That’s right, it’s already been 20 years since we first visited the cupboard under the stairs. Two full decades since we first met Professors Dumbledore and McGonagall (in cat form), the lovable giant Hagrid, and of course, the boy who lived–Harry Potter himself.
That was June 26th, 1997. The initial UK release date of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.
And in 20 years, that charming little story has grown into a $25 billion franchise. After seven Harry Potter novels to the original series, plus supplemental volumes, and eight blockbuster movies, last year saw the release of a stage play, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. The series has become a major cultural force.
The brainchild of British writer JK Rowling, Harry Potter has churned up a web of frothing fans all over the world, and is now enjoying a second generation of popularity with young readers. But Rowling’s journey wasn’t always a stroll through Diagon Alley.
Rowling’s own story as an author begins when she fled a bad marriage in Portugal to go live with her sister in Scotland. There, with her baby daughter and the first few chapters of Harry Potter, she applied for welfare benefits to survive. She describes herself as having been as “poor as it is possible to be in modern Britain, without being homeless.”
Rowling did a lot of her writing at cafes like the Elephant House, working on the first Harry Potter novel while her daughter napped. She was struggling with depression and processing the recent loss of her mother. Rowling has said that she felt like a failure during this time.
When the manuscript for the Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was finished, Rowling had to field a series of rejections before Barry Cunningham, of Bloomsbury Publishing, decided to give her a chance–with caveats.
“I had no hesitation,” he told the Telegraph. “I rang up and bought the first book. I think I haggled with the agent for about 10 minutes over the advance. I didn’t know that everybody else in the world had turned it down.
“Jo [Rowling] came to London and she said: ‘How do you feel about sequels? Because I want them to grow up.’ She had it all worked out already. I said: ‘Let’s take one book at a time, and the thing is, Jo, you really ought to get a day job because you’ll never make any money doing this.’
“It has proved to be somewhat inaccurate,” he adds. “She teases me about that now.”
Success Finds Rowling
The first book, as we all know, was a hit.
By 2004 Forbes called Rowling the world’s only billion-dollar author, and by 2007 listed her as the world’s second richest woman, second to Oprah Winfrey.
Then in 2010, Rowling was named the most influential woman in the UK, taking prominence even over The Queen.
Her experiences in desperate financial straits have influenced her as a philanthropist in her successful post-Harry Potter years. She contributes to a number of charities. Some of these benefit single mothers and patients of multiple sclerosis, the disease that killed her mother.
What she perceived as her failure would become a source of inspiration for millions.
The Legacy of Harry Potter
To what can we attribute the enduring success of Harry Potter? Perhaps it’s the universal themes and emotions. Or the fantasy world with an escapist appeal, grounded in real mythology. Maybe it’s Rowling’s clear, easy to read prose, which is peppered with playful fantasy names. Or it could be the way that no matter your age, Hogwarts always has the warm feeling of home.
Whatever the magical ingredient, Harry Potter has built a storybook world that will no doubt continue to delight and inspire readers for decades to come.