I’ve long admired JK Rowling, and not simply because she’s one of the world’s most successful contemporary authors.
Although it’s true I love all the Harry Potter novels, and followed the stories as each was published, and saw every film as it was released, I have special reasons for finding JK Rowling a source of inspiration.
I feel that in her HP series she has gathered up many of the greatest treasures of world folklore and mythology into a new creation that stands as a reference point in itself. Her imagined world has entered our consciousness. For instance, a few days ago I was in a boarding school looking at an ornate list of names on the wall and I immediately thought of Hogwarts’ Past Headmasters. Another recent example was my visit to Ham House, Richmond; whilst studying one of the many portraits, I half expected the lady in the portrait to shout, “Password!” at me.
And I have on a number of occasions found myself in conversation with someone, saying things like, “Oh, I wish I had Hermione’s Time-Turner” or “I could do with Hermione’s bottomless bag”, certain that the person I was speaking to would immediately know what I meant.
I’ve only recently read the book Very Good Lives which is JK Rowling’s speech to Harvard graduates in 2008. And for the first time I discovered she had worked in Amnesty International during her early twenties. As she described her experiences in Amnesty International’s offices, I could see at once the influence this had had on the Harry Potter stories – Dolores Umbridge cruelly punishing Harry, Voldemort torturing then executing Charity Burbridge, Lucius Malfoy and his abusive relationship with Dobby (before he became a free elf, of course), and of course many other examples.
It also amused me to read of how JK Rowling had chosen to study Classics, against her parents’ wishes, as they thought it a subject that could never lead to a decent job that would never pay a mortgage let alone secure a pension.
I could also see very clearly why JK Rowling felt she had to write The Casual Vacancy. I identified with and recognised what she wrote about in its pages.
I find JK Rowling inspiring not only as a successful author, but also for her own personal qualities. In this world we often see the power that great wealth bestows concentrated in the hands of the wrong people. To my mind, we can be very thankful that JK Rowling is one of the people in whose hands that power is concentrated.
It is clear from her Harvard speech where her heart lies, despite all her wealth and success: Poverty is not an ennobling experience… I am not going to tell you failure is fun… but failure means a stripping away of the inessentials… I stopped pretending I was anything other than what I was and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me…. Failure gave me an inner security I never attained by passing exams… I discovered that I had a strong will and more discipline than I’d suspected.
I must admit that after reading her Harvard speech I do wonder how many of those young graduates she spoke to went away and subsequently empathised with the poorest in the world, and lobbied their government to change its polices? For that was what JK Rowling urged them to do.
Meanwhile, all we who admire and love the Harry Potter stories, can be very glad that JK Rowling, in defiance of her parents’ wishes, ‘nipped off down the Classics corridor’ to study a useless subject that nobody ever believed would win her a job.