The Harry Potter books, written by JK Rowling, are achieving a not inconsiderable reputation. All books in the series have received numerous awards and the fourth book Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire forced The New York Times to change its listing of bestsellers so that 'adult' novels could make the list again with Rowling's books relegated to a 'children's book' category. Some conservative American religious organisations have protested and even burned copies of the books because of the references to witchcraft and wizardry.
Primarily, the books are considered children's books, but adults also adore them. Limited edition 'grown-up' covers of the books were released as adults didn't want to be seen reading children's books while commuting. Parents have been known to argue over who gets to read the stories to their children. And, despite all the hype, the books are actually very good. Read on for the story of a certain young wizard...
Just Who is this Potter Boy?
Harry Potter was a perfectly ordinary 11-year-old boy. He lived at number four, Privet Drive with the Dursley family. His parents, he had been told, had died in a car crash, and as a result he lived with his Uncle Vernon, Aunt Petunia, and the disgusting little fat boy Dudley. Then he discovered he was a wizard, and was whisked away to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, where he makes new friends, new enemies, and has a whole bunch of exciting adventures. See the character profiles below for more information.
The Magical World of Harry Potter
Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry is the magical school that is the centre of the adventures. Lessons include 'Divination' (telling the future), 'Transfiguration' (changing one thing into another by magic) and Potions. There are four 'houses', each with its own dormitories.
The houses are:
Gryffindor is Harry's house. Traditionally Gryffindors are brave and courageous.
Hufflepuff is traditionally the least intelligent house.
Ravenclaw is traditionally the wisest house.
Slytherin is Malfoy's house. Traditionally its members are calculating and sly in a not very nice way.
The Forbidden Forest is the forest surrounding Hogwarts. A dangerous place, hence its name. Maintained by Hagrid, it is home to unicorns, giant spiders and others.
Hogsmeade is the village close to Hogwarts that is Britain's only all-magical community. It contains Zonko's the magical joke shop, Honeydukes the magical sweet shop, and the supposedly haunted Shrieking Shack, amongst others.
Azkaban is a prison for naughty wizards. An awful fortress guarded by Dementors, it is not a pleasant place at all. It makes Alcatraz look like Disney World.
Diagon Alley is a street in London which is hidden from the view of Muggles (see below). There are many shops selling wands, magical creatures etc.
King's Cross Station is the place where if a wizard walks between platforms nine and ten, they will instantly be transported to platform nine and three-quarters, where the Hogwarts Express departs once a year to the school.
A whole host of characters appear in the books. Here are some of them:
Harry Potter - The eponymous star of the series. When he was a baby, the evil wizard Voldemort burst into his parents' house and killed them. He failed to kill Harry, and the only evidence of the attack is a lighting-bolt shaped scar on Harry's forehead. He has continually tangly hair, and wears glasses. He was sent to live with the Dursleys. After a thoroughly miserable time, he was summoned to come to Hogwarts to begin his wizarding education.
Voldemort - The evil wizard who killed Harry's parents. After failing to kill Harry he fled, horribly weakened with all his powers sapped. When he was at his most powerful, he was terrifying, so up to this day no one dares to say his name, referring to him instead as You-Know-Who or He-Who-Should-Not-Be-Named.
Ron Weasley - A member of a poor wizarding family, he is Harry's best friend. He has older brothers Bill, Charlie and the pompous Head Boy Percy, mischievous older twin brothers Fred and George, and a younger sister called Ginny. His dad works for the Ministry of Magic. The entire family has red hair and freckles, and tend to inherit the belongings of their older siblings.
Hermione Granger - Another of Harry's best friends, Hermione is very intelligent. Born of Muggle parents, she is resourceful, and, unfortunately, can be a bit of a pain.
Albus Dumbledore - The Hogwarts Headmaster, he is kind-hearted and a powerful sorcerer. He is said to have been one of the few people Lord Voldemort feared.
The Dursley Family - They looked after Harry for most of his life and weren't all that hospitable. Uncle Vernon and Aunt Petunia view wizards and witches as freaks, and locked Harry in the cupboard under the stairs, doing their best to ignore him while showering praises on their son Dudley.
Draco Malfoy - A thoroughly contemptible little git. Sneaky and spiteful, he is rivals with Harry and doesn't believe in fair play. He is constantly followed by idiotic cronies Vincent Crabbe and Gregory Goyle. His father is rumoured to have been in Voldemort's inner circle, until Voldemort was defeated and he swiftly changed sides. Along with Ron's Dad, he works at the Ministry of Magic.
Professor Snape - Potions teacher and head of Slytherin house. Sides with Malfoy in ridiculing Harry and his friends.
Hagrid - The gigantic Hogwarts game-keeper, he has a penchant for dangerous magical creatures. He looks after the Forbidden Forest, and is a great friend of Harry and company. It was he who told Harry that he was actually a wizard.
The books play host to a whole bunch of weird stuff:
Quidditch is the magical equivalent of football, played on broomsticks. Each team has seven players: three Chasers, two Beaters, a Seeker and a Keeper. There are four flying balls: the Quaffle (a red, football-sized ball), two Bludgers (black heavy balls) and the Snitch (a tiny golden ball with wings). The Chasers have to try and get the ball through one of the three large hoops either side of the pitch. The Keeper has to defend the goal-hoops. Each time a Chaser scores a goal, it counts as ten points. The Beaters have to hit the Bludgers at members of the rival team to try and distract them from scoring goals, using baseball bats. The Seeker has probably the hardest job of all, that of catching the walnut-sized Snitch. Achieving this scores 150 points and ends the game. The team with the highest score at this point wins. Matches can go on for days if the Snitch is particularly evasive. Each of the Hogwarts houses has a Quidditch team. Harry is the Gryffindor Seeker.
Wands are the simplest magical tool, needed to perform any amount of spells and charms.
The Ministry of Magic is a magical form of government. Any underage wizards are dealt with severely if they use magic outside of school. Harry was nearly expelled from Hogwarts because of a small incident in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. The Minister of Magic, like a Prime Minister, is Cornelius Fudge in the first books.
Unicorns are peaceful creatures whose blood can be used to prolong life. Alas, the drinker of the blood will be reduced to a shadow of their former selves, for needlessly slaying such a magnificent beast to prolong your own life is a dreadful thing to do.
Owls are used by wizards to transport post, and are also fine pets.
Muggles is a semi-affectionate term used by wizards and witches to refer to non-magical people.
Dementors are horrible creatures who guard Azkaban. They feed on happy emotions and make everyone nearby feel miserable. This effect drives most Azkaban prisoners insane within weeks.
Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone
The first book in the series. Harry discovers he is a wizard and is whisked off to Hogwarts. He finds out about his past, and makes plenty of new friends and enemies. Something is going on at Hogwarts, and part of the third floor has been blocked off. Eventually the plot is unravelled, with plenty of surprises and plot twists along the way.
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
The second book. After returning to Hogwarts via flying car, Harry finds that some very weird stuff is going down. Who does the disembodied voice Harry keeps hearing belong to? Who is attacking Hogwarts pupils, leaving them immobile and statue-like? What is the mysterious 'Chamber of Secrets'? All these questions are answered with yet more plot twists and shenanigans along the way. This book also explores racism. Malfoy and his friends take to abusing people with Muggle backgrounds like Hermione, calling them 'Mud-Bloods'. And all those who are attacked are Mud-Bloods...
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
The third book. Harry runs away from the Dursleys after magically inflating his nasty Aunt Marge. He gets back to Hogwarts to find it guarded by the ultra-creepy Dementors, who have a strange effect on him. One of the Azkaban prisoners, Sirius Black, has escaped. He worked for Voldemort and rumours say he is going for Harry. Plenty more fun and frivolity plus a plot twist in Chapter 18 the size of New York.
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
The fourth book in the series, and a hefty 636 pages long, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire has been proclaimed by many as the best yet. It contains the tricky situations, gripping cliff-hangers and amazing plot twists regular readers have come to expect. Many new characters are introduced, including Winky, a house-elf, Mr Crouch and Mr Bagman of the Ministry of Magic, leprechauns, and two foreign wizarding schools. Describing the plot is difficult, as there are so many surprises that one wouldn't want to spoil. Suffice to say, there is a Quidditch World Cup Final match between Bulgaria and Ireland, and a magical tournament. And an important character dies. Towards the end, a major event takes place which changes everything.
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
If you thought the previous one was long, JK Rowling extends this fifth Potter book to a whopping 766 pages. After the events of ...Goblet of Fire, it is clear to Harry that Voldemort is growing in power. Unfortunately, the Ministry of Magic refuse to believe him, taking the whole story to be a plot by Dumbledore to seize political power. As a result, the Ministry instigates measures to discredit Harry as an attention-seeking storyteller. To make matters worse, they install the appalling Dolores Umbridge as the new Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher, who gradually increases her power over the whole of Hogwarts. While all this is going on, the eponymous Order - a collection of anti-Voldemort wizards gathered together by Dumbledore - are doing their best to fight the rising dark army. With Harry's dreams increasingly being invaded by Voldemort, it seems that he's the only one who can really see what's happening and is determined to do something about it. But at what cost..?
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
Dolores Umbridge may have been removed from Hogwarts, but Harry's troubles are far from over. To make up for being rather distant last year, Dumbledore finally takes Harry into his confidence and gradually tells him the story of how Voldemort originally came to power. At the same time, Harry becomes obsessed with an old Potions textbook he finds, which has annotations by someone calling himself the 'Half-blood Prince'. As the novel nears its climax, Harry and Dumbledore set out on the first part of a critical mission that could see the end of Voldemort once and for all. When they return, however, Hogwarts has become a battlefield. By the time the battle is over, the Prince has revealed himself and there is another tragedy for Harry to face, as a major character leaves the series for good.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
The final book in the series sees Harry trying to complete the mission that he and Dumbledore started in the previous book. Along the way he gets sidetracked by the Deathly Hallows: three magical items with the power to give their owner mastery over death. This last episode sees an explosive return to a location from the very first book, a chance for Harry to visit his parents' graves, and a final epic showdown with Voldemort himself. JK Rowling doesn't hold back this time, and ...Deathly Hallows sees the untimely end of several major and minor characters. Does that include Harry? You'll have to read it to find out...