Why does everyone like Harry Potter?
He is the perfect hero for readers looking for reassurance and a nannyish moral certainty
The writer and broadcaster Terence Blacker contributes a twice-weekly column on a wide range of social, cultural and environmental issues. He is the author of four novels, of prize-winning fiction for children, and has written a highly praised biography of the brilliant reprobate Willie Donaldson.
Tuesday 13 July 1999
I know, you've had enough. Over the past few days, the features pages of all the newspapers have been hijacked by proud, damp-eyed parents boasting about their children's enthusiasm for the author JK Rowling and her Harry Potter books, the third volume of which was published last week. Critics, normally far too cool to bother with children's books, have urgently filed their copy. Gurgling, sentimental editorials have appeared.
The few people, like Humphrey Carpenter, who have dared to suggest that there was nothing particularly new about the books have been pilloried. "Mr Carpenter is the creator of the children's comic wizard Mr Majeika," The Bookseller magazine sneeringly explained. Awkwardly, I too write children's books with a magical character, and find myself in the Carpenter camp. The Harry Potter books are fine - funny, imaginative, passably written - but to pretend that they represent a great imaginative leap forward is absurd.
The more hysterical outbreaks of Potterism among adults seem to me bogus and faintly depressing. There are two stories here. The success of Harry Potter among young readers is utterly genuine and owes nothing to publishing hype. The most honest and uncorrupted of readers, children can no more be persuaded by advertising to like a book than they can be dissuaded by adult disapproval. Roald Dahl was adored in spite of parental worry and critical snootiness, as were American-produced series such as Babysitters' Club or Goosebumps.
Unlike those books, the child-led success of JK Rowling's books has been matched by the enthusiasm of parents and it is this that has caused such excitement in the press and bookshops.
What explains the appeal to adults? Why have newspapers devoted so much space to Harry Potter and his admirers?
Potter, it turns out, is the perfect hero for the late 1990s, a time when readers are looking for reassurance and a certain nannyish moral certainty. Unwittingly, Rowling has invented the perfect protagonist and set-up for the age. A downtrodden orphan, growing up unhappily in the grinding suburban conformity of Privet Drive, Little Whinging, Harry Potter turns out to be the most gifted wizard of his generation. Like the children of Tony Blair and Harriet Harman, he faces the bleak prospect of going to his local comprehensive until a better opportunity appears - not a smarter establishment in another borough, but Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, to all intents and purposes an old-fashioned boarding-school - but with magical added ingredients.
It's perfect: the under-achieving child, his talents unrecognised by his foster parents; the school where modish non-conformity and traditional values can, with the help of a few spells, co-exist. Could there be a more inspiring setting for a story in an age of Blairite social conservatism with a smiling liberal face?
The author of the book is as perfect a contemporary hero as her creation. Unlike Dahl, a grumpy old sod with dodgy opinions and a controversial family life, or the mysterious and over-productive RL Stine, Joanne Rowling is attractive, divorced, a single parent who has known hard times and has come though, and who even, at one point, worked for Amnesty International. Short of appearing on TV with Stephen Fry for a self-mocking little item for Comic Relief, no author could be a more ideal role model.
Add to this perfect blend, the new and oddly Victorian obsession with children, with ministers increasingly favouring schools for photo-opportunities, and the hunger among adults for fiction that tells a story in the old- fashioned way, and one begins to see why Potterism has so many sentimental, kid-struck journalists in its grip.
None of which should detract credit from JK Rowling, the success of whose books will encourage thousands of children to read. Many, it is to be hoped, will turn to the true genius of contemporary children's fiction, Philip Pullman, whose astonishing His Dark Materials trilogy is currently reworking the story of the fall in a weird inter-galactic setting. At the end of the second and most recent book, The Subtle Knife, it was beginning to look as if the universal villain was God. We're still waiting for the cuddly editorials on that one.
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