Harry Potter and The Meaning of Life
Our obsession with the boy wizard reveals the dark side of cultural infantilism.
Once upon a time, it was record shops that staged high-profile midnight openings to sell the latest hot release to queues of impatient fans; it was senior politicians who found themselves grilled on national TV by the BBC’s flagship interviewer Jeremy Paxman; and it was intellectuals and literary novelists who shaped great debates about moral values, social structures and our essential humanity.
But that was a long, long time ago, when the world had never heard of JK Rowling, and Harry Potter was just a manuscript on a literary agent’s desk. Now, six years on from the first Potter publication, bookstores will open at one minute past midnight on Saturday 21 June to sell the first copies of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix to hordes of parents and young professionals. A Paxman special – JK Rowling: The Interview – will be broadcast on Thursday night on BBC2. And even before anybody has read this new book, the commentary has started about the moral magic of Harry Potter and Why It Speaks To Us.
What’s behind this Potter-mania? Clearly something other than the quality of the novels. When Harry and friends first took off as a favourite read for British children, earnest commentators made earnest attempts to talk up the literary merits of our modern JRR Tolkein – now, Rowling’s journalist fans concede that the books have a ‘certain leadenness in their prose…and an absolute formula in their plotting’ (1), and you no longer risk getting shot for comparing Rowling more with Enid Blyton than with CS Lewis. When reviewers finally get to read the new Potter, no doubt there will be the predictable backlash of claims that it is not that good – but who cares? The discussion has gone beyond all that.
Since it began, Potter-mania has represented a cultural infantilism, that only grows as the years go by. It is about what we expect from our kids, our books, our value system and ourselves. Whatever happens in The Order of the Phoenix, the story of our obsession with Harry Potter is unlikely to have a happy ending.
Cast your minds back to the late 1990s, when parents, teachers and cultural commentators began to spot an interesting trend. A new series of books about a boy wizard at boarding school had captured the hearts of the nation’s school-children, with the consequence that – shock horror! – kids actually wanted to read.
Bearing in mind that these kids are commonly referred to as the ‘PlayStation generation’, and presented as unwilling illiterates who will happily while away the hours with a keyboard mouse or TV remote but would not be seen dead with their noses in a book, the fact that they hungered to read about Harry was assumed to be nothing short of a miracle. The fact that the Potter books, with their male protagonist and the author’s androgynous byline, appealed to boys – those sporty, techie creatures widely assumed to be the losers and drop-outs in the reading game – was even better.
Parents and teachers started stockpiling Potter references as commentators waxed lyrical about the way that one female first-time author had single-handedly solved a problem where government national literacy strategies had persistently failed.
Okay, so it’s good that children read books – and we can assume, for the sake of argument, that they could do with reading more of them. But the excitement surrounding Potter indicated just how far our expectations have fallen. Not so very long ago, it was not considered enough for children just to read books – they had to be good books. For example, the very fact that kids enjoyed the Famous Five led to the suspicion that Blyton was brain-rot, and the compulsion to teach Narnia in class.
For all the original artificial hype of Potter’s literary qualities, it is self-evident that their readability, not their quality, is what made them popular with children. Yet while Enid Blyton was actively resisted by school libraries in the past, on the grounds that it might distract from the better quality stuff, Rowling’s equivalent has all but formed the basis of English exams.
In recent years, it seems that our expectations of children, and of the books that they should read, have plummeted: so much so that when the last Potter book was published three years ago, many even complained that it was too long for Rowling’s young fans.
It’s not just about children. An even more unsettling development in early Potter-mania was the way Rowling’s books took off among adults – not just parents reading them for the sake of their kids, but young professionals reading the books for their own sake. It was this that prompted Rowling’s publisher, Bloomsbury, to produce distinct ‘adult’ editions with grown-up covers.
Sales of these editions have been lower than the children’s editions – although a startling proportion of young adults happily confesses to reading the books. Presumably anybody who is not embarrassed to read a children’s book in public is not going to feel humiliated by a children’s book jacket. In fact, the nature of our times means that aspiring to the infantile is positively cool.
Joel Rickett, news editor of the Bookseller website, argues that the Harry Potter trend among adults is part of a broader process of cultural infantilisation. ‘That whole retro thing became hip in the late 90s and it was acceptable to regress back into childhood’, he told BBC News (2).
Today’s young adults do not want to leave the parental home, they watch nostalgia programmes on ‘I love the 1990s’ when the decade has barely ended, they use websites like Friends Reunited to get back in touch with schoolfriends when they have barely left school themselves, and they go to ‘School Disco’ nights at London clubs, dressed in a version of school uniform and dancing to music from their recent past.
What should be more natural for a generation that does not want to grow up than to cocoon itself in children’s books? Books that are, as Joel Rickett says, easy to read, comforting, and nostalgic for a recently-lost youth.
The ‘crossover’ appeal of Harry Potter to a grown-up audience fuelled the conceit that there was something special, and more challenging, about these books compared with other children’s novels: a conceit that seemed to come from people who just don’t read enough. What is adult popular fiction other than well-plotted, formulaic pap – as shown by Chick Lit, John Grisham, James Patterson and many other bestselling authors?
A good children’s story – good in the page-turning, as opposed to the literary, sense – will have a similar kind of appeal. (I challenge any self-confessed Potter reader to resist the charms of Enid Blyton’s Malory Towers and Famous Five – although you would need to read those in secret.) When it comes to gripping, unchallenging brain candy, the main difference with the boy wizard is that you can read about him in public, smug in the knowledge that you are part of an accepted cultural trend. In today’s infantile culture, it’s okay to aspire to be childlike.
The latest instalment of Potter-mania, however, has taken our cultural infantilism to a new low. Having grudgingly accepted that the books’ appeal is probably due to something other than their literary merits, there is an earnest attempt to distil their unique qualities or failings in terms of the moral and social values that they promote. This gets closer to the point – but not for the reasons that commentators suggest.
Richard Adams, writing in the Guardian, argues that beneath Potter’s popularity ‘a political bandwagon [is] being pushed’ (3). ‘Despite all of the books’ gestures to multiculturalism and gender equality, Harry Potter is a conservative’, he continues. He lambasts the fact that ‘Hogwarts’ curriculum doesn’t include teaching foreign languages, geography or overseas trips, despite the ease of magical travel. Naturally, there are no wizard comprehensives’.
Adams derides Rowling’s ‘careful racial inclusiveness’ for failing to include celebrations of Rosh Hashanah or Diwali as well as Christmas; he objects to her attempts to ‘make pointed racial commentary’ through representations of slavery in the form of house-elves; and he attacks her representation of the Dursleys as the ‘epitome of the modern middle class: crass, mean-spirited and grasping, living in a detached house in the suburb of Little Whinging’.
For Adams, it seems that what accounts for Potter’s popularity is Rowling’s willingness to pander to the prejudices of Little England (and he is not alone in this view). Aside from the fact that taking it all oh so seriously misses the essential point of a children’s book (to entertain, not to indoctrinate), such criticisms of Rowling also miss the point of her success.
It’s not that Harry Potter is a form of inappropriate social commentary – it is not social commentary at all. These books catapult the reader into a safe moral universe of Good v Evil, uncomplicated by the moral dilemmas of the real world. And it is this that, ultimately, renders them quite banal.
In the cringe stakes, Adams’ kind of PC critique is only outdone by the sycophantic hyping of Potter’s positive moral qualities. Set in a world of Good Boy Wizard and chums versus Bad Adult Wizard and followers, the Potter books uphold many values which today’s society (thankfully) still perceives as positive. Courage, friendship, love, honesty and the desire to do what’s right shine through in Harry, his friends and the noble adult figures; and these qualities are pitted against the greed, avarice, brutality and weakness of their opponents on the Dark Side. There are few grey areas, and to date there has been little sense of redemption.
Not surprisingly, that kids gravitate towards these values has been greeted with nothing short of gratitude, by those struggling to promote any sense of positive virtues in a morally confused world.
But the fact is, we do live in a morally confused world – and the mass escapism to Potter-dom only highlights the depths of this confusion. In order to promote such virtues, Rowling has to locate her novels in a society that is morally black-and-white; where there are few dilemmas, only right and wrong choices. It all makes for a rollicking read, but how such values translate to the more complicated Muggle-world that Potter’s readers inhabit is anybody’s guess.
After all, it is not as though Harry Potter’s traditional values have been accompanied by a revival of the church, the Tories, the Girl Guides or the Boy Scouts. The kind of ideologies and institutions that sprung from the spirit of Empire and explicitly preached the virtues of goodness, nobleness and a sense of moral right are increasingly unpalatable to a modern reality organised around relativism, self-indulgence and emotional fragility. That, of course, is why those who love Potter are deeply uncomfortable with Enid Blyton’s 1940s fables of boarding school life – the values are the same, but while Blyton reeks of Empire, Potter magically escapes both a tricky history and an uncertain reality.
The publicity surrounding Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix has made much of how this book will deal with the death of a major character (bookies have reportedly been taking bets on whom that will be), and how this shows Rowling’s preparedness to deal with Difficult Issues. (Rowling will tell Paxman tonight how much she cried after finishing the pertinent chapter.) (4)
What with Harry being the world’s most sentimental orphan, and a death of a fellow pupil having already happened in book four, it’s hardly a first. And so far as I can see, death is the only really Difficult Issue the Potter books have dealt with. Life and death fits into their black-and-white universe – the subtleties of life, and relationships between people, don’t figure too much.
‘So what?’ you might reasonably ask. ‘She’s writing a children’s story.’ My sentiments exactly. Rowling can go on writing the plot-driven page-turners, to the delight of her child readers and for no discernible literary or moral benefit. But let’s stop pretending that dealing with death makes Harry Potter good for you, or that Rowling’s value system has any relevance outside of the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.
Potty over Potter, by Jennie Bristow
Infantile pursuits, by Wendy Earle
(1) The arts column: will the spell be broken?, Daily Telegraph, 11 June 2003
(2) Why grown-ups go potty over Harry, BBC News, 17 June 2003
(3) Quidditch quaintness, Guardian, 18 June 2003
(4) Rowling’s tears at Potter book death, BBC News, 18 June 2003
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