The BOOKPRESS October 1999

Harry Hero and the Invasion of the Potter People

Paul Grayson

If thou’lt see a thing to talk
on when thou are dead and rotten, come hither.
—Winter’s Tale III, iii

Unless you spent the last year or so in Patagonia or Borneo, you’ve heard of Harry Potter; he and his story and J. K. Rowling, his creator, and her welfare-to-fame-and-riches story, have been and are everywhere else. The chronicles of popular culture have had their say on Harry. Last fall, it was the trade weeklies, then the news weeklies and USA Today. Last winter, the market put in its word: the first Harry Potter (HP-I) was "out of stock at the publisher" for the two months between mid-November and mid-January, when the American consumer is in the most consuming mood. This spring, Harry took his bow on the front page of The New York Times. This week, the New Yorker found space to mention "the insanely popular Harry Potter," Time put him on the cover, and CBS put him and Rowling on 60 Minutes. Linda Fairstein, prosecuting attorney and sociologist turned crime novelist, joked on air to Don Imus that she should have called her new work "Harry Potter and the Cold Hit."

Lesley Stahl’s 60 Minutes interview with the author, aired on September 12, was a gushing puff-piece that tried to do little more than gasp in awe at the unparalleled literary (in this case, astonishing sales and critical esteem) success of a "children’s book." Much was reiteration from earlier reviews in the print media and can be summarized in three squeals of delight:

1. The author has created a wondrous "parallel universe" and,
2. Good Lord! Third graders, even boys, who can’t be made to read anything, are re-reading the Potter books and,
3. Mirabile dictu, adults are, in some cases, openly reading these—uh—children’s books. Golly!

Each of these enthusiasms deserves a word, but first, let’s look at the success:

As I write, HP-I, after 38 straight weeks on the The New York Times Book Review list of bestsellers, has climbed to #1. The second installment of Harry’s seven year saga (HP-II) which was #1 its first week on the list and has yet to leave the top ten, is today #3. The third novel in the series was released on September 8, and there is not much doubt that it too will debut at #1, for the Times has already reported that, on the list for September 25, the HP books will occupy the top three slots.

Lesley Stahl interviewed the author, the author’s agent, the Times’ children’s book editor, a gaggle of urchins—they were all interviewed, but not asked the main question, not asked to explain the plain magic, to give their "reason" for the unexpected and total triumph of the high fantastical here at another fin de siecle. One boy said that reading the novel was not like reading, but like watching.

As Harry Potter is a children’s book, so Elvis is a rock star; Star Wars, a sci-fi movie; Marilyn, a platinum blonde. True statements, but not true enough, for their fame smacks of the will of the gods and the decree of Fate. Love them or hate them, the King and Luke Skywalker and Norma Jean are every bit as meaningful to our cultural and personal mythology as, to another age, were prophets and saints. And now Harry Potter has joined them, every inch an icon. He’s not a fad, a craze, a hula hoop, this year’s Tickle Me Elmo, an amusing ephemerality and bit of consumer folly. He’s here not to stay, but to go with us (yes, you too, will-you-or-won’t-you), Potter our hero and Rowling our spirit-guide through both millennial endings: part IV of his story in 2000, part V in 2001. Harry is the last hero of the cycle. His story is entangled with ours. The generation after X, the grandchildren of the boomers, the Potter People, have arrived.

The trouble with the "marvelous children’s book" praise is that it is too faint, too likely dismissive and reductive, too far shy of the mark. One suspects that books "written for children" will condescend to the reader, posing a kinder, gentler, edited reality to the realities of experience. The dulce will be pablum and treacle (talking animals, magical transformations and travels, a simplified, Bowdlerized moral playground) and the utile, the lessons of socialization, potty training for growing minds.

The sugar helps the medicine go down, but adults have, in theory, no need of either.

With these expectations in mind, we turn now to Rowlings’ "parallel universe":

The enchanted space evoked by the novels, a world, by the way, without telephones, computers, television or cinema, is a school, in which "live dangerously" is not a dare, but a daily necessity. Let me know when this sounds like a place for your children:

A boy, one Harry Potter, at a very exclusive prep school, lives under constant threat of humiliation, punishment, ostracism, suspension, or expulsion—did I mention it’s a British prep school? Same boy, while excelling at sports and not flunking anything, copes with frequent physical threats of bodily harm, including loss of life or mind, for he is locked in virtually non-stop struggle with an unnamable malevolent Presence, intent on eliminating him.

By rights, the undead malevolence should have taken Harry out a thousand pages ago. It had no trouble murdering the boy’s parents, and Harry and we ear-witness his mother’s pleas to her killer. As part of our novel of education, Harry learns some—never all—of the details of an even darker story (betrayal, murder, mass murder) from his father’s and the school’s past.

Control of the school is the prize in an on-going social and political struggle. The murderer’s allies and agents have infiltrated school and government and are scheming to take over the administration of both, so as to purge those of inferior race and mixed blood.

Hogwarts, the school, is no place for sissies of either gender. Here everything is, if not war, at least agon, a rigorous competition of body and mind and spirit, symbolized by the school game and passion, a kind of air-borne hockey/soccer/basketball with all attendant potential for personal glory and interpersonal violence. Harry and his schoolmates are under physical and intellectual duress day and night, competing as individuals and also as members of houses. Yo-yoing between exhaustion and exhilaration, they can win or lose points (and face) based on performance in the classroom and in sports and on their out-of-class behavior, as judged by the equally competitive faculty.

All in all, a schooling fit for the philosopher-king or Knight Templar, Machiavelli’s prince or the Übermensch, a lot more Darwinian than Montessorian. Here is more the atmosphere of Lord of the Flies than of Mary Poppins or Wind in the Willows. Dickens cum Dostoyevsky—not an environment most parents would choose for children.

How, in this marvelous children’s book, are authority figures shown? Teachers, say? Here most of all we expect the pedagogy of socialization to strut and fret its tedious stuff. Don’t children need to be taught to respect authority, to submit to convention, to learn to live with others, to "act like" little adults? But as to the faculty of Hogwarts, what tares among the wheat! In her knowing, unsparing portraits of the frauds, ninnies and careerists that haunt every Academy, Rowlings commits Swiftian candor at every turn. Turf fights, personality conflicts, envy, spite, narrow- and small-mindedness: no middle-schooler need wonder any further what goes on in the Teachers’ Lounge.

Well, how is our workaday world shown, the one in which we must a while consent to live? The novels’ only contact with middle- class life is in the Dursleys, Harry’s foster parents (Mrs. Dursley is his mother’s sister). They are portrayed as smug Philistines, casual in their cruelty and hypocrisy, arrogant in their ignorance, slothful beyond sin, one step above pigs. No redeeming features of any kind.

As to respect for authority, there is scarcely a rule of the school that Harry and his friends have not broken: they have stolen, white-lied, lied by omission, outright lied, disobeyed, defied, and evaded their teachers’ discipline and clear instructions. Indeed, it is their rebellious behavior that feeds their constant fear of disciplinary action on the part of the feuding faculty.

So much for the edited, softened reality of Rowlings’ special place for children.

A virtual Leitmotiv of the reviews of Harry is that boys and girls are re-reading the novels. This is, by far, the sincerest praise—a rave beyond compare, and ample testimony to the richness, the ornateness, the over-abundance of narrative energy that characterizes Rowling’s creation. On a first reading the deft suspense/horror plotting rushes the reader from crisis to crisis, but a second reading allows us to appreciate "the achieve of, the mastery of the thing." The hints, nuances and clues, the big and little jokes, the echoes and anticipations, all lead to the conviction that here the details very much matter: the artist is never wasting your time. A whisper, an aside, a lucky chance, the merest adverb may be a clue—or the clue—to the entire mystery. Re-reading is re-evaluating, distancing, criticizing, seeing how she does what she does, even seeing what she is doing. Time reports that Rowling’s young readers are already pressuring her not to kill off Ron, Harry’s friend. They have divined, from their re-reading, that somebody important is going to die.

Lastly, why are adults riding this satirical, lyrical, allegorical whirligig of crime fantasy and Bildungsroman? I don’t know—maybe they just like it.

One last departure point: though Rowling’s achievement is unprecedented, there is perhaps a parallel and a warning in the German author Michael Ende. His novel Die unendliche Geschichte (The Neverending Story, 1979) is still the best-selling work of German fiction since the war. It’s about a boy who must save another world (Fantasia—a.k.a. the realm of the human imagination) from a creeping, cancerous Nothingness mighty like modern life. Ende’s Momo (1973) is the story of a little girl who redeems her friends and the City and the World from the clutches of the Grays, who feed on Time. His last major work (Wunschpunsch, 1989), though it masquerades as an animal fable, is a political parable in which a a pair of unlikely good guys defeat the representatives of big money, big business, big science and big government in their scheme to destroy the planet for the sake of financial gain. All three of these longish novels were bestsellers and enjoyed international critical acclaim.

For his entire career, Ende protested at being dismissed as a mere children’s writer and more than once pointed out that he didn’t write books for children, rather he wrote books that children read. Rowling writes books that children re-read, but is that enough not to be pigeon-holed as a brilliant children’s writer?

"With regard to all aesthetic values", said Nietzsche, late in his intellectual life, "I now make this primary distinction: I ask in every case: Is it hunger or abundance that has become creative here?" We’ve all read some of hunger’s works—most of them in "literature" classes. With Rowling—and with Ende—you can be sure to read a work of abundance.

Paul Grayson is a resident of Ithaca.

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