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.
Among readers, opinion about this ending varies. Some of the many people I have talked to, including several teenagers, are happy that Harry survives; others had not only expected that he would die in the end, but would have preferred it that way. Indeed, Rowling’s repeated assurances to journalists that “there would be deaths” suggested this. (Over fifty people do die in The Deathly Hallows, but most of them are anonymous or minor characters; the most prominent and most missed by my informants are Fred Weasley and Dobby the house-elf.)
Almost everyone I’ve consulted has hated and regretted the epilogue to The Deathly Hallows, which takes place nineteen years later in King’s Cross Station and portrays Harry Potter and Ginny Weasley as parents of three children, two of whom are about to take the train for Hogwarts. Although many of the other passengers stare at Harry, it seems that Rowling has at last given her hero the ordinary domestic life he longed for (and the same number of children she has). Also present are Hermione and Ron, now married and with two children, one of whom is boarding the train.
We are given no news of any of the other characters in the series except for Neville Longbottom, who is currently Hogwarts’s Professor of Herbology. The fact that Harry’s scar has not hurt in nineteen years does not mean that evil has vanished from the world: Hogwarts still has a Slytherin House, whose students “use any means/To achieve their ends.” Apparently, one out of four potential wizards is still drawn to the dark side. The epilogue also effectively blocks the creation of more Harry Potter stories, since there can be no real suspense in any adventures he might have had in the past nineteen years—or even in the future. “Anyhow,” as one fourteen-year-old reader from Santa Cruz put it, “who would care once they know he’s just an ordinary middle-aged dad?”
The bitter criticism of Harry Potter that greeted its early success, mostly from fundamentalist Christians who objected to any story with a good witch or wizard in it (including The Wizard of Oz), seems to have died down somewhat. Complaints that Harry and his friends are not model children, that they break rules, disobey orders, and sometimes even lie or steal, are also less frequent—though of course these charges are true. Possibly, as the heroes of the book become older, such actions seem more readily justified, especially as Hogwarts begins to be infiltrated by teachers who are determined to injure or kill Harry and his friends. Today, criticism tends to be more analytical, in both senses of the word. In the recent The Psychology of Harry Potter, many of the contributing authors (like its editor) have Ph.D.s in psychology and occasionally take a fairly tongue-in-cheek attitude toward their subject.3
They complain, however, that Hogwarts seems to feature rote learning, does not teach critical thinking, and lacks adequate career counseling. They also identify Harry’s and Ron’s relationship problems as due to their upbringing. Ron, one of seven children in a poor family, suffers from Anxiety Syndrome as the result of a lack of sustained parental attention and affection; Harry, raised in isolation by unloving relatives, suffers from Avoidance Syndrome. (Hermione, by contrast, had loving and attentive parents, and is an example of security and confidence.) Timely intervention by a well-trained Muggle child psychologist might have made their lives easier, but probably not much could have been done for Tom Riddle, the future Lord Voldemort, who was rejected at birth by his mother and brought up in a harsh orphanage, where he developed a full-blown antisocial personality disorder.
Looking back on the series now, certain questions occur. For one thing, it is hard to understand why so many witches and wizards would want to join the Dark Lord and become Death Eaters. Voldemort is neither beautiful nor charming, as many Dark Lords have been in the past, both in history and in literature. His aspect is repellent and his manner toward his associates cold, haughty, and cruel. On the other hand, many of the Death Eaters themselves are fascinating in their own ways, and so are their supernatural helpers. One of Rowling’s best inventions is the Dementors, who wear black hooded cloaks, have scabby claw-like hands, and spread hopelessness and depression wherever they go. When they appear they awaken your worst memories, and nothing seems good or beautiful or interesting or worth doing.
The Dementors are the manifestation of emotions we are all subject to at times; and they also recall some people we have had the misfortune to know, people who have the ability to make life seem worse just by walking into the room and making a few apparently harmless remarks. Examples from my own experience: “Of course, at your age a broken leg never heals completely, you’ll probably always walk with a limp.” “What a shame that your article should have appeared in a magazine that nobody ever reads.”
One way of looking at the Harry Potter books today, of course, is as a political allegory. At the start of the series, the Ministry of Magic in Downing Street is merely a bureaucracy handicapped by too many rules and a few pompously fussy officials. Later it appears to be run by fools whose main wish is to avoid trouble, and who therefore refuse to admit that Lord Voldemort has returned and that the entire wizarding world is in danger. Gradually it becomes clear that some government officials can be bribed and manipulated. In The Order of the Phoenix, the Minister of Magic, Fudge (note his name), is seen talking to the rich and powerful Lucius Malfoy by Mr. Weasley, Ron’s father. Mr. Weasley, who is basically a good man but rather weak and ineffective, remarks, “Malfoy’s been giving generously to all sorts of things for years…. Gets him in with the right people…then he can ask favors…delay laws he doesn’t want passed.”
Another possible political parallel concerns the Prison of Azkaban, in the book of that name. This is an isolated place far to the east where those judged to be evildoers are exiled by the ministry and tortured by Dementors. When the series began, it was unlikely that many readers would associate Azkaban with actual and notorious Near Eastern prisons, but today the connection seems unavoidable. It is also noteworthy that as time has passed, Rowling’s books seem to express a greater and greater suspicion of this system of crime control. It would be nice to know that nineteen years after the end of the series (technically, in 2017), Azkaban and all its Muggle equivalents will have been destroyed forever.
Shortly before the publication of the final Harry Potter book, a film version of the fifth volume, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, appeared. Like the first four films, it has been a great success. It is also remarkably true to the original, though a few characters have been pushed fairly far into the background, and there is no Quidditch match. But the computer-generated effects, as always, are skillful and often charming: I especially liked the transformations of the headlines and photos in the tabloid of the magical world, The Daily Prophet (POTTER, for instance, metamorphoses back and forth into PLOTTER). Also amusing are the antics of the former Hogwarts professors in their portraits, and the parody of King Kong in the child giant Gawp’s attachment to Hermione. (Like many first-rate children’s movies, the Harry Potter films are full of references designed to sail over the heads of kids and appeal directly to adults.)
By now it sometimes seems as if every great British stage and screen actor has appeared in a Harry Potter film. Their casts have included Helena Bonham Carter, John Cleese, Ralph Fiennes, Michael Gambon, Robert Hardy, Maggie Smith, Miranda Richardson, Alan Rickman, Fiona Shaw, Emma Thompson, and Zoë Wanamaker—all of them worth watching for their own sake. In the latest episode, The Order of the Phoenix, Imelda Staunton, best known to Americans as the kind and sympathetic heroine of Vera Drake, is the villainess. She appears as Dolores Umbridge, a brilliantly chosen name that suggests a down-to-earth Cockney mum from Coronation Street.
At first this seems reasonable. Professor Umbridge, who has just been appointed to teach Defense Against the Dark Arts at Hogwarts, is plump, middle-aged, and always smiling; she wears pink tweed, with perky bows in her curly permed hair, and speaks in sweet, ingratiating tones. Soon, though, the picture darkens. Professor Umbridge refuses to allow her students to practice her subject, confining their class time to the reading and rereading of theory (a frustrating unpleasantness that many recent graduate students in the humanities have also suffered). Eventually she turns out to be ambitious and relentlessly cruel. When we take another look at her name, we are likely to think that we should have known this from the start, since “Dolores Umbridge” so clearly suggests grief (dolor) and resentment (umbrage). Names in Rowling’s books are always significant: “Harry,” for instance, recalls Shakespeare’s brave and impulsive Prince Hal and Harry Hotspur, while “Voldemort” simultaneously suggests theft, mold, and death.
The delight that Imelda Staunton and her gifted colleagues appear to feel in taking a holiday from serious drama and hamming it up, sometimes against type, is often practically visible on the screen. As the formidable but benevolent witch Professor McGonagall, for instance, Dame Maggie Smith cannot help reminding us of a reformed Miss Jean Brodie, now genuinely concerned for her students’ welfare and no longer a fan of Mussolini, but bitterly opposed to the authoritarianism of the Ministry of Magic. Sir Michael Gambon, as the headmaster of Hogwarts, Professor Dumbledore, recalls the TV show based on the novels of Georges Simenon, where as Inspector Maigret he also often arrived late but triumphantly at the solution to a dramatic problem. It is easy to imagine all of them and their colleagues getting together for laughter and congratulations at the end of every scene.
For the actors who play the Hogwarts students, it is a different story. They are also talented and hardworking, but they must take their jobs seriously. They also have the disadvantage of having been cast when very young (in the first film in the series, they were mostly ten or eleven) and thus being identified almost entirely with their roles. There is also the problem that they have grown up faster than the books have been written, and therefore faster than the films can be made. The last Harry Potter book, though it takes place only six years later than the first, took ten years to appear. In Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, the principals are all supposed to be fifteen, but Daniel Radcliffe (Harry) is now in fact eighteen, while Emma Watson (Hermione) and Rupert Grint (Ron) are seventeen. (On the other hand, Evanna Lynch, the charming young Irish actress who plays Luna Lovegood, is actually fifteen; in her case it is unnecessary to suspend disbelief.) As time passes, the necessities of film production and distribution will only increase these discrepancies.
Meanwhile, all of the principals have become millionaires many times over: Daniel Radcliffe, according to report, is now the richest teenager in Britain. Emma Watson is worth fourteen million pounds, and she has also recently been voted one of the 100 Sexiest Women in the World by the British men’s magazine FHM. It is difficult to know how this development will be reconciled with the rather strikingly sexless adventures of the main characters in the final volume of J.K. Rowling’s series.
September 27, 2007
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.” ↩
The Psychology of Harry Potter: An Unauthorized Examination of the Boy Who Lived, edited by Neil Mulholland (Benbella, 2007). ↩