Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
In international folklore, one of the best-known tales is of a poor, hungry child who wishes that the family’s pot of porridge were always full. The wish is granted—and often more than granted. No matter how much is scooped from the pot, porridge continues to boil up, slopping over the stove, then onto the floor, filling the cottage, running out the door, and eventually almost drowning the whole village.
With this tale in mind, imagine a dark, wet winter day in Edinburgh. A young single mother, living on welfare, is sitting in a café because there is no heat in her rented apartment. Whenever her baby falls asleep for a while in its stroller, she tries to write a children’s story that she first thought of more than two years ago. Suddenly a fairy appears and offers her three wishes. She asks modestly that she may be able to finish her book, that it may be published, and that children all over the world may like it.
As with the uncontrollable pot of porridge, J.K. Rowling gets more than her wish. The story is finished, the publisher found, and the tales of Harry Potter begin to cover the earth, both as books (they have now been translated into over sixty languages) and as films. There are games, toys, costumes, guidebooks, Web sites, and a multitude of imitative versions of the novels that bear the same relation to the originals as wet cardboard sludge does to tasty porridge. In China alone, according to The New York Times, there are already a dozen false Harry Potter books in print, in one of which six Chinese teenage wizards travel to Hogwarts to rescue Harry and his friends from the forces of evil.
Meanwhile, J.K. Rowling has become the richest and most famous children’s writer in the world. Already in 1999 more than two thousand fans lined up outside a bookshop to meet her and have their copies of The Prisoner of Azkaban signed. At this occasion, according to Publishers Weekly, the crowd became so ugly that “the store’s general manager was bitten and punched.” Soon Rowling could not leave the house without being pointed out and besieged by fans. By 2001, in an interview on the BBC, she complained that people had started searching her trash. “It’s horrible,” she said. “It feels like such an invasion, and I’m not a politician, I’m not an entertainer; I never expected that level of interest in my life.”
That Harry Potter has received far more attention than Rowling ever wanted is strongly suggested by the attitude of her hero toward his own fame. Again and again he expresses the wish that he were an ordinary boy. In Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, for instance, he says, “He was sick of it, sick of being the person who was stared at and talked about all the time.” But Harry is not only oppressed by public attention: he is also, as the books progress, in more and more danger of being injured or killed. In the real world, too, this is an occupational hazard of great fame and fortune, and one that Rowling now cannot help but share. She has already been stalked by a mentally disturbed fan, as well as sued (unsuccessfully) for plagiarism, and has received special permission from the Edinburgh City Council to increase the height of the walls surrounding her house and install an electronic security system.
Many writers, including myself, have speculated about why (ruling out supernatural influence) the Harry Potter books should have become so incredibly popular.1 The simplest explanation, perhaps, is that Rowling’s stories have something for everyone, and combine so many popular genres: fantasy, school story, quest tale, thriller, mystery, and—more recently—electronic games. Some chapters of the later books read like text versions of a video game, in which cartoon characters whoosh about on screen trying to zap one another.
Rowling also provides a wide selection of characters for readers to identify with. The student population of Hogwarts, like that of most high schools, is divided into jocks, brains, nice guys, and dangerous Goths. Harry and his two best friends are in the jock house, Griffindor, where “dwell the brave at heart.” Ravenclaw emphasizes “wit and learning,” while the students in Hufflepuff are described as “just and loyal.” (In fact, Hermione seems a natural Ravenclaw and Ron a Hufflepuff; authorial convenience rather than the Sorting Hat appears to have placed them all together.) Unlike most classic boarding-school story locations, Hogwarts is multicultural and multiclass: its students come from both rich and poor families and include Chinese, Indian, black, and Jewish kids. Some have parents who are also wizards or witches; others do not.
It has always been clear that J.K. Rowling writes extremely well and has remarkable powers of invention. She has created a world that cannot help but appeal to children and adolescents: one in which conventional adults (Muggles) are either clueless or cruel or both, while her young hero and his friends have special abilities. These abilities can also be seen as a metaphor for the particular powers of childhood and youth: imagination, energy, creativity, and especially humor—as well as being exciting, the books are often very funny.
In a world that is changing too rapidly even for many children to keep up with, the Harry Potter books can also be enjoyed as the celebration of a largely pre-industrial society. Hogwarts School is in a castle lit by torches and oil lamps and heated by fires; mail is carried by owls, and at the Ministry of Magic memos fly about as paper airplanes. There are no computers, phones, or radios, though a Knight Bus makes an occasional and often disastrous appearance. Magic takes the place of most modern inventions, and many of the people who employ it with skill are children and adolescents. (Anyone who has recently had to appeal to a nine-year-old to unbug a computer, program a cell phone, or operate the new TV’s remote control will already have experienced the bafflement and irritation that Harry’s Muggle foster parents, the Dursleys, frequently feel toward his unique skills.)
In interviews, J.K. Rowling has often said that as time passes her books would get darker, and she has been true to her word. When the final volume, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, begins, Lord Voldemort and his associates, the Death Eaters, have taken over the three central institutions of the wizarding world: the Ministry of Magic (located, incidentally, in Downing Street), Hogwarts, and the Daily Prophet newspaper. Voldemort’s political platform is racist and reactionary: it favors the limitation of magic power to “purebloods,” all of whose ancestors were wizards and witches, and the elimination of what he and his friends scornfully call “Mudbloods” (those who have magical powers although both of their parents were Muggles) and “half-bloods” who had only one magically gifted parent. The Daily Prophet and its unscrupulous columnist Rita Skeeter are doing their best to promote these racist views and to destroy the posthumous reputation of Professor Dumbledore, claiming that he “took an unnatural interest” in Harry Potter, and even suggesting that Harry may have been responsible for Dumbledore’s death.
Lord Voldemort, who himself is a half-blood, is essentially interested not in racial purity but in total power and immortality. Since it has been proph-esied that either he or Harry Potter must die, one of his first priorities is to kill our hero. He has already tried to protect his own life in a manner familiar to folklorists, by hiding his soul, or life force, in various external objects. As long as these objects, known here as Horcruxes, survive, he is safe. Much of the action of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows consists of the attempts of Harry and his friends to escape Voldemort and his followers, and at the same time to find and destroy the Horcruxes.
Unable to return to Hogwarts, they spend most of the fall term on the run, living in a magical self-erecting tent that moves constantly around Britain in order to escape pursuit. They are often wet and cold and hungry and sometimes given to squabbling and sulking. At times, this part of the story resembles the worst camping-out experience you have ever had; at others, it recalls a dungeons-and-dragons-type electronic game. At one point, for instance, Harry and his friends escape from the underground vault of a bank run by goblins by clinging to the back of an old blind dragon whom they have liberated. The dragon is unaware of their presence, and never recognizes them as its rescuers—something that also occasionally happens to benefactors in Muggle life.
Though Harry Potter would prefer to be an ordinary person, he is clearly not one: even his role in the school game of Quidditch proves this. During matches he does not engage with the members of either team. Instead, as Seeker, he pursues a flying golden ball called the Snitch, which if captured will win points for his side. As the story progresses, it becomes apparent that Harry is not just a unique protagonist, but an example of a mythical figure that the famous scholar Lord Raglan called the Hero. Though he is still only seventeen at the end of the story, he already scores six points on Raglan’s list of the characteristics of the Hero.2
But there are other mythic echoes in Harry’s story. At one point in the saga, for instance, Lord Voldemort tries to convince Harry to join him by promising him power and immortality, the standard temptations of Satan. And at the end of The Deathly Hallows, having learned that one of Voldemort’s external souls resides in his own body, Harry willingly goes into the forest to be killed by the Dark Lord, a self-sacrificial act that cannot help but recall the West’s most familiar myth. After he dies, he returns to consciousness in a huge hall full of white mist that resembles King’s Cross Station (where Muggle trains leave for Scotland, Rowling’s home, and also where the train to Hogwarts departs from Track 9 and three-quarters). This location for the afterlife cannot help but focus attention on the name of this particular London railway terminus, and suggest that we are in the realm of Christian tradition; another, earlier clue is that Lord Voldemort, the representation of evil, looks like a snake and is often accompanied by one.
In the transfigured King’s Cross Station, Harry meets the spirit of Professor Dumbledore. He is offered the opportunity to “go on” or to return to Hogwarts and confront Lord Voldemort for the final time—in other words, to be resurrected. Naturally, being a hero, Harry makes the second choice. His apparently dead body is carried back to the castle and displayed to his grieving friends, while the representatives of evil mock him and them. Then Harry springs to life, duels wand to wand with Voldemort, and defeats him. Virtue triumphs, and both Hogwarts and the Ministry of Magic—as well as, one hopes, The Daily Prophet—are returned to the control of relatively benevolent leaders.
See "The Perils of Harry Potter," in Boys and Girls Forever: Children's Classics from Cinderella to Harry Potter (Penguin, 2003).↩
Lord Raglan, The Hero: A Study in Tradition, Myth and Drama (London: Methuen, 1936). (1) "At birth [in Harry's case, when he is a year old] an attempt is made...to kill him, but" (2) "he is spirited away," and (3) "reared by foster-parents in a far country" (among Muggles in Surrey, not all that far geographically from the wizarding world, but supernaturally totally separated from it). (4) "On reaching manhood he returns or goes to his future kingdom" (Hogwarts). (5) He achieves "a victory over...a dragon or wild beast," as well as a series of evil opponents, both human and nonhuman. Finally, he (6) "meets with a mysterious death."↩
See “The Perils of Harry Potter,” in Boys and Girls Forever: Children’s Classics from Cinderella to Harry Potter (Penguin, 2003).↩
Lord Raglan, The Hero: A Study in Tradition, Myth and Drama (London: Methuen, 1936). (1) “At birth [in Harry’s case, when he is a year old] an attempt is made…to kill him, but” (2) “he is spirited away,” and (3) “reared by foster-parents in a far country” (among Muggles in Surrey, not all that far geographically from the wizarding world, but supernaturally totally separated from it). (4) “On reaching manhood he returns or goes to his future kingdom” (Hogwarts). (5) He achieves “a victory over…a dragon or wild beast,” as well as a series of evil opponents, both human and nonhuman. Finally, he (6) “meets with a mysterious death.”↩