There’s an odd fairy tale out there in the world that is one of my favorites. Almost everyone knows it, or has heard some version of it. But it doesn’t have any of the usual trappings of a fairy tale; it’s not about fairies or princesses or far off places. It doesn’t contain any magical artifacts or wishes gone wrong or strange trips into the woods to discover the real dangers of the world.
It’s the story of a woman who needed to write books of magic. Or… books about magic, anyway. It is awfully hard to tell the two apart when you get right down to it.
You know what else is awfully hard? Talking about J. K. Rowling objectively, in a scholarly manner, as one feels sometimes obligated to do (and on her birthday, too!). And it’s not just because she wrote one of the most successful book series of all time, teaching millions of children to adore reading in the process. Not just because she has used her well-earned gains to promote so many charitable causes. Not just because the world loves a good rags-to-riches story, and hers is one of the best.
It’s because she described herself as “the biggest failure [she] knew” before she sat down to write one of the most beloved fantasy worlds on paper. It’s because she turned the sorrow over her mother’s death into a tale where a mother’s love for her child ultimately saves the world. It’s because all of the first publishers to read her three chapter sample rejected her book. It’s because failing made Jo Rowling push back hard against depression and poverty to find her very best calling.
It’s because she gave us Harry, Ron, and Hermione, and so many of us wouldn’t recognize our childhoods without them.
The United Kingdom is dotted with magical nooks and crannies celebrating her tale. The Elephant House in Edinburgh, Scotland where Rowling wrote during the day calls itself “The Birthplace of Harry Potter.” There’s a bust in a room at the Balmoral Hotel where Rowling inscribed the date when she finished The Deathly Hallows. King’s Cross Station in London has Platform 9 and 3/4 marked out with a trolley firmly stuck halfway into the wall. Leavesden Studios has a tour, and that tour contains the entire Hogwarts Express in all its glory. They’re little portals, really, places of contact where one might absorb a bit of that magic.
We search often for “real” versions of the stories that we love, proof that the impossible is possible, that fiction isn’t as far away as we’re assured by practical and serious people. J. K. Rowling’s story easily fulfills all requirements and then some, almost as though she were being written about in the contemporary three-part novel of some alternate dimension author. She started as a single mother, supporting her daughter through a time when her hope and fortunes were in short supply. In a period of great loss, she discovered her superpower—writing—and proceeded to use that power for good. (And more than one form of good, it turns out, as her philanthropic work has shown over the years.) Despite having so much expectation placed on her with every book release, she proceeded to be unflappably frank and focused on what she loved. She remarried, had more children, finished her series and wrote more books. She got the happy ending to end all happy endings.
She is a bonafide superhero. A sorceress of the highest order. She’s what Cinderella would be, if Cinderella had gotten to the ball on her own steam and know-how. It’s not reality that sounds like fiction; it’s reality that’s better than fiction.
Then again, Rowling has attracted her fair share of criticism from both literary and fan circles. As a Potter devotee, I feel I should add to this list. After all, I blame her for a lot of things, including the following:
- Entire nights spent up reading.
- Needing to get my own wand.
- Waiting on line in a bookstore until well after midnight.
- Trying a vomit-flavored jellybean.
- Thousands of words of fan fiction written.
- Millions of words of fan fiction read.
- Countless tears and endless laughter.
- Friends with whom I bonded.
- Communities where I was welcomed.
- Huge amounts of valuable brainspace taken up by wizarding facts.
- Using chocolate as a cure-all.
- Ever thinking I might like to write… and write. And write.
- The fact that I, and many others, are convinced that we all went to the wrong schools because our letters to Hogwarts were lost by daffy owls.
But the true magic of J.K. Rowling’s story is that we can see bits of ourselves in her ups and downs, glimmers of what is possible in the twists and turns of her journey. What’s more, her work seems to have influenced the world for the better–one study actually found that kids who had read Harry Potter were largely more accepting of those who are different from them. The Boy Who Lived taught children across the globe more than a love of written word and an appreciation of magic… he taught them to celebrate the diverse multitudes around them.
And what’s there to say about Harry Potter in all of this? Well… Rowling did give The Boy Who Lived her very same birthday. (He would be 37 today, I believe.) So that’s two cakes to put candles on—just make sure the ice cream going with it came from Florean Fortescue’s. And never forget that while so many authors create magic in their minds and on the page, J. K. Rowling was powerful enough to manifest it in her own life. She is truly the greatest witch of them all.
This article was adapted from a piece that originally published July 31st 2013