EDITOR’S NOTE: This piece appeared in the Oct. 11, 1999, issue of National Review.
Tt’s enough to make you choke on your fava beans. In bookstore new-fiction aisles, this was meant to be the summer of Hannibal Lecter: aesthete, Renaissance scholar, and serial killer. Instead he has had to share the limelight with Harry Potter, the schoolboy hero of a series of British children’s books. The second of these, The Chamber of Secrets, was released in the U.S. at about the same time as Thomas Harris’s Hannibal. On September 19, more than three months later, it was Number Three on the New York Times bestseller list, five places ahead of the unfortunate Dr. Lecter. The same week, the first Harry Potter (The Sorcerer’s Stone), which has been on the list for the better part of a year, came in at Number Two. That’s pretty good for works of very English fantasy, and astonishing for books aimed at children. To add to the cannibal’s misery, the most recent Harry Potter, The Prisoner of Azkaban, has now arrived in America, released early by its U.S. publishers as a result of the large number of copies of the British edition that were making their way across the Atlantic.
Probably by broomstick. For the Harry Potter books are about witches and wizards. In the finest tradition of children’s stories, Harry is an 11-year-old orphan being brought up under appalling conditions by grotesque relatives. But, as always in these tales, our hero discovers that he has another, greater destiny. To find his future, Arthur pulled a sword out of a stone. Young Potter just receives letters, hundreds of them, delivered by owls. Harry Potter, it turns out, is a wizard, and he is required to attend Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.
Not least because he has an enemy, Voldemort (the splendidly chosen names are one of the strengths of these books), a great wizard who has gone over, as George Lucas would recognize, to the dark side. Voldemort was responsible for the deaths of Harry’s parents and wants to finish off the son. If Harry is to survive, he will need all the training he can get in the magical arts. The books (there will eventually be one for each of the seven years Harry is due to spend at Hogwarts) detail his adventures at the school and the intensifying struggle with the forces of the wicked Voldemort.
So far, so good, but this is unexceptional stuff, not enough to explain why so many people are wild about Harry. Part of the answer, of course, lies in skillful marketing, not only of the novels but their author. And why not? Hers is a story almost as magical as Harry’s.
J. K. Rowling was a divorced single mother on welfare at the time she wrote The Sorcerer’s Stone, mainly, it is said, in an Edinburgh cafe (her apartment was too cold). A Kinko’s Cinderella, she couldn’t even afford to photocopy her manuscript. She typed it out twice on, naturally, a battered old typewriter. In interviews she comes across as a pleasant sort, the only worrying note coming when she describes her books as “moral.”
Moral? In the sanctimonious world of contemporary children’s literature, that’s a frightening word, all too often a synonym for “politically correct.” Rowling does her best to oblige. Minority characters are carefully included in a saga that is otherwise inescapably Anglo-Saxon. Unusually for an English boarding school, Hogwarts is coeducational. Its principal sport, the enjoyably savage Quidditch (a sort of aerial hockey), can be played by both sexes. Harry’s boarding house includes girls on its team: Their unpleasant opponents at Slytherin House do not.
It’s no surprise, therefore, when Rowling reveals leftish social prejudices all too typical of the British intelligentsia. Harry’s main rival at the school, nasty Draco Malfoy is-two strikes-both rich and aristocratic. Meanwhile, the dysfunctional Dursleys, Harry’s ghastly family, are a caricature of the vicious bourgeoisie that would have delighted Vyshinsky. They are contrasted with the poor-but-happy Weasleys, a wizard household that befriends Harry. Old man Dursley is a brutish capitalist, director of a company that makes drills. The Bob Cratchit-like Mr. Weasley, on the other hand, is a good-government type, a noble, underpaid bureaucrat at the Ministry of Magic.
But by the standards of our irritating era this is mild. Neither Harry nor any of his circle appears to have two mommies, inner-city malaise is confined to the sinister folk in Knockturn Alley, and no one hugs a Whomping Willow tree (it would hit back). The Potter phenomenon is, in fact, reassuring. The lad’s no pinko. There is plenty here for the more traditionally minded, and tradition sells, it would seem. Part of the appeal of these books is that they offer fantasy, but within a reassuring structure. There are rules.
Hogwarts School is strict, and its exams are tough. Strip away the contemporary trimmings, and the reader is left with a rather old-fashioned English boarding-school tale, even down to the feasts. Harry “had never seen so many things he liked to eat on one table: roast beef, roast chicken, pork chops and lamb chops, sausages, bacon and steak, boiled potatoes, roast potatoes, fries, Yorkshire pudding, peas, carrots, gravy, ketchup, and for some strange reason, peppermint humbugs.” This is not a school for our tofu times.
Nor is it for wimps. There are plenty of challenges for Harry, almost none of which can be resolved by “counseling.” Undaunted, he tries to do the right thing. This is a boy who sticks by his friends, and they stick by him. There is evil and betrayal, but by the final page, the bad guys are generally in disarray. Children still like a happy ending and a hero to cheer for. And who better than Harry? He is no comic-book savage. Laudably enough, he wants to avenge his parents, but he doesn’t want to lose his humanity (if that’s the word for a wizard) in so doing.
And Rowling does not lose sight of her principal objective, which is to tell a good story well. The writing is vivid and of high quality-it has to be to hold a child’s attention for over 300 pages (books in R. L. Stine’s bestselling Goosebumps series are around 150 pages each). The lesson of Harry Potter is that well–crafted, intelligent stories can indeed flourish in the marketplace–if the gatekeepers of our contemporary culture give them a chance. Tellingly, a British publisher that rejected The Sorcerer’s Stone did so because it was “too literary.”
If this is another way of saying that the author doesn’t patronize her readers, it is true. Unlike many writers of children’s books, she doesn’t talk down to her audience. She is not, however, writing for their parents. Harry’s adult fans (so many in the U.K. that the British publisher produced an edition with a more “grown-up” cover to allow them to read it in public) need to get a grip. Comparisons between Harry Potter and the immortals of children’s literature should also be treated with care. The greatest of the classics retain their appeal over the years. They are more than a craze. With the much-hyped Harry it is still too early to say, although the signs are good that Hogwarts will stand the test of time. But what’s the hurry? We don’t yet know how the saga will end. Voldemort still lives.