Whether you like Harry Potter or not, you can’t deny its massive success, which raises the question: How did J.K. Rowling’s saga become so enormously successful?
The answer is a multifaceted one. One explanation could be that the theme of wizards, witches and a world full of magic has always been fascinating. Another might be that Rowling never altered from her pre-structured plan for the saga. Following up on that, Rowling managed to create a saga that fascinated its readership again and again. Which is an outstanding achievement, considering the fact that she wrote seven books, of which six have a quite similar basic outline — Harry hates his home, goes back to Hogwarts, gets a new teacher for defense against the dark arts, has an unlikely adventure no-one besides him, Ron and Hermione would survive and in the end Gryffindor surprisingly wins the house cup. If one puts it that way, the novels don’t really seem to be too surprising or fascinating at all.
So, another question should be: How did J.K Rowling manage to create a saga that fascinated its readership every single time?
The answer is, again, a multifaceted one. But now we talk about Rowling’s style of writing and this is where the tools of literary studies come into action. This is where analysis and interpretation start.
Now, the first question you should always ask when analysing literature is who narrates the story and why. The easiest answer to that would be J.K. Rowling because she is the author. However, this isn’t quite what we are looking for, because the first thing you learn in literary studies is that the author and the narrator are two quite different matters. As an author you choose the ‘voice’ of the narrator. This voice can be, for example, a first-person narrator, where the narrator speaks for him or herself, as in ‘Call me Ishmael’, and is part of the story he tells. Another possibility would be a third-person narrator. Here the narrator stands somewhat outside of the story by referring to the characters in the story as ‘he’, ‘she’ or ‘they’. The effect of a third-person narrative, as opposed to a first-person narrative, allows for an ‘outside’ point of view, giving the reader the idea of an overview of the plot. This is usually enhanced when the third-person narrator is omniscient (God-like) and the reader sees the thoughts of every character as well as everything that is going on in the story. This third-person omniscient narrator is a common choice in literature. A counterpart to that would be a third-person limited narrator, who has only some information about the plot and the insight into the minds of a small amount of characters (usually one).
Now this is the choice J.K. Rowling made for her Harry Potter novels. The narrator informs the reader about what Harry sees, feels and experiences, but nothing more. This creates a peculiar effect for the reader. While the reader only sees Harry’s point of view, he still feels like he has an ‘outside’ point of view and knows what is going on due to the third-person narrative. Because of this, the reader starts to identify with Harry and the way he thinks without much questioning it, as it still feels like an unbiased decision of the reader caused by the seemingly objective view the narration offers. So, when Harry suspects that Snape is the mean guy because he tries to kill him and plans to steal the philosopher’s stone while threatening poor Professor Quirrell, we agree with him. But then are shocked to learn at the end that Quirrell was the evil schemer and it was Snape who tried to prevent Quirrell’s plans. A major plot twist. Yet, one that has been carefully hinted at all along (Quirrell was always right there when something suspicious or dangerous happened, e.g. at the Quidditch match or when the troll was in the castle). The question now is, why is it that hardly anyone saw this coming?
The answer is narrative misdirection. A writing technique, which is used to deliberately mislead the reader into a wrong conclusion from the given information, only to reveal the truth later, creating an, ideally, unsuspected plot twist. To achieve this, there are several options for the narration. One is that the narrator believes that he or she is telling the truth and is fooled alongside with the reader. This is somewhat the case in the Harry Potter novels. Here, the narrator tells us everything about what Harry knows and sees and because we identify with Harry, we believe it to be the truth- and it is true, because Harry knows and sees exactly what the narrator tells us, thus his conclusions seem reasonable at the time. However, it’s just not the truth, because Harry doesn’t always have all the information he needs to see the whole truth. The crucial point is that the reader believes that this is in fact the case, that we are presented with all the information because the story is told from a third-person narrator and not, in fact, from Harry himself. But we only know what Harry knows and nothing more. We never knew about Snape’s true intents because Harry didn’t. We never knew about Quirrell’s evil plans because Harry didn’t. Thus, at the end, when Harry discovers Quirrell true colours, we are as thunderstruck as Harry is.
The fascinating thing about this is, that J.K. Rowling uses this technique in every single novel of the saga and we fall for it every single time. For example, in book two it’s Tom Riddle’s diary or in book four the Alastor Moody imposter. But the best example is surely the true allegiance of Severus Snape, the ultimate narrative misdirection, where the reader is misled through every book until the very end. In summary one could say that the plot twists get us every time because J.K. Rowling fools us every time by misleading us.
So, coming back to the question on how J.K. Rowling manage to create a saga that fascinated its readership repeatedly, even though the basic outline was always the same, the answer remains a multifaceted one. Yet one answer could be: Because Rowling mastered the art of narrative misdirection.
 Herman Melville, Moby Dick. UK: Macmillan Collector’s Library Vol. 62, 2016, p. 31.
Booth Wayne, The Rhetoric of Fiction. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1983.
Granger John, Unlocking Harry Potter. Wayne, Pennsylvania: Zossima Press, 2016.
Melville Herman, Moby Dick. UK: Macmillan Collector’s Library Vol. 62, 2016, p. 31.
Rowling, Joanne K., Harry Potter the Complete Collection,1-7 (London: Bloomsbury, 2014).
Johannes Kunath is studying History, English and Philosophy on a teacher’s degree at the University of Tübingen, Germany.