Why are so many of the best-known children’s books British or American? Other countries have produced a single brilliant classic or series: Denmark, for instance, has Andersen’s fairy tales, Italy has Pinocchio, France has Babar, Finland has Moomintroll. A list of famous children’s books in English, however, could easily take up the rest of this column.
One explanation may be that in Britain and America more people never quite grow up. They may sometimes put on a good show of maturity, but secretly they remain children, longing for the pleasures and privileges of childhood that once were, or were said to be, theirs. And there are some reasons for them to do so.
In most nations there is nothing especially wonderful about being a child of school age. For the first four or five years boys and girls may be petted and indulged, but after that they are usually expected to become little adults as soon as possible: responsible, serious, future-oriented. But in English-speaking nations, ever since the late eighteenth century, poets and philosophers and educators have maintained that there is something wonderful and unique about childhood: that simply to be young is to be naturally good and great. It may be no coincidence that the romantic glorification of youth of the Sixties and early Seventies was most evident in America and Britain, or that when they want to make an especially touching appeal to voters, American politicians always speak of “our kids.”
Because childhood is seen as a superior condition, many Americans and Britons are naturally reluctant to give it up. They tend to think of themselves as young much longer, and cling to childhood attitudes and amusements. On vacation, and in the privacy of their homes, they readily revert to an earlier age: they wear childish clothes and play childish games and sometimes read children’s books.
The authors of great juvenile fiction, whatever their nationality, often continue to think and feel as children. They are spontaneous, dreamy, imaginative, unpredictable. E. Nesbit spent many hours building a toy town out of blocks and kitchenware, and wrote a book, The Magic City, about it; Laurent deBrunhoff, who has continued his father’s Babar series for many years and is now over seventy, still climbs trees with childish skill and delight. James Barrie spent his summer holidays playing pirates and Indians with the four Davies boys, and Lewis Carroll also much preferred the company of children to that of adults.
Since so many juvenile classics are written by people like this, it should be no surprise that they often take the side of children against adults. These books are, in the deepest sense, subversive. They make fun of grown-ups and expose adult pretensions and failings; they suggest, subtly or otherwise, that children are braver, smarter, and more interesting than grown-ups, and that grown-up rules are made to be broken.
J.K. (Joanne) Rowling, the Scottish author of the newest British children’s classics, the brilliant and phenomenally successful Harry Potter books, is clearly in this tradition. She has created a world in which children have special abilities, while conventional adults are either clueless or cruel or both. Her hero’s secret power takes traditional folk-tale forms (flying brooms, transformation, spells and potions). But it can also be seen as a metaphor for the power of childhood: of imagination, of creativity, and of humor (as well as being exciting, her books are often very funny). And like other famous children’s authors, Rowling remains close to her own childhood. “I really can, with no difficulty at all, think myself back to eleven years old,” she recently told Time magazine.
Essentially, the Harry Potter stories belong to an ongoing tradition of Anglo-American fantasy that takes off from Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, and has been continued splendidly by writers like Lloyd Alexander, Susan Cooper, Alan Garner, and Diana Wynne Jones. (Jones’s excellent Charmed Life, like the Potter books, takes place in a school for juvenile witches and wizards located in an enchanted castle.) What sets Rowling’s books apart from their predecessors is partly a lighthearted fertility of invention that recalls L. Frank Baum’s Oz books. Even more important is the fact that hers is a fully imagined world, to which she has a deep, ongoing commitment. For six years, even before she began the first book in the series, Rowling was imagining and elaborating its fantasy world. She has already planned seven Harry Potter novels, one for each year Harry will spend at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, an institution which seems to be located (like J.K. Rowling herself) somewhere in Scotland.
Harry, Rowling’s hero, is a natural-born wizard, but at first he doesn’t know it. When we meet him he is ten years old and in the classic Cinderlad situation: a poor, lonely orphan, despised and abused. Harry lives with his deeply unpleasant aunt and uncle, Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, in a country that much resembles Britain in the 1960s or 1970s, before the Internet, digital phones, and interactive video.
The Dursleys live in a village called Little Whinging (a joke that American readers may not get: we would call the place Little Whining). Like most of their neighbors, they are Muggles—people who have no magic powers. They hate the very mention of the supernatural, and refuse to give Harry any information about his dead parents. (“They were weirdos, no denying it, and the world’s better off without them in my opinion,” Uncle Vernon declares.) Uncle Vernon and Aunt Petunia are as cruel to Harry as any fairy-tale stepparent: they feed him poorly and clothe him shabbily; they make him sleep in a dark spider-infested cupboard under the stairs and destroy his mail. Even worse is their son Dudley, a spoiled, overweight, greedy bully who, with the help of his large and hateful friends, makes Harry’s school and home life actively miserable.
From the point of view of an imaginative child, the world is full of Muggles—people who don’t understand you, make stupid rules, and want nothing to do with the unexpected or the unseen. Harry’s story also embodies the common childhood fantasy that the dreary adults and siblings you live with are not your real family, that you are somehow special and gifted. Harry has an outward manifestation of his gift: a scar in the shape of a lightning bolt on his forehead, the sign that even as a baby he could not be killed by the evil off-stage Dark Wizard Voldemort, whose very name most people fear to utter.
As in many folk tales, you can often tell a character’s character from his or her name, and “Voldemort” neatly combines the ideas of theft, mold, and death. Harry Potter, on the other hand, has a name that suggests not only craftsmanship but both English literature and English history: Shakespeare’s Prince Hal and Harry Hotspur, the brave, charming, impulsive heroes of Henry IV; and Beatrix Potter, who created that other charming and impulsive classic hero, Peter Rabbit.
At the start of each story Harry Potter is living in exile at the Dursleys. But presently, with the help of magic, he is rescued and enters an alternate world in which imagination and adventurousness are rewarded. A comic cockney giant named Hagrid introduces him to a parallel magical Britain, one entrance to which is through the back door of a scruffy London pub called the Leaky Cauldron. After a shopping trip in which Harry visits a bank run by goblins and purchases unusual school supplies, including “one plain pointed hat (black) for day wear” and The Standard Book of Spells (Grade 1), he takes a special train to the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry from Track Nine and Three-Quarters at King’s Cross Station—a train and track which are, naturally, invisible to Muggles.
Hogwarts School, it turns out, is located in a huge ancient castle, well-equipped with towers, dungeons, ghosts, secret passages, and enchanted paintings and mirrors. The subjects taught there include Divination, Defense Against the Dark Arts, and Care of Magical Creatures. But in some ways Hogwarts resembles a classic English boarding school—one which, in keeping with the times, is co-ed and multiracial. There are four houses, which compete intensely in the school sport of Quidditch, a sort of combination cricket, soccer, and hockey played on flying broomsticks, in which Harry turns out to excel. The teachers wear black gowns and dine at a head table, and there are prefects and a Head Boy and Head Girl.
Just as in many American schools, however, the student population is roughly divided into jocks, brains, nice guys, and dangerous Goths. Harry and his two best friends are in the jock house, Gryffindor, where, according to tradition, “dwell the brave at heart.” Ravenclaw House emphasizes “wit and learning,” while the kids in Hufflepuff are described as “just and loyal…/ And unafraid of toil.” The bad characters live in Slytherin House, whose students “use any means/To achieve their ends.”
Even before he arrives at Hogwarts, Harry acquires an enemy in Slytherin House, the mean, snobbish, unscrupulous Draco Malfoy, whose name translates readily into “Dragon Bad-Faith.” Like Cousin Dudley in the Muggles world, Draco has a couple of goons (these ones are named Crabbe and Goyle) to back up his constant sneering and bullying. As a hero and local sports star, Harry also attracts fans; naturally modest, he finds their intense admiration and constant attention as embarrassing as J.K. Rowling reportedly does.
But Harry also has more serious problems. The plot of each book essentially centers around the attempts of dark forces to destroy him. As is customary in modern fantasies, from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings to Star Wars, lurking in the background is an evil, powerful figure (almost always male) who wants to rule the world.1 Often these characters have something in common with Milton’s rebel angels: at first they seem impressive and even convincing. There is something admirable in their desire for knowledge and power, whereas their followers, motivated mainly by fear, greed, and revenge, are wholly repulsive.
Harry, of course, always escapes his enemies, but it gets harder with each book. Rowling has said that as time passes the stories will turn darker. “There will be deaths,” she has informed Time magazine. Already in volume three it is not so easy to tell which side anyone is on. Those who at first seem friends may be foes, or vice versa; and good but weak people may be seduced into doing evil because of their own fear or folly. In the latest volume, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, a scruffy but harmless-looking pet rat called Scabbers turns out to be a wicked wizard who, even in human form, has a “pointed nose and…very small, watery eyes.”
Rowling describes her characters with a psychological subtlety rare in children’s books and sometimes even in adult fiction. In Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets a ragged, oppressed house-elf named Dobby is constantly torn between loyalty to his masters and his wish to save Harry’s life. Whenever he is on the edge of revealing their plots, Dobby hits himself over the head with the nearest blunt object, repeating “Bad Dobby!”
One attraction of the Potter books is that the good characters are not perfect. Harry excels at Quidditch, but he is only an average student, unlike his friend Hermione, who studies for the fun of it and is a bit of a prig. Hagrid, the lovable giant gamekeeper, has a weakness for dangerous magic creatures: he sees his vicious pet dragon and the huge spiders that live in the Forbidden Forest as cute and cuddly. The British, of course, are fanatic animal lovers; and it may be that this is Rowling’s comment on some of the peculiar or even dangerous but beloved pets that visitors to England sometimes encounter.
Though Rowling’s child heroes are imperfect, they are usually smarter and braver than adults. Some of the nicest teachers at Hogwarts, though friendly and knowledgeable, often don’t have a clue to what’s going on around them. Others are weak and incompetent, or complete phonies, like the handsome, media-intoxicated Professor Lockhart, who claims to have performed the magical exploits of other, less photogenic wizards. A few, even, may have sold out to the Dark Powers or their representatives.
The headmaster of Hogwarts, elderly silver-haired Professor Dumbledore (like Tolkien’s Gandalf, whom he much resembles), maintains a kind of benign detachment from events except in moments of great crisis. A.O. Scott, writing in the on-line magazine Slate, has perceptively remarked that “Dumbledore’s benevolent but strict theology, involving the operations of free will in a supernaturally determined world, is classically Miltonian.”
The appeal of the Harry Potter books, to judge by the flood of reviews and essays that have greeted their appearance, is wide and varied. They can be enjoyed, for instance, as the celebration of a pre-industrial world: Hogwarts Castle is lit by torches and heated by fires, and mail is carried by owls of different sizes, including “tiny little scops owls (‘Local Deliveries Only’).”
As with most first-rate children’s books there is something here for everyone. Pico Iyer, in The New York Times Book Review, sees the stories as only half-fantastic accounts of life in an English public school (in his case Eton), “designed to train the elite in a system that other mortals cannot follow.” There, as at Hogwarts, he claims, “we were in an alternative reality where none of the usual rules applied.” A.O. Scott, on the other hand, thinks that “being a wizard is very much like being gay: you grow up in a hostile world governed by codes and norms that seem nonsensical to you, and you discover at a certain age that there are people like you.” (It seems unlikely that Harry Potter is gay: in the latest volume he shows romantic interest in an “extremely pretty” girl Quidditch player called Cho Chang.)
Joanne Rowling’s own story, like Harry’s, is in the classic folk-tale tradition. As almost everyone now knows, when she was writing Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone2 she was a young single mother with long red hair, living on public assistance in Edinburgh. Because her flat was unheated, she would put her small daughter into a stroller and push her about the streets until the child fell asleep. Then she would go to a café, order a cup of coffee, and write.
Rowling’s fairy godmother was the Scottish Arts Council, which gave her a grant that made it possible for her to finish the first volume. But even then she had trouble getting transportation to the ball. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was rejected by nine English publishers before Bloomsbury took it, and they had no idea it would be such a success. At first they made no special attempt to promote the book, and printed only a small number of copies.
Now, of course, all that is history. Currently the three volumes of the series are number one, two, and three on the New York Times best-seller list. (This has annoyed several publishers of adult fiction, who have protested that a children’s book really doesn’t belong there.) The first volume is being translated into (at last count) twenty-eight languages. A new plain-cover edition has also appeared in England, for adults who are embarrassed to be seen reading a children’s book. Though this edition costs two pounds more than the original, it has already sold 20,000 copies.
Recently Rowling’s publishers have announced that Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone will be made into a “live-action” film by Warner Brothers. The script will be written by Steven Kloves, the author and director of The Fabulous Baker Boys—a strange choice, some might think. Soon, no doubt, the original book will be edged out of public consciousness by the movie. There will be Harry Potter T-shirts, lunchboxes, video games, and action figures.
There are other looming threats to Harry Potter. In the American South and in Southern California, the same sort of people who object to the teaching of evolution and the Big Bang theory of creation have begun to complain that the stories portray witchcraft in a favorable light. From time to time, of course, the same complaint has been made about the Oz books, which in some cases have been removed from schools and bookstores along with all other representations of cute or friendly wizards and witches. The publishers have not tried to hush this up; from their point of view, any publicity is good publicity.
As a result of all this attention and success, the folk-tale heroine J.K. Rowling, once a welfare mother, has become a fabulously rich princess. Will she now find true love and live happily ever after? Will she be destroyed by the curses of fundamentalist Christians, or fall under the spell of wicked merchandisers and publicists? Her story promises to be almost as interesting as the future adventures of Harry Potter himself.
December 16, 1999
The most striking exception to this rule occurs in C.S. Lewis’s Narnia series, in which the wicked, power-mad figure is female. ↩
The British title of the book is Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone; the American edition substituted “Sorcerer” for “Philosopher” on the assumption that most American readers know nothing about the history of alchemy and think of philosophy as dull. ↩