Saturday, July 21, 2007

What is it with Harry?

Dr Helen asks what the big deal is with Harry Potter. I left the following.

I remember hearing a radio programme with four very well-known and successful authors of children's books each of whom could be said to have 'literary ambitions'. When asked about their childhood reading, they cited a variety of authors, very few in common, except for one. Enid Blyton. In particular, the Famous Five. Only one had taken the trouble to go back and read her again, and he pronounced her 'unreadable dross'. That would be the opinion of most adults who sat down to read Enid Blyton. Unless they were reading aloud to a child.

Because whatever she does still works. She was the writer that got me reading voraciously and I suspect that she has worked the same magic for many, many others and will continue to do so. As will JK Rowling.

Rowling is better than Blyton, but I suspect she will perform this role as well. She has several essential qualities shared by the author of the Famous Five. Firstly, she portrays the child's world enhanced. There's no attempt at the 'real' world here because the world of realist novels is an adult one of emotional and economic relations that do not interest most children. The enhancement occurs by projecting the conflicts within onto a larger screen and adding a lot of effects. It is the world of school where children learn to fight their battles with their coevals on the playground and, because it's a boarding school, with authority figures uncomplicated by parental love.

A boarding school. That is important. It is a place with its own rules both day and night. It is cut off from the rest of the world. Parents, families are excluded. Identity must be forged on terms that take no account of the adult world, but belong to this world alone. Many teenagers feel like this anyway. A setting like Hogwarts formalises it. Its distance from everywhere we know as the real world is carefully maintained in the books just as that between the magic and the muggles's world is enforced by the Ministery of Magic (if with less success).

Rowlings is very conservative. Gender roles are such that they would have been recognised in the Thirties. The Big Bads and the Big Goods are all male and they will have to fight to decide the day. Females are loving and supportive (Mrs Weasley, Professor McGonagall), good and fussy (Hermione), bad and fussy (Dolores Umbridge), etc. But the great question is the male one - will the male reach maturity - that is, kill the bad guy? Children like this sort of clarity and feel comfortable with it. Rowling has extended it over 7 books with great single-mindedness. (It amazes me that the PC Brigade hasn't launched ICBMs on her - for the most part, it is as if PC was in another world, the muggle world, presumably.)

It should also be said that she has imagination, good puzzles, Latin, some great visual effects and lots of school humour. She's also got better and better sylistically. I thought the first chapter of the fifth book had real punch - economical but extremely effective. From what the children are saying downstairs, the first of this book is even better.

However, I wouldn't recommend them to an adult unless they have a child to read them to.

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