Profile Harry Potter: The boy who brought back the magic

The unlikeliest of literary heroes is bespectacled and gawky, yet he has hooked children again on the wonder of reading.
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The Independent Online
Harry Potter is today the best-known, most popular boy not just in Britain but in the whole of the English-speaking world - not to mention another 28 countries where his phenomenally successful stories have now been translated. This is an extraordinary achievement for a 10-year-old child who arrived on the literary scene only in 1997, after being previously turned down by nine publishers. Chortling all the way to the bank, his current home - Bloomsbury Publishing - has seen its share price go up 176 per cent from this April alone. The third volume, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, was released by bookshops this year on but strictly not before 8 July at 3.45pm in order to avoid possible acts of truancy. After the event, young purchasers of both sexes could be seen wandering off, noses deep in its pages even before they got home. Such Pottermania is something new; even literary Pied Pipers such as Enid Blyton and Roald Dahl never evoked as much demand and devotion.

And there is still no stopping Harry, no sign of any waning of interest in the manner which has sometimes suddenly transformed other best-selling children's series into sad also-rans. Constantly near or at the top of adult and children's best-selling lists, he is even tipped to win next year's Whitbread Prize. There, competition from adult books won't faze Harry, who single-handedly has already done more than anyone else this century to bridge the gap in reading tastes between the generations. Not since the days of Lewis Carroll and Robert Louis Stevenson have so many children and adults been reading the same novels, although some grown- ups have been willing to pay pounds 2 extra for copies bearing less child-centred covers than those carried by the original stories.

So how has he done it? Not by good looks, for Harry as pictured on his first cover comes over as something of a nerd: bespectacled, open-mouthed and gawky. The crescent- shaped scar on his forehead, however significant later on, also does little at this stage for his general appearance. His behaviour at first is similarly uninspiring. Bullied at his primary school by cousin Dudley and his cronies, neglected at home by his revolting uncle and aunt, Harry remains compliant to the point of quite excessive passivity. Not for him the final, long pent-up outbursts of other oppressed literary children like Oliver Twist, David Copperfield or Jane Eyre. When Harry is pushed around, as he always is, he stays pushed. His only act of genuine defiance, other than muttering to himself, is to escape when at last the going is good. Before that, he seems a born victim. Teachers, social workers, even concerned friends or neighbours who might have reacted had Harry drawn attention to his miserable, half-starved plight, know nothing because he always stays silent.

There are literary heroes who show their true colours early on, such as Hercules who strangles a snake while still in his cot. But as Graham Greene once wrote about the literary titans of his youth: "They were men of such unyielding integrity that the wavering personality of a child could not rest for long against those monumental shoulders. A child, after all, is quite aware of cowardice, shame, deception, disappointment."

Far better, therefore, for modern literary heroes like Harry to start as impotent and oppressed. The journey from there can only be upwards, and every reader will be able to identify with someone who at least to begin with echoes the occasional self-pity known by every human being, young or old. Cinderella, that most popular of fairy tales, is found in almost every culture and is the clearest example of the particular rags- to-riches fantasy that later also runs through the novels of Jane Austen and many other popular novelists up to and including, of course, Harry's creator, JK Rowling, herself.

Harry is eventually transformed when he discovers his talent for magic. Fantasies about the possession of magical powers are found in the most ancient folk tales and have been repeated ever since. Characters don't have to be particularly clever or well-born to perform magic; it is more a question of making a chance discovery or receiving an unexpected gift from a grateful stranger. Harry is more exclusive here, since his powers derive from two very special parents. But his magic remains as popular as ever, while his special position opens up the way to yet another basic fantasy.

Freud and many others have noted a tendency to deny one's own humdrum parents in favour of more glamorous figures no longer there to look after the orphan child they left behind. In his stories, Harry occasionally glimpses his dead parents waving to him from another life, and there is never any doubt that they were universally loved and respected when alive. They also adored Harry, and died saving him. Such devotion can only rub off on the child hero in return, making him appear extra special from birth, so providing readers with one more satisfying fantasy.

Once at his boarding school, Harry leads a life as exotic as most ordinary schooldays are mundane. At Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, a castellated building set deep in the countryside, pupils get there not because of rich parents but because they are known to be potential sorcerers. The school therefore possesses all the satisfying kudos of exclusivity with no present-day guilt about social snobbery of the type that has helped reduce the once flourishing boarding school literary genre to today's shadow of its former self. Even better, lessons are interesting as never before: defence against the dark arts, the study of magical plants, the creation of charms and potions are all covered to the exclusion of boring National Curriculum subjects. In addition, every door, staircase, table or chair is capable of speech or some other independent action. Life there is never dull, but particularly so for Harry himself.

This is because he is the chosen target of evil Lord Voldemort, who wants to kill Harry just as he once disposed of his parents. Cue in, therefore, the next eternally gripping fantasy found in these stories, whereby our occasional paranoid fears about others get a full literary airing. To this end, each story concludes with a near successful attempt on Harry's life; each chapter coming before conveys at some stage a note of unease. One reason for finishing any Harry Potter story is the need to resolve the strong suspense so expertly controlled by the author. The sense of danger can be acute, but bearably so in the sense that it is directed at someone else rather than at ourselves. We may envy Harry his magic, but no one would enjoy his worst moments. He is therefore that most comforting of fictional heroes: someone whose life, however exciting, is still pretty tough, so causing no troubling jealousy on the part of his many fans.

If Harry represented persecution and nothing else, his adventures would soon turn into a variant of the Gothic novel - all atmosphere but with a fatal lack of variety. Instead, the author creates numbers of diversions, including the now famous game of quidditch. Harry is very good at this game, a type of aerial lacrosse played on flying broomsticks. Boarding school stories traditionally feature exploits on the games fields, but success in football, rugby or cricket has become old hat now, saturated as we are by screen images where being a good sport visibly often comes a poor second to thuggery or gamesmanship. A new sport, however, is different, especially one that so resembles a video game played out by various favourite and detested characters.

Much else is going for Harry, but as he gets one year older in each of his next four novels it could be that his story will darken. JK Rowling has warned that "there will be deaths", and as Harry's hormones start to kick in preoccupation and some anxieties about sex - so far absent from this story and its co-educational setting - may have to surface in order for him to stay real for readers, especially those his own age. External threats, from giant spiders, dragons or whatever, may increasingly be replaced by typically adolescent pressures from inside. Some of these are already evident, for example in the shape of the mind-invading Dementors who can only be kept at bay by hope and optimism. Harry also has to force himself to give up looking in a magic mirror where he can see his parents, in case he is being cruelly deceived all along. Other appearances have also proved to be deceptive, hinting at more complexity still to come.

To date, though, Harry offers a comparatively simple, exciting and suspenseful imaginative ride, totally divorced from the drearier realities of contemporary Britain and deeply into wish-fulfilment at all levels. Children who enjoy his books can also relish the experience of feeling themselves to be real readers and being seen as such by approving parents and teachers. At last, after or perhaps despite literacy hours, local initiatives and government propaganda, here are some books that make it fun to read, not least because so many other children are reading or have read the same texts themselves. If anyone ever doubted that Harry could perform magic, here finally is the proof. So many reluctant readers, in particular boys, have normally proved resistant to whatever books are thrown at them. Many of them are now burrowing happily into these stories, the latest of which is over 300 pages long. Sometimes their equally resistant dads are doing the same thing. Nice one, Harry! Perhaps next year you could have a go at raising maths skills as well.

Nicholas Tucker lectures in children's literature at Sussex University.