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Harry Potter And The Elitist

Posted by acdtest on July 10, 2003

Harry Potter And The Literary Elitist

‘m late to the party, I know, having only in the past week taken up the Harry Potter books, compelled finally by the unprecedented publishing success of the series. I’m no fan of genre fiction generally, and near the very bottom of my list is fantasy fiction (I managed to get through The Lord of the Rings many years ago, but just barely), edged out of last place only by science fiction, a genre I most heartily loathe largely because of its hey-look-at-me use of the weird and paradoxical in physical and astronomical theory, and its risible literary pretensions.

I’ve now read Books 1-4 of the Harry Potter series (I’ll not read Book 5 until it’s available in paperback), and I’m somewhat chagrined to confess I found them all rather charming (which is, after all, only fit), even engaging (I read all four books — some 1800 pages — within the single span of some five days; for me a record of sorts). J.K. Rowling is clearly a storyteller of considerable narrative gift who immediately calls to mind no-one so much as the Conan Doyle of the classic Sherlock Holmes tales, and a writer of a not inconsiderable fantastical imagination. The Harry Potter books are, for the most part, a clever and skillful patchwork of fairytale, saga, and mythological motifs and devices intelligently and imaginatively applied, with a soupçon of Star Trek and Star Wars, and a fair bit more than a soupçon of English boarding school movies cum Nancy Drew and Andy Hardy.

And it all somehow works.

One might be tempted to level the charge that the motifs and devices, as well as the various character types that act them out in the Potter books, are cliché or stereotypical, and one would be wrong. They’re neither clichés nor stereotypes but archetypes, which is why, in the hands of someone with the requisite imaginative narrative gift and skills, they all can be employed again and again, and still remain fresh, and psychologically resonant and affective.

As charming and engaging as the books are, however, there’s about them something I find troubling. As A.S Byatt put it in her Op-Ed piece on the Potter books for the New York Times (which piece in large part, but not entirely, echoes many of my own thoughts): “Ms. Rowling’s magic world has no place for the numinous.” I would go further and say that magic world evidences a seeming dogged, even dogmatic, eschewal of the numinous. The reason for this eschewal is itself a mystery; one for which I’ll not even attempt to provide a solution. That the books are written for children (their surprising number of adult readers notwithstanding and beside the point) is no answer at all. Neither is it a justification or excuse for the apparent by-design avoidance of even so much as a suggestion of some deeper mystery behind the up-front magic.

The series’ central schtick — its hook — is the portrayal of the magic world of wizards and witches — in Hogwarts and environs as well as in the Muggle world — in matter-of-fact, quotidian, even utilitarian terms, and that’s a big part of the series’ charm and appeal. But in some measure, and always at work in the deep background at least, must be sensed a numinous source of the magic in that world, good and evil. Absent that necessary sense, what one ends up with is nothing more resonant than the illusionist magic of the stage magician, or the cartoon magic of a TV witch sitcom.

I don’t at all mean to suggest that the Harry Potter books ought to be something their author never intended them to be. I’m saying merely that in each of the first four volumes I’ve read, there came a point in the narrative that fairly pleaded, cried out even, for a deft suggestion of some deeper mystery behind the outward magic — the chapter “The Forbidden Forest” in The Sorcerer’s Stone; the chapter “The Heir of Slytherin” in The Chamber of Secrets; the chapter “The Servant of Lord Voldemort” in The Prisoner of Azkaban; and the chapter “Flesh, Blood, and Bone” in The Goblet of Fire — the heeding of which plea, even by something as tacky and dumb as The Force of the Star Wars movies (although an imaginatively gifted storyteller such as Rowling could certainly come up with something a great deal better), giving to the whole a resonance, depth, contextual believability, and sense of the special it could in no way otherwise achieve. But instead, in each case the plea went unacknowledged and unanswered, with the unhappy result that the books are experienced as a mere entertainment and diversion of the moment, neither different nor distinguishable in aesthetic or philosophic thrust and substance from any number of TV series targeted at the MTV crowd, or from big-screen bubblegum flicks.

That’s all rather a pity for us readers. It’s not often a gifted storyteller like Ms. Rowling comes along, and hungry little piggies that we are, when one does, we want the maximum she’s capable of providing. In the instant case, as good as the feeding was, one is left with the feeling one has somehow been cheated at the trough.

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