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The novels revolve around Harry Potter, an orphan who discovers at the age of 11 that he is a wizard, though he lives within the ordinary world of non-magical people known as Muggles. The wizarding world has hidden itself from the Muggle world, presumably to avoid persecution of witches and wizards, which had occurred to a great extent several centuries before. His magical ability is inborn, and children with such abilties are invited to attend an exclusive magic school that teaches the necessary skills to succeed in the wizarding world. Harry becomes a student at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, and it is here where most of the events in the series take place. As Harry develops through his adolescence, he learns to overcome the problems that face him: magical, social and emotional, including ordinary teenage challenges such as friendships, infatuation, romantic relationships, schoolwork and exams, anxiety, depression, stress, and the greater test of preparing himself for the confrontation in the real world that lies ahead, in wizarding Britain's increasingly-violent second wizarding war.
Each book chronicles one year in Harry's life with the main narrative being set in the years 1991–98. The books also contain many flashbacks, which are frequently experienced by Harry viewing the memories of other characters in a device called a Pensieve.
The environment Rowling created is intimately connected to reality. The British magical community of the Harry Potter books is inspired by 1990's British culture, European folklore, classical mythology and alchemy, incorporating objects and wildlife such as magic wands, magic plants, potions, and spells, flying broomsticks, centaurs and other magical creatures, the deathly hallows, and the Philosopher's Stone, beside others invented by Rowling. While the fantasy land of Narnia is an alternative universe and the Lord of the Rings ' Middle-earth a mythic past, the wizarding world of Harry Potter exists in parallel within the real world and contains magical versions of the ordinary elements of everyday life, with the books being mostly set in Scotland (Hogwarts), the West Country, Devon, London and Surrey in south-east England. The world only accessible to wizards and magical beings comprises a fragmented collection of overlooked hidden streets, ancient pubs, lonely country manors and secluded castles invisible to the Muggle population.