Wednesday, March 2, 2005

The Wonderful World of Harry Potter

Every now and again a children's book or a series of children's books come along that appeals to adults as well. Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, L. Frank Baum's books on the land of Oz, C. S. Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia, and Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time and its sequels have all been enjoyed by children and people of all ages. The latest such books would seem to be the Harry Potter series, written by J. K. Rowling. In fact, I daresay Mrs. Rowling may have more fans who are over 15 than those who are under 15!

I was introduced to the Harry Potter books by my friend Brian. If it was not for the fact that our tastes in reading material are generally the same, I might well have been sceptical. After all, it seemed to me that the last children's book published that appealed to both children and adults was probably the last book written by Dr. Seuss. Here I must point out that this was before Harry Potter mania really hit--before the merchandising and movies, so all I had to go on was Brian's word. As it is, I found that I could not put down Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (I do prefer the original, British title of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone...). It was quite possibly the most compeeling work of fiction I have read since Clive Barker's Great and Secret Show.

As I see it, the Harry Potter books appeal to both children and adults on many levels. Perhaps their greatest appeal may be their sheer originality. In most other children's fantasy books, the magical and mysterious is to be found in another land, usually accessed through some unusual portal. In Through the Looking Glass, Alice enters a strange, new world through a mirror. In Alice in Wonderland, she does it through a rabbit hole. In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Narnia is reached through an old wardrobe. In The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Dorothy is swept away to Oz by a tornado. But in the Harry Potter books, the magical and mysterious are right next door. Wizards live right beside Muggles (that's non-wizards for those of you not familiar with the jargon), all the while keeping their society and their magic hidden form them. In fact, the school which Harry attends, Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, is not reached through a rabbit hole or a wardrobe, but by train! Rowling crafted a world in which magic exists side by side with the mundane and I think that is much of the appeal of the Harry Potter books. It gives the reader the opportunity to believe that wonderful things, magical things, do indeed exist in our nine to five, timeclock world. Indeed, the reader can easily imagine that he or she might just be a wizard himself or herself.

Another part of the Harry Potter books' appeal is an outgrowth of Rowling's idea of having the magical coexist with the mundane. Quite simply, she has created a wonderfully complex society for the wizards and witches of the Harry Potter universe. The wizards' society has its own history, culture, and customs, quite separate from those of muggles. We know that wizards and giants do not particularly get along. We know that a house elf may be freed of his or her service by granting him or her clothes (an idea J. K. Rowling drew directly from folklore). We know a good deal about the civil war among wizards which Voldemort (or perhaps I should say "He Who Must Not Be Named" just to be safe...) precipitated. Perhaps Rowling's world is not as complex as Tolkien's Middle Earth, but it is fairly complex for any book, let alone a series of children's books.

Of course, as much as the magic and the magical society that goes with it in the Harry Potter books appeal to their fans, I suspect much of the series' appeal may be a bit more down to earth. Beyond the wizardry and witchcraft, the Harry Potter books are about coming of age. Harry must adjust to the idea that he is a wizard (which isn't too far removed from most of us who went through puberty, I suppose...). Like most of us Harry had a crush on someone, unrequited at that (I don't think he'd won Cho Chang as of the last book...). Like many of us he has faced bullies in his time (Draco Malfoy and his cohorts from House Slytherin). And like many of us Harry has felt himself to be the outsider at times. His aunt and uncle, the Dursleys, are Muggles and have always mistreated Harry because he is a wizard. At Hogwarts, Harry is known as the one person to survive Voldemort's attacks and later as the school's resident hero. Indeed, Harry's really close friends can probably be counted on one hand. Anyone who has felt like an outsider in his or her life can easily identify with Harry Potter.

This brings me to another part of the Harry Potter series' appeal. Quite simply, Rowling has created some of the most interesting and complex characters in the history of children's books. We have Hermione Granger, the child of Muggle parents, who more often than not prefers to do things by the book. We have Ron Weasley, part of a large wizard family, who usually does not care much for rules. Even the instructors at Hogwarts have their own personalities. For me perhaps the most interesting is Professor Snape. From the beginning it seems as if Snape has it in for Harry. But as the books progress, it seems to me another picture of Snape has developed. I don't think Snape dislikes Harry--he simply wants Harry to achieve his full potential and does not want Harry lured to the "Dark Side" as Voldemort was. I suppose this is just an example of the compexity of Rowling's characters. The reader can speculate about their motivations for literally hours.

The Harry Potter books have proven enormously popular for the reasons I have give above, as well as others which I haven't mentioned. Beyond the books, which are always at the top of the bestseller lists, there have been the very successful movies, tons of merchandising, and an incalculable number of web sites and email lists. I do not think that Harry Potter mania is just a fad. I do not think that many years from now people are going to be asking who Harry Potter was. Instead, I think the Harry Potter books will join the Oz books, The Chronicles of Narnia, The Hobbit, and others as classics of children's literature. I think 100 years from now, people will still be reading them.

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