Blakeney, Sally. "The Golden Fairytale," The Australian, 7 November 1998

It's kids' stuff that adults love - and it's brought together a dead genius and a single mother CHILDREN'S authors, we think, should know their place. Safely tucked away in tidy rows of "juvenile" and "eight to 13s" is where we like them. Not up there, crowing at the top of adult best-seller lists.

Then, just when we thought C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien and Roald Dahl were safely put to bed, along comes J. K. Rowling with a rags-to-riches biography that leaves Oxford dons and fighter pilots for dead. After monopolising the paperback lists with Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, Joanne Rowling this year outsold writers such as Jeffrey Archer and John Grisham when her second title, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, was best-selling hardback for four weeks. Rowling has also sold the film rights.

It is the stuff of fairytales. In 1994, the former teacher winds up in Edinburgh with a four-month-old baby daughter, a suitcase (half-full of Harry Potter stories) and just enough money to rent a bad flat. Her marriage in Portugal has broken up, she has no warm clothes and writing in cafes - her baby sleeping beside her - is all that remains of her old life. She sends off her manuscript (retyped, she cannot afford photocopying), still dreaming, as she did as a five-year-old, scribbling her first story in the Forest of Dean on the border of England and Wales.

Then, as if with the wave of a magic wand, the single mother on welfare finds herself a front-page celebrity. There is an unprecedented £100,000 (over $271,370) advance for her first novel. She is signed to produce six more in the series. Hollywood is enchanted. Warner Brothers buys the film rights to Harry Potter's World of Wizards. And, spellbound, the publishers reissue Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone with two different jackets; one for children aged eight to 13 and the other for grown-ups who would rather not be caught reading children's books.

"There is a perception on the part of some people that children's books are worth less than adult books," says Rowling. She is catching her breath - as if it were possible for the mother of a busyfive-year-old - back in her new house in Edinburgh after an 11-day, five-city tour of the US. "I'm very frequently asked: `When are you going to write your adult book?' If a book appeals, it's going to appeal to everyone."

Of course, a reader like the late C. S. Lewis (whose centenary falls this month) would have read Harry Potter, no matter what the cover looked like. "The neat sorting out of books into age groups, so dear to publishers, has only a very sketchy relation with the habits of any real readers," the future professor of medieval and Renaissance English at Cambridge always the tweedy subversive - daringly told a librarians conference in 1952. "Those of us who are blamed when old for reading childish books were blamed when children for reading books too old for us. No reader worth his salt trots along in obedience to a timetable."

Rowling's Harry Potter is an orphan. At 11 he leads a Cinderella existence with his hideous relatives, the Dursleys, and his monstrously indulged cousin, Dudley. This Roald Dahl world of suburban nastiness is swept away when a motorbikeriding giant, Hagrid, arrives to reveal Harry's "dark" secret. He is not a "muggle" like the Dursleys, but the son of a witch and a magician. Harry has to learn the family profession at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Here is Enid Blyton's eye for breathless adventure, with wit. Boarding-school life - Eton collar unbuttoned, tongue firmly in the cheek and shared with ghosts such as Nearly Headless Nick and Moaning Myrtle. (Rowling relishes names and steals them shamelessly from Old English words, street signs and medieval saints.) Owls deliver messages. Wands are compulsory. Pet rats are permitted. There are classes in potions, dark arts - not to mention flying lessons. Opposing houses cheer the hectic four-ball game of Quidditch played on broomsticks.

These days well-meaning people give Rowling fantasy books to read. But she prefers Jane Austen and Roddy Doyle. "Fantasy is not my favourite genre. Although I love C. S. Lewis, I have a problem with his imitators." At 33, Rowling still re-reads The Chronicles of Narnia, famous for The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (she likes The Voyage of the Dawn Treader best), along with other childhood favourites, E. Nesbit, Paul Gallico and Noel Streatfield. "I try to do what they did in the sense of getting a good story and telling it as well as possible," she says. "There was nothing slapdash about the way they wrote."

Rowling, who studied French and classics at Exeter University ("My parents thought I was going to be a bilingual secretary"), calls Lewis a genius. "He was a very learned man and created a very rich mythology of his own." A Christian convert in his 30s, Lewis was a master of language whose quiet, persuasive power still reaches across time and nationality to grab his readers' hearts and minds. Today his books (rereleased in Australia this month by HarperCollins) are available in 29 languages, including Finnish and Hawaiian. Only recently the Detroit-born millionaire Thomas Monaghan decided to change his life after reading Lewis's Mere Christianity. He has sold his pizza company for $US1 billion and is investing in worthy causes.

Lewis wove his children's stories from his omnivorous reading. His worlds of Narnia, Cair Paravel, Calormen, Tashbaan and Archenland sprang from the stories told by our ancestors around smoky fires in the days before man could write. At 12, he read fairytales and legends, particularly Norse myths. At 16 he read The Iliad and The Odyssey, and discovered the two children's writers who were to be the greatest influence on his work, E. Nesbit and George MacDonald. Considered one of the best-read men of his time, he left a library of 3,000 books.

As Rowling sits in her study in front of a new laptop computer ("I still do my real writing in longhand in cafes," she confesses), it is hard to conjure up the impact the first book published in the Narnia series, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, had on its 1950 public. In those days Enid Blyton was queen of children's writing. Realism ruled while fantasy languished in the nursery with Noddy. Suddenly, the story of four children evacuated from London, who discover the magical world of Narnia when they crawl through the back of a wardrobe, was being read by everyone. Suddenly, Lewis was a household name thanks to his radio broadcasts on Christianity and a quirky, runaway best-seller, The Screwtape Letters.

Of course, not everyone approved. Tolkien, Merton professor of English language and literature at Oxford (where Lewis was Magdalen College fellow before his Cambridge appointment), hated The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. He thought it was scrappily put together; not a coherent, imaginative world. The two read each other their works in progress. Lewis, typically, was kinder to Tolkien's labours at his children's book, the epic narrative of Frodo the Hobbit. Tolkien's book started with the stories he told his children. Lewis was a bachelor (he did not marry until he was in his 60s, and when he did, chose - as those who saw the film Shadowlands know - an American woman dying of cancer for his bride). He found a children's story was the best form for what he wanted to say.

Lewis was (at least to start with) unconsciously evangelising through the imagination. He claimed his fictions sprang from images of "a faun carrying an umbrella, a queen on a sledge, a magnificent lion"; the Christian element of the story "pushing itself in of its own accord". "He was trying to make a point and he made it beautifully," says Rowling, adding that although her books do not have a message, she considers them moral. ("It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities," says headmaster Professor Albus Dumbledore after a particularly messy encounter with a monster in the school's cellars.) Like Lewis, Rowling's book started with a visual picture that grew in her imagination while she sat in a delayed train. "I saw Harry; he came incredibly fully formed. He was a boy who doesn't know he's a wizard and his name has been down for wizard school since birth. I sat for hours thinking about what wizard school would be like."

Rowling, who is now working on the fourth book in the series (distributed here by Allen & Unwin) is quick to point out the differences between Lewis's writing and her own. "Number one, I think he was a genius and I don't think I am. His world was a different place you were going through into another dimension. For me, in the Harry books it is not a different world, it's simply a world we can't see: we're muggles, it's right under our noses."

She will wait a year or two before introducing Harry to her daughter (some of it could be frightening for a five-year old), and in later books there will be deaths - as there were in Lewis's books. But when you are a storyteller and reader, there are no boundaries, as Lewis told his audience years ago: "When I was 10, I read fairytales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am 50, I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up."

Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, 223pp, $19.95. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Bloomsbury, 251pp, $19.95. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis, HarperCollins, 173pp, $12.95 (also available as a children's picture book, $19.95).

(c) Nationwide News Proprietary Ltd, 1998.

Original page date 24 February 2007; last updated 24 February, 2007.