Thoughtful Reader, I would like to confess (you may agree) that I probably rank as one of the world’s most cynical people. But cynicism has its limits; one of things I become most cynical about is a kind of cultivated cynicism in others, which crops up often in journalism that references success stories, Hollywood executives, marketing, merchandise, franchises, blah blahblahblah and is proud to confess scorn for a thing just because the bling of $$$$$ is going off like flashbulbs and the sound of cash registers opening and closing (*!*!*!*) is perceptible in the background. As though capitalism is the end result of a huge, secret, unknowable conspiracy between big business and governments, rather than a perfectly visible, illuminated, debated, criticised, analysed and generally understood (and accepted) social-economic system that grew out of the industrial revolution.
I have read only the first 4 Potter books and have seen only the first 3 movies and I don’t mind waiting ten or fifteen years before I get around to finishing them off. I do intend to finish them one day, but the books before the films, and it could be a while before I am in the reading “Harry Potter” mindset again. (On a side note, I started reading “The Wind in the Willows”, page 1, in 1994, gave it up, came back to it last year, stopped at Chapter 10, and still plan to finish it one day, but it too can wait). What can I say? I like “Harry Potter” (or, what I have read so far). I like the boy himself and his stupid lightning bolt scar and dorky Lennon glasses, and will stand up for him in the face of all of the articles that are now cropping up, with the release of the final movie installment, which either question Harry’s “real” value to literature and cinema, or like to suggest the Potter hysteria is a product of the film industry & the publisher’s clever PR… and that in years to come, once the hysteria has died down, people may come to see that Potter was perhaps not quite worthy. The other style of articles appearing are nervous but defiant declarations of love (by adults) who seem to be writing in the face of (unarticulated) criticism, the cultural sneer (on unseen faces) of those people who would laugh at or question the presence of a Harry Potter book on an adult’s bookshelf.
… “it’s far too soon to tell what Harry Potter’s literary legacy will be. Ever since J. K. Rowling sold the film rights to the series in 1999, Warner Brothers has used its own mass media wizardry to crank up the volume on every Harry Potter book, film and other branding opportunity of the past 12 years. How could it fail to be the best-selling book series ever, with sales thus far of 450 million? I know children who thought loving Harry Potter was compulsory.”
But, “the big love for the boy wizard isn’t all manufactured. The first reviews of the first book, in 1997, were positive before the hype. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was ”magic”, ”imaginative”, ”inventive”. More than one reviewer compared J. K. Rowling to Roald Dahl.”
I am not attached to Harry Potter for nostalgic reasons. I didn’t read the first book until I was 16 or so, because I wanted to know what my little bruv was on about. I was raised on Roald Dahl, Narnia, Oz, Enid Blyton, The Neverending Story, Labyrinth, Mary Poppins, etc., but, unlike many superior others, gentle reader, I don’t feel personally offended or defensive because, in the eyes of young children, Potter may outshine my favourites. Actually it’s because all cynics were once idealists, and the smothered idealist in me genuinely responds to certain elements of Harry Potter. (Thoughtful Reader, you should probably put on your Gandalf costume left over from that one party you went to in 1982 and sit down somewhere comfy to read Harry, even though you think it’s derivative, that there really isn’t a pin to choose between Gandalf and Dumbledore, that crappy boarding school stories make you sick, that Rowling’s prose is clunky and does not reach the sublime heights of Roald Dahl, etc).
Point the first. Every witch and wizard story is derivative, you know the drill: archetypes, Jung, Star Wars etc., etc., etc. They all have Celtic/pagan roots. But the Potter books aren’t a cynical rehash of this stuff to make $$$$. The cliched elements have been rendered with such a depth of vision that you literally fall into the Potter world like into a puddle, never mind the clunky language… The premise of the Potter books is certainly not original; I remember reading “The Worst Witch at Boarding School” when I was in primary school. The Worst Witch books pre-date Harry Potter, but were made into a kid’s TV series only after Potter became popular. In fact strip away the magic and the Potter world is very English and fairly traditional. They have that Whimsical English sense of humour. The school, the shops, they’re all sort of old-fashioned, Dickensian pubs and alleyways. They deal with the childhood conceits of lollies that explode in your mouth, trading cards, steam trains, board games of chess and snakes and ladders (albeit with real snakes), that kind of hokey thing. But being twee is not a crime.
Collage and pastiche are not crimes, even in Art. “The Lord of the Rings”, as everyone already knows, is a kind of reworking of British dreaming: wizards, elves, goblins, monsters etc. are all stock characters in Celitic, British and Norse mythology. Terry Pratchett’s Discworld stories nod to everyone from JRR Tolkien to Shakespeare to Elvis Presley to Monty Python. An amateur painter (or a bad artist) may make direct copies, or use pastiche and collage to create a kind of art-by-numbers; a good artist will use the pastiche and collage of old, traditional, familiar and “cliched” elements to create something entirely new. Here the new arrangement renews the life inside the object that has been deadened by over-familiarity; a new eye, a new perspective gives that object a new polish; a new meaning can be created out of an old one.
It’s the same clunky charm of the mechanical puppets in the Myer Christmas windows, loved by kids and adults on their lunch breaks alike. Why? Some of the charm derives from the fact that these things tap into something 90’s kids missed out on, and they remind adults of something that went missing.
What went missing? As the Empires of Sony and Apple Macs took hold in the 1980’s, the popularity of “magic” in books and films gave way to “technology”; instead of killer zombies there were killer robots (“Frankenstein” vs. “Terminator”); instead of turning to a wise elder for advice the kids just turned on their computer and asked the computer questions. Technology was getting better and better, and the possibilities inherent in this new technology were naturally very exciting. But this obsession with technology meant that the next generation of kids became disassociated from the roots of magic and society (that’s a very earthy, mysterious thing) because “having a computer” was the new “having a pet dog”. Nothing can teach you love and friendship, loyalty, responsibility and the joy of running about in the mud like maniac the way a dog can. Now everyone has a computer instead (Farmville… Tamogotchi…) and that real connectedness with others and with nature, running, jumping, climbing trees, has gone out the window. Harry Potter brought this kind of knock-about adventurousness and “magic” back into the lives of children. Unlike Spykids, Harry & Co. aren’t precocious computer hacking geniuses. If there’s a problem that needs to be solved it takes them a while, they bungle through in the meantime playing games and learning magic spells, and finally Hermione resorts to going to the library and looking up the answer in a book.
They’re definitely old fashioned, but boarding school stories have a perennial charm. Since “Stalky & Co.” (Kipling) boarding school stories gradually deteriorated and became pulp, because hack writers would just regurgitate the same, popular elements over and over again. But they were popular for decades, from the 20s and 30s when “Dimsie” was queen, even into the sixties, but they dropped out of favour: not because people realised they were shitty, but because boarding schools became more and more associated with the aristocracy and snobs and privilege, which is not very cool. They’re not all as crap as each other (some are very very good. Enid Blyton had St Clare’s and the other one… remember also Willian’s and Searle’s “Molesworth” and “St Trinian’s”). Boarding school stories aren’t even unique to children’s literature: “Catcher in the Rye” starts as a boarding school story, doesn’t it? More recently there’s been “Old School” by Tobias Wolff, “Prep” by that girl, you know the one… The Oxford section of “Brideshead Revisited” is to a certain extent an outcrop of the boarding school story… and Evelyn Waugh’s brother Alec first of all came to attention for his earnest boarding school story, “The Loom of Youth”… never mind why). The reason for the ongoing popularity of these stories with children is because the boarding school is a cloistered world, a world of children. Despite the teachers flittering in and out it is the kids who are citizens, the kids who have to work out their own politics and society and honour system, and that one is quite different to the (sex & money) society and politics of adults that exists outside of the school in “the real world”. It’s a very accurate depiction of the child’s mentality that they can stake everything on the outcome of a cricket game. Other than that boarding school stories are all about the excitement of independence (being away from home for the first time), making new friends, learning new things, etc. Universal themes, universal appeal.
Last but not least Harry and his friends aren’t these slick cool characters. They aren’t A+ students, they’re dorks, they’re poor, they get daggy homemade sweaters for Christmas… People identify with that… They’re not sexy witches either, they’re daggy. Dressing up to go and see the movie with those daggy round 3D glasses is a bit camp… that’s the real appeal. Everyone knows it’s daggy, you don’t need to point it out.
It’s silly of people to scorn certain books (especially kids books) because of a perceived lack of literary merit: there are only about 4 kids books I can think of that are pristine, perfect world, perfect language: Alice in Wonderland, Winnie The Pooh, The Wind in the Willows and Roald Dahl’s books. Do you really want to restrict your kids to these books, and these alone?
But then there’s another, much larger group of “Classic” (and worthy) children’s books, which aren’t perfect. Peter Pan, Mary Poppins, Dorothy (and Toto), Aslan, Anne of Green Gables, Pollyanna, Little Lord Fauntelroy, the Horatio Algers heroes… Fewer and fewer people have read these books in the decades (or centuries) since their original publication, but they are still in print and they still sell. In a way they kind of don’t even need to be read anymore because the names and personalities of the characters are so well known, they have passed into the cultural cache. Obviously there’s something there, a force of imagination, that transcends the (sometimes shabby) writing. Harry Potter belongs to this group, and I do think he’ll stand the test of time in the same way they have.
It would pay to think like a child when reviewing books (and films) for children. I loved the second group of books when I was a kid (especially the Narnia books and the Oz series… L Frank Baum wrote 14 Oz books, not just “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz”… Anne of Green Gables and Mary Poppins are also series. Children really love series, but not because the publishers have tricked them into it in order to steal the pennies they earned sweeping chimneys… Essentially it’s because the kids don’t want the dream to end… Ergo, the appeal of the concept of “The Neverending Story”). In contrast I didn’t really “get” Alice in Wonderland; infact I skipped over nearly every poem in Alice (therefore skipping half the book) and was kind of infuriated by the lack of narrative and a sort of suspicion that somewhere, somehow I was being preached at. Just the concept of “Wind in the Willows” bored the shit out of me… that is why it took me fifteen years to get past page one.
Then I grew up. Unlike Peter Pan. Now I love Alice – love, love, love. I end up reading Alice in Wonderland about four times a year, by accident. No wonder I didn’t get it when I was little – it’s a nihilist’s bible.
‘That’s very important,’ the King said, turning to the jury. They were just beginning to write this down on their slates, when the White Rabbit interrupted: ‘Unimportant, your Majesty means, of course,’ he said in a very respectful tone, but frowning and making faces at him as he spoke.
‘Unimportant, of course, I meant,’ the King hastily said, and went on to himself in an undertone, ‘important–unimportant– unimportant–important–‘ as if he were trying which word sounded best.
Some of the jury wrote it down ‘important,’ and some ‘unimportant.’ Alice could see this, as she was near enough to look over their slates; ‘but it doesn’t matter a bit,’ she thought to herself.
I should add, the reason I am making my way through “The Wind in the Willows” so slowly is because I love the language of it.
In a way, reading the crappier books gave me a greater appreciation for the good ones… even if this appreciation only came as an adult. You have to learn to appreciate quality, you can’t just shove quality down a kid’s throat and say, “There! Shakespeare! You’d better like it or everyone will think you’re dumb!”
It’s very, very difficult capturing Characters on paper; it’s even more difficult when you’re worried that some B. Arts (Hons) journalist is gonna start picking at your language (note: “gonna”). I have a tremendous amount of respect for JK Rowling because she did what so many others have failed to do.