September 11, 1999


The Tales of an Adolescent Wizard Take On a Magical Life of Their Own


I am beginning to understand Quidditch, which is not a language but a game played by the students at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. It is played on brooms, over a field, in the sky, with four balls, one of them, the Golden Snitch, by nature elusive, self-propelled and worth 150 points. Quidditch is the main source of rivalry between Hogwarts's four residential houses, Slytherin, Hufflepuff, Ravenclaw and Gryffindor. Harry Potter resides in the last and best of these houses with his friends Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger. All of the students at Hogwarts are wizards and witches in training, whether they descend from magical families or from families that dwell in the preposterous, obstreperously shortsighted, narrow-minded world occupied by people like you and me, who are called Muggles. Our world is that place where the people in photographs just stand there with frozen smiles on their faces instead of waving back.

This short summary of a few basic facts about Harry Potter and his school will seem almost petulantly dull and obvious to the legions of Harry Potter fans, who were gratified this past week by the publication in America of the third Harry Potter book, "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban." The Potter books, by the Scottish writer J. K. Rowling, are delightful reading for anyone whose soul is not utterly clotted with Muggled thinking. Those people -- the Muggles through and through -- are the ones who tend to talk mainly about the phenomenal sales these books are enjoying, the way they have captured the best-seller lists in Britain and America, the way they snatch up prizes left and right, and the way that boys, actual boys, have flung themselves upon these novels.

Those are subjects that Harry Potter's Muggle uncle, the apoplectic Vernon Dursley, a drill-maker living on Privet Drive, would enjoy discussing with his wife, Petunia, and their porcine son, Dudley. Harry and his sympathetic readers would rather think about the post office in the village of Hogsmeade, which is filled with long-distance, short-distance and express owls. Or just how it is that Hermione can attend two classes that meet at the same time. Or how riding a hippogriff differs from riding a Firebolt broom. Or how far to rely upon Mr. Weasley's sensible adage, "Never trust anything that can think for itself, if you can't see where it keeps its brain."

I finished "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban" on the train home one night last week. It was nothing like the Hogwarts Express, which leaves from King's Cross station, platform 9 3/4. The passengers had fallen sound asleep, their heads rocked back, their mouths open wide, while a rain-dulled landscape slithered past outside. Meanwhile, Harry was struggling with the Dementors of Azkaban, who prey on happiness, and with the question of who conspired to kill his parents when he was just a baby. His is an utterly untendentious world, full of rules meant to be broken, but with sobering penalties when they are. It is not a moralistic world, however, which is one reason boys and girls and even adults like it so much. Neither the good nor the evil at Hogwarts is metaphysical. When I looked up at last, the train was nearly empty. Night had come and the Muggles were gone. I could have been anywhere, even on the main line to Hogwarts.

Copyright 1999 The New York Times Company