LONDON -- Arguably the most famous living Englishman is, technically, not alive. But Harry Potter now determines the American conception of Britishness as thoroughly as Sherlock Holmes ever did. Rather than making the disappointing pilgrimage to Baker Street, a generation will visit King's Cross station asking for Platform 9 3/4 and expect to exchange dollars for Galleons at Gringotts. The mythic geography of England -- always as important as its actual hills and streets -- has been reshaped by J.K. Rowling.
Young Potter is invariably taken either too seriously or not seriously enough. Modern witch-hunters believe his spells and potions are an invitation to the occult -- forgetting the equally potent magic of Narnia or Middle Earth. Literary critics dismiss Rowling's writing as banal, her stories as derivative -- a rummage sale of mythological creatures and conventional themes.
Neither snobs nor fundamentalists have prevented the sale of 450 million Harry Potter books, which places the series in the best-selling company of "The Book of Mormon" and the "Quotations of Chairman Mao."
The books, in fact, are gloriously derivative, providing an introduction not to magic but to mythology. Harry's world is populated by centaurs, dragons, werewolves, grindylows, veela, Cornish pixies, sphinxes, phoenixes, goblins and hippogriffs. It is as though Egyptian, Greek and Roman mythology, European folklore and Arthurian legend suddenly discovered the same playground. "I'm one of the very few," Rowling has observed, "who has ever found a practical application for their classics degree."
The world's great stories -- of heroic journeys, of peril, testing and courage, of nature enchanted, of happy endings -- get reincarnated for a reason. Created to explain the world, myths eventually began to explain us and our pre-rational values and culture. When these strings are touched, we feel the vibrations deep down. And we know that myths are not the same as lies.
In his essay "On Fairy-Stories," J.R.R. Tolkien -- who knew something of the subject -- describes the highest achievement of the teller of stories as "sub-creation." The sub-creator fashions "a Secondary World which your mind can enter. Inside it, what he relates is 'true': it accords with the laws of that world." Tolkien calls this "a special skill, a kind of elvish craft." The creator of Harry Potter practices this craft well -- an achievement her detractors cannot understand or duplicate. To read Rowling is to pack a bag and make a visit.