I have long been a fan of the Harry Potter books and the imaginary world created by British author J.K. Rowling. I knew that the Harry Potter Exhibition had been touring around the USA, and when the editor of this newspaper pointed out to me that it would be closing in Georgia at the end of February, I decided to prioritize a visit to Atlanta. So last weekend, just a few days before it ended, I headed west on I-16 to go for the full Harry Potter experience. As always, when I am in Atlanta, I teamed up with Sarah, my long time British friend and roommate from my university days who, by great good fortune, has also ended up living here in beautiful Georgia.
I was an adult when Harry Potter exploded onto the scene and part of me is envious of people twenty years younger than I who were children when the first book was published in 1997. I don’t think that the fact that millennials (born 1981-1996) generally have a great love of alternate worlds and fantasy fiction is a coincidence! I actually did not start reading these books until a few years after publication when I realized that many adults had become enthralled with the wizarding world, and when I did open the first one up, I understood that the books could be read at different levels. This is especially true in the later books which can be pretty dark in some places.
Most people know the rags to riches story of author J.K. Rowling – a struggling single mother without a career and a failed marriage behind her who did her writing in coffee shops. She always loved to read and write stories. After graduating from Exeter university, at which time Sarah and I were just 80 miles down the road at our own university in Bristol, JK worked in London at various office jobs, a young female graduate trying to make her way in the big city. During her time in London the idea of Harry Potter and the wizarding world came to her as she sat on a delayed train! She then began mapping out the books years before she ever submitted the first one for publication. She left the UK in the early 1990s to teach English in Portugal, where she met and married a Portuguese man, the father of her eldest daughter. This marriage was unsuccessful and led her to return to the UK. She wound up in Edinburgh in Scotland this time to teach and write books in her spare time.
When she found a literary agent and published her first book, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (launched in 1998 in the USA, a year later than in the UK where it was called Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone), her amazing success story began. Her name is Joanne (Jo) but she decided that she wanted a gender neutral name on her books because she did not want to alienate male readers. She went for J.K. (her grandmother’s name is Kathleen) Rowling, and the rest is history.
J.K.’s success is remarkable and she has attained many honors and awards as well as happiness in her personal life, remarrying in 2001 and having two more children. Since completing the series of seven Harry Potter books in 2007, she has written companion books, film scripts and a stage play around the wizarding world, plus adult and crime novels under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith, and also some other children’s books. She operates charitable organizations and is committed to giving back to society from her wealth, estimated at $70 million.
Of course, many more people became aware of the world of Harry Potter because of the movies, eight in total, which were made and released from 2001 and 2011. The movies made stars of the three main child actors and attracted many luminaries of the acting world including Maggie Smith, Helena Bonham Carter, John Cleese and Robbie Coltrane.
Back to the traveling interactive Harry Potter Exhibition touring through Atlanta. It was enormous fun, focused mainly on the movies and did a good job of bringing back happy memories of the world of Harry Potter. It included original props from the films, facts about filming challenges (such as 35 outfits for one action packed scene for Harry), themed rooms with crystal balls, potions, magical plants and more. The exhibition did a good job of evoking the wizarding world and making us smile.
It occurred to Sarah and I that it is not only the British locations used for filming including London, Oxford, Yorkshire, Wales and Scotland, but the references in the Harry Potter world to British culture that resonate with those of us born and raised across the pond. Of course, the small suburban house and Harry’s tiny bedroom under the stairs is not something most Americans would have understood before the era of Harry Potter, but those of us from crowded, jolly old England certainly “got it”. The food and customs of the muggle (non-wizarding) world as well as the boarding school traditions, dormitories and four school houses deeply resonated with those of us brought up in the UK during the 1970s and 1980s, as J.K. Rowling, Sarah and I were.
I will leave you with a quote from the fictional Albus Dumbledore, the headmaster of the wizarding school Hogwarts, which shows that fiction can still inspire us to live better lives: “It is our choices that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.”
God Bless America!
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