Harry's last dance

As the final Harry Potter book inches closer to store shelves, spellbound fans gather in New Orleans to study and celebrate the boy wizard and his world.

Published May 27, 2007

NEW ORLEANS -- The ballroom is jammed with just about every character from the Harry Potter books. Hagrid, Draco Malfoy, Dobby, Dolores Umbridge, Voldemort, Dumbledore: They're all doing the electric slide.

The Muggle DJs blast into the next song, and up front is Harry Potter, thrashing his wand in the air and singing along to the Beastie Boys: "You got to fight ... for your right ... to party!"

Might as well dance, Harry. In a couple of months you may be dead.

Phoenix Rising, a conference for scholars and grownup fans of J.K. Rowling's phenomenally successful Harry Potter books, drew about 1,000 participants to New Orleans last weekend. At the Sheraton Hotel on Canal Street, people in wizard robes accented with Mardi Gras beads chatted on cell phones in the hallways, vendors did a brisk business in chocolate frogs and stylish witches' hats, and scholars from around the world discussed the psychology, symbolism and structure of Rowling's novels.

In a Bourbon Street bar on Friday night, "wizard rock" bands like the Parselmouths and the Whomping Willows played to a whooping crowd. On a sunny Saturday, a Quidditch tournament took place in Riverside Park, as steamboats cruised past on the Mississippi. At the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas that night, an audience of several hundred listened to a panel on how the "participatory fandom" of the Potter books has reshaped publishing, movie marketing, maybe even education -- not to mention erotic fiction.

On July 21, the seventh and final book in the series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, will be published. Rumor has it Rowling might even kill off Harry. Heroes, after all, often die to save the world.

The Harry Potter story might have begun as children's literature, but Rowling has created something both wider and deeper. It has been said that one measure of great books is that many different people can take many different meanings from them -- they are an inexhaustible feast for our intellectual and emotional hungers.

If that's true, the wildly diverse crowd at this conference is a hint that the Potter books are much more than a commercial phenomenon. Harry is known as "the boy who lived," but whether he lives or dies in the final book, he may be a hero for the ages.

Standing in line

The Harry Potter books have had an enormous impact on the publishing business. "It's a different world," says Susan Aikens. "Harry Potter is a phenomenon unto itself."

Aikens is the buyer of fiction for children ages 8 to 12 for Borders' 500-plus stores. The Potter juggernaut changed children's books from a "well-loved small corner" of bookselling to a power center. Release parties, the popularity of longer and hardcover kids' books, the primacy of the fantasy genre, the explosive growth of young adult books -- all came out of Harry's cauldron, Aikens says. "Harry made it all right for adults to read kids' books."

In 1998, when Borders had about 240 stores, Aikens' predecessor bought 3,900 copies of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone sight unseen. It took six months for Borders to sell 10,000 copies of the book.

In 2005, the company sold a million copies of the sixth book, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, in less than four days. Aikens expects Deathly Hallows to sell a million copies in two days. Its record-shattering first printing will be 12-million copies. And she thinks the books will keep selling: "Generations of kids will continue to read Harry."

"I don't know any more about the (last) book than you do," she warns a luncheon audience before they can pin her down about Harry's fate. "I'll be standing in line like everybody else, and I don't want it any other way."

Quidditch training

Played without benefit of flying broomsticks, Quidditch looks like a mashup of lacrosse, basketball and volleyball. In a field next to the levee, the Bayou Quidditch League tournament goes on all day, with about a dozen players at a time milling among hoops, quaffles and three kinds of balls. (Eventual winners: the Knight 62442 Werewolves.)

"There's no crying in Quidditch!" someone hollers. The players, most of them young women, wear team jerseys with nicknames: Potter, Trelawney, Gidget, Twinkie.

Twinkie, who also wears leopard-skin high tops and candy-striped knee socks, is Melody Strmel, 17, of Sarasota, who is dual-enrolled at Pine View School for the Gifted and New College. Strmel has been coming to Harry Potter conferences since 2003. "I really like the academic panels," she says, mentioning presentations on parenting styles and on the genetics of magical powers.

Rowling, she says, writes about subjects like love, death and racism "without being corny or cliched. It just flows like the ambrosia of the gods." She bursts into giggles. "I've been playing Quidditch since 9:30 this morning. I don't know what I'm saying."

How do you train for Quidditch? "You don't, " she says with a grin.

The boy in the closet

The Harry Potter fandom, says Henry Jenkins, is "so big it generates its own niches."

Jenkins, director of the comparative media studies program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, studies a wide range of pop culture phenomena. Harry Potter is one of his main subjects, and he's all over the schedule at Phoenix Rising.

He's especially interested in the relationship between Harry and the Internet, a convergence that has created one of the most intensely participatory fandoms in history. People don't just read the books and watch the movies. The number of Harry Potter Web sites, forums, podcasts and other digital manifestations is practically uncountable.

On them, fans speculate and argue and write vast amounts of fanfic. That's short for fan fiction, a type of writing Jenkins says goes back at least to the mimeographed science fiction fanzines of the 1950s and '60s.

Now fanfic proliferates online, and it has produced a community of writers so enthusiastic and mutually supportive, Jenkins says, that the MacArthur Foundation is focusing on Harry Potter fandom as part of a $50-million research study of digital media and learning.

Corporate attitudes towards fans have changed, Jenkins says, from the days when publishers and film companies protected their intellectual property at all costs. Now, they recognize that fans "create economic value through their passion."

Potter fanfic takes many forms, putting Rowling's characters into adventures and romances that expand far beyond the boundaries of canon, as fans call the six published Potter novels.

One of the most popular forms of fanfic is slash, erotic stories about male characters. Almost all of it is written, and read, by straight women. Slash originated, Jenkins says, at least several decades ago, notably with stories about Star Trek's Capt. Kirk and Mr. Spock. Slash writers also focus on TV series (House is a favorite), but the Harry Potter characters are hot topics.

Jenkins says, "After all, this is a character who literally lives in the closet."

Severus, please

The dozens of scholarly presentations and panels at Phoenix Rising address all sorts of topics, from how well Harry fits into mythic archetypes of the hero (like a sword in a scabbard) to the parallels between the books' dastardly Ministry of Magic and the Bush administration's No Child Left Behind Act.

At many of them, the presenters offer opinion on Harry's fate. Whether educated guess or wish, it's almost always: He lives.

The plenary session, the biggest discussion of the conference, is "Snape: Friend or Foe?" Hundreds fill the ballroom to hear a six-person panel talk about Severus Snape, Hogwarts' mysterious professor of Potions and Defense Against the Dark Arts.

Snape, one of Rowling's most morally ambiguous characters, evokes strong emotions among fans. Panel member Rachel Stiegel, a Texas law student and host of Snapecast, says, "J.K. Rowling is all about love. Harry Potter is white, Voldemort is black, and Snape is the eternal gray."

Hilary K. Justice, an assistant professor at Illinois State University and a board member of the Hemingway Society, calls Snape "a perfect mirror.

"It's a much more complicated moral universe if Snape is both (Harry's) friend and foe. Rowling points us toward the moustache-twirling villain and the impossibly good hero, but she doesn't stay there for long."

Snape's real motives in the fate of Dumbledore in Half-Blood Prince are as hotly debated as his own destiny in Deathly Hallows. The final question to the panel: Will Snape -- not Harry -- live or die?

The three Snape devotees all believe he will die, probably sacrificing himself to save Harry.

The Snape haters all say he will live.

In character

The conference culminates in the Sunday night masquerade ball. Many folks at the conference have been in costume all weekend, some of them decked out in meticulous detail.

Shae Merritt, 19, of Ocala, brought four different outfits to stay in character as Dolores Umbridge, the nasty temporary headmistress of Hogwarts. "Dolores is awesome. She's not going to cry because some guy didn't ask her out.

"And she's my size."

Not everyone is a Potter character. There are fairies, satyrs and a trio of women who look like they wandered off the set of Marie Antoinette, complete with powdered wigs and extreme decolletage.

Katherine Calore, 36, is dressed as a Greek goddess; in real life she's an Episcopal priest in Mount Vernon, Mo. Phoenix Rising is her first Potter conference: "This is my Christmas present from my husband," also a priest.

She and her three children read the Potter books together, Calore says, and she often uses the books in her sermons. "My parish knows where I am."

Perseus ("My father was a mythology teacher") LePage, 43, of Wakefield, Mass., has been a striking presence all weekend as Lucius Malfoy, a Deatheater and the father of Harry's nemesis, Draco Malfoy.

With his long, pale hair (real) and ice-blue eyes (contacts), LePage looks the part. "I'm an actor. People started calling me Lucius before I had even read the books."

Lucius Malfoy isn't the first fictional character he has wrapped himself in. While he was growing up in New Orleans, Interview With the Vampire became a sensation. "Back then, everyone called me Lestat. These are real," he says, showing off a disturbingly long and pointy pair of incisors. "I wore headgear for a year when I was 14 to get them."

Who is he tonight, when he has traded Lucius' all-black ensemble for crimson velvet and white ruffles? He thinks a moment. "Lucius as Lestat."

Out on the dance floor, Jeremy Thompson and Hope Driggers are getting engaged. The University of North Carolina Wilmington students, both 22, have been dating since they were 13 and are devoted Harry Potter fans.

"I've been planning it for about a year," Thompson says. "Everybody here helped. She didn't know a thing."

Driggers, her short hair dyed pink for her costume as punky witch Nymphadora Tonks, says, her eyes welling, "This was the perfect place to do this."

Not going to stop

On Monday morning, Hallie Tibbetts, one of the conference organizers, is catching her breath.

"Our intent is to be overwhelming," she says, to offer participants some of everything. It took 20 full-time volunteers before the event and about another 50 part-time during the weekend to pull it off.

They're already taking reservations for Terminus, the 2008 Harry Potter conference in Chicago.

Does Tibbetts, an editor and teacher who lives in Denver, think things will change after the last book is published in July?

"I actually do," she says wistfully. "It's not going to be so open-ended. The speculation is going to stop."

There's a positive side, she says. "We can talk about the complete series. We'll have context.

"How we talk about things will change. But we're not going to stop loving the books."

Colette Bancroft can be reached at (727) 893-8435 or bancroft@sptimes.com.