WASHINGTON, July 3 -- Harry Potter, the fictional boy wizard and hero of J.K. Rowling's mystery novels, has cast a magical spell on millions of fans, young and old alike, around the world. It's a phenomenon," said Stephanie Thompson, a 34-year-old public relations specialist from California. "They are well-written and fun books to read." The fourth book in the series, "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire," which goes on sale Saturday both in the United States and Britain, has created unusual furor within the world of books. "I've been working here for three years and this is absolutely the heaviest demand for any book I've seen," said Lynette Bourne, manager of Borders Books in Arlington, Va. "When other authors, like (John) Grisham, come out, we get a lot of anticipated requests, but not like this." Scholastic Books, the U.S. publisher, is printing an unprecedented 3.8 million copies, in hardcover. That's 40 times the average run for a best-seller and, some industry analysts say, the largest initial print run in publishing history. British editions of the Harry Potter books have sold about 7.5 million copies so far. What is indeed phenomenal is that there has been no Madison Avenue advertising campaign or major marketing strategy deployed to publicize "Goblet of Fire." Contrary to publishing industry norms, no advance copies were made available to literary critics and no galley copies distributed to the media. Instead, the publishers relied on word of mouth and the interest the first three books generated, mostly among children, for whom the books were originally written.
What made the novels interesting to people of all ages is the fact that they are written well and easy to read. "They awaken the inner child that is trapped inside all of us," one reader said. "I was reading the book on my lunch break outside my office building one day and I was jumping up and down, I was so excited. People thought I was insane," said a reader from San Diego. Indeed, all the ingredients for literary magic are present in Rowling's books, and she is already being compared to C.S. Lewis. Although Lewis' books tend to be deeply Christian, there are no obvious religious undertones in Rowling's novels. However, one does find striking similarities between the devil as portrayed in the Judeo-Christian tradition and the character Voldemort ("he who must not be named") in the Potter books. Like Satan, the terrifying Lord Voldemort is a fallen angel, or in this case wizard, who crossed the line from good into evil. The underlying morality of the first Harry Potter book is that nothing, no matter how evil of powerful, can defeat the purity of love. "It's exciting to read as I get to use my imagination," said my 10-year-old daughter, Isabelle, an authority on Harry Potter books. The books in the series project a certain moral sensibility while remaining down to earth, sort of. They maintain enough of a resemblance to daily life - at least the life in an English boarding school, where sports are played and lessons are taught. But Harry's school is different - the Hogwarts School for Witchcraft and Wizardry. Like thousands of other English schoolboys, Harry leaves for school from London's King's Cross Station, but from platform Nine and Three-Quarters. Oh, and of course broomsticks are used to play Quidditch, a soccer-like game that involves four balls and six suspended goals. Then there are giant trolls and three-headed dogs, flying broomsticks, centaurs and enough magical suspense to make you want to keep turning the page. With few exceptions, the witches and wizards are the good guys in Harry Potter's world. This has upset some people in the United States who complain that the books promote witchcraft. "The supernatural is popping all over," a New York Times Book Review critic wrote. According Judith Krug, director of the Office for Intellectual Freedom of the Chicago-based American Library Association, Harry Potter books have been challenged 26 times in at least 18 different states. "The figures do not give the full picture," Krug said. "One challenge can reflect a single school or an entire district, as was the case in one Florida school district." All challenges have been against schools, not public libraries. The Zeeland, Michigan, school district has banned reading Harry Potter books aloud, removed them from display in elementary school libraries and requires parental permission to check out the books or to use them for book reports. There have also been reports of books being banned in school districts in Colorado and Kansas. Some of the challenges have been resolved without restrictions being imposed. But the magic is definitely there. At Amazon.com, requests have been pouring in. The giant Internet bookseller has set up a Harry Potter link on its Web site that counts the number of Potter books ordered by Muggles - non-magical folk for those unfamiliar with Potterese. The book hit No. 1 weeks before its release date. The current Muggle count is close to 300,000 and rising by the hour. The fervent Potter fan in San Diego ordered the book from Amazon's U.K. outlet, even though it will cost her a few more silver sickles - er, dollars. Sensing that there is no wizardry to help American audiences understand some British English, some terms have been altered in the U.S. edition. For example, "spellotape," a play on the British brand Sellotape, magically becomes the more-familiar Scotch tape. The hype over the latest installment has been astounding. Armed guards have been keeping watch over the manuscript, which is locked in a bank vault. An executive at Bloomsbury, the book's British publisher, has been mugged once and her car was broken into twice, but the manuscript remains safe, much like the Sorcerer's Stone in the first Potter book. Booksellers around the world have been asked to sign documents promising they will not sell the book before the official July 8 release date. In some stores, guards have been employed to guarantee the safety of the books. The series was thought up by Rowling, an unemployed single mother who wrote early drafts on scraps of paper while tending her young daughter at a local caf. Her efforts have paid off, and she went from living on the dole in a scruffy Edinburgh flat to the top of the literary world, outselling established authors like Jeffrey Archer and John Grisham. The first book, "Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone," sold 70,000 copies in Britain and netted Rowling a $100,000 advance in the United States - where it was published as "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" - a huge sum for a first novel. That was almost unheard of for a children's book, which typically sell no more than 3,000 copies in hardcover. So far, more than 20 million copies of Potter books have been sold in America. Rowling is also set to sign a six-figure deal with Warner Bros., which expects to release the first Harry Potter movie in November 2001. As Professor McGonagall of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry says of Harry: "Soon every child in the world will know his name."