by Laura Sillerman | bio

It isn’t too bold to claim that everyone who is reading this probably has a Harry Potter story of some kind — involving reading one of the seven volumes in the series, going to great lengths to get a copy, engaging in fervent discussion about a favorite, or a tale far more extreme. (My own involves sending out tiny wooden owls with rolled up scrolls of paper inviting several dozen girls to a 7-year-old’s birthday party. Don’t ask about trying to invent a Quidditch game for them.)

How many of us, though, have missed the main story entirely? There’s this woman, J.K. Rowling, who will turn 42 years old, just 11 days after "Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows" is released. She is the first person to have become a billionaire (in U.S. dollars) by writing books.

Rowling was ranked the second richest female "entertainer" in the world by Forbes magazine. She is absolutely stunning and very self-effacing despite the aforementioned statistics (did we bring up the sales of more than 325 million copies of her fantasy series about the young wizards of Hogwarts?). She writes about male and female characters with a kind of egalitarian grace that has no trace of self-consciousness about it.

Why doesn’t Rowling turn up on more role model lists?

In The New York Times, book critic Michiko Kakutani writes that with the final Harry Potter, Rowling "has fitted together the jigsaw-puzzle pieces of this long undertaking with Dickensian ingenuity and ardor."

It is Ms. Rowling’s achievement in this series that she manages to make Harry both a familiar adolescent — coping with the banal frustrations of school and dating — and an epic hero, kin to everyone from the young King Arthur to Spider-Man and Luke Skywalker. This same magpie talent has enabled her to create a narrative that effortlessly mixes up allusions to Homer, Milton, Shakespeare and Kafka, with silly kid jokes about vomit-flavored candies, a narrative that fuses a plethora of genres (from the boarding-school novel to the detective story to the epic quest) into a story that could be Exhibit A in a Joseph Campbell survey of mythic archetypes.

In doing so, J. K. Rowling has created a world as fully detailed as L. Frank Baum’s Oz or J. R. R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth, a world so minutely imagined in terms of its history and rituals and rules that it qualifies as an alternate universe, which may be one reason the "Potter" books have spawned such a passionate following and such fervent exegesis.

In other words, this woman is every bit as good as the Big Boys and better than so many people who are touted as amazing, larger than life and world-beaters.

Go to her website and read her autobiography to get a clue to how humility comes easily to her. She talks about her "considerably prettier" sister (an attorney) and how she was relegated to being the "bright one." Even from the perspective of having everything work out just fine, she still smarts from having studied French rather than English lit because she was encouraged to concentrate on what was practical.

A single mom with a manuscript and the memory of a mother who died far too young (from multiple sclerosis, at age 45), she was "given" the story of Harry Potter on a crowded train ride, imagining many of the characters and much of his seven-year stay at the magical school for wizards in a four-hour journey. And she’s stayed true to her vision of it to the end — even as the unworldly popularity of her creation forced her to give readings in venues normally reserved for rock stars and football games.

And so we come to the real puzzle of Harry Potter and his creator. Would a male author have been able to fly under the radar of celebrity, to stay out of headlines about whom he was dating, to avoid being termed a "most eligible bachelor"? Would he have been able to resist the sirens that would have pulled him to their shores? Would society have been as able to resist turning him into a commodity as grand as his young hero?

Somehow though, Rowling, despite her beauty and grace, has managed to do all of that and more — and society has complied. There’s something about being a woman in this. Something about being a smart woman, obviously.

We should be reading J.K. Rowlings’s own story to our daughters and granddaughters along with the stories she’s created. She seems to have avoided the trap of becoming a commodity, even though she obviously has all the goods.

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  • Creel McCormack July 20, 2007 at 4:25 pm

    And now we see the beauty of another’s prose as Laura Baudo examines J.K. Rowling. Isn’t this beautifully expressed? Laura is finally showing her own skills. Keep it up kid! (And good essay).

    Reply