Saturday, July 7, 2007

The greatest story ever sold

From Saturday's Globe and Mail
July 6, 2007 at 11:59 PM EDT

‘He'll be famous – a legend – I wouldn't be surprised if today were known as Harry Potter day in the future – there will be books written about Harry – every child in our world will know his name!'

And lo, it came to pass. The story of how the magical baby Harry escaped certain death, and saved his people from the evil Voldemort, spread through the nations. And Harry Potter was idolized by millions from Beijing to Brandon. And every child in our world knew his name.

And then, of course, the critics began to carp. The great Harold Bloom decided this wasn't great literature. Christian fundamentalists had to have it explained to them that good always triumphs over evil in a Harry Potter book. Marxist theorists subjected Hogwarts to class analysis. Feminists pointed out that Hermione is a drip. Is it possible, just possible, scholars began to wonder, that kids know Harry's name only because their white, middle-class parents have seized on these nostalgic books to quiet their fears about juvenile illiteracy, cultural diversity and creeping technology?

When first-time author Joanne Rowling produced Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone in 1997, the book about a young wizard at a magical boarding school was an instant success in her native Britain, and was soon imported into Canada. It was published in the United States the following year; the series, now translated into 65 languages, was soon selling tens of millions of copies as readers seized on the next three Harry Potters that appeared annually.

In the new millennium, the combination of a three-year wait for book five (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, published in 2003) and the release of a Hollywood version of the first book in 2001 launched Harry into the stratosphere. With sales outstripping all other contemporary titles, the series began to change the publishing industry, blurring the line between adult and children's fiction. In 2000, The New York Times created a second bestseller list for children's literature because it believed the Potter books were distorting its adult list. In Canada, the series turned tiny Raincoast Books of Vancouver into a Harry Potter marketing machine.

It was in these years that the now-familiar Pavlovian pattern of Harrymania also took hold: Lineups of readers wait outside bookstores on publication day for the release of the newest title at the stroke of midnight; the media breathlessly report on the publishers' elaborate security precautions and the excitement among “the Muggles.”

That's the pattern that will be repeated two weeks from today, when the seventh and final book in the series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, is released at midnight Greenwich Mean Time in London, and then at 12 a.m. in each of North America's time zones. Fans will be discussing the book online by morning – although the last four books are all over 600 pages, children as young as 8 are reported to devour them in a matter of days, if not hours.

And with the film of book five already in theatres by then (it opens Wednesday), this will be another summer of inescapable Potter worship. Nor is there any sign, with two more films to go, and potential new readers arriving in maternity wards every second, that the publication of the final book is going to end the phenomenon.

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.

“Perhaps the Harry Potter phenomenon is such because these books offer exactly what we unthinkingly desire…,” writes Suman Gupta, a lecturer in English at Britain's Open University, in Re-reading Harry Potter (2003).

So, what do we unthinkingly desire? In Britain, it might be a world that upholds traditional notions of class. In the United States, where Christian fundamentalists have denounced the books for glorifying witchcraft, perhaps it's a world where men are superior to women. And in kinder, gentler Canada, we might just want a world where people still read books.

Although Rowling, perhaps at the instigation of her copyright lawyers, is always insisting on the books' utter originality, scholars can point to the many precedents for Harry's magical coming-of-age, from British boarding-school fiction to the Bible, by way of Tolkien, C.S. Lewis and Lewis Carroll. Canadians could apply their own Northrop Frye's Anatomy of Criticism to the books, and see in Harry an archetypal hero who, like the Greek hero Perseus, or Christ in the apocryphal Harrowing of Hell, must descend underground to vanquish monsters.

Whether or not they believe the books are well-written – and many critics, most notably the conservative Bloom, who has denounced Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone as cliché-ridden escapism – scholars can place the books in a tradition of children's literature that helps prepare readers for adult life through the safety of a fantasy realm.

“Fairy tales, like all metaphoric literature, are significant psychologically because they enable young readers to gain a certain distance from a conflict they are having. They don't have to identify with the protagonist,” explains Jack Zipes, a professor of German at the University of Minnesota, who is also a specialist in children's literature and author of Sticks and Stones: The Troublesome Success of Children's Literature from Slovenly Peter to Harry Potter. “It enables the child to work through, without any danger, something that is troubling them.”

He is no Harry Potter fan, but Zipes does believe that the character's status as an orphan who magically escapes abusive guardians makes him a Cinderella figure who appeals to contemporary readers shaken by marital breakdown and child abuse.

Whether escaping their problems or working through them, young readers are exploring a world through Harry Potter that is, for all its flying broomsticks and mythical monsters, a pretty conventional one. As outraged fans, parents and even Rowling herself have explained to Harry's Christian critics, the books are traditionally moral.

Some academic critics, however, also note that Harry's is a socially conservative realm. Zipes agrees with feminist critics who have called the books sexist; Gupta thinks they are fundamentally racist.

Evidence of Rowling's sexism is not hard to find. Her magical world is a place where women are cast in secondary roles at best. At worst, they are portrayed as gross stereotypes. Harry's female friend, the bookish Hermione, is a sidekick, and an annoyingly earnest one at that; the sympathetic and generous Mrs. Weasley, mother to Harry's best buddy, Ron, is the clucking mother hen. And Harry's aunt, Mrs. Dursley, is a social-climbing gossip.

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.

Indeed, a common testimonial from parents, teachers and librarians is that the Potter books turn kids into readers.

All of these theories tend to suggest that it's parents, rather than children, who are Harry-crazed. Zipes, in particular, sees the books' success as part of adults' homogenization of childhood through mass culture. “Our imaginations have been invaded by the media and by corporations who study the way we think and our desires,” he says. “It's difficult for us to imagine things that have not already been relayed to us by the media.”

McNeilly disagrees, arguing that the image of anesthetized young people buying only the junk that is marketed to them gives neither popular culture nor its fans enough credit. “The books are magical and spellbinding and they take you in, but they also encourage you to be a critical reader and not to be taken in,” he says, noting the instances in the series where reading properly, or not misreading, is critical to solving a mystery. “The books encourage creative response.”

Young people eagerly reinvent and continue the stories both in the massive on-line community of fans and in face-to-face discussions with family and friends.

“It won't be so much fun after the seventh book comes out; there won't be any more plots to discuss,” observes 15-year-old Dylan Tate-Howarth, a Toronto high-school student who has been a fan of the books ever since her father began reading the first volume to her and her twin sister, Sasha, when they were 7. The twins and several friends have written their own epistolary prequel to Harry Potter, and act it out as a fantasy role-playing game that has included staging the wedding of two characters. They enjoy minute discussions of characters' behaviour, and trace their real addiction to the fourth title in the series.

“By that time, our friends had caught up with us. It was getting more popular, and we had people to talk to about it,” Sasha recalls. “ I read the sixth one in less than a day.”
“I took a couple more hours,” Dylan recalls, “and Sasha was like, ‘Finish this so I can discuss it with you.'”

Perhaps the books appeal to middle-class, outwardly liberal parents' secret nostalgia for a less culturally complicated age, one full of white people reading long books. But children like the Tate-Howarth twins have definitely turned the Harry Potter series into a thing of the 21st century. Recurring characters in most children's fiction are either frozen in time or age very slowly, providing material for a target age group that eventually graduates to other reading.

Harry Potter, on the other hand, is growing up with his readers, providing them with a sense of immediacy that vaults the character into their culture. With their midnight purchases followed by marathon reading sessions, young readers then turn the reading experience itself into something more instantaneous than leisurely. Next, they rush to their computers and communicate their reactions not only to the kids down the block, but also to millions of others around the world.

In the media-saturated age of the Internet, it takes only the touch of a button to turn the merely popular into the phenomenal. Like Gupta's Harry-the-chosen-one, the Harry Potter craze is simply manifest. Harry is bigger than Jesus … just because he is.

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