The Story Behind J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter Series
Joanne “Joe” Rowling was born near Bristol, England, in 1965. She
attended local schools and “Hermione is loosely based on me—at age
11,” she has said. She earned a B.A. in English and Classics at the
University of Exeter and in 1990, while on a delayed train trip, jotted
down notes about a young boy attending a school of wizardry. In 1994
she moved to Edinborough, Scotland, to be near her sister. Divorced,
unemployed, and living on state benefits, she completed her first
novel, writing in local cafés because she would take her daughter
Jessica out for walks and, when she fell asleep, would duck into the
nearest café and continue the story.
She completed Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone in 1995 and
found an agent who submitted the manuscript to twelve publishers,
all of whom rejected it. The thirteenth, a small publisher in
Bloomsbury, accepted it because the eight-year-old daughter of the
chairman read the first chapter and “demanded the next.” Rowling
received an advance of 1,500 pounds, about the same number of
dollars at that time.
The book was published in 1997 with a first printing of one thousand
copies, five hundred of which were distributed free to libraries.
Such copies now sell for between $25,000 and $35,000. Rowling
received a grant from the Scottish Arts Council of 8,000 pounds to
allow her to go on writing, and in fact that first book was named
British Children’s Book of the Year. It was published in the United
States in 1998 by Scholastic after they had won an auction. Over the
author’s protests, Scholastic changed the name of the book to Harry
Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.
The seventh and last of the Harry Potter series was published on
July 21, 2007, and sold more than 250,000 copies in the first 24 hours.
More than eight million copies have been sold all told, and J.K.
Rowling is now the wealthiest woman writer in history, with a net
worth for the books alone estimated at more than eight billion
dollars. Well, in my humble opinion “Joe” Rowling deserves every
penny of it. The books have gotten better and better as time has gone
on, and the last—I truly hope it is the last—is the best of all. I read
it through in the first four days and then joined John and Sally and
our two grandchildren, Sam and Charlie, while they read the last
hundred pages out loud to one another. We were aware that many
thousands of people were doing the same thing at the same time.
Maybe half of them were youngsters, but the other half were grownups,
even oldsters like me. It has turned out to be hard for some
grownups to admit this, but all I can say is I’m sorry for them.
Why has this extraordinary success come to Rowling? Does she
have a secret? If so, what is it?
I don’t think there is a secret. In a way, she does what all authors
of novels, and especially series of novels, do: She imagines a situation
and invents characters and events. She creates a world, peoples it,
describes it, makes us care about it. She tells good stories, being sure
to build suspense. She leaves us hungry for more, which is what the
best series do.
Rowling’s tale opens in a special school where students are taught
about magic—what it is and how to do it. It isn’t easy to get to this
school, because you have to know a secret place where you can board
a special train. When you arrive at the school you find that it too is
special, secret. Not just anyone can go there. That’s exciting. It’s a
The characters are also interesting, but not unique. There is a girl
and two boys; they start as children and grow up as seven years pass.
There are families and one of the boys finally falls in love with the
sister of the other boy. That is good but not unique, either.
There is something very special about the first boy, though. He
has a tragic past; his parents were killed when he was a child, his
mother, when she was trying to protect him: giving up her life to save
him. This is fine; it adds a tragic note even if the characters are just
children and then teenagers.
The circumstances surrounding the death of the boy’s parents are
mysterious, which is good. Some kind of evil was involved; only very
slowly do we begin to understand that the evil is represented by a single
individual who grows more powerful as the series proceeds. In the last
book he has become all-powerful, and there is no hope left for the world.
Or so it seems, even to Harry, the boy-hero. But his courage, which
has always been remarkable, permits him to face the prospect of certain
death if he does not yield to the evil lord. Even so, he does not yield.
His courage, in the last analysis, is greater than that of his foe.
It is Harry’s beautiful courage, I think, that makes this series
unique. We accept it, we believe in it. We are frightened for him at
the end of the series; we can’t see any way out. But Harry Potter can.
~ Charles Van Doren