Saturday, July 21, 2007

Pro: Harry's Epic Struggle

One reviewer will miss the characters, but not the cumbersome storylines and glaring plot devices, while the other salutes J.K. Rowling for adding to children's moral growth

Judith Saltman
Special to the Sun
Saturday, July 21, 2007

It may be hard to recall, but there once was a time before the global juggernaut of Harry Potter-mania. Before googling the name "Harry Potter" brought up 86.2 million hits. Before Muggles, Quidditch and He Who Cannot Be Named were household words. Before the Harry Potter series topped the list of the most challenged and censored books of the 21st century. Before Canadian publisher Raincoast Books sold 650,000 copies of the sixth book in the first 48 hours after its release, this in a country where a children's book that sells 5,000 copies is a bestseller.

Before all that, in 1997 an unheralded, unhyped book, Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, made a modest appearance as a new fantasy novel. Joanne Kathleen Rowling's first book made its way into children's hearts as booksellers and children's librarians spread the word about this perfect mix of adventure, fantasy and humour.

These specialists pluck their picks from an annual flood of tens of thousands of new children's books. In Harry Potter 1, what they saw was not something new and entirely original, but rather a familiar type of children's book that imaginatively and cleverly combines standard forms of storytelling.

They saw a page-turning pulse, a strong narrative arc, humour, conflict and drama, memorable characters and the archetypes and symbols at the core of epic fantasy.

It's most likely that the essence of the series' appeal lies in how Rowling mines the rich traditions of children's literature.

She revises and spoofs the British boarding school story. Cricket matches are transmuted into Quidditch, while classes in British history and maths are replaced by lessons on spells and potions. The traditional details of school life remain -- children living a subculture life with little adult interference; fierce loyalties; harsh rivalries; sports competitions; farcical and revered teachers; rich, spoiled and evil kids in conflict with poor, clever and noble ones.

Rowling also adroitly manipulates the techniques, expectations and stereotypes of children's formula adventures. Her cliff-hanging chapter endings are well known in England from Enid Blyton's series for children.

As is usual in adventure series, the characters are quite thinly and repetitively described; usually they are identified by single visual characteristics. Dumbledore is repeatedly described as having twinkling eyes, which tells us he is a genial fellow. Snape, the potions master and Harry's enemy, is always sallow-faced, hook-nosed and greasy-haired.

Only Harry and his friends develop into more three-dimensional characters.

Rowling salutes children's-book writers by imitating or parodying them. Her humour ranges from subtle adult wit to caricature. She jokes around with anachronisms, creates moments of slapstick and delights in the kind of gross humour enjoyed by 11-year-olds.

Punchy and satirical, her humour is similar to Roald Dahl's. And through her inventive melodrama and highly coloured caricatures, she shows a kinship with Charles Dickens, who also wrote about oppressed orphans.

Part of the pleasure of reading the series, particularly for older readers, is savouring the way she creates new words for fantasy places, people, objects and thoughts -- for example, "Parselmouth" for one who can speak Parseltongue, or snake language.

Her one-word mock-Latin spells (Expelliarmus) have a rightness only a linguist could create. Also clever is Diagon Alley, for the diagonal, crooked alley that houses wizard shops, and her characters' names -- in Harry Potter 3, the divination teacher is Sybill Trelawney, a reference to the oracular Greek sibyls whose gift of prophecy was often disbelieved and suspect.

Among her mythic allusions is her bestiary, which includes a basilisk, a dragon and a sphinx. Their names can be ironic: The ferocious three-headed dog guarding the entrance to the Hogwarts cellars answers to Fluffy, making him a wonderfully comic avatar of Cerberus.

Perhaps what resonates most is the way she tells a coming-of-age story using the metaphor of the hero's quest, a narrative with extremely deep roots. The books explore the relationship of good and evil and moral choice and redemption.

In a time of social and cultural anxiety and stress, this offers escape, so that readers can return to the real world renewed and emboldened. J.R.R. Tolkien called this "recovery, escape, and consolation."

Just as Harry is branded on his forehead with the lightning bolt of defiant magic, the genre of fantasy is marked by an element of otherness, magic or wonder. Fantasy is a threshold literature, exploring the boundaries of the possible.

Both Tolkien and C.S. Lewis believed the taste for fantasy is innate and long-lived, that its deeply moral and philosophical nature appeals to a particular temperament found in all ages.

Rowling combines elements of high epic fantasy with parallel-world fantasy in which the separate but sliding worlds of human Muggles and supernatural witches and wizards jostle comically, uncomfortably -- and, at times, tragically.

Epic fantasy's major theme is the battle of good versus evil. Rowling follows this tradition as Harry and Voldemort struggle in the climax of each book.

Throughout the series, she reworks what Joseph Campbell called the monomyth -- the recurring hero's journey from childhood to adulthood. The journeys and quests are those of a hero who, like King Arthur and Moses, is orphaned and exiled. Harry lives his orphaned childhood in obscurity, despised and ridiculed by the Dursley family. His true identity is revealed at puberty when, following the monomyth, he goes off to fulfil his superhuman destiny.

He's sent to Hogwarts, the magical boarding school for wizards and witches, to receive not just immersion in wizard lore but also an education in loyalty and moral courage. His study of magic is a metaphor for both technology and the imagination.

Questions of moral and spiritual growth are addressed as the apprentice gains competence: Will the young wizard use his carefully honed skills and new power for good or evil?

Harry must overcome the evil wizard Lord Voldemort, murderer of his parents, and prove he is worthy of his parents' love and sacrifice for him. What shape Harry's final meeting with Voldemort will take in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is today being revealed.

Rowling has carefully created for Harry a different sense of destiny than that found in the predetermined fate of many a mythic orphaned hero. She has written his journey as a struggle toward personal heroism deeply affected by Dumbledore's teachings.

In almost every book, he journeys out of the secure world into the dangerous unknown. In each book, his quest includes an adolescent defiance of folkloric prohibition as he emerges into the dangerous outside universe. Almost always, at some point, he is the single, isolated hero, fighting and overcoming fear and evil with courage, fortitude and raw wits.

Often it is Harry's human attributes and what he does with them, rather than his magical powers, that overcome evil and danger.

Fantasy is the most spiritual form of children's literature, a genre that reflects the imagery found in dreams, myth and religion. Through her Harry Potter series, J.K. Rowling has added to children's imaginative and moral growth.

She's an old-fashioned storyteller writing with a compelling modern voice, melding many literary and ancient conventions into a single new compelling whole.

Judith Saltman chairs the University of B.C.'s master of arts program in children's literature.