Harry Potter is thirty-something. The new story by JK Rowling, announced by publishing angels earlier this month to shepherds as they watched their flocks by night, finds the famous Hogwarts chums entering early middle age.
Details were few but one stood out: Harry, the reports said, was going grey.
I wasn’t a Potter fan when Harry was still a child and I’m unlikely to read Harry Potter and the Impending Midlife Crisis, or whatever the new story is called, but I admit that I am sad to see the character ageing. For better or for worse he was a cultural symbol representing all the optimism of childhood, and to see him rusted by time is something of a memento mori.
No doubt the tale will see the older and wiser chums using prep school Latin spells to defeat a variety of Doomsnatchers, Wafflewitches and other quaint gibberish, but I suspect that readers in their 30s will feel that a more sinister battle is being fought between the lines.
For us, the real enemies are not nose-less warlocks but the first hints of subtly thickening bodies and thinning hair; the dust kicked up by the distant stormtroopers of time. The ghosts that flit around the high turrets of Hogwarts are regrets, the faint afterglow of paths not taken or friends allowed to drift away. And in this decade, 20 years since we have left school, the syllabus has contracted to a single lesson: life is short.
Is it brave of Rowling to make her immortal children vulnerable to the corrosive dark magic of time, or is it the infanticidal urge of an author weighed down by characters who have defined her and who probably dominate almost every aspect of her life? I’m not sure, but perhaps it’s an act of iconoclastic vandalism, like taking a brush of red paint and smearing “WAKE UP” across an idealised portrait. Still, it’s unsettling.
Imagine rediscovering Tintin in his 50s, his cowlick now a comb-over, his plus-fours replaced by more elastic and forgiving tracksuit pants, stumped by the greatest mystery of his career: how he ended up in a codependent relationship with an old alcoholic, and why, when he once bestrode the world, his days are now arranged around a quiet walk down to the bottom of Marlinspike’s grounds, to stand for a while next to Snowy’s ivy-covered grave.
Of course, I could sidestep these gloomy thoughts altogether simply by ignoring the new Potter story. But the trouble with being a writer is that the moment Rowling hits the headlines people get a slightly mad look in their eyes – the sort gold prospectors get when they sense a vein in a muddy river bank – and start saying: “Hey! You should totally write a South African Harry Potter!”
It comes from a place of kindness but it’s not helpful. Even if I wanted to write a local Potter series Rowling’s lawyers would be down on me like a squadron of briefcase-wielding Dementors.
But the real problem is that writing about a South African Hogwarts (Varkmoesies?) would force me to draw on local education tropes, and that, dear reader, would be depressing for both of us.
After all, who wants to read an opening chapter in which the start of the school year has been delayed because Magical Angie hasn’t delivered the wands in time? Perhaps one could do a scene in which she reveals how she keeps her job (an invulnerability spell, “Cadre Infinitum!”) but this is already boring. What of a villain? Snake-headed super-baddies are all well and good but when it comes to destroying education they look like Mr Chips next to The Teachers’ Union That Must Not Be Named. And what kind of drama could one conjure with wizards who need only 30% of their spells to work in order to graduate?
No, better to leave it to Rowling and leave it at Hogwarts, because even though I’m not a fan, I see the value in the original. I used to be dismissive of the Potter books because I found them cynical, the way they told the meek, the awkward, the overlooked, that they were not only special but genetically superior to their tormentors (none of us is a Muggle, right?).
But I didn’t understand their true worth until years later when I managed to stand back from the silly names and relentless busyness and see that they were not about a boy wizard but about our need for magic; a reminder of that ancient force which, whether it was real or imagined, has shaped us for millennia.
Magic once explained our world. It saved us from doubt. It reassured us when we grew old. Now Harry is turning into Mr Potter. But this is not the end of magic. It is just a new spell: the mystery of growing up, and moving on.
First published in The Times and TimesLive