Amanda Craig: Harry Potter and the merchants of hype: a tale of midsummer madness

Rowling has saved authors, booksellers and teachers from oblivion, and publishers from marginalisation

Saturday 05 October 2013 12:24

There may, perhaps, be a few remote places in the world untouched by the Harry Potter phenomenon; but the rest of the world is all too aware that Harry will be coming to a bookshop, a supermarket or a post office near you on 21 June, inducing a fit of midsummer madness in millions of children and adults. You would have to go back to Dickens to find anything comparable. Yet Harry Potter novels have become more like hit singles than books, with people queuing to buy the latest must-have consumer item and his author filling the Albert Hall like a rock star.

So huge is her fame and fortune that even the most envious authors now see J K Rowling's career as a curse, with rock star-style security at her house in Edinburgh, a secluded estate in Scotland and a bodyguard for her daughter, Jessica. The poor, lonely single mother is one of the richest people in the country, and is now married to a doctor and the mother of a son.

Before Harry appeared there was a justifiable fear that future generations, hypnotised by computer games, would no longer discover the magic of books. Rowling has saved every author, teacher, bookseller and librarian from possible oblivion and children's publishing from marginalisation. The long wait for the fifth novel has transformed the fortunes of other children's writers. It has rescued the fortunes of failing toy train manufacturer Hornby with a miniature version of the Hogwarts Express; made specs smart; and even bolstered the applications to indepndent schools.

Perhaps the oddest aspect of Rowling's success is that while the posters and media hype may impress adults, children who adore the books tend to despise the hype and merchandising surrounding them.

Her success was achieved initially by word of mouth and by focusing entirely on the quality of the novels. Rowling created a world that, with its jokes and anxieties, dangers and rewards, most children instantly recognise as their own.

Critics such as Robert McCrum and Anthony Holden have sneered at her style, which, though occasionally repetitious is in fact admirably clear, and direct. Equally, her use of myth and legend is far more intelligent and original than that of C S Lewis. Not since E Nesbit, in fact, has an adult recreated a child's inner world with such clarity. What pupil has not dreamt of escaping out of school grounds by means of an Invisibility Cloak and going to the best sweet-shop in the world; or of petty playground feuds that are serious and deadly? Nor are Harry's struggles without an objective correlative. The evil followers of Lord Voldemort, who believe in "pure blood" wizards, echo the beliefs of the Nazis. The good, led by Dumbledore, display tolerance, humility and a sense of humour.

If Harry, like Luke Skywalker or Tintin, is a little too good to be true there are the comic sidekicks Ron and Hermione to make him three-dimensional, and the dreadful Dursleys to make his holidays miserable. He is the descendant of every reluctant hero in literature, from King Arthur to Bilbo Baggins, and those who attempt to yoke him to their cause, or to denigrate him as nerdy and middlebrow, look foolish.

Children, as Philip Pullman has said, ask big questions about the world they live in and authors envious of Rowling should consider whether they do the same. Through Harry, children learn that life-sucking depression can be repulsed by concentrating on a single happy memory; that capital punishment is abhorrent because you can, as in The Prisoner of Azkaban, pick the wrong person as a murderer; that friendship is worth more than riches or power.

In each novel, Harry has been confronted with one of the seven deadly sins: avarice, pride, wrath and envy have so far been resisted, leaving gluttony, sloth and what one imagines will be the final temptation for a teenaged boy, lust, still to come.

Each novel has deepened and darkened the moral choices to come. Small wonder that Rowling has taken a three-year break after a killing output of writing a book a year. To me that, more than anything else, is the hallmark of a real writer, who is as passionate about reading books, and enjoying life, as she is about writing them.

Amanda Craig's novel, 'Love in Idleness', is published next month by Little, Brown

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