When I was in college, I took an English course titled “Harry Potter and Global Society” that opened my eyes to the power of literature. I had taken previous English courses and read great works of many authors such as Hemingway, Steinbeck, Dickens, Shakespeare, and Joyce. But these famous pieces of literature were placed on an ivory pedestal. Although I knew books could impact culture, I never figured that literature itself could shape my culture or the modern world I lived in.
The fact that we studied such a generationally relevant book that was not only a part of my world and everyday life but also of every other student in that class, made the overarching lessons of literature and its power hit home.
The Harry Potter books are the number one selling book series ever published. The Harry Potter movies are the highest grossing film series of all time. As of last November, total Harry Potter book and movie sales topped $24 billion. Harry Potter creator J.K. Rowling is the first author ever to become a billionaire.
I believe her use of myth and folklore is the underlying reason why her Harry Potter series is so wildly successful. Rowling touched a need within the audience for guidance and care and provided it by creating a fantastical world that intersected and interacted with our own.
Myths and folklore are figurative stories about how people within different cultures deal with universal life issues. Every culture possesses them, and they profoundly influence how societies see the world and understand themselves.
Joseph Campbell, a scholar of mythology and specifically of the “hero-quest,” argues that “myths are [the] clues to the spiritual potentialities of the human life. [They show] what we’re capable of knowing and experiencing within.” He says myths “have to do with the themes that have supported human life, built civilizations, and informed religions over a millennia, [they] have to do with deep inner problems, inner mysteries, inner thresholds of passage.”
Rowling uses the language of myth and folklore rather than history to communicate her message. In doing so, she is indicating that moral messages gained through folklore impact people at a deeper level and are more important than the actual history of a society.