Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

a film directed by David Yates, based on the book by J.K. Rowling
J. K. Rowling
J. K. Rowling; drawing by David Levine


In international folklore, one of the best-known tales is of a poor, hungry child who wishes that the family’s pot of porridge were always full. The wish is granted—and often more than granted. No matter how much is scooped from the pot, porridge continues to boil up, slopping over the stove, then onto the floor, filling the cottage, running out the door, and eventually almost drowning the whole village.

With this tale in mind, imagine a dark, wet winter day in Edinburgh. A young single mother, living on welfare, is sitting in a café because there is no heat in her rented apartment. Whenever her baby falls asleep for a while in its stroller, she tries to write a children’s story that she first thought of more than two years ago. Suddenly a fairy appears and offers her three wishes. She asks modestly that she may be able to finish her book, that it may be published, and that children all over the world may like it.

As with the uncontrollable pot of porridge, J.K. Rowling gets more than her wish. The story is finished, the publisher found, and the tales of Harry Potter begin to cover the earth, both as books (they have now been translated into over sixty languages) and as films. There are games, toys, costumes, guidebooks, Web sites, and a multitude of imitative versions of the novels that bear the same relation to the originals as wet cardboard sludge does to tasty porridge. In China alone, according to The New York Times, there are already a dozen false Harry Potter books in print, in one of which six Chinese teenage wizards travel to Hogwarts to rescue Harry and his friends from the forces of evil.

Meanwhile, J.K. Rowling has become the richest and most famous children’s writer in the world. Already in 1999 more than two thousand fans lined up outside a bookshop to meet her and have their copies of The Prisoner of Azkaban signed. At this occasion, according to Publishers Weekly, the crowd became so ugly that “the store’s general manager was bitten and punched.” Soon Rowling could not leave the house without being pointed out and besieged by fans. By 2001, in an interview on the BBC, she complained that people had started searching her trash. “It’s horrible,” she said. “It feels like such an invasion, and I’m not a politician, I’m not an entertainer; I never expected that level of interest in my life.”

That Harry Potter has received far more attention than Rowling ever wanted is strongly suggested by the attitude of her hero toward his own fame. Again and again he expresses the wish that he were an ordinary boy. In Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, for instance, he says, “He was sick of it, sick of being the person who was stared at and talked about…

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