The Harry Potter series consists of seven books, one for each of the seven years at the wizarding school Hogwarts. The series opens, as does each book, with Harry having a miserable time at the home of his aunt and uncle Dursley. His parents died when he was a baby, and the Dursley’s took responsibility for him. But they do not like him at all. Much to Harry’s surprise, however, he is informed that he is special—he can do magic. He gets the opportunity to study at Hogwarts, a boarding school somewhere one day’s train ride from London. On that first trip he meets Ron Weasley (loyal, but not academically inclined) and Hermione Granger (smart, studious, from Muggle heritage). Each of his first six years sees Harry enduring Potions class with a Professor Snape who loathes him, dealing with the loneliness of being an orphan, and sneaking around Hogwarts with his friends, discovering the mystery for which that book is titled.
The first six books are structurally fairly formulaic, as one expects from books entitled Harry Potter and the Next Mystery. The books open with a chapter detailing Harry’s miserable experience during summer vacation, cooped up at his home with the Dursley’s. Harry is rescued from the Dursleys by Hagrid, Hogwarts’ gamekeeper, in the first book, but by a trip to the Weasley’s home in the rest. Then there is a trip to Diagon Alley, where Harry, Ron, and Hermione purchase supplies for school, and the train ride to Hogwarts, where they get bullied by Draco Malfoy. The school year itself is a creative explosion of tongue-in-cheek spells and magical monsters, Harry’s struggles being famous, Harry exploring suspicions of Snape and Malfoy, an emotional or social theme, and the problem of the year.
The series starts out light-hearted at first. Initially all we know is that when Harry was one year old, the notorious evil wizard Lord Voldemort killed his parents, but the spell failed to kill Harry, and instead rebounded onto Voldemort. The headmaster of Hogwarts, Dumbledore, explained to Harry that Harry was protected because his mother died trying to save him. The wizarding world rejoiced at Voldemort’s demise, but Voldemort was not dead, and he returned undercover in Harry’s first year. While there is a strong possibility (inevitability, say the likes of Dumbledore) that Voldemort will return in power, he remains a comfortably far-off danger, except for the yearly mystery where he shows up behind the scenes.
In book one, the Philospher’s Stone (Sorceror’s Stone in the American edition) is housed at Hogwarts for safe-keeping from some danger, hidden behind numerous puzzles. Voldemort was possessing the Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher, who was carrying him around under a garlic-smelling turban. Harry and his friends come late to the puzzles, but solve them in time to find Voldemort’s carrier trying to get the stone from a mirror that only shows you want you most desire. Since Voldemort desired the eternal life that the stone offered (by means of brewing life-renewing potions with it), he only saw that, but because Harry did not want to use the stone for anything, he saw the stone and got it.
In book two, Voldemort’s diary possesses Ron’s younger sister, Ginny, who confided in it. (The diary wrote back replies.) It possessed her and made her open the Chamber of Secrets, bringing up the basilisk living there. It attacked students who would see in it a mirror and become paralyzed, but it was restrained from looking at them directly and turning them to stone. The Voldemort in the diary became almost flesh after fully possessing Ginny, but Harry figured out the secret of the Chamber in time. Fifty years prior, Voldemort had opened the Chamber while he was at school, and the basilisk killed a girl named Myrtle, who haunted a toilet in the girls bathroom. Harry went to her bathroom, spoke in Parsletongue (snake language) to the faucet with the snake on it, which opened to reveal a pipe down to the Chamber. He then encountered Voldemort, and in a hopeless situation, Dumbledore’s phoenix arrived with the Sorting Hat. The Hat gave Harry the sword of Gryffindor (renowned for bravery), but he was mortally wounded by the basilisk in the process of killing it. Phoenix tears cure a basilisk bite, and Fawkes cried into the wound. Harry took one of fangs and stabbed the diary with it, killing it.
In book three, the dangerous prisoner Sirius Black escapes from the wizard prison, Azkaban. Azkaban is guarded by dementors, which feed on happy thoughts, leaving you with only despair. When permitted to administer the death penalty (“the kiss”), they consume your soul, leaving your body alive but vacant. Black was imprisoned for mass-murdering 20 Muggles, but it turns out that he did not do it. Black, Harry’s father, Lupin (the Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher that year), and a man named Pettigrew were close friends when they were at Hogwarts. Harry’s parents were protected from Voldemort with a Fidelius Charm, and used Pettigrew as the Secret Keeper. Pettigrew was working for Voldemort and revealed their location. He later killed the 20 Muggles. Black escaped Azkaban to killed Pettigrew, who had been posing as Ron’s pet rat, Scabbers, for the past four years. Pettigrew was killed, although not by Black, leaving Harry now in possession of a godfather, but one who was still on the run.
The fourth book begins the ascent of Voldemort, and it adds an additional piece into the formula: an opening chapter giving context into Voldemort’s . Quite uncharacteristically for a children’s series, book four opens with a cold-blooded killing by Voldemort. It’s ending has another cold-blooded killing, along Harry surviving his attempted murder by Voldemort again. He returns to report that Voldemort, who had been a disembodied spirit (“lower than the meanest ghost”) and exceptionally weak, was now re-clothed in a body, gathering his Death Eater minions. In between Harry struggles with girls and struggles to survive the Tri-Wizard tournament, ordinarily reserved for seventh years, but Harry someone entered into it. That someone turned out to be the new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher, the son of a Ministry of Magic official and one of Voldemort’s most faithful Death Eaters, who was impersonating Mad-Eye Moody.
The fifth book begins to vary the formula a bit, mirroring the upheaval in the Wizarding world. The Ministry is trying to cover up the return of Voldemort, but Harry’s crowd is involved in the Order of the Phoenix, dedicated to resisting Voldemort. The Order is housed at Sirius’ house, so Harry gets to see his godfather a bit at the beginning. Hogwarts is not the same. Dumbledore is openly announcing Voldemort’s return, so the Ministry sidelines him by appointing Delores Umbridge as High Inquisitor of Hogwarts. She seems to be as evil as Voldemort, through the exercise of totalitarian control in the service of maintaining the fiction of no Voldemort. Both students and staff resist Umbridge. Harry and Hermione form “Dumbledore’s Army,” in which Harry teaches defense against the dark arts to interested students. The Weasley twins Fred and George quit school mid-year in a culmination of mayhem to found a joke shop. The teachers come up with various reasons why they are unable to clean up the messes caused by Umbridge. Even Dumbledore’s office refuses to open for Umbridge, after the Ministry forces her on Hogwarts as Headmistress. Meanwhile, Harry discovers his scar connects him with Voldemort’s thoughts, particularly when Voldemort is very emotional. This helps Harry save Mr. Weasley, but the connection works both ways, and Harry is lured into a trap at the Ministry of Magic. The result is that much of the Department of Mysteries is destroyed in the fight, Sirius is killed by being sent through Death’s doorway, the prophecy about Harry and Voldemort that Voldemort was seeking is destroyed unheard over the noise, and Voldemort is clearly seen in the Ministry as Dumbledore returns to protect Harry and fight of Voldemort. We also learn that Dumbledore had heard the original prophecy, and that prophecy is not fate, that by his own actions Voldemort chose Harry to be his equal, empowering the prophecy, that one must die.
The sixth book is more back to normal, although less formulaic. Voldemort is active, the dementors have gone over to his side and are breeding (creating unusual mists around England that have Muggles puzzled), but the Ministry is still functioning. Harry helps Dumbledore hire a new Potions teacher, now that Snape has finally acquired the Defense Against the Dark Arts post he craved. Harry also procures a Potions book with brilliant notes by the “Half-blood Prince” that enables him to thrive in potion making and learning new spells. Dumbledore also brings him for lessons, where they examine memories about Voldemort as Tom Riddle. After Harry uses a luck potion to get a key memory from the Potions teacher (and it being his lucky day, Ginny, whom he came to realize he loves, broke up with her boyfriend), it becomes clear that Voldemort sought to make himself immortal by splitting his soul through evil deeds, securing those pieces in various valuable Wizarding relics as horcruxes. The diary that possessed Ginny was one horcrux (destroyed by the baslisk tooth), and Dumbledore takes Harry to the location of a second. Dumbledore drinks the poison potion covering the horcrux, but it turns out that the horcrux had already been taken by someone else. On their return to Hogwarts, Draco Malfoy finally succeeded in his year-long efforts of service to Voldemort, by fixing a broken two-way cabinet, one of which resides in a room of junk in Hogwarts. This bypasses spells protecting the castle and enables Death Eaters to come in. Malfoy is unable to bring himself to actually kill Dumbledore, and Snape, a former Death Eater trusted by Dumbledore as reformed, does it instead.
The seventh book is completely different. One of the Weasley’s older sons gets married, but the celebration is disrupted by news that Minster of Magic has been killed and Voldemort’s people have taken over the Ministry. Harry, Hermione, and Ron do not return to Hogwarts for their seventh year (with Snape as Headmaster), but seek out the remaining five of Voldemort’s horcruxes. They hide out in Sirius’ house for a while, procuring the horcrux locket taken by Sirius’ deceased brother who had grown disgusted with being a Death Eater, but unable to destroy it. After the house is revealed, they go on the run. They discover the existence of three “deathly hallows,” supposedly given to three brothers by Death. Harry is descended from one of the brothers, and has a perfect invisibility cloak. There is also a resurrection stone that allows one to bring back shadows of loved ones, and an elder wand (made from wood of the elder tree) that is superior to all other wands. Voldemort’s wand does not work well against Harry’s, which is its brother, so he seeks the elder wand. Harry chooses horcruxes. They eventually find the Sword of Gryffindor, which Harry pulled out of the Sorting Hat to kill the basilisk and destroy the locket. After being captured by Voldemort’s underlings, who appear every time someone says Voldemort’s name, they escape by means of the Malfoy’s house elf that Harry tricked Mr. Malfoy into freeing. They partner with a goblin who was captured with them to enter the goblin-run Gringott’s Bank, where one of the Death Eaters (Sirius’ sister) was keeping a famous cup that was now a horcrux. After barely escaping alive with the cup they go to Hogwarts for the next horcrux, which is destroyed when Draco Malfoy’s goon-friends burn the junk room with fiend-fire, killing the horcrux. Ron and Hermione (now a couple), enter the Chamber of Secrets and retrieve the basilisk teeth to kill the horcrux in the cup. Voldemort’s Death Eater’s attack the castle seeking Harry but are held off by students, teachers, and remaining members of the Order of the Phoenix. The three friends find Voldemort hiding nearby, and Voldemort murders Snape to gain control over the elder wand, which he took from Dumbledore’s tomb, and leaves. The dying Snape gives Harry memories which demonstrate that while he hates Harry because Harry’s father bullied Snape in school, he had indeed worked against Voldemort because of infatuation with Harry’s mother. Voldemort tells Harry to meet him in the Forbidden Forest if he wants to save his friends, so Harry goes, and is killed. While dead, he has a chat with Dumbledore and understands things more clearly, and also sees the incredible cost that Voldemort has paid by corrupting his soul. Voldemort and Harry are connected, as Harry is also a horcrux, so Harry chooses to return to save his friends. Voldemort, who had swooned immediately after killing Harry, recovers, and assigns Mrs. Malfoy to check if Harry is really dead. She realizes he is alive, asks him if Draco is alive, Harry responds affirmatively, and she lies to Voldemort, saying he is dead. Voldemort triumphantly brings Harry’s body back to the school, which solidifies their resistance against him. Neville Longbottom, long a terrible student, has taken leadership in Harry’s absence and resisted Snape as Headmaster. He pulls out Gryffindor’s sword from the Sorting Hat which Voldemort throws at him, and kills Voldemort’s snake, the last remaining horcrux. The remaining death eaters are killed in the ensuing battle, leaving only Voldemort. Harry explains that his death protected the students from Voldemort, just like his mother’s death protected him. Furthermore, Voldemort was not really the master of the elder wand, because Dumbledore had asked Snape to kill him, so the wand’s allegience did not transfer to Snape, but to Draco Malfoy, who Harry had defeated while escaping with the house-elf, leaving Harry the master of the wand. Voldemort attempts to kill Harry, who reclaims the wand; the two spells collide, resulting in Voldemort’s spell backfiring and killing him.
The Harry Potter series is structurally a Hero’s Journey as well as a coming-of-age story. Harry starts off as an ordinary boy, but quickly discovers he can do magic, and that, in fact, he is regarded as something special for having defeated Voldemort as a baby. However, Harry seems to be merely average at magic, although he does have a knack for surviving sticky situations with a combination of humanity, wits, luck, and deus ex machina. He faces opposition primarily from Snape and Draco Malfoy. As the series progresses Sirius, and later Dumbledore mentor Harry, and his opposition strengthens to Umbridge and Voldemort directly. In teaching other students how to defend against the dark arts Harry learns that he does have things to offer, and that there is a legitimate reason for people to respect him. Dumbledore repeatedly says that Harry’s strength is his love and commitment to people, which is the opposite of Voldemort. Shortly before dying, Dumbledore gives Harry is Quest or Mission, to destroy the horcruxes and defeat Voldemort, which kicks off the last cycle in the seventh book. Here Harry takes leadership, destroys the horcruxes, and faces death, which he no longer fears, to protect those he loves. He is resurrected and comes back to defeat Voldemort, finish the prophecy, and save his world.
The books deal with a variety of themes. One of the most common is Harry feeling not valuable, initially because of his up and down relationships with his fellow students, but later on because he does not know what to do about Voldemort. Another persistent theme is Harry’s longing for parents and family, which he only gets small tastes of until the end when he can (eventually) marry Ginny. One of the strongest themes (and most tiring, in my opinion) is Harry’s suspicion that adults are biased against him. When faced with events he feels sure about that adults do not agree with, he thinks the adults do not have his best interests at heart. Even Dumbledore comes under suspicion in the last two books. Yet, the adults prove that they do have his interests in mind, but there are larger things going on. Even Snape turns out not to be as bad as Harry thought. Adults in authority, Dumbledore and company excepted, have a tendency towards either enforced ignorance of what is really going on or outright injustice, in the case of Snape and Umbridge. Finally, death emerges as a theme, primarily that fear of death creates evil and the embracing death as rejoining loved ones brings peace.
Contrary to objections by conservative Christians, witchcraft is not a theme. While the characters are called witches and wizards, in fact, magic is a form of technology. Real witchcraft and magick involves partnering with supernatural spirits to acquire supernatural power, generally for the purposes of domination. Magic in the Harry Potter world is an innate ability to manipulate the natural world in a way the Muggles cannot. Furthermore, the Wizarding world is very thoroughly tongue-in-cheek, riffing on witch and wizard tropes. Mail is send by owl, witches and wizards drink pumpkin juice instead of orange-juice, etc. Even the spells are hilarious if you have a passing familiarity with Latin. It seems that magic in the Wizarding world involves saying the Latin translation of what you want to happen, focusing on what you want to happen, and waving your wand in the right way.
Rowling claims that her plots can be predicted if you knew her Christian values. The most obvious theme is that of death for someone else. Instead of dying for another’s sin, willingly dying for someone you love confers deep protection on them. In the case of Harry, widely seen as the savior of the Wizarding world, he dies for his fellow students, and is resurrected to defeat Voldemort. Despite his disclaiming people’s expectations of him throughout the series, he actually ends up acting as a savior figure as well as a hero. A consistent theme of Dumbledore’s is that love has power, and love triumphs over evil. It is Voldemort’s lack of knowledge of love that ultimately leads to his demise. Similarly, the characters are repeatedly instructed to treat everyone kindly and fairly, including those who you feel are “beneath” you. The effects of not doing this are seen in the mistreatment of Muggles and Muggle-born wizards by Voldemort’s followers, in the mistreatment of house-elves, and in the poor relationship between wizards and goblins.
The form of each book, other than the last, is that of a mystery. Instead of a crime to be solved, the object of the book’s title is introduced into the life of the school. Harry generally happens into the mystery through investigating other less-important mysteries going on. (And in a castle with secret passages and something like seven secret exits full of kids, there is plenty to investigate.) “Mystery” means “something hidden,” and the context of the mystery, as well as adults’ strange reactions, is slowly revealed. The hero Harry is thrust into single combat and defeats the obstacle, generally with a combination of his love and courage born from love as well as completely unpredictably lucky events. Harry is simply unable to defeat Voldemort’s diary and a basilisk that kills you by looking at you. But his faithfulness to Dumbledore calls down Dumbledore’s pet Phoenix, Fawkes, who brings with him the Sorting Hat. Fawkes distracts the basilisk puts out his eyes, and later heals the basilisk wound. Harry ends up putting on the Hat, which gives him Gryffindor’s sword. Neither Fawkes nor the sword was at all foreseeable by either Harry or the reader. Likewise, when Harry ends up transported directly to Voldemort, he is saved primarily because his and Voldemort’s wands are related and do something unexpected, causing Voldemort’s wand to disgorge its previous spells, and the shadows of the people he killed distract Voldemort enough for Harry to escape. Again, not foreseeable by any party.
The series is popular because of legitimate strengths, and this may be a series of 100-year books. The books have a strong story arc, one that feels largely planned out from the beginning—even the mention at the beginning of the first book that some of Gringott’s vaults are rumored to be guarded by a dragon just sounds like foreshadowing. They deal with fairly deep themes, although a little one-sided and heavy-handedly, being a children’s book. The mystery of the book keeps people engaged, and the mystery of the series—who is Voldemort, how will that be resolved—keeps people engaged in the next book. But a large amount of the appeal is the rich population of well-defined characters, creative assortment of spells and potions, and assorted Hogwarts history. Each character has one defining characteristic, which is done in a quirky manner. Likewise, each spell or potion has quirky effect, generally with a unpleasant caveat, and frequently a small story to accompany it. These are no generic Fireball spell. Instead you get things like Felix Felicitus, a potion of distilled luck, or the Monster Book of Monsters, a book on magical creatures that is itself rather difficult to handle. And these assorted collections of magical items and creatures get put to creative and unusual uses. While a real world would have much more nuanced people and less wacky and overpowered potions, Harry Potter’s world is certainly very vivid and exciting.