Ivory Tower and Harry Potter: Perspectives in a Literary Phenomenon
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).
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:
something about the values of the age and society that produce them.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.