I grew up with Harry Potter. I picked up The Sorcerer’s Stone when The Goblet of Fire was released, and they were still sold out of The Goblet of Fire by the time I was ready to read it. I viewed the release and reading of each book as any child would, as an inevitable fact, i.e. Rowling will release the next Potter book in about a year, I will read that Potter book, and it will be another wonderful installment in the series. But as time wears on, the legacy of a story gets solidified through the eyes of hindsight, and now I can see, as an adult, that that series of events that happened seven times in a row with Harry Potter, was anything but inevitable
Harry Potter was an invention of storytelling that defined a generation of storytellers to come. I would hesitate to say Rowling did it first, because there are always instances of magical worlds and schools that someone could point to as a predecessor to Hogwarts. But there is no doubt that Harry Potter established the magical young adult genre and cast a backwards light on the books that may have preceded hers, as well as shined a light into the murkiness of the future for any author who desired to write in a similar style. And no one can debate the reason she was able to do this before anyone else, even those who had written something similar…. it is because Harry Potter was and is better than those books.
They may not be your favorite, everyone has their own preferences, but there is no denying the mass appeal of Harry Potter, the absolute mania the books stirred up around the world. It can be encompassed in the lines outside of bookstores that people camped in for days while waiting for the next book’s release, or the easy way we categorize and understand each other by which Harry Potter house we belong to (I’m a Slytherin by the way), or in the absolute shock I feel every time I hear someone has NOT read the books, or maybe its best categorized by my jealousy when I find out someone is reading them for the first time. No book has created all those reactions in me before, maybe some of them, but not all.
And in those moments of Harry Potter mania, while books were still being released, it was easy to think that this’d be the new norm, that more authors like this would raise the banner of the cause and add onto a trail blazed by Rowling of magical novels for children and adults alike. But that didn’t happen, not really, not in the same way.
And it wasn’t for a lack of trying. The Hunger Games and Twilights got written along with countless others not even worth mentioning that blended magic and teenagers and alternate worlds in a Harry Potter inspired story smoothie. And it is in their lack of success that we can look back and truly appreciate what Rowling did. It is one thing to do something before everyone else, but when no one can replicate it… well that is something else entirely.
I am not unaware of the success of Hunger Games, maybe the closest any young adult book has come to the frenzy Harry Potter caused. There were people waiting in lines, certainly a level of jealousy at those who were reading it the first time, maybe even some surprise at those who hadn’t. But there is a big difference in what Rowling and Collins did. Part of that difference is a number’s game; the other part is a quality concern.
The first book in Hunger Games is an undeniable success, maybe on the level of any other single Harry Potter book. But there were seven Harry Potter books, and only three Collins books. Rowling did what Collins did over two times as much.
But that is an unfair measurement, which is why there is another reason when added to the first that shows the amazing attributes of Harry Potter, and why I realize how spoiled I was in my absolute certitude in the quality and quantity of Rowling’s work. The first book of Hunger Games was an undeniable success on the level of any Harry Potter book, but was the second…? And would anyone claim the third was as well? I would imagine anyone but the most rabid fans of The Hunger Games would say there was a serious decline in quality from the first book to the second, and an equal or greater decline from the second to the third. On top of that, the second and third book were just one story. She didn’t even dive into the hardest part of any series, ending one story and beginning another.
Rowling, on the other hand, created seven separate stories, all on the quality tier of the best of Collins’ work (arguably the second most popular work in Rowling’s field), and far superior to the other two. It’s a bit mind-blowing.
Let’s play this out into other popular stories. My Twilight fans are probably chomping at the bit for some recognition. The inspiration of Rowling on the Twilight realm may be more of a stretch, but there is a magical element to Twilight and they have the same intended audience, which makes the point of comparison fair. I don’t know if Twilight ever reached as far as Hunger Games because Twilight’s content cuts its audience in half (so-long gentlemen), but among its readers there may never have been a more vehement bunch (Team Edward by the way, I can’t understand any members of Team Jacob). But if we compare the feats of Stephanie Meyer to JK Rowling, we run into the same issues as The Hunger Games trilogy. In fact, it’s almost exactly the same. Comparable success in the first book, comparable drop off in quality between the first and second and second and third, and she wrote less than half the amount of books.
We could open it up to books of higher consistency in the same genre, like V.E. Schwab’s A Darker Shade of Magic trilogy which boasts three excellent books, but none of which have made anywhere near the impact as any single Harry Potter book. They also feel very much like one story in three parts rather than the seven story arcs that Harry Potter creates, despite the overarching meta-narrative the story tells.
So let’s have Harry Potter spar on the battlefield of popularity against the more recent titan of A Song of Ice and Fire a book that is very dissimilar in style and audience, but a book series with magical elements that sells a lot of copies. People wait in lines for Martin’s books in a way reminiscent of those who waited for Rowling’s. Maybe some of the same people who wore wizard’s robes and waved wands in line to wait for Deathly Hallows picked up A Song of Ice and Fire as a more mature reader of magical books and stood in line for A Dance with Dragons wearing a breastplate and waving a sword.
The competition between the two becomes more intense. The fervor of the two is too close to call, but certainly if we take into account the phenomena of the HBO series, it can be argued peak A Song of Ice and Fire matched peak Potter. There is only one problem… and anyone who has read through A Dance of Dragons knows what comes next. The series isn’t done. And the wait between each installment of A Song of Ice and Fire feels like being stuck in book-purgatory.
Are Martin’s books more complicated? Sure! Are they longer? Absolutely! Would it take longer to write Winds of Winter than The Order of the Phoenix? No doubt! But how much longer does he need? If anything this comparison shows another incredible trait Rowling displayed as she released seven books in a row year after year after year after year after year after year after year. That’s a consistency and timeliness I took for granted at the time. Of course the next Harry Potter book will come out this summer… But after years and years of waiting for GRRM to get his act together, I take it for granted no longer, and actually marvel at what she accomplished.
So let’s bring out the big guns… Light the warning beacons of Gondor, hail the Riders of Rohan, do not simply walk into this conversation, let’s compare Rowling to Tolkien, mano-e-womano, Lord of the Rings to Harry Potter.
The comparison gets fuzzier, Lord of the Rings was released at such a different time that the excitement for each installment is hard to measure. The quality also becomes apples and oranges. I do know that not nearly as many people have read Lord of the Rings as Harry Potter but that is more a product of their accessibility and audience than any failure on the part of the writers. What I do notice is a timeliness issue (Tolkien was, in this way as well as many others, the GRRM before GRRM on this issue, his publishers almost dropped him after The Hobbit’s success because The Lord of the Rings took so long to write). And I also notice that The Lord of the Rings was one continuous story in three parts (Tolkien even wanted them released as one mega-book with The Silmarillion at the beginning).
Certainly, the farther away from similar styles, genres, and intended audiences, the harder the comparisons become, but never does it feel like the difficulty in comparing puts Rowling’s work at a disadvantage, the excuses seem to be needed for the other series to which Harry Potter is being compared.
Once again, everyone has their favorite. But as I look back on my experience with Harry Potter, how it impacted the books I read and the books that were published, and how she did what she did year after year for seven fantastic books, and how no one has done anything close to it since, I can’t help but be in awe of a legacy still in its infancy.
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