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Introduction to Children’s Literature
Ursula Odendahl (visiting student)
Discuss J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series in relation to (a) literature and (b) popular culture. Include your personal views of the series.
“He’ll be famous - a legend - (…) there will be books written about Harry - every child in our world will know his name.”1 Little did Prof. McGonagall know about the real “muggle” world when making this statement about Harry Potter’s popularity in the fictional wizard world. For, according to a survey published in the Süddeutsche Zeitung2 , Harry Potter is better-known in Great Britain than any other literary figure, including Sherlock Holmes, James Bond and Miss Marple. Will this popularity, however, continue to prevail? Undoubtedly, the current mania about the series and their subsequent commercialisation is overwhelming and, some say, short-lived. In my opinion, the commercial exploitation is indeed ephemeral, whereas the books, interestingly still the central part of this mania, will become classics and are definitely long-lived. In this context several points and questions are worthy of note, such as, what has happened so far? Why is Harry Potter so popular? Why does it appeal to both adults and children alike? Despite its success, or maybe rather because of it, the series has been criticised for promoting Satanism and the occult. Is Harry Potter really about witches on broomsticks? Certainly not, it rather is about a brave individual and his triumphant struggle. These same critics are trying to ban the books from schools and libraries. Should teachers, then, miss out on this unique opportunity to combine leisure reading with academic study and to explore the richness of detail innate in these novels? Harry Potter has influenced popular culture not only in its country of origin, but all over the world.
The commercial exploitation is discernible in many different countries, and nevertheless, everywhere, it is still the books that remain to be the central part of the “Pottermania”.
Hardly has there been a book that sold several hundred thousand copies before its publication, but on the same note, hardly anyone will be surprised to hear that it was Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. The first of the series was published in 1997, and with a giant momentum, during the short four years since its debut, has reached a popularity that outruns every other literary figure. In this context people are uttering notions about a so-called “instant classic”. I, however, do not believe in this approach, because in my opinion it takes time for a novel to become a classic. Yes, parents are raving about how J. K. Rowling’s books have turned their children into passionate readers, but only when these children sit down in the future and read the books to their off-spring will the Harry Potter novels have reached the status of a “classic”. I am convinced that this moment will come.
Now already, children and their parents are fighting over whose turn it is to read Harry Potter. Indeed, the series appeals to both adults and children and has turned “children of all ages” into passionate readers. In my opinion, it is more than a vicarious escape to Hogwarts. It rather is a combination of mystery and nail- biting suspense, compelling language and colourful imagery, and also the concern expressed in these books about the big questions of life, and their encouraging answers to them, that has made the series so addictive. Harry Potter definitely has to be one of those books you read cover to cover under the blanket at night. But why does it appeal to adults just as much as it appeals to children? Unlike many other children’s books, such as Winnie the Pooh, it does not make use of a double address, that is it does not address adults and children on different levels. It does not employ jokes or allusions which can only be understood by adults, who most often find these funny mainly because they are over their children’s heads. Harry Potter is a mainly single-address book, and that is precisely why adults enjoy it as much as children do: they are allowed to become children again when reading about Harry’s quests and triumphs. And thus it appeals to “children of all ages”. Only the person who has not lost his or her sense of childhood will be able to fully enjoy Harry Potter.
Despite its huge success, or maybe rather because of it, the novels have been criticised for promoting Satanism and the occult. I, however, believe that these critics entirely miss the point. Harry Potter is not about witches on broomsticks, and goblins running banks, it is about a brave individual and his triumphant struggles. Not the setting of a book, but its overall theme influences the reader - or is The Wizard of Oz about talking scarecrows and witches, rather than about courage, self-confidence and emotion? Certainly, children are to be taught facts about the world they live in, but this is by far not enough. The answers to such broad questions as ‘is the world we live in essentially benevolent or malevolent?’ or ‘is life worth embracing, worth struggling for?’ are sensationally positive in Harry Potter. It helps children gain a positive perspective of themselves and the world surrounding them. In my opinion, children need books like these.
What crucial need, however, do the Harry Potter books fulfil? Dianne Durante suggests the following in her essay “In Defence of Harry Potter”:
In a culture where cynicism is too often the dominant note, it provides a reminder that life is good - that it is challenging and full of exciting possibilities. The books are, in short, fuel for a child’s maturing mind. As vitamins and minerals are essential to a child’s healthy physical development, so literature with this view of the world is essential to a child’s healthy mental development.3
Part of the reason why readers are drawn into this book is that Harry can be easily identified with. He is neither particularly attractive nor is he outstandingly intelligent. He mainly represents the internal struggle inherent in all of us, especially children and young adults, to find out who we are and to understand the world around us. The character of Harry Potter is realistic and believable, because he is vulnerable and sensitive. He has to confront his fears and teaches his readers to recognise the powers contained in all of us to fight our fears, to be honest and self-confident, and to think for ourselves.
On the same note, I believe that the attempt to ban the series from schools and libraries is similarly nonsensical. On the contrary, I support the suggestion to put the novels on the National Curriculum. In addition to the positive moral values depicted in Harry Potter, teachers simply should not miss out on this unique opportunity to study the intertextuality and mythology innate in these novels, and to combine leisure reading with academic study. The Harry Potter books are extremely rich in detail concerning relations to other novels such as the Narnia series or Lord of the Rings, and connections with mythology. In J.R.R. Tolkien’s novels, for instance, one of the central characters is Gandalf, an old, good wizard with long white hair who guides the young hero - just like Dumbledore. Another reference, among many, are the Wraiths, evil, half-dead, black-cloaked figures who seek to suck out the hero’s soul - the corresponding figures in Harry Potter are the Dementors. Similarities can also be seen between J.K. Rowling’s novels and the Narnia series: in both books station platforms are used to transfer into the magical world, and wise centaurs befriend and help the young heroes.4 With regard to mythology, many connections can be made: Considering Greek mythology, Hogwarts could represent the Olympus, and Dumbledore the omnipotent Zeus. Minerva McGonagall, one of the protectors of Hogwarts, could be compared to Athena (called Minerva in Roman mythology). In this context the Chamber of Secrets could symbolise Pandora’s box, and the basilisk Medusa whose glance turns people to stone. Furthermore, relations to legends such as King Arthur should be taken into account when employing the Harry Potter books in the classroom. Dumbledore could be compared to the wise Merlin who guides the young hero and like Arthur, Harry is able to pull out a sword of great importance.5 Many more examples of relations to other works of literature, mythology and legends are inherent in the Harry Potter series, which make them an indispensable tool for teachers and scholars.
Harry Potter has had such an enormous effect on popular culture partly because it is enjoyed by readers of so many different backgrounds. People of all ages, with different cultural backgrounds and from different countries have let themselves be drawn into Harry’s world. All over the world have Rowling’s books occupied the first positions on best-seller lists - the first children’s book to do so in the U.S. since E.B. White’s Charlotte ’ s Web in 1952 - and when amazon offered customers to pre-order Book IV, even the unpublished Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire reached best-seller status.6 No one awaited Harry Potter when the first novel was published in 1997, no trend or fashion analyst could have foreseen its success, and that is exactly what makes these novels so special. Fairy tales are by definition never a fashion craze, they are as such unfashionable, and if they are well-written, that is what turns them into indestructible phenomena. The essential elements and messages of fairy tales are not confined to specific cultures, “[Harry’s] magic connects people from different cultures with a common bond. Imagination, humour, and empathy are not confined by geographical borders, skin color, or language.”7 The Harry Potter series and the positive answers given in the books to the “big questions” of life, transcend language barriers and have influenced people and their culture all over the world.
J.K. Rowling’s books have been translated into 47 languages so far with sales having reached 124 million copies as of December 2001,8 which proves the immense success of the Harry Potter series all over the world. However, it was not like that from the beginning. There was no marketing campaign to make sure the books would sell. Joanne K. Rowling received a £ 2,000 advance for Harry Potter and the Philosopher ’ s Stone. The book took off with a gigantic momentum and became enormously successful, thus, only a few months later she was paid $105,000 for copyrights in the U.S., and in 1998 Warner Bros. paid her $500,000 for the movie rights.9 Some people say Harry has reached second place on the list of world fame, right behind Mickey Mouse. Undoubtedly, Harry Potter has entered the global popular culture - the factual and the fictional world start to coexist, as from Iceland to New Zealand fanclubs are evolving offering a vast amount of material from certificates10, merchandise of all imaginable kind, to an online version of the Daily Prophet. Harry is mentioned constantly in the newspapers and on screen, examples include the “Peanuts” and a front cover story in the Time magazine. Despite of all the commercialisation and merchandise currently dominating the market, the books are interestingly still the central part of the “Pottermania” - a computer game simply cannot match the compelling magic portrayed in the novels. “Market analysts claim that Rowling’s series has boosted the sale of other children’s literature because Harry has stimulated their interest in reading.”11 I believe that the commercial craze exploiting the character of Harry Potter will fade in time, but facts such as that many readers, including children, choose to buy hardcover editions in order to save them for the future, show that the popularity of the books will continue to prevail and that the Harry Potter series is likely to eventually become a classic.
The success of the Harry Potter series is certainly unheard of, and its positive effect on children is unmistakable. Its encouraging answers to the “big” questions in life help to depict positive moral values that empower the child to adapt a positive attitude towards herself and the world around her. That is part of the reason why I believe that critics who denounce the series of glorifying and marketing Satanism and the occult, and therefore try to ban it, utterly miss the point. Harry Potter reminds us, children and adults alike, that life is worth struggling for. “In the TV-dominated, celebrity-spotted, smart-clever, self- referential world that dominates the children’s market these days, [Harry] is alarmingly old-fashioned. He is not postmodernist, sophisticated, slick, hip or street-smart. He is cheerful, decent, kind, brave and loyal,” says The Guardian. And it is exactly these characteristics and the elements of a fairy tale which make the books popular throughout the world. Despite the current, in my opinion short- lived, commercialisation, the novels about “the boy who lived” will be read by generations to come and therefore will become classics.
word count: 2109
Rowling, Joanne Kathleen. Harry Potter and the Philosopher ’ s Stone. London: Bloomsbury, 1997.
Rowling, Joanne Kathleen. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. London: Bloomsbury, 1998.
Rowling, Joanne Kathleen. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. London: Bloomsbury, 1999.
Rowling, Joanne Kathleen. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. London: Bloomsbury, 2000.
Schafer, Elizabeth. Beachham ’ s Sourcebooks for Teaching Young Adult Fiction - Exploring Harry Potter. London: Ebury Press, 2000.
Durante, DianneL., Ph.D., “In Defence of Harry Potter - The Wildly Popular
Harry Potter Books Offer an Essential Value: The Benevolent Depiction of a World in Which Good Triumphs Over Evil.”
http://education.aynrand.org/potter.html (1-10 December 2001).
http://www.bloomsburymagazine.com/harrypotter (1-10 December 2001).
http://www.scholastic.com/harrypotter/home.asp (1-10 December 2001).
“Fight for Harry Potter.” kidspeak. http://www.mugglesforharrypotter.org (1- 10 December 2001).
http://www.harrypotterfans.net (1-10 December 2001).
1 Rowling, Joanne Kathleen. Harry Potter and the Philosopher ’ s Stone. London: Bloomsbury, 1997, p.15
2 Süddeutsche Zeitung, a German quality daily newspaper
3 Durante, DianneL., Ph.D., “In Defence of Harry Potter -- The Wildly Popular Harry Potter Books Offer an Essential Value: The Benevolent Depiction of a World in Which Good Triumphs Over Evil.” http://education.aynrand.org/potter.html, 10 December 2001
4 information on intertextuality taken from the Daily Mail, 12 November 2001.
5 see Schafer, chapter 9; see Rowling, Joanne Kathleen. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. London: Bloomsbury, 1998.
6 see Schafer, p.14
7 Schafer, p.16
8 see http://www.bloomsburymagazine.com/harrypotter
9 see Der Spiegel, a German weekly newsmagazine
10 A certificate is available from Bloomsbury, stating that the fan is “an honorary pupil of Hogwarts, a personal friend of Harry Potter’s, a fierce opponent of the dark side and a thoroughly good egg.” (see Schafer, p.18)
11 Schafer, p.32
- Quote paper
- U. Odendahl (Author), 2001, Discuss J.K.Rowling`s Harry Potter series in relation to (a) literature and (b) popular culture. Include your personal views of the series., Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/105373