Putting the Pot in Potter

Now the fuss about Harry Potter the Fourth has died down slightly, look back and boggle at the huge volume of free advertising provided by our national press. Initially J.K. Rowling's novels reached the big time by word of mouth, without hype. Then, as though they couldn't bear anything to happen outside their control, the newspapers tried hard to take over and somehow make Harry Potter their creation.

Though British papers went to weird lengths, with the Times reviewing Giblet of Fire (as I like to call it) as the lead item on page one and the Daily Express giving Harry the whole front page, it was American journalists who really frothed at the mouth and leapt overboard.

I thought they'd reached the limit when the Washington Post devoted 39 column inches to the amazing saga of some brat who'd managed to buy a copy before publication date. But next came an even longer piece filling nearly a whole page, built around the earth-shaking revelation that the Virginia town where some US copies were printed contains a Potter's Barber Shop (see full-colour picture). On the day before publication, hard-hitting Washington Post investigators came up with two more Watergate-sized scoops, each given copious space: Potter novels have been translated into other languages! And adults read them too!

Yes indeed. Not many children vote on awards like the Hugo for SF, the Mythopoeic for fantasy and the Bram Stoker for horror: HP and the Prisoner of Azkaban, currently shortlisted for the first two, has already won the third.

Wherever there's lots of money sloshing around there'll be a lawsuit, and US children's author Nancy K. Stouffer is very stroppy about having once called a character Larry Potter and – in an entirely different book, but never mind – "coined" the word Muggles. Does this prove J.K. Rowling, OBE, to be a wicked plagiarist?

A little research in the Oxford English Dictionary indicates that "muggle" was 1205 Kentish dialect for tail, and in the 17th century meant something uncertain that might be gambling jargon, and is also – best of all – 20th-century slang for marijuana. Louis Armstrong cut a 1926 jazz record called Muggles, nudge nudge, and Raymond Chandler's 1949 thriller The Little Sister mentions muggle-smoking. (I imagine this as the next outrage which Rowling's bad guys will get up to.) Just wait until the Armstrong and Chandler estates sue Stouffer and Rowling for stealing their word!

Anyway, the marijuana connection – soon, surely, to be denounced by fundamentalists – provides the ideal opportunity to quote Persian poet Omar Khayyam's prescient comment on young Harry: "Who is the Potter, pray, and who the Pot?" We can readily imagine what Omar was smoking in his hubble-bubble at the time.

This sort of plagiarism hunt is infectious. Terry Pratchett was mildly alarmed when an early beta-test reader of his upcoming Discworld novel The Truth picked out the brief mention of a ghastly boys' private school called Hugglestones, and said "Oh dear, it sounds like Muggles ..." The robust Pratchett response: "I pointed out that I had indeed been pinching stuff from Harry Potter books for, oh, about 18 years now, and had definitely never run across words like fuggles, struggles, smuggles, snuggles and juggles. I will perhaps be sued by whatever remains of the 70s pop duo Buggles, though."

Even if the runaway success of Harry Potter seems bizarre (the books are good, but are they that good?), there are happy side effects for other writers. Pratchett reckons from anecdotal evidence that the Potter boom has increased his own sales. Diana Wynne Jones is rightly recommended by everyone as the author whom Potter addicts should try next, beginning with the witchy school novel Witch Week – and cunning publishers have reissued her nifty "Chrestomanci" children's stories in a new packaging that she cheerfully describes as "wonderful ... Potter with swirls." Another strong recommendation from me is Philip Pullman's grim fantasy trilogy Northern Lights, The Subtle Knife and – still awaited as I write – The Amber Spyglass. Believe me, kids, there is life after Harry Potter.

Finally: Stephen Fry has explained that journalists are allowed, once in their career, to write just one column about not having anything to write about. Likewise, I declare, they should each be limited to a single piece on the Harry Potter phenomenon, and no more. This has been mine. Next month we'll explore brand new territory such as, er, um, Terry Pratchett ...

David Langford thanks Washington correspondent Martin Morse Wooster for all the newspaper clippings.