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Harry Potter - the Mystery of the Global Phenomenon

Justyna Kita, an MA student at the University of Sosnowiec, gives us her personal response to the Harry Potter novels, as well as trying to put them into a wider literary context.

by Gabi Korput

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was published in 1997 and very quickly became a literary hit, winning the Smarties Prize, the children’s equivalent of the Booker Prize, and becoming a best-seller, with 70,000 copies sold in one year. Three books later, and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire has joined the others at the top of the general best-seller list, with both children and adults queuing overnight at bookstores in London and New York to make sure they get their copies. A big budget Hollywood film version is underway (due for release for the Christmas market 2001), and the Harry Potter phenomenon is supported by the usual additions of fan clubs, web sites and merchandising. For many, it was a ‘Harry Christmas’ this year. Moreover, there are signs that this very ‘English’ book is becoming a global phenomenon, with the four books having sold over 40 million copies and being translated into 18 languages. Both Polish and English versions are available in bookshops in Poland, and they sell fast.

In this essay I would like to reflect on the ‘Harry Potter’ phenomenon, and see if it has a wider relevance. I aim to do this by firstly placing the Harry Potter books into an historical and literary context, (which includes looking at the background of the author), and examining the appeal the novels have to readers today. To this I will add my own personal response to the novels (as a Polish reader), before trying to place this series of novels within a wider context of what I will argue is a universal need for narrative.

There are rich traditions in British fiction of school based stories, (The Famous Five, Lord of the Flies, etc), spy stories (The Thirty Nine Steps to Le Carre) and fantasy (Tolkien, CS Lewis). JK Rowling somehow manages to cleverly mix these genres and make the whole greater than the sum of the parts. It does not take long to summarise the background to the stories: Harry Potter is an orphan being brought up by a cruel uncle and aunt, but he is also a wizard (whose parents have been killed fighting the forces of evil). Each term, he escapes to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, where he learns the arts of magic, alongside the usual collection of stock pupil and teacher characters, while also combatting those same forces of evil which killed his parents. And yet this summary tells us nothing of the humour, inventiveness, and dramatic force of the books.

Rowling’s background may have something to do with this. With her most vivid childhood memory being read Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, and her preferred childhood reading CS Lewis’s Narnia books, it is not surprising that her writing should be filled with the imagination and fantasy of these two authors. But the dark side to her novels, involving the constant struggle between the forces of good and evil, (and which some have criticised for being too frightening for children), also owe something to her own personal experience. A divorced single parent mother at 27, she watched her mother die of multiple sclerosis, and took six years to write her first novel while on social security benefit in Edinburgh, often retreating to cafes in the evening where she and her child could find greater warmth than in her damp flat. This is certainly someone who knows something about being abandoned and rejected, as her protagonists (Harry and his friends), often are at various parts of the stories.

Throughout the stories, there is a strong moral theme, often surfacing towards the end of the book, as with this moral voice from the Headmaster, Albus Dumbledore:

It is our choices, Harry, that show us what we truly are, far more than our abilities.

My adventure with Harry Potter started unintentionally. I got Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone as a present and my first thought was, ‘Why not? At least I will find out why the British are so crazy about it.’ I started reading it out of curiosity not expecting anything extraordinary. But the book was captivating from the start and very quickly I realised that it was not as simple as I had first thought.

First of all, it was the setting. The story is set in a school environment, and despite the cultural differences between school life in different countries, there are lots of common elements.

There are good teachers who the students love because of interesting lessons, (Mr. Lupin), strict ones, (Mrs. Pomfrey), ones who have favourites (horrible Snape), and hopeless ones who couldn’t teach anybody anything (Mrs. Trelawney). There is also a wide range of school pupils who can be bullies (Malfoy), swots (Hermione), pompous (headboy Percy), slow (Neville) and smart but unruly (Harry). And finally there are the daily routines of school life so well known to us all, such as exams, school breaks, sport and so on. These universal elements from our childhood experience of education mean that the characters and situations can be readily understood by people from many different cultures.

But on to this familiar world, the author transports another world of magic and fantasy. As one reviewer, Caroline Moore, says, ‘part of Rowling’s success is due to the brilliant way in which she makes the enclosed fantasy world of magic seem no stranger than the oddly enclosed world of every school’.

What also struck me about the books is the language. There are constant plays on words and linguistic jokes to keep even the most demanding reader on their toes. Many of the names of characters resemble their owners in some way (Sprout – herbal teacher, snappy Snape, loopy Lupin, Draco Malfoy, Filch, Peeves Poltergeist and so on), with other playful asides such as when we learn that Fluffy, the three-headed dog who guards a secret chamber, was acquired by his owner, Hagrid, from a Greek chap.

Above all, though, there is the sense of being transported to another world, the world of the imagination, but making that journey from the comfort of the known and familiar world of childhood.

The significance of story telling to our lives has long been known. Indeed, sociologists, educationalists, Marxists, Feminists and Freudians, to name but a few, have all tried to explain (with different interpretations), the importance of stories such as myths, legends, folk and fairy tales. Structural analyses of folk tales, such as those carried out by Propp, have brought to light common narrative threads and typical ingredients which appear in many tales, (and it would be interesting to adapt such an analysis to the Harry Potter stories).

We also know that the violence of many traditional ‘folk stories’ was diluted over the ages as moral standards changed. Children’s stories can still be frightening and gruesome, and it is argued that by being able to face these issues in a story, children are more able to adjust to them in life. One of the most convincing of all the writers about narrative, however, is Barbara Hardy, who argues against the tendency to separate the world of the imagination from that of reality:

Educationalists still suggest that the process of maturation involves a movement out of the fantasy life into a vision of life ‘as it is’. Teachers have even constructed syllabuses on the assumption that we begin with fairy tales and daydreams and work gradually into realistic modes.

The argument is that we do not begin our lives by telling fairy stories and ending by telling truths, but rather that the world of fantasy and imagination is with us throughout our waking and sleeping lives.

If we accept the importance of narrative to our sense of being human, and elevate to its proper place what Barbara Hardy would call “a primary act of mind”, then the world-wide success of the Harry Potter books becomes more easy to understand.

At times we all need to go to that place of Maurice Sendak’s marvellous micro-story, Where the Wild Things Are. Harry Potter touches that desire within us all, and provides the opportunity for readers of all ages to swap our own realities for others. As Barbara Hardy says, “It is hard to stop telling stories.”


Bibliography

  • De Bertodano, H. 1998, ‘Harry Potter Charms a Nation’, Electronic Telegraph, issue 1156, http://www.telegraph.co.uk
  • Hardy, B. 1968, Narrative as a Primary Act of Mind, Brown University
  • ‘Harry Potter: the verdict’, in Electronic Telegraph, issue 1502, http://www.telegraph.co.uk
  • Rowling, J. K., 1997, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, Bloomsbury
  • Rowling, J. K., 1998, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Bloomsbury
  • Rowling, J. K., 1999, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Bloomsbury
  • Sendak, M., 1963, Where the Wild Things Are

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