In 15 minutes, I will drive my 11-year-old son Gabriel down to Ottakar's bookstore in East Grinstead for the most hotly awaited delivery since the arrival of Prince William 17 years ago. At 3 p.m., a significant majority of the 10 million or so knee-socked and school-blazered boys and girls of Great Britain between the ages of 9 and 12 will descend from their schools upon bookshops, from John O'Groats at the northern tip of Scotland to Penzance at the toe of Cornwall in time for the 3:45 national release of "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban."
While the happy few in England get first dibs on new Harry Potter adventures (his author, J.K. Rowling, is Scottish, after all, and owes first allegiance to her British publisher, Bloomsbury), American readers will have to hang on until September for "The Prisoner of Azkaban." It's an endless wait for 11-year-olds--as I can attest--zillions of whom ran out to American bookstores at the beginning of June at the appearance of the second Harry Potter book, "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets," rocketing it up most national bestseller lists, just ahead of the first, "Harry Potter and the Sorceror's Stone."
Not even A.A. Milne posted these kinds of numbers. T.S. Eliot had to wait until Andrew Lloyd Webber came along to provoke this kind of frenzy. Rowling, an unassuming, divorced mother of a young girl, had never published a book until "The Sorcerer's Stone." But in birthing Harry Potter, she unleashed a character who is already sailing up into the pantheon of children's heroes, next to the airborne Peter Pan and the umbrella-ed Mary Poppins.
The wait between books has been hard on Harry, too. We find him, at the opening of "The Chamber of Secrets," counting the endless days of summer until he can return to begin his second year at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. "He missed Hogwarts so much it was like having a constant stomachache. He missed the castle with its secret passageways and ghosts, his lessons (though perhaps not Snape, the potions master), the post arriving by owl, eating banquets in the Great Hall, sleeping in his four-poster bed in the tower dormitory, visiting the gamekeeper, Hagrid, in his cabin in the grounds next to the forbidden forest and, especially, Quidditch, the most popular sport in the wizarding world (six tall goal-posts, four flying balls and fourteen players on broomsticks)."
Hogwarts, like many British boarding schools, is divided into houses that wage fierce combat upon one another--academic and athletic. Although there are four houses, the true battle is between Gryffindor, "where dwell the brave at heart," and Slytherin, known as the hothouse for all the great wizards but also as the sometime incubator for the practitioners of the Dark Arts, including the terrible Lord Voldemort. Upon arrival, with a gang of other First Years, Harry was tapped by the magical Sorting Hat, which examines the natures of its wearer and sends him to his appropriate house. At Gryffindor, Harry soon made friends with Ron Weasley, the youngest of the five red-headed Weasley boys, who imparted all his hand-me-down wisdom to Harry.
Like all schools, Hogwarts is a dangerous place--more dangerous than most when a backfiring magic wand can have you spitting out slugs all afternoon. Yet for Harry, among peers for the first time in his life, there is a normalcy to Hogwarts, thanks to a code of behavior that doles out rewards in proportion to achievement. First Years are not allowed to fly. Students must first learn to transform a toothpick into a needle before they can progress to princes and frogs. Fairness is rewarded, as is a child's ability to know when rules must be broken for a greater good.
With the aid of Hermione Granger, the brains of Gryffindor, the three not only flummox the terrifying teachers and the Quidditch field bullies but break a few rules to battle with the Dark Forces. As "The Sorcerer's Stone" drew to an end, Harry even came face to face, as it were, with the spirit of his nemesis, Lord Voldemort, and survived.
Impatient as his readers have been, imagine the summer for Harry, at home with the Dursleys. Like Cinderella, Harry Potter is an orphan. Instead of a wicked stepmother, Harry is blessed with a loutish Uncle Vernon and Aunt Petunia who dote on Harry's porky brute of a cousin, Dudley. The Dursleys are Muggles--that is to say, ordinary, magically impaired human beings. They have raised Harry since, as an infant, he was left on their doorstep, following the death of Petunia's sister and her husband--so they told Harry--in a car crash.
The truth is more frightening. Shortly after Harry's birth, Voldemort murdered Harry's father. Seeking to kill his infant son as well, Voldemort struck him with all his powers. Harry's mother, however, intercepted the beam with the strength of her maternal love. While it killed her, Harry survived. The Dark Force left only a lightning-shaped scar on Harry's forehead.
Things haven't been as bad as they might be at the Dursleys. Afraid that, after a year at Hogwarts, Harry might turn their precious Dudley into a dung beetle, Uncle Vernon and Aunt Petunia have elevated Harry's sleeping arrangements from the cupboard under the stairs to the second-best bedroom. Nevertheless, they continue to treat him as a poor, fairy-tale relation. They intercept mail from his friends Ron and Hermione, lock up his owl and, worst of all, forget Harry's 12th birthday. Forbidden by Hogwarts, on pain of expulsion, from practicing magic on Muggles (the wizard government is terrified of being discovered and persecuted by the Muggle world and has devoted an entire ministry to "fix" accidental Muggle sightings of magic with judicious uses of Memory Spells and the like), Harry's redemption arrives in the form of Ron and his twin wizard brothers, who break him out of the Dursley prison with a flying car and a dose of Floo Powder.
Yet Harry has another visitor. As he prepares to return to Hogwarts for his second year, Harry receives a dark warning from an elf named Dobby (who shares a self-referential linguistic tick with Star Wars' Yoda and a self-flagellating instinct all his own) who counsels him: "Dobby has come to protect Harry Potter, to warn him, even if he does have to shut his ears in the oven door later. . . . Harry Potter must not go back to Hogwarts." Despite Dobby's warnings, of course, Harry returns to Hogwarts to find dangerous trouble brewing. All signs point to the return of the Dark Forces to the school.
At the time that the four namesakes of the four houses founded the school, hundreds of years earlier, the wizard Slytherin--mistrustful even at that early age--constructed a secret chamber within the walls and spells of the school. Only an heir to that dark wizard can find the entrance to that chamber, and apparently one has returned. For a force has been unleashed into the corridors that has petrified a handful of students, including Harry's friend Hermione, and thrown Hogwarts into a tailspin. Harry's task is to find out who has opened the chamber, before the fingers that are already pointing to him as the heir of Slytherin send him off to the wizard's prison of Azkaban and close Hogwarts for good.
"Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets" is a wonderful sequel, as suspenseful, charming and ultimately satisfying as its predecessor. Rowling, in the cafes of Edinburgh where she mapped out the Harry Potter series--which will feature seven books--detonates secret mines planted in the first book and sets new ones for future discovery. The humor continues to delight--with new buffoonish characters like the narcissistic Professor Gilderoy Lockhart, author of "Gadding with Ghouls," "Holidays with Hags" and "Magical Me." I ingested the book as enjoyably--if not as speedily and thoroughly--as Gabriel. But surely there must be more than suspense, charm and satisfaction to the secret ingredient that has made Harry Potter so popular among children and adults alike, the Austin Powers of the bestseller booklist.
Harry Potter is good. He is the young King Arthur, the adolescent Luke Skywalker, Huck Finn with glasses, Narnia's Peter sans braggadocio. Without resorting to the New Agey spirituality of C. S. Lewis, Rowling has created a boy whose common goodness is his most magical quality. He is a boy who, despite the physical and emotional trials of his childhood, has kept his good nature. He is a child who, on discovering that he is a wizard, reacts with the joy of all children that the young Louisa of "Fantasticks" fame cried so well: "I'm special, I'm special. Please God, don't let me be normal." And despite these virtues--most important to my son--Harry Potter never gloats.
Yet Harry is not only good and brave and modest and fleet--his swiftness on a broom won him the nod for the Gryffindor Quidditch team, an unheard-of honor for a First Year--he is no goody-goody. There are hidden depths to Harry that not even he understands. "Hmm," said the small voice of the Sorting Hat as Harry puts it on his head upon his first arrival at Hogwarts. "Difficult. Very difficult. Plenty of courage, I see. Not a bad mind, either. There's talent, oh my goodness, yes--and a nice thirst to prove yourself--So where shall I put you?" Harry has seen the type of child selected to enter Slytherin--the sneaks, the bullies, particularly the wealthy, superior Draco Malfoy, whose father has bought him his own broom--and prays that the magical hat not sort him into that fraternity. "Are you sure?" the hat speaks into his ear. "You could be great, you know, it's all here in your head, and Slytherin will help you on the way to greatness."
As surely as Luke Skywalker is the son of Darth Vader, so does Harry have a trace of Slytherin DNA in his bloodstream. "Unless I'm much mistaken," Dumbledore, the Obi-Wan Kenobi-like headmaster of Hogwarts says to Harry toward the end of "The Chamber of Secrets," "Voldemort transferred some of his own powers to you the night he gave you that scar." Yet it was Harry's secret prayer to join Gryffindor, a prayer only the Sorting Hat could hear, that fought the virus of evil. "It is our choices, Harry," Dumbledore tells him after Harry discovers who has opened the Chamber of Secrets and rescues his friends, "that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities." What more resonant message could a book send a child--or an adult, for that matter? In a universe regulated by school and music lessons and playdates, the power to choose is a Force as strong as any lightsaber.
In the United Kingdom, Rowling has pulled off an Excalibur of a feat and has been hailed as the once and future Roald Dahl or Enid Blyton. But Harry has much more in common with the wistful Haroun of Salman Rushdie's noble "Haroun and the Sea of Stories," or the resourceful Belgian reporter Tintin, than with either James of "Peach" or Charlie of "Chocolate" fame. This may be a purely adult reaction. The subversive quality of Dahl's fables continues to delight my children at bedtime (my 8-year-old can quote definitions from "Witches" more easily than the National Anthem) and baffle the philistines (who often seek to have it removed from school libraries, afraid that it will promote the occult and the Wicca religion). Yet Dahl's books still leave a bitter residue in my mouth as I turn off the lights. He was a nasty man and had turned against most of mankind (including Rushdie, whom he called a "dangerous opportunist" in the aftermath of the Ayatollah's death sentence) before he died in 1990.
No, J. K. Rowling is no Roald Dahl. She is an original, who has ingested thoroughly the culture of her youth--the "Wizard of Oz" and "Tales of Narnia," the "Star Wars" movies and the E. Nesbit "Railway Children" adventures, the Cinderellas, Aladdins and A Thousand and One other visions--and, like the grown-up Wendy Darling that she is, has created a nursery universe with an innate sense of what a bedtime story should be.
More than that, Rowling has bottled the spirit of longing for a childhood as distant as Dorothy's black-and-white Kansas, torn away by the twisters of growing up. Even if English muffins are the closest you've come to the world of Harry Potter, there is a madeleine of memory in the pages of these books powerful enough to transport all of us back to the fragility of childhood.
"Your Aunt and Uncle will be proud, though, won't they," Hermione asks Harry, as school lets out for summer vacation, "when they hear what you did this year?"
"Proud?" Harry answers her back. "All those times I could've died, and I didn't manage it? They'll be furious. . . ."
Like the orphan girl from Kansas, Harry's quest is for a quiet place, more simple and holy than any Grail: home. Perhaps five more years at Hogwarts will teach him how to magic a rainbow. Until then, Gabriel and I and millions of others will gladly gas up our Muggle cars and motor down to East Grinstead for our next lesson with Harry Potter.