Why Is Harry Potter Such a Popular Character?

modern hero faces modern trauma, coming of age in series

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

The first Harry Potter book was released in 1997 and the series is still a hit. In the 26 years since, movies, video games, a massive theme park, and more have followed. What’s so endearing about Harry Potter himself?

Sculpture of Harry Potter in Leicester Square, London
Sculpture of Harry Potter in Leicester Square, London. Photo by Matt Brown / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 2.0

Ever since its literary debut in 1997, the wizarding world of the Harry Potter series has been a smash hit worldwide. Its seven books have been adapted into eight feature films; a sequel stage play has been written and performed in theaters; three prequel films have released; and an immense Harry Potter installation has been built at Universal Studios Orlando.

Max, the streaming service that HBO Max is rebranding itself as, has announced that a Harry Potter TV series is in the works. The series will tell the entire seven-book story from the beginning and will likely run for nearly a decade.

Many elements of the Harry Potter universe have attracted countless fans around the globe, but none of the franchise’s success would have been possible without just the right protagonist. In his video series Heroes and Legends: The Most Influential Characters of Literature, Dr. Thomas A. Shippey, Professor Emeritus at Saint Louis University, studies the titular boy wizard and why audiences respond to him.

“Tolkien’s new-style heroes, the hobbits, were created […] out of the trauma of two World Wars, which severely shook traditional models of heroism,” Dr. Shippey said. “Unlike Tolkien, [Harry Potter creator J. K.] Rowling is not a combat veteran—that trauma is behind us. But it hasn’t quite gone away. Rowling’s Dark Lord has been defeated, yes, but he has every intention, like Tolkien’s Sauron, of coming back.”

Among others, one of the consequences of the resurrection of Harry Potter‘s chief villain, Lord Voldemort, is the rise of a sinister, yet familiar, world. Magic users will take over the world, becoming a “master race” over non-magic users. Only pure-blooded wizards will be allowed to rule, while those who sympathize with non-wizards will be branded “blood traitors.” It’s a well-known racist ideology.

Meanwhile, a willfully blind wizarding government ignores or tries to cover up the return of Voldemort, forcing Harry and his friends to fight a war on two fronts: The villains themselves and the untrustworthy institutions of state trying to convince the wizarding public that everything is normal. How does this play into Harry’s likability?

“Ever since Watergate, we’ve had yet another new word for yet another new kind of hero, which is ‘whistle-blower,'” Dr. Shippey said. “Harry is a whistle-blower hero. He’s trying to alert his community to one threat, but the other threat he faces is all the forces which are trying to hush him up. They do this by casting doubt on everything he says or does; Harry faces continuous threats to his own self-esteem.”

When you mix a teenager facing adults who don’t listen, the existential crises of adolescence and teen self-identity, frustrations with educators, and disillusionment over authorities in the state and in the family—all of which are portrayed in the series—it creates a magic potion for anyone who is or ever was a teenager.

Hereos and Legends: The Most Influential Characters of Literature is now available to stream on Wondrium.

Edited by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily