Born 31 July 1965, for J K Rowling her 40th birthday in 2005 was very much a time when she was at the peak of her powers, with the sixth of the seven books just published two weeks earlier to a frenzy of media attention and Potter-mania in full flow. By now the fairy tale rags-to-riches narrative of Rowling as an author seemed to be very much in the happy ever after phase as her work dominated the book chart.
Her first book, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, was completed in 1995 and first published in 1997, since which time the series had gathered fans exponentially, spilling over in 2001 to a new audience through the beginning of the movie series based on the books. Rowling was soon not only being credited with reinvigorating the book scene (especially causing a rise in the popularity of children’s literature, and adults reading the same books intended for kids), but also being hailed for promoting the British film industry too. The irony of this was that when her next book arrived after the films had started being made, it suffered with a sense of anti-climax from the high expectations fans now had of the series. Rowling herself later confessed to Time Magazine in 2007 that this book had been hard work and could have been shorter, and Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2003) was criticised for perhaps being a little over long, perhaps the consequence of a publisher less willing to trim back the work of its most successful novelist, and is often seen as the weakest of the series (of course this is comparative – it still smashed sales records for the time and introduced a truly terrifying villain in Dolores Umbridge), but it is important to recognise the extreme of audience expectations at this point which had only been further fuelled by the movies, not to mention the shift between where readers expected the story to go and where Rowling was leading them. At the point of the fifth book’s release only the first two films had been made and thus Harry was still very much a young boy having rollicking adventures at school, whereas the fifth book, following the resurrection of the Harry’s arch-nemesis Voldemort, was growing increasingly darker and bleak. But there was also a change in perception of the author too, no longer the up and coming writer but a worldwide phenomenon with the full weight of expectations upon her.
Thus when the sixth book, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, was released on 16 July 2005, it benefitted from its predecessor taking much of the flack both for the change in perception of Harry and Rowling. Ever since the fourth book, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, bookstores had opened on midnight of the day of release across the country with long queues of people unwilling to wait until the morning (speaking personally, I confess to being a part of those queues that July night in 2005). While the fifth book had felt a little ponderous as it introduced a larger cast and ever more focus on the past, the sixth book seemed to tighten the focus – and momentum – as we saw more of Harry working side by side with his long-time mentor Dumbledore in proactively seeking to bring an end to Voldemort. Being the sixth in the series meant that the bodycount was beginning to rise, though not yet of the heights of the seventh book, and certainly nothing to rival George R R Martin, but the increasing risks facing the boy wizard were tempered by the intrinsic optimism of an open-ending given the sure knowledge of one more chapter in the series yet to come.
For Rowling personally, she had been named by Forbes the previous year as the first billionaire author, though this was disputed by Rowling herself and somewhat confused by the US and UK definitions of a billion. Suffice to say, she was doing okay for herself financially at this time. She had remarried four years earlier and become a mother again in 2003, so that her life was now far removed from the turmoil of the 90s when she was a struggling single mum writing in cafes in Edinburgh. She was also becoming a bigger presence politically, openly supporting Labour and condemning the Conservatives, and Harry Potter in turn became a figurehead for British relevance on the cultural scene. If anything, for Rowling at 40, sitting on top of the world, the only doubt was where she could possibly go next, and what would happen after the final Potter book appeared. With retrospect, we now know she has endured in a post-Potter world through her pen name of Robert Galbraith, though she remains very much tied to her first creation, with new revelations about the character regularly posted on her Pottermore site, and the eagerly anticipated play, now being billed as the eight Harry Potter story, due to release later this year to yet another flurry of media attention and a familiar feeling of queuing up outside bookshops at midnight. Any sense that the 40-year old Rowling might have had that Harry Potter was drawing to a close has been disproved in this continued momentum of the boy who lived.
Rowling and Buckingham: This post was written by Dr Pete Orford, who contributed the entry for J K Rowling in the Dictionary of Literary Biography. As Rowling begins to receive more academic attention, the Harry Potter series is proving a popular choice of topic for undergraduate dissertations, where the students are asked to research and write a 7000 word essay; in the past three years select Buckingham students have opted to explore the role of religion, politics and education in the world of Harry Potter.