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Harry Potter and the Secret of Starbucks
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By Alyce Barry
I read the first Harry Potter book while stuck in an airport several years ago, and I was dismayed at how quickly I became an addict. I consumed volumes two and three in record time and waited impatiently for the fourth to appear. When it did, I devoured it in about a day and a half.
I'd read page-turners before, but that didn't explain the addiction to my satisfaction. It also didn't explain the lines of children (and adults!) lining up around the world for Harry Potter paraphernalia.
I guess the obvious answer to the success of J.K. Rowling's books is that we all wish we could be magicians like Harry, that we could fly on broomsticks and transform into animals and magically defeat the powers of evil with the pure-minded heroism of children.
A DEEPER ANSWER
I think there's a deeper answer: that we are magicians like Harry, and our Magician nature, our "inner wizard," gets a little punch-drunk on these stories and is loathe to give up that magical world when we put down the book.
Our Magician nature is our birthright, and this culture of ours offers few opportunities for our Magicians to really show their stuff. Yes, we learn to read and to write and to count. But we're taught not to believe in things that "aren't there." In many more ancient cultures, the spiritual realm is considered more real than this one. "It's your imagination," we hear, when our intuition sniffs out something happening under the surface. "How can you say that?" we're asked, when we speak what we know to be an unpleasant truth. "It was just a dream," we're taught, when we describe a night-time experience that seems as important as anything in waking life and full of symbolism that could shake the world.
NOT JUST WORDS
I've got to admit it took me a while to realize that Rowling was creating a world in which the mysticism of Magicians really flourishes. In the first few books, she doesn't say much about how students at Hogwarts are taught to cast a spell, for example. There's a wrist movement, "swish and flick," and there are special Latin words to yell at your opponent ("Expelliarmus!"). When Ron Weasley can't levitate a feather, Hermione Granger tells him he's messing up the pronunciation ("Win-GAR-dium levio-SA!"). If Neville Longbottom's potion goes wrong, it's because he's used the wrong ingredients or cooked it too long. Pointing your wand doesn't look all that different from pointing a gun, provided you remember the words and how to pronounce them. Any idiot can do it.
But by Rowling's fourth book, it becomes clear that there's more to it than that. The Death Eater who's masquerading as Professor Moody tells the students that if they try one of the Unforgivable Curses, such as the Killing Curse ("Avada kedavra!"), they'll only give somebody a nosebleed. That must mean that doing magic requires something more than pointing and yelling. It requires some kind of power, from an unspecified source.
A PLACE FOR POWER
To my Magician, Hogwarts beckons as a place where I could get my power back, where I could get in touch with my inner Witch. Even the boys at Hogwarts get to fly on a broomstick, and some, like Harry, find they have an unexplained knack for it. Everyone gets to own a cat or an owl or a toad, the kind of animal sidekick that in medieval times was called a familiar. My Magician loves dark forests and secret passages and magic mirrors and brewing things.
CUES FOR BREWS
Brews are different from soups and stews: they don't provide nourishment, their purpose is to alter experience. I think we're simply itching to be about the important business of brewing, and I see it in more than the Harry Potter stories.
I think it helps explain the success of Starbucks, where you pay four dollars for something that doesn't nourish you, but you still get to choose from a list of effects and potencies. Are you in the mood for caffeine, or sugar, or both, and how much -- how strong a potion do you want? How appropriate that the company is called Starbucks: you pays your money, you reaches the stars.
Look at the popularity of microbreweries, which take the brew out of the hands of the big corporations and give it back to the guy on your streetcorner. He can tell you he's brewing in the tradition of various national lagers, ales, or stouts, and who's going to tell him he's wrong?
MY CUP OF TEA
Have you looked at the teas available in your grocery store lately? Teas for breakfast, late afternoon, dinner and late evening, teas from India, Africa, China and South America: green tea, chai, flavored black teas, flavored green teas, herbals on their own or with medicinals added. What does green tea taste like with chamomile added, or lemon, or raspberry? How about a tea to cure a sore throat or help you sleep? I think there might have been a time when brewing a cup of tea that put someone to sleep could get you burned at the stake.
I have friends who explain the popularity of Harry Potter in other ways. One friend told me that J.K. Rowling will surely win the Nobel Prize for literature. I really don't think the writing itself is that remarkable; Gabriel Garcia Marquez it is not.
Another friend says, It's the plots and the characters. I have to say I find the plots pretty contrived at times, and Harry is nowhere near believable. In real life, a scrawny kid in the Dursley household would survive only as a wimpy whiner or a latent psychopath.
Still another friend says it's the creativity of Rowling's world. Photographs that move, portraits that talk. A hat that writes poetry and makes decisions. Staircases that rotate just to confuse people. Owls that know where to take the mail. A clock that tells a mother if her children are "in mortal peril."
When my daughter was young, I read to her equally creative books that didn't inspire this kind of mass hysteria. (We highly recommend, for example, The Dragon and the Thief by Gillian Bradshaw.) Rowling's universe is fascinating indeed, and I don't think that explains all the hoopla.
Rowling has captivated my Magician, however, and it's finding it hard to wait for the fifth volume to appear on June 22nd.
This article originally appeared in our free email newsletter in May 2003. To subscribe, visit our subscription page.