The Magical Worlds of Harry Potter
by David Colbert
Published by McArthur & Company
223 pages, 2001
Buy it online
The Magical Touch of a Successful Franchise
Reviewed by India Wilson
The late autumn of 2001 may well be remembered as the time the Harry Potter floodgates opened and all sorts of things came pouring out. Thus far, there have been four unthinkably bestselling books by Harry's creator, J.K. Rowling. The success of the books set the stage for the film, released in North America in mid-November 2001 as Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. The movie arrived to a great clamor of childish anticipation that seems to have done nothing to quench western children's appetite for all things touched by the magical hand of J.K. Rowling.
I write this as the furor of the movie has yet to reach its full voice. I imagine that will happen some time around Christmas. But the Harry Potter phenomenon is hard to gauge. There are rules to children's publishing, you know. Expectations. Thus far, everything to do with Harry has blown all of those expectations right out of the water. It's refreshing.
What might put a damper on all of it is the tidal wave of Harry Potter merchandise that is floating in on the wake of the movie. For instance, online bookseller Amazon.com, never one to play coy in the merchandising department, has a full-out Harry Potter store. Everything there is nicely categorized: Harry Potter toys, Harry Potter computer and video games, Harry Potter watches, even Harry Potter linens and hygiene. (Yes: hygiene. I had to go check that one out for myself. It turns out that, for Amazon, "hygiene" includes Harry Potter body wash, toothbrushes, tooth paste and glow in the dark bandages. No, really!)
And then there are the books. There are, of course, four books available in what J.K. Rowling anticipates will be a seven-book series. Then there are the two Rowling-penned Hogwart's textbooks, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them and Quidditch Through the Ages, which Rowling wrote for charity. But there are a whole lot more books about Rowling and the magical young wizard she's created than books the author herself has actually written. There are already quite a handful of unauthorized Rowling biographies available, as well as reader's guides, teachers guides, tribute books and companion volumes. The books range in quality from intensely loving tributes to an author -- and a character -- much admired, to cheap and dirty volumes obviously intended to cash in on a phenomenon that, since about 1999, everyone has been saying won't last.
The Magical Worlds of Harry Potter is one of the former: an affectionately written companion book intended to help visitors to Rowling's world navigate. Is a navigational aid necessary? Not really, but in the lull between books, such diversions can be fun.
Unlike some of the non-Rowling written companion volumes, The Magical Worlds of Harry Potter doesn't attempt to strip the magic away. Rather author David Colbert has mined Rowling's work for the sources of its magic, then takes his readers on a tour of our own world's history and legends:
One of the pleasures of reading J.K. Rowling is discovering the playful references to history, legend, and literature that she hides in her books. For instance, the Sphinx in the maze during the Triwizard Tournament asks a riddle just as the Sphinx of ancient Greek mythology did. ... Alert readers know Rowling also hides fun clues in the names she chooses for characters. Draco, Harry's nemesis, gets his name for the Latin word for "dragon" or "snake." Dumbledore's pet phoenix, Fawkes, gets his name from a historical figure linked to bonfires just as phoenixes are said to be reborn in fire.
As much alert reading and delving that Colbert had to do to create his book, he insists that The Magical Worlds of Harry Potter is intended to "entertain, amuse, and fascinate." And it does. Most of Colbert's chapter titles are questions, which he attempts to answer in the pages that follow. "Are Basilisks Just Big Snakes?," "Have Witches Always Flown on Broomsticks?", "Why Would Chocolate Help after Escaping a Dementor?" The fact that Colbert finds the answers to all of these questions -- and many, many more -- would seem to answer one of the most interesting chapter-header questions, at least in part: "What Makes Harry a Universal Hero?" though Colbert quotes at length from Joseph Campbell -- an acknowledged expert in all things relating to heroes and myths -- and illustrates how Harry Potter fits with the parameters that Campbell has laid down for heroes from many cultures: "The Hero With A Thousand Faces."
The Magical Worlds of Harry Potter ends up being a startlingly good companion to Rowling's series. Where the Harry Potter books have come to be many children's first foray into well developed fiction, Colbert's book can be their first non-school motivated departure into history, myth and legend. A worthwhile trip. | November 2001
Freelance writer and artist India Wilson believes in magic.
See a bibliography of J.K. Rowling's books --->