To the uninitiated, Harry Potter may be merely the headliner in a top-selling franchise encompassing a seven-book series and, as of July 15, eight films. But to many in the generation that came of age alongside Harry, Hermione, Ron, and their fellow young witches and wizards at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, the books are tantamount to a moral compass, a map through the morass of modern life.
When Connecticut high school senior Lily Zalon was 5 years old, her father brought home "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone," the first of the best-selling series, which in her words "became my entire childhood."
The story about "the boy who lived," the young wizard who survived an attack by the Dark Lord, Voldemort, and went on to become the hero of the magical world, "shaped my moral views, my understanding of how people should treat each other, and how we should behave in the world," says Ms. Zalon. "It's a pretty good guide to being a decent human being."
Zalon is far from alone. Despite early misgivings by some church groups, the phenomenon of the bestselling children's book series of all time – some 450 million copies in 68 languages – has come to define a generation, says Prof. Henry Jenkins at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.
He points to the youthful cohort that read "Harry Potter" books between 1997, when the first installment arrived, and 2007, when the final chapter was written.
The characters have touched readers on an unprecedented scale, he says, adding that the series managed this broad impact at the very moment that the larger media culture was breaking up into niche markets and fragmented audiences.
" 'Harry Potter' is pure, cultural capital," he says, noting that this commonality "flies in the face of the commonly accepted notion that we are losing shared cultural norms."
The franchise hit just as the Internet moved from being an obscure tool of the elite to mass use, he notes. "The fandom was sharpened dramatically by the power of new media," he says, pointing to everything from blogs and fanzines, podcasts and music, and other user-generated content based on the "Harry Potter" books.
This unprecedented ability to share common interests leveraged a key element of the fantasy genre, says Elisabeth Rose Gruner, associate professor of English at the University of Richmond in Virginia.
"Fantasy literature tends to have a moral bent to it," she says, noting the struggle between good and evil that runs through its classics. But, she says via e-mail, "Harry Potter" "is unique in that, via the Internet, fans could immediately bond and act on their ideals."
Zalon compiled and edited the upcoming book "Dear Mr. Potter," a collection of letters, essays, and artwork that is a testimonial to how deeply the "Harry Potter" books have changed readers' lives.
Profits from the book's first run of 5,000 copies will go to the Harry Potter Alliance, a Boston-based nonprofit devoted to translating the morality of the "Harry Potter" universe into the real world.
Andrew Slack, now 31, cofounded the Harry Potter Alliance in 2005 to "translate the social justice values from the pages of J.K. Rowling's books into the real world." With 85 chapters, the HPA has organized to do everything from sending five shiploads of aid to Haiti and donating more than 70,000 books to children to helping in the global fights against genocide and climate change.
" 'Potter'-inspired social justice-type groups, like The Harry Potter Alliance and others, may be the most interesting and endearing expression of 'Harry Potter' fandom," she says, noting the themes in the books "put love as the highest good, and self-sacrifice as a norm of life, at least for brave and true characters."
This wrestling with moral questions has changed the course of many a classroom discussion.
The series provides a common frame of reference for all the big topics in classes, says Thomas Hibbs, dean of the Honors College at Baylor University in Texas. This includes "the notion of a heroic life, friendship, death, good and evil, vengeance and justice."
Daniel Bonevac, a philosophy professor at the University of Texas at Austin, says that before "Harry Potter," the dominant student attitude toward morality "was far more relativistic, with students adopting an almost cynical attitude toward the idea that some things were truly evil or good." Term papers deconstructing "Harry Potter"-based moral issues referencing Aristotle and Kant "are fairly common in my classes," he adds with a laugh.
The role of the individual struggle in moral choice is Ms. Rowling's contribution to her students, says Susan Mackey-Kallis, a communications professor at Villanova University, near Philadelphia. "The great thing about all these characters is their personal journey to adulthood through wrestling with what is right and wrong without simple or easy answers," she says. While some adult figures are clear guides, in the end, the main characters are left to themselves to discern right from wrong, she notes.
"Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2" opens July 15, and ticket presales are already setting records.