Krista Faries (from Radix Vol. 27:3)
In the first chapter of J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, the name "Harry Potter" is heard spoken in excited whispers on the streets all over England. It is an apt image for the real-life buzz today over the best-selling Harry Potter books.
This British children's series, three of which have been published so far, have topped best-seller lists and have broken records for children's books sales. As of this writing, the three are #1, 2, and 3 on the New York Times best-seller list. The fourth book, not yet published, is already #6 on amazon.com's best-seller list, based on pre-order sales. And these books aren't being bought just for kids. They are also topping the best-seller lists on college campuses across the U.S. In England, a separate edition, with a more subdued cover, was published to cater to the adult audience. Recently, the third book narrowly missed being picked for one of England's highest literary prizes.
For a while it seemed that everywhere I turned, someone was talking about these books. But it wasn't until one person qualified her expressions of delight by calling them "the new Chronicles of Narnia" that I really became curious.
Early in The Sorcerer's Stone, we gather from the excited whispering that Harry Potter is "The Boy Who Lived" (as the first chapter is intriguingly titled). Harry's parents, James and Lily Potter, are killed by the evil wizard Voldemort, but when Voldemort turns on their one-year old son Harry, for reasons that remain a mystery, Voldemort's powers are dramatically weakened and he is unable to kill the boy. This moment of Voldemort's downfall causes the lifting of the former spirit of oppression he had caused throughout the wizard community. Harry becomes a legend, and the mystery of how Harry survived is one of the questions that lingers throughout the series.
Harry himself is both literally and figuratively scarred by the encounter. Voldemort leaves his mark in the form of a lightning-bolt-shaped scar on Harry's forehead, a distinction that makes it difficult for Harry to fade into anonymity. He also bears the psychological scars of the encounter, and his struggles to face his pain and loss are an important theme—perhaps the most important theme—of the books.
Years pass, however, before Harry knows anything about what happened. After his parents are killed, Harry goes to live with his Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon Dursley, who are "Muggles" (Rowling's name for non-magic people). His aunt and uncle embody unimaginative dullness and excessive self-indulgence, typifying the worst characteristics of Muggleness. Ever since Harry arrived on their doorstep, they've not only made his life miserable, but have done everything possible to hide his magical history from him, telling him his parents were killed in a car accident. But Harry has inherited magical traits, which insist on bursting out at the most inopportune moments, to their dismay and to Harry's bewilderment.
Just before Harry's 11th birthday, the truth finally comes out. Harry receives notice that he is to enroll in the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, England's premier institution for the training of young wizards and witches. He will spend the next seven years there, each book in the seven-book series chronicling one year of school.
Hogwarts School becomes for Harry his first real home—a place where he finally receives the love and acceptance he has always craved and where he can begin to learn about himself and his past.
Junior high in an alternative reality
Hogwarts is, of course, a magical place. An immense castle with wandering passageways, tall towers, and (it seems) a centuries-old history, Hogwarts is a wide open door for the imagination and full of secrets waiting to be discovered.
What is most striking about Hogwarts, though, is how very human and ordinary it is. Despite the fact that Harry and his friends take classes like Transfiguration, Potions, and Care of Magical Creatures, the teachers, students, and classroom dynamics are uncannily familiar. This is junior high (to put it in American terms), and all the players are there: the class clowns, the bullies, the teacher's pet, the whiny kid, the friends who stick up for you, the teacher who picks on you. Familiar daily routines—science lab, gym class, the lunchroom—are there too, albeit in slightly different form.
The magical world of Hogwarts turns out to be the perfect setting for a parody of adolescence, with all its insecurity and fumbling, as well as of human nature in general.
Rowling's satire can be witty and alert. She captures perfectly the voice of the frustrated teacher in love with his subject and convinced before he begins that his students will fail to appreciate the magic, figuratively speaking, of it. There are some truly vivid reminders of adolescent humor. This is a world where jelly beans are made in every flavor (ear wax, vomit) and where a spell gone wrong causes Harry's friend Ron to burp up slugs for days.
A psychological drama
Somewhere buried amid the humor (sometimes buried too deeply) is a serious story of adolescence: a classic coming-of-age drama. For Harry, being at Hogwarts is about gaining the tools he needs to come face-to-face with his fears and the pain of his childhood trauma. Magic in the Potter series becomes a metaphor for the power of the human imagination to overcome obstacles and to heal the psyche.
The "moral of the story" moments often read like excerpts from popular psychology. In the Sorcerer's Stone, Harry encounters an enchanted mirror called the Mirror of Erised, in which he is able to see his mother and father waving to him. But Professor Dumbledore, the wise headmaster of Hogwarts, warns Harry of the dangers of the mirror:
"It shows us nothing more or less than the deepest, most desperate desire of our hearts . . . However, this mirror will give us neither knowledge or truth. Men have wasted away before it, entranced by what they have seen, or been driven mad, not knowing if what it shows is real or even possible . . . It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live, remember that."[i]
In their third-year Defense Against the Dark Arts class, Harry and his friends learn how to overcome boggarts, shape-shifters that transform into whatever someone most fears. The lesson is ultimately about learning to face our fears with both courage and a sense of humor.
Harry's boggarts, however, seem to be overwhelming him. His childhood wounds are reopened by the appearance of dementors on the Hogwarts grounds, and these dementors become what he fears most. The dementors, prison guards from the wizard prison, have been brought to Hogwarts to protect it against an escaped wizard criminal. But far from being beneficent protectors, these guards are enactors of despair. In the words of Professor Lupin, Harry's Dark Arts teacher:
"Dementors are among the foulest creatures that walk this earth. . . . they drain peace, hope, and happiness out of the air around them. Even Muggles feel their presence, though they can't see them. Get too near a dementor and every good feeling, every happy memory will be sucked out of you. . . . You'll be left with nothing but the worst experiences of your life."[ii]
Under the tutelage of Professor Lupin, Harry goes into training to learn how to ward off the overwhelming power the dementors have over him. These sections read like hypnotherapy sessions, including flashbacks to the terrifying moments just before his mother's death.
At the end of each school year, Harry's personal struggles culminate in a scene where Harry once again comes face to face with the enemy who killed his parents. These confrontations are like a final exam, tapping on Harry's magic skills and the lessons he has learned about strength of mind and character. In each encounter, he comes closer to unraveling the mystery surrounding what happened to his parents.
Satire and secrets
While reading the first and second Harry Potter books, I smugly thought myself resistant to their reputed charms. By the end of the third book, I was sneaking out to read during my lunch hour and checking the Web to see when the fourth book is coming out. So what is it that makes these books so appealing to kids and adults alike?
First, there's the appeal of the fantasy. Rowling creates a world with wonderfully imaginative things bursting out on each page. For sheer creativity with language and plot devices, Rowling is amazing. This is a world where anything can happen, and you learn to expect the unexpected, as in the best from the genre of kids' mysteries.
To top it off, Rowling has a remarkable knack for hinting, frequently, at secrets she's not going to tell us for a long, long time. By the third book, she has raised the cliffhanger to an art form, and we're dying to know what happens next. Finally, we keep reading because we've grown to love the characters and just want to keep hanging out with them.
I personally began to fall in love with the books, just a little, when they introduced Hermione, a character that Rowling says is a caricature of herself.[iii] Hermione is a rule-abiding overachiever desperate to succeed at everything she does and terrified of failure. For Type A personality types like me, her character is both a needed laugh at ourselves and a kind of redemption. Despite her excesses, she proves to be a likeable character and at times provides a needed balance to Harry and his friends' more casual approach to life, using her skills to get them out of scrapes and working out puzzles that baffle them.
But they're not the Chronicles of Narnia
Their entertaining and endearing qualities notwithstanding, the Harry Potter books are not the Chronicles of Narnia. In a sense, of course, that is an obvious statement and an unfair comparison. Rowling is writing her own story, not C. S. Lewis's. But having heard the books compared to the Narnia Chronicles more than once, in the media and among acquaintances, I began reading the books with great anticipation. I was disappointed.
In trying to name what sets the Chronicles of Narnia apart from the Harry Potter books, I see two things. The first is that the Chronicles of Narnia are transformational. The characters grow and change, and so do we. The second is, in a word, Aslan.
Descriptions of Harry's dull and priggish Muggle cousin, Dudley Dursley, are reminiscent of the opening of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, where Lewis describes the Pevensies' cousin Eustace. He and his parents are snobs, "very up-to-date and advanced people," and Eustace delights in bullying his cousins, Lucy and Edmund, who have the misfortune to be visiting for the summer.[iv]
For Harry, the story of the troublesome cousin ends when Harry leaves for school and resumes for briefly irritating passages when Harry returns for summer vacation. Eustace, on the other hand, gets sucked into Narnia by accident (or perhaps not by accident) and Lucy and Edmund are stuck with him for the duration. But Eustace, Lucy, and Edmund go through incredible adventures while on board the Dawn Treader, and by the end they and their relationships have changed. Eustace's personal story is, in fact, a powerful allegory for conversion that readers of the Dawn Treader do not soon forget.
Far from reaching those levels of growth and change, Harry's sour relationship with his relatives drones on and on. The purpose of these scenes is never clear, unless it's to serve as a backdrop to make Hogwarts School seem all the more special. In these encounters, Harry frequently comes off looking bad as he stoops to their level in retaliation. I was disappointed that Rowling chose to end her first book with Harry implying that he's going to spend the summer torturing his cousin.
Even the story of Harry's psychological healing is less about growth and change than it is about self-realization and the discovery that he is special and loved. It often seems that he can do no wrong—and that affirmation of his self-worth is of the highest importance.
That message, about the need for love and affirmation, tells a certain truth, but it doesn't tell the whole truth about what ultimately heals us. The deeper truth, that we are special and loved and that we need forgiveness and change, is a more difficult truth, and it's a truth that few writers can convey with the power and subtlety of C. S. Lewis.
In The Dawn Treader, Lucy uses a magic spell that is supposed to "let you know what your friends [think] about you," and she is hurt by what she hears her friend say. Soon after, she encounters Aslan, who, with compassion, nudges her to think about making wrong choices. As Lucy learns, those choices—even those that seem too small to make a difference—can have painful consequences.[v]
Occasionally, it looks as if the Potter books are about take a turn toward such a "moment of truth." After a series of disagreements with their friend Hermione, Harry and Ron are having tea with the school's gamekeeper, who gently chides them about their strained relationship with Hermione. But maddeningly (and this is a recurring pattern in the books), the subject is suddenly dropped, on a light humorous note, and is never picked up again. Eventually the three friends are talking again, but without ever addressing the problem. Ron and Harry never seem to feel remorse, or sadness, or anything else beyond that one brief moment of discomfort.
Catharsis—transformative power—is a hallmark of great literature, and the Chronicles of Narnia have a cathartic power that the Harry Potter books do not. At the heart of this catharsis is of course Aslan, a personification of God's love and goodness. Aslan's transformation goes deep, not only clarifying our understanding of goodness and truth, but awakening our sense of wonder.
In the Chronicles, the battle against evil is inseparable from a belief that goodness has an inherent power and evil an inherent weakness. While the struggle with evil and temptation may be painful and confusing, Aslan always, in the end, brings truth and clarity.
In Harry Potter's struggle against evil, it often feels as if he is groping through the darkness with very little understanding of his enemy. Somehow, at the last minute, he always manages to stumble on the key to defeating his enemy, but it seems random. He could just as easily have not succeeded. There are some vague hints that good triumphs over evil for a reason, but this is part of the great mystery of Harry's past and Harry's destiny, not yet fully revealed. Also, because Harry's enemies are vividly conceived by Rowling and are shrouded in mystery, they become a powerful specter—and have a stronger hold on our imagination than the "forces for good": a group of gangly (and sometimes petty and insecure) 13-year-olds.
There is no question that there is a darkness in the Harry Potter stories. The Narnia Chronicles lead us ultimately into hope, and awe and wonder. They lead us to desire what is good and what is greater than we are. When reading the Potter books, on the other hand, it is easy to feel frightened and confused and lost. With danger and terror and despair lurking so easily in the halls of Hogwarts, we have no clear basis for hope that good will have the final word, and no clear sense of what the substance of that good is.
Harry's story isn't over yet. There are yet more secrets to be unlocked, more mysteries to be unfolded. Since this is a serial drama, and the books aren't all written, we aren't quite sure what it is leading up to. Will the conclusion prove the books worthy of all the buzz and excitement? That remains to be seen.
[i] Rowling. J. K. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. New York: Scholastic Press, 1999, p. 213.
[ii] Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Scholastic Press, New York: 1999, p.187.
[iii] Interview with J.K. Rowling in Weir, Margaret., "Of magic and single motherhood." Salon magazine (www.salon.com), March 31, 1999.
[iv] Lewis, C.S. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. New York: MacMillan, 1952, p. 2.
[v] Lewis, C.S. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. New York: MacMillan, 1952, p. 135.