Will There Be Trouble With Harry?

The Harry Potter series

Will There Be Trouble With Harry?

The Harry Potter series

Will There Be Trouble With Harry?
New books dissected over email.
Aug. 24 1999 5:12 PM

The Harry Potter series

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Dear Polly,

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According to a clipping from the Daily Telegraph passed along by our editor (a gifted sorceress in her own right), there are now British editions of the Harry Potter books designed especially for adult consumers. The content is the same, of course, but the grown-up version cost about two pounds more than the kids' version, and, I presume, looks more sober and serious. Twenty-five thousand have been sold. I thought this was funny, but then again when I was reading these books in public places in preparation for our chat I would make sure to have a notebook and pencil and even my laptop handy, to make clear to the utterly indifferent world that I was working, which probably made me look even sillier.

I take your point about kids and preaching, though I think that they tend to tolerate the moral if the story is good enough. But then again, they may learn their morals in part from the stories they hear. I do suspect (you imply that you do, too) that the boomer parents who so gleefully force-feed their kids lesson-heavy, humorless, politically correct books seize upon the Potter novels because they're so blessedly free of didacticism. Of course, there are subtle warnings against prejudice and snobbery (as embodied by the odious Malfoy clan), and affirmations of the virtues of honesty and friendship. But there is also ample recognition of the fact that it's sometimes necessary to break the rules, talk back to your teachers, or fling a fistful of mud at someone who pisses you off. This flexible, realistic moral sense coexists with reassurances that the important moral categories are, in the end, stable. Good and evil exist in this world, and their struggle for dominance is what makes it go around.

I agree that the books get better and better, and that as you proceed from one to the next the series acquires more richness and density of detail. One of the neatest tricks Rowling pulls off is to make the narrative move backward and foreward at the same time: Part of the drama of each installment involves Harry's finding out something new about his parents' deaths, and about the world of Hogwarts in their time. (Hogwarts seems to be the center of the wizard world. Not only is every wizard presumably a graduate--unless we learn about a rival academy in a later volume--but a surprising number of the best pupils seem to return as teachers.) And there is a lovely mirroring of past and present--an almost typological reflection between yesterday and today. Harry's rivalry with Malfoy is foreshadowed by his father's rivalry with Snape, who is still around to torment the son of his tormentor. And the themes of loyalty, friendship, and betrayal that Harry uncovers in the story of his parents' demise (a story about which we still have much to learn), cast their shadow on his friendships with Hermione and Ron. The petty tensions between them that begin to unfold in Prisoner of Azkaban may be the harbinger of something more catastrophic in future books.

I wondered, as you did, about Percy the Prefect, Ron's older brother, who becomes Head Boy in Azkaban . In Chamber of Secrets he began behaving oddly, and it seemed as though he might be harboring thoughts of the Dark Side. And I think (I hope) he still may be headed there: the great, corrupting sin in this moral universe seems to be ambition, which Percy clearly possesses. But so might Harry. Lord Voldemort (whose name is never uttered by wizards with less temerity than Harry and Dumbledore) is, like Darth Vader or Milton's Satan, a classic rebel angel, undone by his lust for power. And he may decide at some point that it's better to co-opt the blessed Harry than to annihilate him. (Dumbledore's benevolent but strict theology, involving the operations of free will in a supernaturally determined world, is classically Miltonian--an odd note of Protestantism in this decidedly pagan cosmos.) It is always the favorites who turn evil in this kind of story. It seems to me that Harry's final confrontation with the dark forces will have to involve his overcoming the temptation to join them. There is an inkling of this possibility early on, when the sorting hat, which places new students in their residential houses, tries to entice Harry to join Slytherin, where baddies like Snape and Malfoy hang out. Harry is promised greatness if he chooses their company, but he opts for goodness and joins Gryffindor, his father's house, instead.

Still, I suspect he'll face this dilemma again before long. After all, Harry is not only a 10-year-old celebrity, and a favorite with the Hogwarts faculty (Snape excepted); he's a gifted athlete on the Quidditch pitch (how to explain? It's the wizard pastime, something like three games of lacrosse played simultaneously on broomsticks, with magic balls), and a natural leader among his peers. His decency has for now held his pride in check, but this might (should, I daresay) change. I don't think the series can continue to be as interesting if the menaces he faces continue to be strictly external. The deeper darkness is within. Before long Harry's terror and revulsion at Voldemort and what he represents may be overcome by curiosity, and his veneration of his martyred parents may be colored with doubt, even anger. The fact that each book so far allows him a greater measure of fallibility--and that some characters seem to slip and slide in the twilight zone between benign and malevolent wizardry--suggests that Rowling may be aware of these possibilities. In any case, I trust her to keep us enchanted.

And let's not forget that Harry has, at the end of Prisoner of Azkaban, just turned 13. We have four books to go, and the stirrings of puberty can't be far off. What is wizard adolescence like? Adolescence of any kind is risky territory for the "young adult" book writer, perhaps especially in the United States at the present time. How will Rowlings handle the dark magic of sexuality? Hogwarts is coed, after all, and there's also the proud tradition of English boarding school buggery to consider. Will Harry and Hermione get it on? Hermione and Ron? Ron and Harry? Does a cracking voice mess up your spells? Is there a potion to cure acne? Do wizards ever date muggles?

Can you divine the future? I await the magic owl bearing your answer to these vital questions.

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.