The UK illustrator for the first Harry Potter novel has solved a long-running fan mystery about an unknown wizard on the back cover. Harry Potter is certainly the most iconic multimedia fantasy franchise of the 21st century. What started as the tale of a young wizard attending a school for magic has expanded to include video games, theme parks, a two-night stage show, and a series of prequels inspired by the in-fiction textbook Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. However, before all of the hullabaloo surrounding the boy wizard, Harry Potter started as a single children's novel that would kick off a seven-book series. Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (which was retitled Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone for American markets), written by a then-unknown author, was released in 1997.
Nobody behind the book's publication could have predicted the massive, culture-defining property the book would eventually become, least of all the person who illustrated the iconic original UK cover. That person is behind one of the series' greatest mysteries, having drawn a wizard on the back cover who doesn't seem to match the description of any of the characters in the book itself. The wizard is wearing striped pants that resemble pajamas under a red cloak, with a red pointed hat perched on his head. He is depicted holding an enormous book with a five-pointed star on it and smoking a pipe. Eventually, the back cover wizard was replaced by a more recognizable Harry Potter figure - Hogwarts headmaster Albus Dumbledore - but speculation still remains about who that original illustration was meant to represent.
The UK website iNews recently sat down with illustrator Thomas Taylor, who has come forward with the answer to that longtime mystery after two and a half decades. The back cover wizard isn't any of the adult figures seen in the book, including more out-there speculations like Dedalus Diggle. No, the wizard is a caricature of Taylor's father, who at the time had a habit of wearing clothes that seemed to fit well within the world of Harry Potter. Read Thomas' quote about his illustration below:
Well, it was my dad. [Publisher Barry Cunningham] said, “Can you just paint a wizard to decorate the back cover?” And my dad dressed quite flamboyantly at the time – he had funny hats and embroidered waistcoats. It was an in-joke.
The way both the publisher and the illustrator approached the back cover certainly proves how little anybody thought the book would succeed at the time. The first edition of Philosopher's Stone became a global word-of-mouth success more or less instantly after its release. If he had been asked to provide the cover for a later book in the series, he almost certainly would have opted to illustrate one of the many characters from the novel rather than a random in-joke.
Although the answer to this mystery may disappoint some Harry Potter fans, it's an interesting part of the texture of the series. It's a reminder of the franchise's humble beginnings. When one is inundated with the merchandise and the tie-in products and the constant reruns of the films on television, it may be refreshing to remember the scrappy little book that started it all.