“The Great Stories are the ones you have heard and want to hear again. The ones you can enter anywhere and inhabit comfortably….You know how they end, yet you listen as though you don’t. In the way that although you know that one day you will die, you live as though you won’t. In the Great Stories you know who lives, who dies, who finds love, who doesn’t. And yet you want to know again.
That is their mystery and their magic.” ― Arundhati Roy, The God of Small Things
I remember the first time I “met” Harry Potter.
The Sorcerer’s Stone didn’t even register on my bibliophile radar when it was first published. Back then, I was still in college and immersed in a world of medieval battles, ancient Latin texts, the language of Shakespeare, and Saturday nights spent on the house dorm deck with good friends and cheap wine.
It wasn’t until the fifth book, The Order of the Phoenix was set to publish, that I finally met the Boy Who Lived.
Back then, Facebook was still in its infancy, so I learned about J.K. Rowling and the newest book in the series the old-fashioned way: at the bookstore and through the newspapers. Everyone was talking about Harry Potter, He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named and how many more days until the next installment came out. As a poor, recent graduate, I was not about to spend $25 on a pig in a poke, so I walked down to the nearest library and checked out The Sorcerer’s Stone to see what all the hoopla was about.
The Well-Crafted World
I devoured it in four hours.
And then immediately read Books Two, Three, and Four that same weekend. Rowling had accomplished what Tolkien and Bradbury and Christie and Parker and many other writers had before her: she had created a beautiful, believable world – a world existing right along-side our own.
To this day, I fancy that if you’re in London, and you listen closely enough, you can hear the rush and whir of a cart as it races towards Vault 713 in Gringotts’s Bank. Or catch a glimpse of an emerald-green robe as it whisks around a corner just ahead. And if you lean against a wall between Platform 9 and 10 at Paddington Station on September 1, you’ll fall right onto Platform 9¾.
Only a well-crafted, intricately thought out story can transfer you out of this world and into another, seemingly impossible one
“If one cannot enjoy reading a book over and over again, there is no use in reading it at all.” ― Oscar Wilde
This past weekend, I had the chance to download an Audible copy of The Sorcerer’s Stone and although I know how the story ends – or perhaps because I know how it ends – I slipped right into the miserable rhythm of life in the Cupboard Under the Stairs and heard the hissed “Thanksss” of the un-caged boa constrictor as if for the first time. This is one of the hallmarks of a truly great story – that no matter how many times it has been told, it never gets old in the telling. Or the hearing.
But the other sign of a great story is that while it never grows old, it does mature with the reader.
What I gleaned from it over a decade ago is very different from what I discovered hearing it today. Every time Snape looks Harry in the eye, it has new meaning because of what I know from the last book. The snide remarks of the Dursleys about not approving of imagination, or about what’s odd or different is especially poignant in today’s cultural atmosphere. The wisdom in innocence and the ability to do what’s right even when everyone is against you. And the value of your tribe – your House – your friends – who support you no matter what.
Even if that means telling you when you’re wrong.
And the reason a great story can do that is because the characters themselves grow and mature and learn. A great story is fluid and rises and falls with the emotions and the triumphs and failures of its characters. Characters that leap and love and cry and fight right off the page. Characters that we identity with so much that we cry when they do, our heart races when they’re scared, our stomachs clench when they’re hurt or in despair. Their dialogue aren’t just words on a page but conversations we eavesdrop on, as if we’ve been given our very own Invisibility Cloak and Marauder’s Map.
Once upon a time, there was an ordinary boy who lived an extraordinary life in an extraordinary world.
And because of you, J.K. Rowling, generations to come will eagerly await their acceptance letters by owl and learn that being small and ordinary doesn’t mean you aren’t destined for great things.
Happy 20th Anniversary.