Though the final book came out more than four years ago, the capstone (for now at least) on Harry Potter couldn't be placed until the final movie premiered. And here we are. Harry Potter is such a phenomenon that it's difficult to get any kind of perspective on it. From a publishing perspective, it was a once in a generation event, perhaps even a singular one. From a cultural standpoint, it cut across all traditional demographic lines. From a commercial angle, it is probably the most profitable artistic work in human history not named Star Wars. So to try to reduce The Boy Who Lived into a single essay or editorial seems foolhardy. Instead, here are some uncollected thoughts:
1. This will probably be the last book/series of books that are so conspicous out in public. Not only were the volumes themselves big and recognizable, but they were printed. Future mega-sellers will be consumed in large part on e-reading devices. I've often wondered if the public consumption of the Harry Potter books contributed their wild success, publicizing and legitmizing children's books for adult consumption.
2. In many ways, Harry Potter represents the final integration of geek culture into mainstream culture, perhaps even becoming mainstream culture itself. Importantly, the first Harry Potter movie came out in 1999, 28 years after Star Wars premiered. I think the first generation of cultural geeks that Star Wars produced had a major influence on the fate of the Harry Potter franchise; not only were the children of Star Wars ready to consume fantasy themselves, but they could sanction their children to do the same. The generational pressure against genre that often exists was considerably lessened by the flowering of nerdom that had reached maturity by the late 90s.
3. Many have said that Harry Potter's heirs are Twilight, True Blood, and the other vaguely occult franchises of late. While thematically that probably is true, I think the psychological legacy of Harry Potter is best seen in something like GLEE---just replace "magic" with "musical theater." Whatever else Harry Potter did, it dramatized the universal strangeness of all children and adolescents; weird became the new normal. Not just in the I-can-turn-into-a-cat kind of way, but Harry, Hermione, and Ron were misfits within a sub-group of the peculiar. The enforced hegemony of Slytherin pure-bloodism was the opposite ideology of the polyglot alliance of the good guys. Voldemort wanted not only power, but sameness.
4. One of the stranger sub-texts of Harry Potter was its slavish adherence to the idea that people cannot change. At the age of 11, you are sorted by a sentient head-piece. Those who are not sorted into Slytherin simply cannot be bad (this takes the teeth out of some of the later plots when we are supposed to wonder, weakly I should say, if Harry can be partly evil). Your possible futures are severely curtailed. Indeed, many of the great villians in Harry Potter became villianous by trying to be something they were not: Voldemort changed from his original name, Queryl took an alterted personality, Barty Crouch Jr. polyjuiced himself into Mad-Eye, Gilderoy Lockheart was an out-and-out fraud, and Dolores Umbridge ingratiated herself to the head of Hogwarts though she had no credential to qualify her. The same "be who you are" affirmation that leads the the acceptance of difference has a curious, though not inevitable manifestation here: it's not just that you should embrace who you are, but you put yourself in great peril if you try to change your station.
5. The house-elves are the Jar Jar Binks of Harry Potter.
6. While Harry Potter may not have created a generation of readers as some might have thought it would, I do think it proved that written story-telling will continue to be a vital part of cultural lives. Any medium that can spawn something like this is very much alive. Here's how you tell if a genre/medium has reached museum-stage: it is unable to produce a mass market hit. Ask yourself, when was the last time everyone was talking about opera or epic poetry? This leads me to wonder about the status of some more contemporary forms. Is there a visual artist alive that most culturally fluent people would know? I can't think of one. Poetry is equally barren. Mikhail Baryshinikov might have been the last great dancer and the import of his medium will probably die with him. This is an interesting litmus test for the health of a form, I think.
7. For all the overt inclusivity of Harry Potter, the main characters of the stories were all white. Cho Chang was the major ethnic character. Think about that. And she fell for the wrong guy and squealed (albeit under duress) on the Order of the Phoenix.
8. Draco Malfoy turned out to be the most interesting character. People who don't want to say one of the big three was their favorite character pick Snape, but Snape didn't change, he was a good guy from before the story started. Only Draco, of all the characters, had layers and ambiguity.
9. Ralph Fiennes is the only actor I can think of who was largely unrecognizable for much of the time in his two career-defining roles (the other being The English Patient).
10. For someone with such an astounding imagination, Rowling had a horrible time writing compelling dialogue, especially with expositional dialogue. I don't think a lack of language skills is to blame, her nomenclature was both witty and evocative; I think it was the heavy-lifting she asked her dialogue to do. Unlike Tolkien, who built history and mythology into the prose, Rowling always had to have someone explain stuff to Harry, usually Hermione. The close third-person narrative point of view meant that other characters had to say baldly what they were thinking and feeling in order for the reader to know their interiority at all. The most compelling characters were those who said little and withheld (Draco, Severus, Dumbledore)
11. Why exactly do we like Ron Weasley, again?
12. Unlike Star Wars or The Lord of the Rings, and yes we have to add Harry Potter to the trinity, we get the sense in the epilogue to Deathly Hallows that evil has been finally and truly vanquished. The final "all was well" make subsequent works hard to imagine, leaving the kiss-your-sister hope of prequels our most probable thin hope for more adventures in this flawed, compelling, and magical world.