HARRY Potter is big-noting himself again. The eighth and final movie has opened at cinemas with the usual well-rehearsed demonstrations of mass devotion at midnight screenings. The seventh and final book of the series has been dragged to the front of our remaining bookstores in the hope of flushing out any family that hasn't bought it yet. As his corporate overlords ready the next layer of the boy wizard's vertical integration into consumer culture - the official website and e-book portal - it's time to reheat all the panegyrics about his best-selling prowess, his epochal relevance, his services to literacy.
But it's far too soon to tell what Harry Potter's literary legacy will be. Ever since J. K. Rowling sold the film rights to the series in 1999, Warner Brothers has used its own mass media wizardry to crank up the volume on every Harry Potter book, film and other branding opportunity of the past 12 years. How could it fail to be the best-selling book series ever, with sales thus far of 450 million? I know children who thought loving Harry Potter was compulsory.
No, the big love for the boy wizard isn't all manufactured. The first reviews of the first book, in 1997, were positive before the hype. Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone was ''magic'', ''imaginative'', ''inventive''. More than one reviewer compared J. K. Rowling to Roald Dahl.
But in children's book circles, comparisons to Dahl have long served as lazy shorthand for ''likely to be popular'', in the same way that Truman Capote's In Cold Blood is waved around in true-crime blurbs.
While Dahl and Rowling may both be well-loved writers, it would be hard to find two prose stylists more diametrically opposed on your child's bookshelf.
Rowling's great gift was to create an alternative world, like Tolkien's Middle-earth or George Lucas's Star Wars' universe. And just like Tolkien and Lucas, she is no prose stylist. You can type this shit, as Harrison Ford said, but you sure as hell can't say it. Hogwarts is a fun escape, but reading this series aloud to your children is a chore, unlovely sentence by sentence for thousands of pages.
Roald Dahl did not give us a magical kingdom where the good children fight the bad things and win. Even the kooky commercialism of Willy Wonka's chocolate factory is built into our own world, just as Veruca Salt is as instantly recognisable today as she was in 1964.
It's been 50 years since his first children's book, James and the Giant Peach, was released. It's still in print. Perhaps in its monstrously unfeeling relatives and wisecracking insectoid companions, we can see some of the DNA J. K. Rowling would inject into Harry Potter's stories. But what's still fresh, all these years later, is Dahl's roguish voice. To read him aloud is always a pleasure, every page rich with wordplay and slick with wit.
Two generations later, children are still thrilled and shocked by the permission Dahl gives even his characters, even that milksop Charlie, to succumb to their baser instincts. In a world of vogueing Voldemorts, Dahl is genuinely naughty. That's real, rare literary magic.
What will children make of Harry Potter in 50 years, when his series sits quietly on the shelf? (Or alongside the other e-books?) He may still be the best-selling eponymous literary character of all time, especially as his adventures appeared in what may turn out to be the publishing industry's final flare of sales, like an eruption of hot gasses from a dying star. But as we're learning with every breathlessly announced new best-selling whatsit, breaking box office records is getting easier every year. Consumer populations expand and choice shrinks; making the most money means less than ever. We need to wait a generation or two to see what to make of Harry.