The twentieth anniversary celebrations of the highest-selling book series of all time are now coming to a close. 2017 has been a milestone year for Harry Potter fans in their twenties and thirties, who spent much of their youth in anticipation of the release of each new book or film.
Last week’s Wheeler Centre event Harry Who? The True Heroes of Hogwarts brought together writers, comedians and musicians to celebrate the series. While Harry and his broken glasses predominate at most Potter tourist sites and film screenings, Harry Who? asked the audience to consider who really is the true hero of J.K. Rowling’s stories.
As readers contemplate the long-term legacy of the Potter universe and whether it will endure, it’s also important to consider the overarching messages of Rowling’s series as the most popular example of children’s literature to date.
Harry embodies the key characteristic of some of the most memorable protagonists of classic children’s literature. From centuries-old stories of Cinderella onwards, child and youth characters who are orphans not only foster the reader’s empathy, but are also freed from the expectations and restrictions that biological parents impose.
Melanie A. Kimball explains the twin effects of child orphans in literature:
Orphans are at once pitiable and noble. They are a manifestation of loneliness, but they also represent the possibility for humans to reinvent themselves.
Without the tragedy of Harry’s parents being violently killed by the evil Lord Voldemort, Harry would have had no compulsion to go beyond the “typical” experience of a child with a witch and a wizard for parents.
At Harry Who?, writer Ben Pobjie pointed out that Harry is not exceptional, but that it is his nemesis, Voldemort, who propels Harry to importance. With reference to his dubious celebrity, Pobjie joked that if Voldemort was in Australia, he would “be on Sunrise every morning”. As with the importance of Harry’s lack of parental influence and constraint, the extreme adversity of being Voldemort’s inadvertent nemesis establishes a heroic scenario for Harry to inhabit.
One of the repeated claims throughout the event was that Harry is not much of a hero at all, particularly as he relies on other people to succeed. In the first book of the series especially, Hermione Granger possesses most of the personal attributes and knowledge required to defeat the ever-present threat posed by Voldemort. She is clearly the most intelligent of the Harry, Ron and Hermione trio, and works hard where her male counterparts often attempt to shirk the effort required.
While Hermione’s heroism is important, she clearly plays a supporting role to Harry: the series is, after all, named after him. The emphasis on Harry is reflective of the deep gender bias in children’s literature throughout the past century.
A 2011 study of twentieth-century children’s books found that, on average, in each year, no more than a third of children’s books featured central characters who were adult women or female animals. In contrast, adult men and male animals usually featured in 100 per cent of children’s books.
Though the Harry Potter series does depict some strong and beloved female characters including Professor Minerva McGonagall, it is reflective of an era in which protagonists in children’s literature are usually male unless a book is specifically marketed at a girl readership. In addition, the series is also lacking in the depiction of queer characters, regardless of J.K. Rowling’s post-book declaration that Hogwarts’ headmaster Professor Albus Dumbledore is gay.
With the rapid changes in attitudes toward social and cultural issues including same-sex marriage and children with non-normative gender and sexual identities, the Harry Potter series — as a product of the 1990s and early 2000s – might not endure as well as some might imagine.
Indeed, the issue of changing social norms means that very few children’s “classics” continue to be read by children as decades and even centuries pass. It could be that the series is eventually understood as somewhat outdated and more about producing nostalgia for adults in the same way as the once ubiquitous books of Enid Blyton are viewed today.
One crucial part of the Harry Potter legacy, however, is its effectiveness in encouraging readers, viewers, and now theatre goers with Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, to embrace fantastic stories about young people once again.
Adults in the late 19th and early 20th centuries delighted in children’s stories and made up a significant segment of the audience for plays such as Peter Pan. The dual audience of children’s literature, for both adults and children, was once the norm and one that did not bring any shame or embarrassment with it.
Twenty years on, today’s adults are still gathering to talk about and celebrate the Potter novels they enjoyed as children and have continued to re-read. In addition, other series such as Twilight, The Hunger Games and Riverdale, show the continuing popularity of stories about young people for adults. In 2037 we will be able to tell if the Potter-effect has lasted or if its magic only worked for a brief spell.
On Monday, June 26, 2017, Harry James Potter – the world’s most famous wizard – will celebrate his 20th birthday. His many fans will likely mark the occasion by rereading a favorite Harry Potter novel or rewatching one of the blockbuster films. Some may even raise a butterbeer toast in Harry’s honor at one of three Harry Potter-themed amusement parks.
But not everyone will be celebrating Harry’s big day. In fact, a vocal group of Christians – usually identified as “Bible-believing” or fundamentalist Christians – has been resistant to Harry’s charms from the start. Members of this community, who believe the Bible to be literal truth, campaigned vigorously to keep J.K. Rowling’s best-selling novels out of classrooms and libraries. They even staged public book burnings across the country, at which children and parents were invited to cast Rowling’s books into the flames. These fiery spectacles garnered widespread media coverage, sparking reactions ranging from bemusement to outrage.
What could justify the use of such drastic measures to keep these books out of the hands of young readers?
The different views on Harry Potter
Book burnings may be relatively rare in modern America, but efforts to protect young readers from “dangerous” texts are not. Such texts, and the efforts to limit their readership, are the subject of a class I teach at the University of Southern California.
In this class, students survey a collection of books that have been challenged on moral, political and religious grounds. These include classics such as “1984” and “To Kill a Mockingbird,” as well as newer texts like “Persepolis” and “The Perks of Being a Wallflower.” The point is not to determine which challenges are “good” and which are “bad.” Instead, we seek to understand how differing beliefs about reading and subjectivity make certain texts seem dangerous and others seem safe to particular populations of readers.
Harry Potter is one of the first books we discuss.
Most readers of Rowling’s novel – including many Christian readers – interpret the characters’ tutelage in spells and potions as harmless fantasy, or as metaphors for the development of wisdom and knowledge. Similarly, they read incidents in which Harry and his friends disobey adults or make questionable choices as opportunities for characters and readers alike to learn important lessons and begin to develop their own moral and ethical codes.
For some fundamentalist Christians, however, Harry’s magical exploits pose an active danger. According to them, Hogwarts teaches the kinds of witchcraft explicitly condemned as punishable by death and damnation in the biblical books of Deuteronomy and Exodus. They believe the books must be banned – even burned – because their positive portrayal of magic is likely to attract unsuspecting children to real-world witchcraft.
Similarly, they think that when Harry disobeys his cruel Muggle guardians or flouts Dumbledore’s rules to save his friends, he actively encourages child readers to engage in lying and disobedience, which are explicitly forbidden by the Bible. As Evangelical writer Richard Abanes puts it,
“The morals and ethics in Rowling’s fantasy tales are at best unclear, and at worst, patently unbiblical.”
Why don’t Bible-believing Christians trust young readers to discern the difference between fantasy and reality? And why don’t they think children can learn positive lessons from Harry’s adventures – like the importance of standing up to injustice?
One of those assumptions is that particular literary content (like positive portrayals of witchcraft) will invariably produce particular effects (more witches in real life). Another is that reactions to a particular text are likely to be consistent across readers. In other words, if one reader finds a passage scary, funny or offensive, the assumption is that other readers invariably will do so as well.
As Jenkins points out, however, research has shown that readers’ responses are highly variable and contextual. In fact, psychologists Amie Senland and Elizabeth Vozzola have demonstrated this about readers of Harry Potter.
In their study comparing the perceptions of fundamentalist and liberal Christian readers of Harry Potter, Senland and Vozzola reveal that different reading responses are possible in even relatively homogeneous groups. On the one hand, despite adults’ fears to the contrary, few children in either group believed that the magic practiced in Harry Potter could be replicated in real life. On the other, the children disagreed about a number of things, including whether or not Dumbledore’s bending of the rules for Harry made Dumbledore harder to respect.
Senland and Vozzola’s study joins a body of scholarship that indicates that children perform complex negotiations as they read. Children’s reading experiences are informed by both their unique personal histories and their cultural contexts.
In other words, there’s no “normal” way to read Harry Potter – or any other book, for that matter.
Distrusting child readers
Fundamentalist Christians aren’t the only group who have trouble trusting the capabilities of child readers.
Take the case of “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
For decades, parents have argued that Harper Lee’s novel poses a danger to young readers, and have sought to remove it from classrooms for this reason. Some parents worry that the novel’s vulgar language and sexual content will corrupt children’s morals, while others fear that the novel’s marginalization of black characters will damage the self-image of black readers.
Despite their different ideological orientations, I believe that both of these groups of protesters – like the fundamentalists who attempt to censor Harry Potter – are driven by surprisingly similar misapprehensions about reading.
In all of these cases, the protesters presume that being exposed to a phenomenon in literature (whether witchcraft, foul language or racism) naturally leads to a reproduction of that phenomenon in life. They also believe that their individual experience of a text is correct and applicable to disparate readers.
These cases of attempted censorship show a profound distrust of child readers and their imaginations. And they ignore evidence that child readers are far more sophisticated than adults tend to credit them for.
Trisha Tucker, Assistant Professor of Writing, University of Southern California – Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences
A couple of weeks ago while at Durham’s Pride Parade, my attention was caught by a teenager carrying a placard which read:
If Harry Potter taught us anything it’s that no one deserves to live in a closet.
A quick Google search revealed that this powerful adage – originally a poster created by The Youth Project, an LGBT charity in Nova Scotia, Canada, and later retweeted by JK Rowling – has been doing the rounds online for a number of years.
And it’s not the only Harry Potter-related slogan to make an appearance at recent marches or protest events. At the worldwide Women’s Marches, which took place in January, there were numerous “Dumbledore’s Army” and “Hermione wouldn’t stand for this!” placards on show.
What these placards remind us of is that two decades on from the publication of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, JK Rowling’s novels are about so much more than just witchcraft and wizardry. For many young people, Harry Potter is a familiar, even comforting, frame of reference that can help them to process and understand their experiences. And this is particularly the case in the current context of increasing division and inequality in both the US and Britain.
Revisiting first impressions
Though Hogwarts is clearly a fantastic and fictional setting, the characters experience real life trials and traumas – bereavement, loneliness, persecution, jealousy, unrequited love, guilt, and bullying, to name but a few.
There are also the “stock” characters common to everyone’s school days – the class bully and his goons, the “insufferable know-it-all”, the school jokers, and the sadistic teacher.
Part of the appeal and achievement of the series, though, is the way these characters develop in complexity as Rowling’s readers grow and mature. So that assumptions made about characters upon first reading are challenged and tested by the events and revelations of the later books.
In the first novel, for example, Dumbledore and Snape form the pairing of “good teacher vs bad teacher”. Both are essentially unknowable to the characters and to the reader, who cannot yet see beyond Dumbledore as the all-knowing, twinkly-eyed, grandfatherly character and Snape as the black-eyed, evil-tempered “malevolent bat”.
But as the series progresses, these two characters move through mirror image character arcs. The “good” or even “perfect” Dumbledore is humanised and made relatable as we discover he is racked with guilt and self-blame about his early association with the fearsome dark wizard, Grindelwald and his part in the death of his sister, Ariana.
“Bad” Snape, on the other hand, is rehabilitated and made sympathetic through the back story of his unrequited love for Lily Potter – Harry’s mother – his anguish at her death, and his lifelong mission to atone for the sins of his youth. They are no longer stock heroes or villains but believable characters with complex motivations.
In this way, there is something powerful about literature that compels us to examine and revise our first impressions, assumptions, and opinions. It teaches us to be willing and able to do this in real life, too.
Life lessons from Hogwarts
Before the likes of Harry Potter, 18th and 19th-century children’s literature was intended as instruction: the “good” were rewarded and the “bad” were punished – with “bad” behaviour linked to “bad” character and vice versa.
In contrast, a series like Harry Potter helps today’s young readers to appreciate that the world, and the people in it, are not easy to understand or “sort” in the Hogwartian sense. Gryffindors may be cowardly – think Peter Pettigrew – and Slytherins may be motivated by love rather than by ambition, for example when Narcissa Malfoy chooses to lie to Lord Voldemort about Harry being dead in the seventh novel.
A recent study from the University of Cambridge supports the idea that reading and literature can help children to learn about the world and the people around them. It found that:
Reading fiction provides an excellent training for young people in developing and practising empathy and theory of mind. That is, [an] understanding of how other people feel and think.
Or as Hermione would put it, reading fiction helps you not to have “the emotional range of a teaspoon”. And it is this emotional range and empathy, found in books such as Harry Potter, which can help children to navigate the complex and magical world we all share.
An inexhaustible source of magic
But of course, though the world of Hogwarts and Diagon Alley may offer us an escape from our “muggle” existence, theirs is a world as marred by inequality, oppression, and danger as our own.
And in this way, the books create a space where both children and adults can explore and process pressing questions of morality, responsibility, conflict, and trauma at a safe distance.
JK Rowling has said that while she doesn’t believe in the “magic of waving a wand and making things happen”, she does believe in “the magic of imagination and the magic of love”. Let’s add to that another kind of magic that we can all believe in and which continues to be very much part of our lives – and that is the inexhaustible magic of the world of Harry Potter.
It’s 20 years on June 26 since the publication of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, the first in the seven-book series. The Philosopher’s Stone has sold more than 450 million copies and been translated into 79 languages; the series has inspired a movie franchise, a dedicated fan website, and spinoff stories.
I recall the long periods of frustration and excited anticipation as my son and I waited for each new instalment of the series. This experience of waiting is one we share with other fans who read it progressively across the ten years between the publication of the first and last Potter novel. It is not an experience contemporary readers can recreate.
The Harry Potter series has been celebrated for encouraging children to read, condemned as a commercial rather than a literary success and had its status as literature challenged. Rowling’s writing was described as “basic”, “awkward”, “clumsy” and “flat”. A Guardian article in 2007, just prior to the release of the final book in the series, was particularly scathing, calling her style “toxic”.
My own focus is on the pleasure of reading. I’m more interested in the enjoyment children experience reading Harry Potter, including the appeal of the stories. What was it about the story that engaged so many?
Before the books were a commercial success and highly marketed, children learnt about them from their peers. A community of Harry Potter readers and fans developed and grew as it became a commercial success. Like other fans, children gained cultural capital from the depth of their knowledge of the series.
My own son, on the autism spectrum, adored Harry Potter. He had me read each book in the series in order again (and again) while we waited for the next book to be released. And once we finished the new book, we would start the series again from the beginning. I knew those early books really well.
Assessing the series’ literary merit is not straightforward. In the context of concern about falling literacy rates, the Harry Potter series was initially widely celebrated for encouraging children – especially boys – to read. The books, particularly the early ones, won numerous awards and honours, including the Nestlé Smarties Book Prize three years in a row, and were shortlisted for the prestigious Carnegie Medal in 1998.
Criticism of the literary merit of the books, both scholarly and popular, appeared to coincide with the growing commercial and popular success of the series. Rowling was criticised for overuse of capital letters and exclamation marks, her use of speech or dialogue tags (which identify who is speaking) and her use of adverbs to provide specific information (for example, “said the boy miserably”).
The criticism was particularly prolific around the UK’s first conference on Harry Potter held at the prestigious University of St Andrews, Scotland in 2012. The focus of commentary seemed to be on the conference’s positioning of Harry Potter as a work of “literature” worthy of scholarly attention. As one article said of J.K. Rowling, she “may be a great storyteller, but she’s no Shakespeare”.
Even the most scathing of reviews of Rowling’s writing generally compliment her storytelling ability. This is often used to account for the popularity of the series, particularly with children. However, this has then been presented as further proof of Rowling’s failings as an author. It is as though the capacity to tell a compelling story can be completely divorced from the way a story is told.
Writing for kids
The assessment of the literary merits of a text is highly subjective. Children’s literature in particular may fare badly when assessed using adult measures of quality and according to adult tastes. Many children’s books, including picture books, pop-up books, flap books and multimedia texts are not amenable to conventional forms of literary analysis.
Books for younger children may seem simple and conventional when judged against adult standards. The use of speech tags in younger children’s books, for example, is frequently used to clarify who is talking for less experienced readers. The literary value of a children’s book is often closely tied to adults’ perception of a book’s educational value rather than the pleasure children may gain from reading or engaging with the book. For example, Rowling’s writing was criticised for not “stretching children” or teaching children “anything new about words”.
Many of the criticisms of Rowling’s writing are similar to those levelled at another popular children’s author, Enid Blyton. Like Rowling, Blyton’s writing has described by one commentator as “poison” for its “limited vocabulary”, “colourless” and “undemanding language”. Although children are overwhelmingly encouraged to read, it would appear that many adults view with suspicion books that are too popular with children.
There have been many defences of the literary merits of Harry Potter which extend beyond mere analysis of Rowling’s prose. The sheer volume of scholarly work that has been produced on the series and continues to be produced, even ten years after publication of the final book, attests to the richness and depth of the series.
A focus on children’s reading pleasure rather than on literary merit shifts the focus of research to a different set of questions. I will not pretend to know why Harry Potter appealed so strongly to my son but I suspect its familiarity, predictability and repetition were factors. These qualities are unlikely to score high by adult standards of literary merit but are a feature of children’s series fiction.