July 9, 2007


The greatest story ever sold (KATE TAYLOR, 7/06/07, Globe and Mail)

It's not hard to see why the Harry Potter books are popular. They're fast-paced and humorous, with page-turning plots that are essentially teen-detective stories.

And in an era when parents worry about boys' literacy, and the entertainment industry believes boys won't accept female protagonists, the male hero draws in readers of both sexes. The books have also increasingly crossed over into the adult market, where they are sold with darker, photographic covers, partly because young adults now read them as fantasy titles, and partly because Rowling has held on to her readers as they grow up – only slightly faster than Harry, who has aged seven years in a decade.

What this doesn't explain is why the Potter books are, with the exception of such religious and political tracts as the Bible, Pilgrim's Progress and The Thoughts of Chairman Mao, the bestselling books of all time, with numbers already challenging even J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings and Agatha Christie's top titles. Academic critics of the books, some of whom praise their power as popular culture, some of whom condemn their formulaic prose and question their political messages, speculate there are particular social circumstances that have given rise to the mania. [...]

Issues of race and class in the books are more complicated. Some argue that the four houses at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry reflect the social structure of Tony Blair's Cool Britannia, with the hated Slytherin representing the aristocracy and the Gryffindor representing the dependable lower-middle class. This is a place where social status is predetermined and immutable.

Purity of blood is a recurring theme in the books: The Slytherin are prejudiced against any witch or wizard of common or Muggles parentage; the term “mudblood” induces instant offence and outrage. Because these attitudes are those of the villains, Rowling is often seen as a liberal: In her book A Guide to the Harry Potter Novels (2002), British journalist Julia Eccleshare, for example, argues that the series is clearly a statement against racism.

Subtler critics argue, however, that this is only a gloss. Gupta notes that Rowling's magical world is essentialist: Harry is the chosen one; it is in his essence to be a wizard, just as it is in the nature of house elves to be slaves (despite Hermione's campaign to free them.) Gupta complains that “...everything significant in the Harry Potter books is innate, inborn, essential, simply manifest and definitively inexplicable in terms of rational principles,” and argues that the books are thus guilty of their own kind of social or racial prejudice.

Gupta also argues that the books are anti-rational – Harry's world operates on magic, after all – and speculates that they may appeal to a society that is both alarmed by racial diversity, and distrustful of science and technology.

Such a political debate may seem rarefied, but it is not entirely lost on parents of Potter fans. Just as feminist defenders of the books will argue they depict a world of gender imbalance as children experience it (rather than as feminists might like to imagine it), so do parents occasionally attribute the books' success to their lack of political correctness.

Indeed, Eccleshare traces Harry's initial success to a reaction against the social-realist school of children's literature of the 1980s and 1990s that had attempted to prepare children for a real world of divorce, danger and diversity with stories about single-parent families, child abuse and gay couples: Refreshingly, Harry does not have two mummies.

Theorists of popular culture are kinder to the books than literary critics, and less skeptical of their success. If Gupta thinks the series might appeal to a fear of science, Peter Appelbaum, a professor of education at Arcadia University near Philadelphia and a specialist in how to teach mathematics, has argued that the books are popular with children because they represent magic the same way children experience technology: as a consumer commodity.

Indeed, part of the charm of the Harry Potter books is the way in which Rowling creates magical equivalents for iPods, cellphones and Nike running shoes: Harry has a much-coveted Nimbus Two Thousand broomstick; his school books feature moving images; and Quidditch, the sport that Hogwarts pupils play on broomsticks, is like a three-dimensional version of a computer game.

If Harry's magic can seem amusingly modern, it is also appropriately dusty, relying as it does on ancient spells, forgotten codes and mouldy books. Kevin McNeilly, a University of British Columbia English professor who uses Harry Potter as a case study in classes on popular culture, argues that images of books and reading are central to the series. He believes the series itself is about literacy.

“The students tend to discover it's about reading, why people have to have books,” McNeilly says, citing books as the characters' main source of knowledge about magic. “The kids in Harry Potter don't have mass media, the telephone, the Internet. Instead they have magic, and they need books.”

He speculates that in the real world, the books are therefore greeted with great enthusiasm by a society worried about literacy. “Amid middle-class North Americans, there must be some kind of anxiety about missing books.… People were ready to read again,” he says.

It would, of course, be speciesism, not racism, but is likewise evident in the apartheid/homeland nature of Hogwarts (and the whole parallel daily world of the wizarding community) and the general treatment of Muggles, who come off little better than the black characters in a Charlie Chan film.

Posted by Orrin Judd at July 9, 2007 4:29 PM

The books are about good and the evil, and the choices we make regarding them.

This Gupta guy seems completely clueless. The "magic" in the Harry Potter world is not irrational - it obeys its own laws to the point that it's possible to teach children about them.

It is true that some people are better able to do magic than others, but that's true of any talent - sports, science, art, seduction, whatever. The talent to do magic does not seem to based on anyone's lineage. Characters from old distinguished magical families are seen to have little, or even no talent (Neville Longbottom, Crabbe, Goyle, and the groudnskeeper Finch). While someone born from halfblood or Muggle Parents (like Hermione) can be great at it.

The 4 schools of Hogwarts do not represent social classes. We know Slytherin accepts Muggle and Halfblood students, because Hogwarts does. We also know that Harry was meant to be in Slytherin - only his adamant wish to not be is what caused the Sorting Hat to place him Gryffindor. So much for place "where social status is predetermined and immutable." The houses represent certain personality traits, but only in a very general way.

Nor do the books equate talent with magic as being better people. Both the Muggle Dursleys and wizardly Malfoys are despicable. The trio of Harry, Hermione, and Ron have very different backgrounds and aptitudes towards magic, yet retain the same moral core. So too does Hagrid who is totally inept in many ways, but whose heart is clearly on the side of angels. It is rare to find examples of good Muggles, but that is due to their rare appearances in the books. We only have the example of the Dursleys. But we do have brief glimpses of Hermione's parents - who are Muggle dentists - and what we see is positive. And of course every reader has their own examples of good Muggles from their own lives.

Posted by: Chris Durnell at July 9, 2007 6:28 PM

Rational magic is an oxymoron. The point is that rather few of us put much value on Reason.

Posted by: oj at July 9, 2007 8:21 PM

The books have two overriding themes:

1. The moral problem of technology, for which magic is the stand-in. Just because you can do something doesn't mean you should do it. Or, as they put it in another great epic fantasy, "With great power comes great responsibility."

2. Confronting evil. Through most of the story, the dominant elite among the wizards seem to be going out of their way to deny the existence of Voldemort ("He Who Must not Be Named") or to minimize the threat or to paint Harry and Dumbledore as neocon alarmists or even look for a more "nuanced" and "sophisticated" way to approach the dark lords. I see a lot of parallels to Neville Chaimberlain, to the anti-anti-communists of the Cold War, and to the John Murthas and Nancy Pelosis of the present day.

These are not original insights, though I'd love to be able to claim them as such. There was a very good essay in First Things a few years ago that laid these ideas out better than I ever will. It also points out that Gupta (whoever the hell he is) is dead wrong about "essentialism"--Harry ends up in Gryffindor because he defies "destiny."

Posted by: Mike Morley at July 9, 2007 8:51 PM

For me, the books are disappointing to re-read. For instance, there is clearly an afterlife, but it seems to exist only in paintings and plumbing -- pretty lame. And the government is so inept, it is surprising there aren't vast numbers of Voldemorts terrorizing the populace.

The books defy analysis because Rowling came up with an excellent formula based on Edith Nesbit and later children's books. Add in a few really great characters (Hagrid, Ron, Hermione and Harry), plus a loony headmaster who lets them do things kids only wish headmasters would let them do but really belongs in St. Mungos, and you have perfect kid's fantasy.

formula = [unfair --> unfair --> unfair --> got you back. (repeat ad nauseum)]

And of course the magic is completely irrational. If you have magic, why do you need money? Why not just make gold in a cauldron? Rowling just uses magic whenever the formula requires it, as any good author would do.

Posted by: Randall Voth at July 9, 2007 11:24 PM