Saturday, July 9, 2011

still waiting for my Hogwarts letter

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone was published in 1998. I was eight years old. I was aware of it, being a frequent vistor of libraries and book stores, but it wasn't until i saw one of my older cousins reading it that my interest was really piqued. I was reading a lot of Sherlock Holmes and Shakespeare at the time (this is really true; i have always read at a pretty advanced level, though to be fair i should admit that i was also reading the American Girls books and a fair amount of Beverly Cleary), and didn't have time to devote to something if i didn't know i would love it.

I don't think i really started reading it, though, until about 2000. At this point, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets was out, so when i had torn through 'Sorcerer's Stone', i didn't even have to wait to start 'Chamber of Secrets'.

Anyway, i was hooked. As a child with an overactive imagination, raised on Winnie the Pooh, Star Wars, and the Chronicles of Narnia (not to mention the Bible, which can out-crazy any epic fantasy narrative), i had a natural love for fantasy and magic stories. And as, you know, a human being, i had a natural love for the underdog.

In the early years, the books came fast and smooth. 2001 saw both the publication of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban and the release of the film version of Sorcerer's Stone. I went to a midnight showing in the local theater (it was tiny and dirty, but the owners were smart enough to know that this one movie alone would bring in nearly as much cash as every other movie shown that year) with my parents, my three siblings, my great aunt, four or five cousins, five or six aunts and uncles, and a handful of exchange students. Afterwards, my siblings and cousins and i spent hours debating the various features of the film: things we liked, things we didn't like, things that were better than we could ever have hoped for, key elements in the book that had been mercilessly chopped. "They left out the scene where the milkman gives Aunt Petunia the eggs through the window and they're full of letters?! I can't believe they didn't do that part!!!!" Our parents began threatening not to take us to the next movie, so we began conducting our critical reviews in whispers.

Like many others, my parents went through the "Harry Potter is satanic!" scare. We were forbidden to read them. We read them anyway. Once we got my mom to start reading them, she caved. She saw that the "satanic" elements were greatly exaggerated, that the occultism was no worse than what you saw in the average Disney movie, and that the heroes, while flawed, were still magnificent human beings who taught us all many valuable lessons. Also she was hooked.

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire was published in 2002. The movies came out predictably one year after another. And then the unthinkable happened.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix was not expected to be published until 2004. Although we still had the movies to console us, we had to wait two whole years for the next book. My family are all cinophiles, but we are bibliophiles first, and we all know that the book is almost always better than the movie (Bambi is one notable exception. As terrible as the movie was, the book was unspeakably awful. One of the few books that i simply could not bring myself to finish.)

To make matters worse, it was now 2002, and i was twelve years old. My Hogwarts letter had never arrived.

For the uninitiated, i should explain that Hogwarts students received a letter inviting them to attend Hogwarts to learn magic. This letter generally arrived near the eleventh birthday, as a Hogwarts education began at that tender age. Now, i have a late birthday, so i thought in the back of my mind (where i allow all such irrational fantasies free rein) that perhaps my letter was merely delayed a year. As my twelfth birthday came closer and closer, i even began to indulge in wild fantasies (creeping steadily out of their designated mental corner and into the more ordered and rational parts of my brain) that perhaps American magical academies worked differently than British ones, and maybe i would not start at the American equivalent of Hogwarts until i was twelve. For such a young (and clearly crazy) person, i was startlingly rational and lucid about my fantasies.

I clung to this American-schools-are-different-from-British-ones hope until i was . . . Well, we'll get to that in a minute.

'Order of the Phoenix' was finally on bookshelves, and my family snatched up our copies and spent the next few days trying to tie our shoes, eat our meals, and do our schoolwork while buried in the 870 pages. This endeavor was not wildly successful, but since everyone else in the house was similarly employed no one really noticed or cared. The movies came out regularly enough, with varying levels of faithfulness to the text, and we found further distractions in the release of the Lord of the Rings films.

And then tragedy struck again. The penultimate installment in the series, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, would not be released until 2006.

If you think that a sixteen year old high school senior should have other things to occupy her mind, you probably never checked your mailbox with your heart in your throat hoping to see the heavy parchment envelope with the purple seal, and are therefore likely incapable of understanding or appreciating any of this post. How did you make it this far?

Worse yet, the final book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, was not published until the summer of 2009. I was home from my freshman year of college, and i read the last ever Harry Potter book with fear and trembling.

It is now 2011. Thirteen years after the first book was published in the U.S. I have spent more than half my life waiting for the next Harry Potter book or movie. I find it difficult to imagine a world where new Harry Potter books and movies will not be made (though i suppose there is always the desperate hope of a terrible re-make in thirty years or so). I have collected merchandise, i have knitted Gryffindor scarves, and i have even dressed as Hermione for Halloween. I once wrote a letter to J. K. Rowling. My siblings and cousins and i have spent countless hours discussing and debating this world. I have had Harry Potter-themed dreams, including one with a very exciting Voldemort showdown. (I almost got him.)

It was only when the last book was published that it really hit me: i am probably never going to get my Hogwarts letter. Probably.

I've been told (and have even thought) that J. K. Rowling is not a great writer. I don't care. Could the entire series have benefitted immensely from a good editor who was not afraid of a red pen? Undoubtedly. Have i ever contemplated being that editor? Absolutely. But the intricacies of her plotting leave me awed. And whatever else you can say about her and her writing, you can't deny that Harry Potter changed the world. An entire generation grew up at Hogwarts. This was the greatest cultural phenomenon since Star Wars, and i know i am not the only adult in the world who has not quite given up hope on that long-awaited Hogwarts letter.

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