Back to Book Reviews

Back to Cercles

The Ivory Tower and Harry Potter: Perspectives in a Literary Phenomenon
Lana Whited, ed.
Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 2002 (hardback).
$44.95, 408 pages, ISBN 0-8262-1443-6.

Cher Holt-Fortin
SUNY Oswego, Oswego, NY


It is perhaps premature to write criticism about an incomplete work. It is also inevitable that an enormously popular work that draws children to read will be examined for clues to its success. The Ivory Tower, with its possibly ironic title, came out between the publication of the fourth and fifth Harry Potter books. At the end of The Order of the Phoenix, Harry and his friends are over halfway through Hogwarts. They are developing into morally responsible young adults, as we the readers, at least the adult readers, expect them to. The essays in this book address the growth and development of the main characters from several perspectives.

The first and perhaps least interesting of these perspectives is that of Harry’s literary antecedents. I say least interesting because these literary relatives and progenitors are, for the average fantasy reader, fairly well known. Amanda Cockrell’s essay “Harry Potter and the Secret Password,” does make a crucial distinction: “Harry Potter is not a lightweight imitation of such serious high fantasy as A Wizard of Earthsea or The Lord of the Rings, but a legitimate descendent of the darker and more complicated form of the school story, such as Rudyard Kipling’s Stalky and Co.” (18). For critical readers, identifying two genres, the school story and high fantasy, provides an interesting way of looking at a work that at times seems shallow and derivative. Indeed one of the purposes of this collection of essays is to explore the Harry Potter phenomenon, or, to put it more crassly, to explore the literary merits of a set of commercially successful books. William Safire claims that the Potter books “fail the test of what constitutes a classic” (8), A classic by Safire’s terms is “written on two levels, entertaining one generation while instructing another” (8).

The essays in this collection, then, seek to assess the “lasting literary value of Rowling’s books (9). In the introduction, Whited sets out criteria for such evaluation. The classics she insists:

*Reflect something about the values of the age and society that produce them.
*Conjure a real world or one that parallels the real one in intriguing ways.
*Use language in a way that calls the reader’s attention to language itself and how language reflects culture and cultural values.
*Must have roots and branches in familiar forms, genres, or subgenres of literature and yet not be purely derivative.

Those essays that explore the language of the novels succeed quite well. Chapter VI contains two essays that discuss Rowling’s language and the unfortunate decision by her American publisher to ‘translate’ the books. Philip Nel, in “You Say ‘Jelly’ and I Say ‘Jell-o’?” sorts out some of the ways Scholastic, the American publisher, changed the language of the novels and the knotty problem of how translation obscures “differences in cultural heritage and meaning” (261). In other words, does ‘translation’ somehow dilute the culture of the novels and hence damage their essence. Nel points out:

In addition to highlighting America’s disproportionate influence on global culture and effacing some the book’s Britishness, Scholastic’s “translations” result in changes in meaning. Not only is “English muffin” different from “crumpet,” but Sorcerer’s Stone also lacks the reference to alchemy implied by Philosopher’s Stone in the title of the British edition published by Bloomsbury in 1997. (262)

Since the books have been a global success and have been translated into other languages, it is especially relevant to look at the Armericanization of the series. Why does British English need to be translated for American children? One could argue that the American children who read Lewis, Tolkien, Dahl, and other British writers would all ready be familiar with some Briticisms. Others could of course be encouraged to look up the words they don’t know. Indeed, unfamiliar words are part of the charm of the books. There is the constant tension in the books between the wizarding world and the Muggle world. So what is the value of changing Quidditch pitch to Quidditch field? And do American kids now really need to be told that football is soccer to the rest of the world? While Nel praises the Scholastic editions for correcting editing errors in the Bloomsbury editions, he points out that Rowling’s books now provide readers around the world with the “most widely known representation” of Britain at this point in time (267). And this becomes problematic if that representation is colored by an American ‘translation’ of that culture. In addition, American substitutes dilute the social and political critiques Rowling implies. The dialects spoken by various characters reflect various social classes in Britain today. And the social unease of that culture is miniaturized in the social differences at Hogwarts. After five books, it is clear that one of Rowling’s main concerns is the racial implication of pure blood wizards and ‘mudbloods’ embodied in characters like the Malfoys and Hermione and Hagrid.

American cultural and political hegemony notwithstanding, Harry’s literary antecedents belong almost exclusively to the British school story, as they must, since the boarding school experience is much less widely known in the United States. Although Rowling did not attend boarding school herself, the books present that experience as “manifested in the long tradition of what is known as ‘public school stories’” (Steege, 141). The public school story goes back over 140 years in Britain; the “first know boarding school story, Sarah Fielding’s The Governess: or Little Female Academy, was published in 1749” (Steege, 141). Such antecedents include Tom Brown’s Schooldays, with its parallel structure of houses, sports, bullies, and house masters. Such systems while familiar to British readers either from personal experience or literature, are less known to American children, expect those readers of British children’s books. Steege points out that Rowling is able to use a literary staple to explore modern Britain’s changing social face. Hogwarts is, after all, coeducational, multicultural, and socially inclusive. The food is better at Hogwarts, and the darker customs, like hazing and forcing younger students to be servants, are left out. But the courses are still challenging, the sports perhaps more important, and the teachers a mix of excellent and muddled, giving us a resonance of the public school experience.

The essays which explore Kohlberg’s moral hierarchy as it appears in the novels present deeper questions for the adult reader. Asserting that “reading is a powerful influence on the moral development of children and adolescents” (183), the authors, Whited and Grimes, explain the stages of moral development laid our by theorist Lawrence Kohlberg. The writers are responding, in part, to attacks on the books by the religious right. Such parents and readers are concerned that the Harry Potter books will lead children away from the ‘real’ world into evil and witchcraft. To counter this concern, Whited and Grimes set out in some detail the ways in which Harry and his friends demonstrate their developing moral sense. They point out that reading “provides the opportunity for the role-playing” (207) that Kohlberg deemed essential in the development of moral understanding. The opportunity to discuss moral decisions or to role-play various situations and to participate in a “community characterized by justice” facilitates a child’s moral development. For children who in their real lives are denied by circumstance those experiences, the Harry Potter books allow imaginative participation in activities essential to moral development.

Eliza Dresang asserts that Rowling does not write a feminist novel, but “reflects a patriarchal, hierarchical world” (238). Even though Hermione seems to represent the social conscience of the three main characters and is smarter than either boy and a better magician, despite her Muggle blood, she is unusual and a bit of an outcast because of it. Professor McGonagal is the only woman head of a house and second to Dumbledore in the school hierarchy, but the other women teachers are portrayed as silly, like Professor Sprout, or, like the divination teacher, downright ineffectual. As powerful and independent as they are, Hermione and Professor McGonagal are unique in the series, the other girls being relegated to the roles of little sisters, like Ginny Weasly, or girlfriends, like Cho and Fleur and even Madam Maxime. Girls are described as “silly, giggling, and light-headed” (237) and here the language of description seems to outweigh the competence of girl Quidditch players. Interestingly, Fleur is the only girl champion in the Tri-Wizard Trials and constantly comes in last or fails altogether in her task. Events in the books and Rowling’s language constantly undercut the seemingly equal status of girls at Hogwarts.

Other issues covered in this collection of essays are fandom, the technology of magic, and the critique of Thatcherism implied in the novels. The editor has included a thorough bibliography for those wishing to pursue the literary and critical phenomenon of Harry Potter. Although it may be early to evaluate the series as a whole, it does seem impossible to ignore a set of books that have attracted such a large readership of children and adults. As a result this collection is a mixed bag of essays that suggest readings and ways of looking at the cultural, linguistic, feminist, and moral implications of the Harry Potter books for us Muggle readers.


Cercles2003
All rights are reserved and no reproduction from this site for whatever purpose is permitted without the permission of the copyright owner. Please contact us before using any material on this website.