The Harry Potter series

Is Harry the Savior of English Literature?
New books dissected over email.
Aug. 26 1999 4:00 PM

The Harry Potter series

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Dear Polly,

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Thanks for the tip about Sylvia Townsend Warner. I'll check the library for Kingdoms of Elfin, which sounds marvelously creepy. And imagine confusing a succubus with a lamia! I'm so ashamed. Five points from Gryffindor!

I see that the question I lobbed casually in your direction on Monday has bounced back like a bludger (or do I mean a quaffle? I'm still a novice at Quidditch) to knock me off my rhetorical broomstick. Why Harry, why now? An obvious answer, which we've gestured toward in various ways this week, is just that the books are a lot of fun to read. Your analysis of their narrative structure, by the way, was incisive. The sonnet sequence analogy is inspired: With each book you become newly aware of the tight structural constraints Rowling is working in, and freshly amazed at the dazzling variations she manages. Each time, for instance, I'm sure that Snape is the link to Voldemort, and each time I'm stunned when he turns out to be nothing more than a garden-variety classroom sadist. And yet I know I'll fall for this trick again and again, and that the moment I don't will be the moment his true evil--or his unsuspected goodness--is revealed. I'm impressed with how effortlessly Rowling balances the genre requirements of predictability--Harry will prevail, the school year will end, Voldemort will be foiled (but only temporarily!)--and surprise.

But as we know, a book's quality and its success are two different things. Some of the hype about Harry Potter seems a bit wild: You'd think, reading newspaper stories about these books, that they had single-handedly rescued literacy in the English-speaking world, and also bridged the gulf between parents and children. Talk about magic! Nearly every article I've seen quotes a parent or teacher saying something to the effect of "My kid never showed any interest in reading until Harry Potter came along," with the implication that the kid will now trade Pokemon for The Illiad and our civilization will be saved from the forces of darkness. The jacket flap of the British edition of Prisoner of Azkaban sports a handwritten letter from an 8-year-old begging Rowling to write more books. It's a bit much, really.

Adults who have children partake of a great deal of kid culture, voluntarily or not, and inevitably develop tastes and interests of their own. I'm as obsessed with Arthur as I used to be with Seinfeld. My wife, who is a schoolteacher, has developed an insatiable appetite for young-adult historical fiction quite independent of the professional requirements of keeping up with what her students are reading, finding new texts to assign, and so forth. Part of the fun of having (or teaching) children is the vicarious reliving of one's own childhood--reading the stories aloud that you remember having read to you, renting videotapes of the movies that enchanted you or gave you nightmares, reconnecting with Ernie and Bert.

That Rowling's books, which are so smart and so bracingly British (I think you're right to keep bringing up P.L. Travers as a reference point--she and Rowling both manage to be at once subversive and starchy, anarchic and commonsensical), have resonated with parents is no surprise. She quite cannily sets Harry's adventures in an England whose culture and geography are entirely literary. This is not the England of Tony Blair or Princess Di or Martin Amis, but the England we remember from other children's books, an England somehow perpetually Edwardian, notwithstanding certain concessions to modernity like telephones and coeducation.

In an earlier posting you speculated that our enthusiasm for Harry Potter may arise from our anxiety about technology, and it's striking (this is something my wife called to my attention after she read the first two books) how technologically underdeveloped the muggle world is in these books, in particular with respect to information technology. No e-mail, no faxes, not really any television or movies. And of course the wizard world is a world of artisanal handicraft, ancient wisdom, and small, local businesses. Hogwarts pupils don't buy their textbooks from Amazon.com or a Barnes & Noble superstore but from a quaint old bookshop on Diagon Alley called Flourish and Blotts. They don't have e-mail; they have owls. They don't play Nintendo; they practice spells. (They do, however, collect famous wizard trading cards, which move, just as all wizard photographs do. But, curiously, wizard photography seems to be exclusively black and white.)

So there is a double nostalgia involved in reading these books--nostalgia for one's own childhood and nostalgia for the timeless realm of classic children's fiction. Rowling has cleverly, and subtly, modernized these realms with respect to matters like gender equality and multiculturalism--not that she makes a big fuss about such things. Of course, this being children's-book England, there's still a servant class. But though there's plenty of cruelty, corporal punishment has fallen from favor. (The death penalty seems to be reserved for wayward magical beasts.)

Of course, none of this explains why these books have crossed over not only from children to their parents but also to adults who don't have children. This seems genuinely unprecedented, and it may be one of those inexplicable phenomena the culture likes to toss our way every now and then. (Our seeker ducks the bludger and sprints for the golden snitch!) Or it may be a symptom of our present obsession with childhood and children--the simultaneous detonation of the postwar baby boom and the fin de siècle baby boom. All I know is I haven't had such a purely escapist reading experience in a long time.

As much fun as it was to read these books, it's been even more fun discussing them with you. I'm quite dazzled by your insight and erudition--bewitched, in fact.

All best,
Tony

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This week, a discussion of J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (click here to buy the book), Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (click here to buy the book), and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (click here to buy the book). The first chapter of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets is available here. Polly Shulman, a contributing editor at Science, writes a column about children's books forSalon. A.O. Scott is a regular contributor to Slate.