On July 3, 2011, I anxiously awaited my letter from Hogwarts. I had been preparing for this fateful day for years. I had already procured my coveted rosewood wand from a website promising “one-of-a-kind” custom wands and a shining black robe that was admittedly a bit too small, having purchased it years ago for my fourth grade Ginny Weasley Halloween costume. But on my 11th birthday, the time for my Hogwarts letter had finally arrived. To my bitter disappointment, that letter wasn’t in the mail on my birthday, but I didn’t lose hope. They must have made a mistake, I thought. It wasn’t until September 1 when I dreamed sadly of the train leaving the station on Platform 9 ¾ and accepted my mundane Muggle existence.
I wasn’t alone. Countless kids experienced heartbreak when the heavy, yellowing envelope didn’t appear like magic on their doorsteps come their 11th birthdays. For many, the “Harry Potter” world stretched far beyond the pages of the books and enchanted kids of all ages to believe in the hidden Hogwarts castle, nestled in the rolling hills of the Scottish highlands. I grew up in a generation where it was rare to meet someone who hadn’t read the “Harry Potter” books or at least seen the movies. I, like many of my friends, experienced the joy of this magical literary world in my elementary school years and spent much of my youth seeking out similar magical adventures in other fantasy series like “Divergent,” “The Hunger Games,” “Percy Jackson” and “Twilight.” The fantasy series was the core of my early reading career and dominated the young adult literary community at the turn of the century. This literary culture shaped my experiences growing up in the 2000s, but its roots trace back to the ’90s — to a changing American culture that opened doors for more fantastical novels like “Harry Potter.”
The first in the seven-book series, “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” (or “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone,” as the most devoted “Harry Potter” fans know it was originally called), was released in 1997. The story behind its release is legendary: the idea came to J.K. Rowling during a train ride to London’s King’s Cross and over the next five years, she wrote this soon-to-be wildly popular series on scraps of paper and in long-form writing. When she tried to get it published, however, she was turned down again and again. Publishers told her no one would be interested in reading books about a magical make-believe world.
After finally finding a receptive publisher, Rowling’s fantasy series took the world by storm, and it was immediately clear that the doubtful publishers could not have been more wrong. The books were so wildly popular that in 1998, before books three through seven had even been published, Rowling sold the film rights for the first four “Harry Potter” books to Warners Bros for almost 2 billion dollars. Evidently, the public was ready for a new wave of fantasy novel mania.
For many of us, their initial hesitation seems unthinkable. The idea that such a cherished series of books, one that shaped much of my life growing up, might not exist today if Rowling had heeded the initial negative feedback and abandoned the idea, quite honestly terrifies me. Why did a book series that has now generated over 7.7 billion dollars in revenue and captured the hearts of people of all ages worldwide inspire so little confidence in publishers in the late 1990s?
In truth, fantasy novels were less than popular in the ’90s. Books about real life prevailed over fantasy novels, and most people lost interest in stories not rooted in reality. Discussion of fantasy books brought to mind older books like “The Chronicles of Narnia” (published between 1950 and 1956) and “Lord of the Rings” (published between 1954 and 1955), but few contemporary varieties found their way to the top of reading lists. These books had seen their glory days, but by the 1990s they were simply viewed as old-fashioned. In short, the fantasy novel genre remained mostly stagnant over the course of the ’90s. Meanwhile, American culture flourished and happiness levels were at an all-time high. After the fall of the Berlin wall, life felt electric, like anything was possible. Maybe this is a clue as to why fantasy novels had fallen so out of style. Fantasy novels provide an escape from the mundane world, a way to detach from reality. The most successful fantasy books are an immersive experience where, for a short time, the real world fades away, and an illusion of magic and adventure takes over. Maybe in the early ’90s people felt no desire to depart from reality. Why should they, when they had a unique culture of music, TV and arts at the tips of their fingers in the real world? We can only speculate.
Nevertheless, as the decade drew to a close, anxieties surrounding the beginning of the 21st century took hold. With an explosion of technological innovations came fears about what uncertainties the future held. The world was changing, and for many, this fact fostered unease. This could explain why “Harry Potter” blew up the way it did. People were scared, and they needed an escape. The series was already genius to begin with, but the receptive minds of people in the late ’90s, young and old alike, offered the perfect conditions for an explosion of popularity that no one could have foreseen. After “Harry Potter,” people were hooked. No one could get enough of the enticing escape into a fantasy world, hence the skyrocketing demand for fantasy novels in the early 2000s. Within the next ten years, writers caught on to the trends, and countless fantasy books graced the shelves, ready to be devoured by the eager public.
The turn of the century kicked off a new literary era defined by the fantasy series, and its effects are still felt. Every few years, like clockwork, a new story joins the long line of fantasy powerhouses. This development transcended the realm of books, influencing other media forms in recent years as well. Most recently, the TV show “Game of Thrones” swept the United States up into the latest craze. The show had people of all ages staying up into the late hours of the night, putting their lives on hold to blow through eight seasons of thrill and uncertainty. Evidently, the escape from reality remains a welcome comfort in people’s lives.