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It's 20 Years Since The First Harry Potter And I'm Still Under J.K.Rowling's Spell

It’s risky to admit how much of an influence Harry Potter has had on me.

26/06/2017 10:32 AM AEST | Updated 26/06/2017 10:32 AM AEST
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"The fun part about being young when these novels came out is that we not only grew up with the characters, but got to live the anticipation and excitement of each new release."

I remember the first time I heard of Harry Potter. It was at school in the year 2000 and a boy at my table whipped out a novel called 'Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire' during silent reading time.

"Harry Potter? More like Harry Pothead. Ha ha," I jeered, like a pre-pubescent, bogan version of Nelson Muntz from 'The Simpsons'.

I'm not sure what I'm more ashamed of here: mocking someone for being bookish when I was often teased for being the same (call it a defence mechanism); the witless substitution of "Potter" for "Pothead"; or the fact that, being 12, I didn't actually know what pothead meant. Insult fail.

The kid looked hurt and went back to 'Goblet of Fire'. I went back to whatever book I was reading at the time, probably one of the Cairo Jim novels, or possibly one of 'The Chronicles of Narnia'.

But the next day, our teacher made us all swap books with the person across the table. I ended up with 'Goblet of Fire' in my hands. And it was the coolest thing I'd ever read.

From the first chapter in the village of Little Hangleton, I was hooked. This book was darker and more complex than anything I'd ever read: my first foray into literature that could be considered Young Adult.

I tore through as much of the first chapter as I could, and the next day I asked the same kid if I could swap books with him again. He graciously let me finish the chapter and find out what Voldemort was going to do with old Frank. In the books I usually read, Frank would've fought back and defeated the evil wizard, probably with the help of some animals or magic.

But not this time. The bad guy actually killed someone. I turned the page to find out how Frank would come back from the dead, or how he wasn't really dead. But no, Frank actually died.

On the third day, I hassled my Mum into taking me to the shops and buying 'Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone' for myself.

And I devoured it.

Old fans or new, those of us reading the Harry Potter series this week will have one thing in common: a globule of luminescent hope tucked away in a recess of our hearts that perhaps, one day, something amazing could happen to us, too; that, like Harry, we might be stronger and more powerful than we ever believed possible.

In the past 20 years, many have debated the reasons behind the extraordinary success of the series. Some argue it was the combination of fantasy with the classic school story formula. Others suggest it was just lucky timing in the cultural zeitgeist. Still others have posited conspiracy theories that J.K. Rowling was just the pretty frontwoman for a cabal of authors who were locked in a crypt hammering out these books, like the Milli Vanilli of children's literature.

In my reckoning, only one thing really explains the success of Harry Potter: Rowling's exceptional worldbuilding. I have never read a book series since that can parallel Rowling's ability to create a fully-realised world through literature.

It wasn't just the locations -- Diagon Alley, with its colourful clientele, or the seemingly boundless halls of Hogwarts castle -- that enchanted me. Nor was it solely the imaginative magical objects, from Floo Powder and Portkeys through to awesome invisibility cloaks and slightly befuddling time-turners. It wasn't just the fantastic beasts, from Nifflers to Hippogriffs, nor the wide range of spells, from the rudimentary Wingardium Leviosa to the much cooler Stunning Spells and the Unforgiveable Curses.

What captured my imagination was how incredibly fluidly these elements were sewn together. Rowling had plenty of backstory behind every new concept she introduced -- and this has been demonstrated in recent years, as she has divulged more and more of her notes via the Pottermore website. Every seed planted in an early book seems to blossom spectacularly in a later instalment. Rowling is either a writer with almost superhuman plotting powers, or she's the Queen of Retconning.

The other winning element was how flawlessly the wizarding and Muggle worlds seemed to jigsaw together. Often, mixing fantasy elements with contemporary settings and characters can jar -- but the magical world of Harry Potter felt recognisable and plausible from the outset. Rowling weaved real-world bureaucracy into the Wizarding World, from the Hogwarts school rules and politics to the laws, courts and policies of the Ministry of Magic. The magical world was as believable as our own, because it had boundaries -- even if those boundaries were fantastic.

And the most crucial part, of course, was that we saw everything through Harry's nescient eyes: readers were introduced to a world of magic in step with the protagonist.

After that fateful day in 2000, I burned through the first three books. I was terrified a little more with each novel -- first a man with two faces, then a murderous serpent sliding through the walls, and finally soul-sucking grim-reaper cosplayers. But like millions of other kids, I was hooked.

Then, finally, I was able to return to the (even darker) 'Goblet of Fire' and it became, and remains, my favourite instalment in the series. So many scenes still remain with me: the Death Eaters' terrifying riot at the Quidditch World Cup; the two other magical schools; Harry's inadvertent entrance into the Triwizard Tournament, and all the tasks; the Maze; and that scene in the graveyard with Cedric and Voldemort.

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The fun part about being young when these novels came out is that we not only grew up with the characters, but got to live the anticipation and excitement of each new release.

A mate of mine had a sleepover for his fifteenth birthday the day 'Order of the Phoenix' came out. After hanging out and talking (in as much depth as teenage boys ever do), five of the seven of us abandoned all pretences and whipped out our copies of the book. (Thankfully, the birthday boy was one of them.)

By the time the final two books were released, the series had become my favourite of all time. But the double-barrel assault of book and film franchises led to a sense of the market being oversaturated by Potter. It became unfashionable -- for a time, at least -- to admit to being a fan.

I remember my lecturer in my first-year creative writing class at uni expressly banning all of us from using Harry Potter for our assignments: it was wildly popular; Rowling's writing was not "literary enough" and (allegedly) she'd never met an adverb she couldn't abuse; and her characters were (arguably) two-dimensional. Thus, being a Potter fan was the mark of an amateur. I guess Tall Poppy Syndrome doesn't only apply to homegrown talent.

But recently, the wizarding trio of Harry, Ron and Hermione have proven themselves more durable than irritating vampire-lovers or killer dystopian teens. The franchise's fanbase seems to endlessly replenish itself -- kind of like that wall of time-turners in the Department of Mysteries.

Being both a YA and Fantasy writer, it's risky to admit how much of an influence Harry Potter has had on me. Despite the ongoing fan adoration for the series, the genres have moved on. YA teens are often grittier (and more foul-mouthed) than the Hogwarts kids ever were, and the rise of Grimdark fantasy, à la George R. R. Martin and Joe Abercrombie, means more hopeful fantasy tales are less in vogue.

But I'll risk the social opprobrium to admit that I'm still a fan -- and that Harry Potter has influenced me tremendously as a reader, as a writer and as a human.

As a reader, the series got me exploring new and more serious books -- it was partly due to 'The Order of the Phoenix' that I first picked up Aussie author John Marsden's 'Tomorrow, When the War Began' -- one of my favourite books of all time.

As a writer, Rowling's worldbuilding and magic remain constant influences on my work. After cutting my teeth on some magical action scenes in some ill-fated fanfiction as a teen, I began writing my own original fantasy stories, which have morphed into my current works in progress.

And as a geeky country boy, the books connected with me on a soft, emotional level, burrowing into my heart the way only wonderful art can. I wanted to be as loyal as Ron, as intelligent as Hermione and as brave as Harry. I wanted to kick arse and rebel like Dumbledore's Army. I wanted to have a wand and learn magic and use spells.

I knew how it felt to metaphorically reside in the cupboard under the stairs. Just like millions of other readers across the globe. And maybe that is the core of Harry Potter's enduring success: its human connection with its readers.

With today's twentieth anniversary of the first publication of 'Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone', no doubt many of the old debates about the series' merits, quality and success will reignite. Some new readers may fall in love with the series for the first time -- and how I envy them.

Existing fans will be delving back into the series to revisit their old friends at Hogwarts -- and having just exhumed my copies from a container in my garage, I look forward to being one of them.

Old fans or new, those of us reading the Harry Potter series this week will have one thing in common: a globule of luminescent hope tucked away in a recess of our hearts that perhaps, one day, something amazing could happen to us, too; that, like Harry, we might be stronger and more powerful than we ever believed possible.

Holden Sheppard's latest fantasy short story, The Scroll of Isidor, is available as a free download from www.holdensheppard.com.

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