31.1.10

Book of the decade

Finally, and most importantly. Drumroll...

The Harry Potter series -- J.K. Rowling

WHAT? BWAHAH- but you cannot be serious! Deadly, friends. Remember, I'm only 21 years old. Do you know what that means? I am in the bulls-eye of the Harry Potter generation. Picked up the first book in my first year of secondary school, just as the series started making waves beyond the children's book audience. The last book came out in the summer of 2007, just after I finished sixth form. I GREW UP with these books. I grew up ALONGSIDE Harry and his friends. In a very real way, they defined my teenage years. Literally! When I finished the last book, it felt like I was letting go of part of my childhood. It symbolised the end of one part of my life, and the beginning of another.

So you see why I have to cheat and lump the entire series into one. To do so is uncomfortable. Unlike other fantasy series (Lord of the Rings, His Dark Materials) Harry Potter is an ungainly story. Each book has its own individual narrative, and the books vary quite a lot. The early period (comprising the first three books) is very tight -- the central narratives are all short, sharp, little mysteries. In the middle 'high' period (the next two) the series' success meant that Rowling could loosen up. The sub-plots swamped the central narrative. Every crazy idea Rowling had was flung in, and the magical world really started to breathe. Needless to say, these are my favourite books in the series. The late period is more somber and subdued. The madcap invention is reigned in, and control is reestablished over the narrative. Moreover, the last two books are built around a sophisticated (for Harry Potter) character study of Voldemort and Dumbledore respectively. I had hoped to reread them before writing this post. By the time they came out I was already outgrowing the series, so I only read them once, and I don't remember either very well. Anyway, I didn't have time, and I'm diving in regardless. If the rest of this post is utter garbage, then that will be the main reason why.

What will the rest of the post be about? Well, there is only one question to ask concerning Harry Potter: why? What is it about these books that made me, and everyone I knew, reread them over and over again? Why did they take over the world?

We could do worse than to start with what Harold Bloom thinks on the subject -- a formidable literary critic who has probably read every book ever written. He is frighteningly clever, and his insights are always worth thinking about. The key, according to Bloom, is wish-fulfillment:

'Rowling presents two Englands, mundane and magical, divided not by social classes, but by the distinction between the "perfectly normal" (mean and selfish) and the adherents of sorcery... Perhaps Rowling appeals to millions of reader non-readers because they sense her wistful sincerity, and want to join her world, imaginary or not. She feeds a vast hunger for unreality'

I think Bloom is right, essentially. But he is too dismissive of that 'vast hunger for unreality' to really explore it in detail. Is it just a yearning for a vibrant, eccentric world to escape into? Or is it something more -- a contrast between the 'mean and selfish' muggles, and the... what? What is it about Hogwarts that makes us want to stay there?

The best person to ask is J.K. Rowling herself, of course. One quote I found that was particularly revealing:

'My books are largely about death. They open with the deaths of Harry's parents. There is Voldemort's obsession with conquering death and his quest for immortality at any price.'

This is quite a different binary we are looking at. If Harry Potter was just about the fun and excitement of a magical world, then the Dursleys would be the villains. Instead, they are literally peripheral, coming in at the beginning and end of each book. The central good-versus-evil clash is between a egotistical, bigoted, charismatic sociopath and an eccentric, self-sacrificing, charismatic headteacher. Voldemort and Dumbledore embody the concerns Rowling is grappling with.

Why is Voldemort evil? We are all afraid of death, but what makes him strive so hard for immortality? Ego, obviously -- he deserves to live forever. This inflated perception of his own worthiness is at the root of his bigotry, which is focused primarily on race, but really encompasses everyone -- even his followers are treated with varying degrees of distain. But I think the contrast with Dumbledore reveals that Voldemort's egoism is created by fear. He is terrified of death, and his arrogance is an attempt to justify attempting to escape it. Voldemort is the villain because he is a coward.

And Harry is the hero because he is courageous. Why does Gryffindor House value courage above everything else? It is not an academic virtue like intelligence, hard work or ambition. I think Rowling is trying to suggest that it is a moral virtue, the root of all other moral virtues. Harry stares death in the face numerous times, and unflinchingly dives into it. Dumbledore knowingly sacrifices himself. Courage is the ability to give up your self for other people. It's the opposite of egoism. That's what goodness is. It is just about the most beautiful thing we are capable of.

It's rare to find such examples of goodness in the real lives we live in. Who really would die for us? Would I ever choose to die for someone else? Could I ever love someone that much? Difficult questions, but in the world of Harry Potter they are very simple. Harry doesn't hesitate when Cedric (who he doesn't like) or Fleur's sister (who he doesn't even know!) are in danger. He puts the lives of others above his own, every time, and so do his friends. This is the wish-fulfillment working at the heart of the series. The dazzling magical world, the soap-opera antics and the confounding mysteries are part of the fun, but what actually obsesses us is the opportunity to live in a world where people die for each other. We reread the books because we want to experience and share in those friendships again -- those bonds of love that are tested to extremes but always remain firm.

I come back (because how could I not?) to Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The influence of Harry Potter on Buffy is immediately apparent once you look for it. Xander, Willow and Giles (who in NO WAY resemble Ron, Hermione and Dumbledore...) risk their necks for Buffy in every episode. Buffy dies for them. THREE TIMES. The show obsesses its fans for exactly the same reason Harry Potter obsesses millions of children. I maintain that the only reason it stayed a cult favourite rather than become a mass sensation was that it was a fantasy horror made in an age before cheap CGI, and it looked awful. But underneath the rubber masks and smoke machines, Buffy was feeding exactly the same 'vast hunger for unreality' as Harry Potter, only it was aimed at older teens and adults.

Is Harold Bloom right to be dismissive of such wish-fulfillment fantasies? He wants people to engage with more 'challenging' and 'difficult' literature. This sounds like snobbery, but it isn't. Bloom simply doesn't think Harry Potter can really transform people -- it's not literature that can make readers face uncomfortable truths about their natures. It's just a distraction for deadened minds, a opiate for an atomised society built on self-interest. I hope to have shown why that isn't true. Harry Potter's themes ARE challenging. Who knows? Some of the children that grew up with me and with the series may have learned something: about friendship, about courage, about self-sacrifice. You can find transformation in the unlikeliest places. For me, Harry Potter and Buffy were my Old and New Testaments when I was growing up. I live and breathe their impossible values, and try and keep to them as best I can.

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