Home Articles About Chartist Subscribe Links Search
This month
Archive of past articles
Labour movement
British politics
International politics
Economy and society
Science and culture

Pottering around

Pete Smith on the latest literary phenomenon

The term media phenomenon is often, perhaps too often, used in considerations of popular culture. But if the term has ever been appropriate it certainly is in the case of Harry Potter. The first four of the Harry Potter books filled the top slots in the paperback bestsellers lists for most of 2001. In America it is estimated that half of all seven to seventeen year olds have read at least one Harry Potter book. The books have been translated into more than forty languages from Finnish to Japanese.

Now we have the astonishing, though predictable, success of the movie Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone. For some reason both the book and the film have been sold in the United States as Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. Multiplexes have been packed, some showing Philosopher's Stone on more than one screen. In the run up to Christmas, some store toy departments looked like shrines to Harry Potter, ranging from the nasty and tacky to the stylish and expensive Hornby trains and Lego sets.

The author, JK Rowling (I guess she was advised by either her agent or publisher that eight year old boys would not buy books written by someone called Joanna), has promised a total of seven books and we will get the films to go with them. The mountain of Potter-themed merchandise will continue to grow.

I see no end in sight to the triumph of Potterism. If anything its appeal will grow. Do we need to try to understand what is happening? I believe we do.

Not all have reacted with equanimity to Pottermania. In America, as early as 1999, many on the Christian right were condemning the books and seeking to limit their reach. A parent giving evidence to the South Carolina Board of Education described Harry's story as having overtones of "death, hate, lack of respect and sheer evil." One of the Board members argued "the occult and witchcraft are religious. If Christianity and Judaism and any other religion is going to be banned from the public schools, then this should be too."

The argument used is that Harry Potter encourages children to take an interest in the occult or even satanism. The internet sites which I have visited that make this type of allegation either produce no evidence or supporting information at all or are manifestly fraudulent, along the 'I know because until two years ago I was a practising satanist priest' type.

Because evangelical Christians in Britain so often take their cue from their fellow believers in North America the controversy has now moved to the UK. One Church of England primary school has already banned Harry from the school library and, no doubt, we will see further attempts to ban or burn and to gain media notoriety for views shared by only a tiny proportion of believing Christians.

Mark Stibbe, an academic and Hertfordshire vicar, puts it this way, "we should be aware that the Potter novels have fuelled a huge increase in the occult generally. Children, particularly girls, are now seeking to sign up as witches in unprecedented numbers." This is, of course, crazy, and later in the same feature (Christianity + Renewal, December 2001) Stibbe seems to suggest that the Potter books are a deliberate and conscious attempt to undermine Christianity at the behest of the forces of darkness.

As John Monk put it during the 1999 debate in America, saying that Harry Potter lures children into witchcraft is like saying that Treasure Island will make them become pirates, that Gone with the Wind teaches readers to become slaveholders or that Peter Pan is the reason for young runaways. Shakespeare's plays are full of the supernatural: Hamlet has a ghost, Macbeth its witches, A Midsummer Night's Dream its fairies, and that most magical of plays, The Tempest, has Prospero, a magician, at its centre. So they can all go on the bonfire or in the skip, and while we are about it, Dickens' A Christmas Carol can join them.

I never cease to be amazed by the ignorance of the evangelist right. Many of the attacks on Harry get many details wrong, such as his age or the magical and mystical creatures involved in the stories. Always condemn a book without reading it, it is so much easier. But then again they seem to know so little about the Bible why should we expect them to know much about any other book. In the Old Testament the prophet Daniel is described as "master of the magicians" at the court of King Nebuchadnezzer. Explain away the role of the Magi in the Christmas story.

An outline of the basics of the first Potter story is straightforward. Harry is a ten year old orphan who lives with his aunt, uncle and cousin in suburban Surrey. He is thin, untidy and mistreated. After his eleventh birthday he is whisked off to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, and it turns out that Harry's parents were wizards and so is he. There follows a series of adventures and magical happenings which culminate in a confrontation with the evil wizard Voldemort who killed Harry's parents. The film follows the book very closely. JK Rowling is very protective of her creation: when the BBC staged a reading by Stephen Fry, she insisted on the full text.

Stories about magic and the supernatural are nothing new in either adult or children's literature. The fact that the cinematic version of the first part of JRR Tolkein's Lord of the Rings hit the big screen only weeks after Harry Potter is an illustration of this. I guess theologians would call it transcendence, the need to believe in something above and beyond ourselves. One of the explanations of the ubiquitous character of some form of religious belief even in a largely secular world where God has been officially declared dead. Science fiction and fantasy books are very popular, as are or have been television shows such as Buffy theVampire Slayer, which combines streetsmart dialogue with the manichean battle between good and evil, and Xena Warrior Princess, which manages to overlay traditional mythic qualities and themes with irony and lesbian subtext.

For many children, Harry is a hero because they can relate to and sympathise with him. He is unloved, poor, neglected, skinny and untidy, but it turns out that he is special, he is gifted. He is nobody to the muggles (the non-magical he lives amongst), but amongst magical folk he is famous, a living legend.

The film and book are deeply nostalgic. Writing in Sight and Sound (January 2001), Rob White, points out of the film that "The journey towards magic is also a journey into the past. When Harry looks through the cupboard vent, he sees a 1950s suburban interior. The inn, shops and bank in Diagon Alley are Victorian, populated by wizened shopkeepers and goblin-bankers wearing capes or half-moon spectacles." Harry sets off to Hogwarts in a steam train which looks as though it had just come off the set of The Railway Children or Brief Encounter.

The school seems to do without any technological conveniences, lit by oil lamps and floating candles. The food arrives by magic, not the magic of the microwave. Hogwarts is in a time warp; the sort of boarding school that those of us of a certain age might have read stories about as children - Greyfriars transported forward in time. This is not an accident. The look of the film was much influenced by John Bryan's work on David Lean's 1948 film Oliver Twist. The director, Chris Columbus, wrote the script for Barry Levinson's 1985 film Young Sherlock Holmes, which is largely set in a Victorian boarding school which could be a precursor of Hogwarts. The film also includes gloomy Dickensian streets and graveyards as well as sinister and quasi-magical happenings.

One can see the appeal of nostalgia to older generations. People on the political left are often nostalgic for community, class solidarity and a settled and predictable welfare system, hence Old Labour. On the right, people are nostalgic for authority, patriotism, Sunday closing, red telephone boxes, stable family life and respected historic institutions. Conservative commentator, Peter Hitchens' 1999 book, The Abolition of Britain, is largely an exercise in such nostalgia.

But why would children be nostalgic for a world they have never known? Perhaps because they like many of us are dissatisfied with the present. Golden ages are always in the past. Harry himself is nostalgic for a past he has never known. He was only one when his parents were killed and he does not remember them. This furnishes one of the most moving sections of the first book, when Harry looks into the magical Mirror of Erised. The mirror shows Harry his mother and father because it shows everyone what they most desire. But there is a sting in the tale: Dumbledore, who serves as the book's combination of Obi Wan and Gandalf, warns Harry against the mirror. "It does not do well to dwell on dreams and forget to live, remember that." Harry cannot go back to the future, he can only go forward.

One of the much commented upon features of the Rowling/Potter phenomenon is that it all starts with books. It is not like Pokemon and other transient playground frenzies a product of computer games, television and gamecards. Danny Duncan Collum (Sojourners Magazine, November/December 2001) has described his children and their friends acting out Harry Potter in the yard long before the film was visible on the horizon. Rowling has described meeting children for whom Harry was the introduction to reading. The books and the film are partly about books and the value of them. The children learn through books and being taught not by being stuck in front of a computer screen or being encouraged to learn by discovery (beyond the fact the iron is hot not very much worth knowing can be learnt by discovery). Children who read the books and watch the films might begin to understand what real education ought to be like. We should clear out the philistines who inhabit the Education Department (or whatever its acronym is this week) and put JK Rowling in charge.

What of the values of Harry Potter? Some people have compared the saga to CS Lewis' Narnia stories, with their heavily Christian message. For some Christians, this is a false comparison, since Lewis was writing from an explicitly Christian perspective, which Rowling is not.

However, there is a lot there. Harry's mother sacrifices herself. Harry's best friend Ron is prepared to sacrifice himself so that Lord Voldemort can be foiled. Harry and Ron risk themselves to save the leading female character Hermione, who they have put in danger by being thoughtless towards her. Teamwork, individual responsibility, care and concern for others and respect for those different from you - they are all covered at some point. As for the struggle between good and evil, well our Harry does not try to find a third way between Voldemort and Dumbledore. Amongst all the sleaze, double talk and moral duplicity of the people who dominate our world rather than Harry's the messages are refreshing. Adults as well as children could do a lot worse than a bit of Pottering around.


January/February 2002