There’s a moment in The Empire Strikes Back where Darth Vader is trying to catch the Millennium Falcon. To do this, he has assembled five of the galaxy’s most formidable bounty hunters.
Of the five visually distinct bounty hunters we are introduced to, we only ever see one of them, Boba Fett, again. The genius of this cannot be overstated. We neither see nor hear from the remaining four. No matter how many times I watch this film, I come away with the same thought running through my head – what the hell happened to the other four?
This moment is pure story. It’s an unfinished loop. We’re introduced to a fascinating set-up that is never ‘paid off’. The universe and story stay alive because the film gives your imagination something to play with once the credits have rolled.
This is a trick that the entire Star Wars series accomplishes a handful of times. Harry Potter does it at least a hundred times in every entry.
The legacy of J. K. Rowling is pretty secure as a titan of contemporary authors, but her legacy really should be about just how many insane fantasy concepts she invents, presents, and then discards in each book of Harry Potter. She’s an author, for example, who introduces a commercially available student-owned form of time-travel in a book. An author who, then, happily skips away, leaving it as just one more toy for you to play with in your daydreams because, surely, those school ghosts must have scores they want to settle in an earlier time – what if they convinced a student to go back?
These concepts are what make the material feel so alive, and they’re concepts that a lesser writer would have fleshed out into entire, separate, stories. There are so many of these ideas, and they are all so briefly handled, that the thousands of tiny questions that each raises keeps the memory of them burning alive after we’ve closed the final pages.
To prove this, I’m going to take you through just one book of Harry Potter, so you can see just how often J. K. Rowling manages to casually toss-up something that has cemented itself in your consciousness.
The Philosopher’s Stone introduces just about all the big stuff, so understandably a lot of the cultural touchstones can be found here for the first time. Hogwarts itself is the obvious one – a school and castle with so many hidden doors and towers that just the thought of a corridor you haven’t yet been down is enough to keep the mind awake at night. Beyond the larger structural concepts Rowling also introduces the invisibility cloak, the sorting hat, the Mirror of Erised, the entire concept of Quidditch, Diagon Alley, Gringott’s Bank (seriously, what’s in the other vaults?), and the fact that unicorn blood will make you immortal in exchange for being cursed. What kind of curse? We never find out. Not knowing the specifics of this haunts my every waking hour.
These are still the more obvious reference points, so let’s go deeper on the smallest of ideas: chocolate frogs. Those are a fun idea, right? Remember our introduction to them? Harry is on the Hogwarts Express (which itself is anoth– yeah, you know the drill) when Harry gets a trading card with Dumbledore on it underneath his first ever frog. After a few seconds the image fades, and Rowling comes out with one of the most inspired lines of dialogue in the history of fantasy fiction:
“‘Well, you can’t expect him to hang around all day,’ said Ron.”
I want you to stop reading this, go lie down, and think about the implications of that sentence. What does that mean? Does that mean that to appear on a card, a wizard has to spend actual time visiting each card? Are there cards they never visit? How do they know when a card has been opened and isn’t still in the box?
These questions are never answered, but because they never are you’re given the threads of a larger tapestry to pull at.
That stunt with a single line of dialogue is a trick that Rowling plays all the damn time. Her talent lies in the efficient expression of philosophically complex ideas. Now, as a letter-tile eating man would hungrily say to a completed board of Scrabble between Sartre and Shakespeare; them’s big words. However, I can back myself up with a single response from Hagrid, when talking about Voldemort:
“Some say he died. Codswallop, in my opinion. Dunno if he had enough human left in him to die.”
That sentence keeps me up at night. “Dunno if he had enough human left in him to die.” That’s pure ‘What does that mean?’ fodder if I ever saw it. In one hyper-condensed space Rowling tells us that Voldemort isn’t human, he isn’t dead, and he also isn’t alive. Now, as the books progress we do learn more about Voldemort, but this line is our introduction to the character, and it exclusively delivers us more unanswerable questions.
What’s astonishing is that while I’ve only been talking about the first book, Rowling keeps this pace up for all seven in the series. Such is the pace and quality, that it isn’t until book six that Horcruxes are introduced – which might be the greatest of all her inventions. She even finds time to include the tiniest of ideas – like the ‘howlers’, angry letters that scream their message at their recipient and then tear themselves to shreds. The stories of each Harry Potter book are all so lean (yes, even the later thicker entries, don’t make me fight you) but she manages to have these edges of juicy fat around the stories – ideas that go nowhere, and tangential information that only serves to add flavour to the playground of your imagination.
There are so many reasons these books speak across the generations – the stories fall into that perfect sweet spot of shared cultural reference points of going to school, feeling like the odd one out, but dreaming that maybe you’re capable of something special. Whatever those other reasons are, it’s Rowling’s machine-gun approach to fantasy concepts that make the world stay vibrant, full, and always mysterious. You’d be hard pressed to find a cultural artefact that will have the staying power of the Harry Potter series this side of the millennium.
How many times have you sat around at work and played the game of sorting your colleagues into the different houses of Hogwarts? How many times have you wondered what your patronus would be? J.K. Rowling created a world and then gave us the keys.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, there are four bounty hunters that need tracking down.
Read these next...