IT’S time to stand up and be counted in defence of Harry Potter, boy wizard, publishing phenomenon, and magnet for the ire of Adults Who Know Better.
Harry is not a caricature. His stories are not plagiaristic pastiches unworthy to be deemed classics of children’s literature. And his exploits are not going to inspire kids into absconding at midnight to slaughter goats on altars to Beelzebub.
The Harry Potter books, by Scottish author Joanna Rowling, have taken off like a bushfire in a drought. Her warm, funny stories of an orphan who goes off to boarding school to study wizardry are being devoured by millions of eight to 14-year-olds.
In England, editions with adult black-and-white covers have been printed for the many fathers seen furtively reading the series on the train. Rowling’s earnings this year are estimated to reach more than $200million.
Her success has made fools of children’s publishers. Their accepted wisdom was that TV-watching kids would not have the attention span to read books as long as Rowling’s (more than 400 pages). She was rejected by nine publishers but, once in print, won immediate success – with children, that is.
The adult world is divided. Literati say the world of her books is thin, its imagery derivative and its structure flawed. Religious fundamentalists in America are trying to have the books banned from schools because the wizardry is “satanic”, and last month they were banned by the principal of a British primary school.
Harry and his friends, Hermione and Ron, are about as satanic as the Brady Bunch on broomsticks. Parents can trust Rowling’s work: her values are friendship and kindness, honesty and courage.
Rowling fully deserves children’s affection. She writes a cracking yarn and has an intuitive understanding of a child’s emotional world. Children love her stories not just because they entertain but because they do what people have always needed stories to do: play out symbolically the psychic dramas of human development and the moral dilemmas of life’s big questions. On this level the Harry Potter books have great integrity.
Poor narrative structure? Harry is very much the archetypal hero described by Joseph Campbell in his analysis of universal mythic themes, The Hero with a Thousand Faces: “A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder; fabulous foes are there encountered and a decisive victory is won; the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”
Like Campbell’s heroes, Harry crosses a magical threshold into the other world (in his case, Platform Nine and Three Quarters at King’s Cross Station), receives all kinds of unexpected supernatural aid and is transformed by his experience of victory over evil.
True, Rowling has picked like a magpie through the treasury of children’s stories. Her Every Flavor Beans, which offer all sorts of surprises to the taste buds, echo products from Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Ursula Le Guin wrote about a magic school in Wizard of Earthsea; Rowling’s giant spider Aragog might have descended from Tolkien’s Shelob, and her flying car – Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, surely?
But in literature, little is truly original. Most stories are derivative in some way. Rowling has been criticised for copying Roald Dahl in her sketching of Harry as an orphan child abused by nasty relatives, but Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach mimicked an even earlier abused-orphan story, Cinderella.
James Joyce drew on the myth of Ulysses to produce his modern classic of the same name, and academics build whole careers detecting the allusions buried in it. Kids could play a similar game with the post-modern parodies in Harry Potter books. When they grow up and study media they’ll be told it’s called intertextuality.
And Rowling does it so wittily; the monstrous slavering three-headed dog guarding the sorcerer’s stone is based on Cerberus, but it’s Rowling’s deft touch to name it Fluffy. As for those Every Flavor Beans – any misappropriation involved is redeemed by this comical passage about the wise old wizard Dumbledore, Harry’s principal at Hogwarts:
“`I was unfortunate enough in my youth to come across a vomit-flavored one, and since then I’m afraid I’ve rather lost my liking for them. But I think I’d be safe with a nice toffee, don’t you?” He smiled and popped the golden brown bean into his mouth. Then he choked and said, “Alas! Ear wax!”
The question of where Rowling obtained individual nuggets of material is secondary; what matters is the wholeness and emotional truth of her stories. Here she excels.
Harry the orphan symbolises every child’s deepest fear: having to navigate a dark and dangerous world without parents. He is working out who he is and how he will face his fate. He learns that pleasantness is sometimes a veneer for evil and that unsympathetic characters can prove surprisingly staunch and upright.
From his mentor, Dumbledore, he hears universal wisdoms. On the dark lord Voldemort, known as You Know Who: “Call him Voldemort, Harry. Fear of a name increases fear of the thing itself.”
Harry learns that his remarkable powers are due to the fact that he has something of the dreaded Voldemort within himself; a metaphor for original sin, and the way our strengths are also our weaknesses.
And Dumbledore helps Harry keep alive his sense of the parents he lost. He tells Harry it was only his mother’s love that protected him from Voldemort’s attack when he was a baby: “To have been loved so deeply, even though the person who loved you is gone, will give you some protection forever.”
Rowling is welcome into my children’s psyches any time.
The next book is due in June. See you on Platform Nine and Three-Quarters at King’s Cross Station.
First published in The Age.