Sunday, July 17, 2005

On Harry Potter

I must start by confessing that I have only read the very first Harry Potter. It wasn't interesting enough for me to try to acquire the others but I may yet do so, if that will let me understand why these books are so very popular. They have made their author, J.K. Rowling, a billionaire, and perfectly sane (and adult!) people into mad fans willing to stay in line in the middle of the night just to get the newest book a few hours earlier.

Maybe I'm deficient in some deep and substantive way for not getting the Potter appeal. Or maybe my reaction is the normal one for someone who has read cartloads of books in this particular genre. From that angle the Potter book I read was well-written and plotted but not earth-shatteringly different or new. It isn't as good as Tolkien's The Hobbit, for example, and the female characters in it are few and tokenishly good. The later Potter books may be lots better, but the craze began with the very first one. Hence, any explanation of it should be possible by using information only from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone.

This is my try at such an explanation: Harry Potter is a wizard, a boy with magical powers. His parents are conveniently dead and he is brought up by his extremely nasty aunt and uncle, both nonmagical. He must constantly battle their own son who gets privileged treatment while Harry is given nothing but scolding, old clothes and a bed in a closet under the stairs.

Suddenly all this is over, and in a male-Cinderella-goes-to-the-party reversal Harry gets a place in a school of magic, run along the lines of a very genteel British boarding school. There he makes both enemies and friends, turns out to be excellent in sports and by the end of the book has had adventures which have made him into a hero.

This is almost any child's secret nasty dream: to be able to openly hate the adults in the house for being unfair, ungenerous and unloving, to be able to openly hate all those siblings that compete for the same scarce resources. But such hatred can't be openly admitted, for children love their parents and siblings, too. Walt Disney knew the solution a long time ago when he had Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse take care of nephews. Hating someone not-parent is acceptable for most mothers and fathers, as Rowling appears to know.

Add to this the dream of being better than others, of having secret powers while the others are nothing but common nonmagical rabble! And then to be allowed into a school of magic with wonderful unending food and games played in the air on broomsticks! And to be the best player of the whole lot! It isn't even really necessary for Harry to have any further adventures. If I were eleven years old I'd love this book, too.

But it's not only the eleven year old that love the Potter books. A large number of adults adore them, too, which suggests either that we don't mature quite as much as I used to think or that the later books are more interesting for mature readers than the one I read. Or both.

Whatever the reason, there is something about the first Harry Potter book that I intensely disliked: the sense of an accepted hierarcy which places wizards and witches above the ordinary people, called Muggles. Not only that, the wizards and witches live in an essentially segregated society from that inhabited by the Muggles. Given the recent questions about the impact of alienation on Muslim youth in Europe I wonder how wise it is to depict segregated societies of this kind as unproblematic. The whole two-tier imaginary world just might encourage some sort of racist thinking.

The other thing that makes me less than happy about these books is the fact (and I don't believe you if you argue otherwise here) that if the hero had been called Harriet Potter the Potter craze would never have materialized. This is not the author's fault, but I'd be remiss as an angry feminazi not to make a note of it.

I feel a little guilty for such a negative review of a phenomenom based on reading but one of the books, and also because I seem to be on the same side as Pope Ratzo with this. The latter is only an illusion, of course, I strongly recommend everyone to take an interest in witchcraft and wizardry, whereas the Pope wants people not to read these books at all. But to atone for these and any other criticisms I might provoke I promise to read the other Potter books during this week.