops of Hogsmeade despite the ninety-degree heat. And the “real” Diagon Alley probably doesn’t have masses of folks in Hard Rock Cafe t-shirts wandering its streets.
There’s no magic there. It isn’t real. It can’t be.
That’s the hard part. Harry Potter Land is a delightful experience, even as an adult, one enhanced by the more-than-evident time and trouble and effort the folks behind the scenes went to in order to perfect each detail. And for a moment — particularly when you’ve snuck into the park early and have the place all to yourself — you can close your eyes, take a deep breath, and you’re there, really there.
But to be a grown-up is to always have to fight the knowledge that no — no you’re not. There is no Diagon Alley. There is no Hogsmeade. There is no Hogwarts. It’s a thrill to sip butterbeer, or see the Hogwarts express, or bump and bustle through a rollicking, 3-D dragon chase designed to deceive the senses in every way. But you find yourself admiring it, appreciating the craftsmanship and imagination of it all, rather than buying into it.
Admiration is good, even great. But it’s not the same thing as loving something, and it’s certainly not the same as believing in it.
Twenty years have passed since Harry Potter arrived, and the world feels both more and less magical to the young men and women who grew up with him. There’s more magic in our collective cultural consciousness thanks to Rowling’s wonderful work. The Potter series still persists as a superlative realization of a heartening idea — that behind every corner hides a pixie, behind every wall there’s a secret passage, and in the places our eyes can’t see there lies mystery and enchantment.
That’s what makes Harry and his various spin-offs and ephemera so enticing and enduring as a piece of our pop cultural heritage. The Boy Who Lived is as collective affirmation of that hope and wish and wonder that we all experience at some point.
But at the same time, for the kids who were Harry’s age when his Hogwarts letter first arrived, we’ve long since had to acknowledge that ours are forever lost in the mail. In lieu of that invitation, we’ve grown up in this complicated muggle world, with troubles that are hard to subdue by finding the right enchantment or casting the right counter-spell or engaging in a climactic battle. As the world’s ills become more evident, that promised bit of magic seems further and further away.
But that’s why cultural objects like Harry Potter are so important. At the times when it’s most needed, they give people — particularly children — inspiration, hope, and a chance to shut off the world a few hundred pages at a time. Adulthood comes charging at the gates quickly, brandishing the harsh truths that come with it. Soon it becomes more and more difficult to keep them at bay. It’s then that we need that magic — however dwindling or ephemeral — all the more. And it’s then that it becomes something harder and harder to hold onto.