Monday, July 31, is widely celebrated as Harry Potter’s birthday. In Houston, you can join in the festivities during “Potterfest.” Residents of Florida are likewise celebrating the occasion, as are library patrons in Tennessee.  

The problem, however, is that Harry Potter, a fictional character, isn’t real — or is he?  

If one celebrates Harry Potter’s birthday, that doesn’t make the celebration fake. Or, if one spends money to travel to New Zealand and visit “Hobbiton,” the money spent (and the hours sitting on a plane) is definitely, painfully real.

Where is the line between what is real and what is fiction? In some ways, the closer you look for that line, the further it slips away.

In 2021, I took a yearlong teaching position at a university in Spain. During the process of moving, my family and I traveled through Porto, the second largest city in Portugal, before heading to our final destination.  

Porto is a lovely city on the river Douro, which flows into the Atlantic in quintessential European splendor. It offers a lot to do and see, but among the most popular attractions is the now world-famous Livraria Lello. I first visited this bookstore in 2017 at the suggestion of my undergraduate professors. At the time, I heard from multiple sources that the bookstore was the inspiration for Ollivander’s Wand Shop in J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter” series — so, naturally, I had to see it. 

The shop was charming and old, and smelled of a strange hybrid between the dead and the living. But the books brought the walls and the shelves to life — even more so, because we were told that this was essentially the place where Harry got his first wizard’s wand. My wife and I loved it.

Fast forward to 2021: I wanted to relive these memories, only this time with my children. But on our first day in Porto, we walked to the shop and saw a line of about 100 people waiting for their own Instagram moments. With our two young kids, my wife and I decided not to wait. We returned the next morning when the shop opened — only to find the line was four times longer, and now wrapped around in multiple loops across the street and down the sidewalk. 

We stood in line for maybe 20 minutes before deciding yet again to leave. But while waiting, I found an article online about the book shop and its true relation to the “Harry Potter” series. 

It was the opposite of what I expected to find: not only did the Livraria Lello not inspire anything in “Harry Potter,” but Rowling apparently never even set foot in the store. The stories I heard and believed for many years weren’t accurate. It was all fiction — fiction built on fiction. 

After reading the article, waiting no longer seemed worth it, and I left somewhat disappointed. But as we stepped away, I realized that I had experienced something powerful.  

As evidenced by that line, the power of Rowling’s fiction drew hundreds of people early from their beds and out the door to wait for hours for the chance to walk around an odd smelling bookstore. All this was fiction. But does that make it not real? 

What is fiction? 

I thought about this question for the rest of the day, and into the next week.

If Rowling never set foot in that store, where did that magic come from when I first visited? Why did all those people make the sacrifice to stand in line and wait? Out of ignorance? Perhaps. But my mind kept returning to that word: sacrifice. 

“Sacrifice” comes from the Latin sacrum facere, meaning to make sacred. When we sacrifice, we make something sacred. The things for which you sacrifice are the things you hold sacred — in the act of sacrifice, we make them sacred. The same principle applies to fiction.  

The moment we read fiction and invite it into our lives, we make it real, a kind of veritas facere. We make fiction — at least the books we wholly embrace and absorb — part of our lives and souls. A fiction is only a fiction (in terms of being fake or false) in so long as it remains unread. But as those words leave the page and enter the heart of the reader —particularly when fiction is based on principles of truth (i.e., good triumphs over evil, like Harry and Voldemort) — they never leave. In fact, they come to life. 

Despite the fact that Rowling had never been to the Livraria Lello, that store was Ollivander’s Wand Shop. The people waiting made it so; they made the fiction a reality.  

And, paradoxically, the fiction made a real-world change to their lived reality. Without “Harry Potter,” many of those tourists would never have gone to the shop (and I wouldn’t be writing this article).

Of course, this story is not unique to Porto. Families and newlyweds visit California, Tokyo, Florida or Paris to see Mickey Mouse; readers travel to La Mancha, Spain, to see windmills; others go to the outskirts of Bradford, England, to see where “Jane Eyre” came to life; and many (perhaps more than should be the case) dress in Luke Skywalker or Captain Marvel cosplay to embody and vivify the fiction they consume so fervently.  

Whether we call this reality or not, it’s very real. People spend real money and real time —and derive real joy — from these fictions. So, what, exactly, does that make fiction?  

We need more ‘Hamlets’

Sacred scripture, of course, is the ultimate example of written words that have the power to convey truth and transform lives.

But at its best, fiction is the writing that transforms reality. Indeed, to understand the world, nonfiction books won’t cut it. One must also read fiction, the rich fiction that fills the heart and emboldens the soul.  

Dostoevsky once said of Cervantes’ “Don Quixote,” “There is nothing in life more powerful than this piece of fiction. It is still the final and the greatest expression of human thought, the most bitter irony that a human is capable of expressing; and if the world came to an end and people were asked somewhere there: ‘Well, did you understand anything about your life on earth and draw any conclusion from it?’ a person could silently hand over ‘Don Quixote.’”

In many ways, the writer uses the guise of fiction to speak the truth, and this world desperately needs the truth. We need writers who sing the unsung songs of worlds within. We need fiction that will influence the world to do good and rise to a higher level of living.

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Much of the fiction we consume today is powerful, but superficial. We need more “Quixotes,” more “Divina Comedias,” more “Hamlets.” We need literature that will sustain future generations for the world ahead. 

I invite you to add your voice to those of Dante, Shakespeare, Cervantes and other lions of literature — either by reading, writing or promoting good literary fiction. This world needs you; you will change the world. Millions of people are looking for meaning in their lives; I saw it firsthand in Porto. Give the world the fiction — or rather, the reality — that we need to truly live. 

And on July 31, take a moment to wish happy birthday to the boy who lived.

Scott Raines is a writer and doctoral student at the University of Kansas. 

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