We've been led to believe that the magic in children's books is just not real. And in most cases, this is true. But not in the case of Harry Potter.
Harry Potter magic is real.
No, really. But before you go check your mailbox for your Hogwarts letter once again, let me explain what I mean. We all know adulthood is the realm of reality, right? We even call leaving school for the adult job-market "entering the real world." Well, at the end of Harry Potter and the Dealthy Hallows, Harry is an adult. And he can still do magic. (God damn him, you may say, he's had a better magical education than me because of A GOD DAMN LETTER. Yes. But put that aside for now...).
Harry is an adult who can do magic.
This is radically different from the magic in most fantasy children's books. Once you hit puberty, the magic in those books stops being real. But Harry Potter magic doesn't do that.
See, in most fantasy-genre children's books, the characters inhabit a magical world that, by the end of the book, they have to give up. In these books, magic represents a state of childhood innocence, the inner but meaningful fantasy children inhabit when they play. This fantasy-world is where children find out who they are, learn how good and evil work, learn how the world works. But the fantasy-world is not the real world.
Narnia is a classic example. Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy encounter good and evil in Narnia, they learn about themselves and about faith and truth --but when they reach a certain age they must leave Narnia for the real world in order to put into practice what they have learned. In His Dark Materials, Lyra loses the ability to read the Alethiometer when she loses her "childhood grace". In Peter Pan, Wendy must eventually leave Neverland and grow up and lose the ability to fly. In Five Children and It, the Psammiad --sand fairy and granter of wishes --must eventually depart. All magic stops being real.
But at the end of the final Harry Potter book, our heroes are still living in their magical world, as grown adults. Indeed, the last spell cast in the series is one of magical renewal -- when Harry repairs his own wand in preparation for a life of doing magic.
This is because, in Harry Potter, the magical world is not a fantasy place. It is a wonderful and terrible reality which looked like fantasy when you were young, but isn't.
JK Rowling is clever about this. She begins (in the first few books) in a full-on fairy-tale mode, making us think the series is going to be about that inner fantasy place again, and then she sneakily switches genres (or registers) as she goes along. The first few books are in a more or less larger-than-life register, complete with exaggeratedly horrible step-parents (see Cinderella and most Roald Dahl), a lovable giant (Roald Dahl again), a wise old wizard (Tolkein or T.H. White), a bat-like horror of a teacher (for Snape, see Mrs. Trunchbull), and an escape to a world of wonder and magic. Stepping into Diagon Alley seems like stepping into Narnia.
But it isn't.
It just looks like Narnia because that's how Harry sees it. After all, Harry is eleven. But as the series gets older, we start to see through the patina of wonder just as Harry does. The things in fairy-tales are larger than life because they have a flat and exaggerated quality to them, like hand-puppet shadows that loom and cower and tremble. But instead of turning on the light and showing us that the shadows weren't real, though they were cast by something that was, JK Rowling deepens the shadows, adding texture and highlights and dimensions until we realize what we're looking at isn't a shadow at all, but a real person in a real place. The wise old wizard is a flawed and human old man, the bat-like horror of a teacher is a lonely, embittered schoolboy who was unlucky at love, the evil step-parent is a petty result of sibling jealousy and cultural prejudice. The magic itself that seemed so extraordinary *is* wonderful, but just in the way ordinary life is wonderful: it enables you to turn on the lights, wash the dishes, get to work in the morning, and rid the garden of gnomes. And the magical world of wonder is a real institution, with all the lights and shades and flaws that entails: community, friendship, and culture as well as endemic racism, prejudice, and bureaucracy.
So JK Rowling's world of muggles versus magic does not follow Plato's ideas, at least not in the same way of most children's stories that concern themselves with two worlds. There is no division between a false reality and a real reality in JK Rowling's two worlds. Instead, they are all the same thing, and the patina of the fantastic is just in how you look at it.
The world of the Dursleys, like most things that appear to be horribly mundane, is not "dull reality", but "a state of ignorance". Harry at the Durslesy lives in a state of ignorance about his past, himself, his potential, and life in general. He's not living in the epitome of "the real world" --he's not able to. He's living in a cupboard, for God's sake. It's hard to experience life fully when you are living in a cupboard.
And when he finally gets a chance to experience life, of course the full extent of it IS richer and more full of wonder, friendship, and fun, than he could have imagined back in the Dursleys' cupboard, when having a good time meant not having to look at hundreds of pictures of someone else's cats. Life is also more full of horror, danger, and death than the dullness of the Dursleys' cupboard, too.
Reality is interesting, and frightening, and absurd. When Harry discovers magic, that is what he is discovering. Reality.
(So I really should go do something interesting and all that, but before I do, I think it's time to check the mailbox).