Something wicked this way comes.
In a matter of hours, J.K. Rowling’s spellbinding book series-turned-cultural phenomenon will draw to a close as fans the world over tear into their copies of the seventh and final novel, “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.” By Saturday morning, manic Muggles who decide learning the fate of the globe’s favorite boy wizard is more important than sleeping will know how it all ends.
But whether Harry lives or dies isn’t a full-fledged secret anymore. Hackers more evil than Voldemort have tried to spoil the surprise, leaking excerpts from “Deathly Hallows” on the Web.
The real question is as ambiguous as a prophecy in the Department of Mysteries and as haunting as a pack of soul-sucking Dementors: What’s next? The series is through, but is the Harry Potter phenomenon dead?
“No matter what, I’ll hate that it’s over,” said Chris Cusumano, an MU junior and former Tiger linebacker.
Cusumano will pick up his copy of “Deathly Hallows” at the University Bookstore come 12:01 a.m., when the embargo for the novel’s release is officially lifted. For him, finishing the book will mark the end of a pop-culture era.
“With something like ‘Star Wars,’ you can be 80 and still be obsessed,” Cusumano said. “After a while, with Harry Potter, the only people who are really going to be into it are the newer kids who start to read it and the people like us that started it all off.”
Sara Moesel, a recent Rock Bridge High School graduate and co-founder of The Portkey, a Rock Bridge Harry Potter club, has more faith in her hero’s staying power.
“They already have conventions now,” Moesel said. “I doubt they’re going to go away.”
The Potter craze has grown so vast in the decade since Rowling published her first book in 1997 that the series has sold more than 325 million books, translated into more than 60 languages. Harry’s international fans speak so many tongues, they create a sort of Hogwarts-centric Tower of Babel, and the only translation you can’t find might be Parseltongue — the creepy snake language Potter and Voldemort speak.
The series’ power to spellbind stems from its ability to reach readers at varying levels of sophistication, said Potter expert Lana Whited. A professor of journalism and English at Ferrum College in Virginia, she edited “The Ivory Tower and Harry Potter,” a compilation of analytical, Potter-inspired essays published by the University of Missouri Press.
One essay, by Dr. M. Katherine Grimes of Ferrum College, addresses the way Potter appeals to three crucial age groups: children, adolescents and intellectual adults. For kids, the stories offer traditional fairy-tale appeal. Teenage readers see Harry and his buddies as a peer whose day-to-day problems are just like theirs. Adult readers can appreciate Potter as an archetypal hero and recognize the depth and richness of an age-old tale of good versus evil.
Whited said Rowling draws on a brew of literary traditions, including heroic sagas and accounts of boarding school. Those traditions, she said, might help propel “Potter” onto the short list of time-tested literary classics.
“It’s easy to say, ‘How can these books not be classics?’ but you’re only looking at commercial success,” Whited said. “Rowling combines elements from a lot of literary traditions. I think all of those elements increase the books’ chances of being regarded as classic works on more levels.”
Because Rowling crafts her novels in familiar literary traditions, Whited said readers can look to classic tales for a hint about the series conclusion.
“There are all sorts of hero stories, like the story of Moses, in which the hero who takes the people to the promised land doesn’t make it there himself,” Whited said. “I think she’d have a lot of howlers if she killed off Harry, though.”
Annette Kolling-Buckley, owner of Columbia Books, said whether Potter popularity lasts will hinge directly upon whom Rowling kills.
“How many new readers are going to want to read this if they know from the beginning that he’s going to die at the end?” she said.
Whether “the boy who lived” continues to do so or meets his doom in a face-off with the Dark Lord, Rowling has said she won’t return to the Harry Potter series. However, she hasn’t written off returning to the wizarding world for future books. For fans who don’t know where to turn when the novels end, the possibility of more Rowling magic is a welcome glimmer of light at the end of the wand.
Moesel said fans might not need Rowling’s help to ease their post-Potter depression. They can write their own stories set in the same world with many of the same characters, as happened with “Star Trek,” “Star Wars” and “Lord of the Rings.”
“With fan fiction, so many people will re-write things because they’re like, ‘I don’t like this ending. I’ll just write my own,’” Moesel said. “They’ll even bring characters back from the dead.”
And other fantasy novels exploring other worlds abound.
“How many fantasy novels for children do you see these days?” said Steven Cross, a mid-Missouri author who writes fantasy books for youth. “It’s incredible. I think the series is at least partially responsible for the renewed, nationwide interest in such works as the ‘Lord of the Rings’ and others of its ilk.”
Kolling-Buckley said independent bookstores will become the perfect spot for fans with Potter withdrawal to seek solace.
“The role of the independent bookseller is really important here,” she said. “People want to know what to read. You’ll have a kid who comes in and says, ‘Well, I’ve read all the Harry Potter books, what else might I like?’”
As bleary-eyed readers trudge around Columbia this weekend feeling sleep-deprived and a little sad without the promise of more Hogwarts on the horizon, they might feel like Dementors have sucked the life out of them. Still, there’s hope. With two movies left and a spectrum of spin-offs possible — “Harry Potter: The Musical” or a Chamber of Secrets theme park, anyone? — Moesel said it’s clear the phenomenon is as much about the fans as it is about the franchise.
“It’s more than the reading,” Moesel said. “Part of liking Harry Potter is being in the fandom.”