Artemis Fowl
Eoin Colfer
Viking / Penguin, 2001.
£12.99, 282 pages, ISBN 0670899623.

Georges-Claude Guilbert
Université de Rouen

Quite a few journalists have presented Eoin Colfer as the new J.K. Rowling, and Artemis Fowl as the new Harry Potter. Others have hailed the novelist as the Irish answer to Rowling. Artemis Fowl is already an international bestseller, although I do not suppose for an instant that its author will ever be quite as immensely rich as J.K. Rowling, who was recently pronounced one of the three wealthiest women in the United Kingdom, along with her Dread Sovereign and the recently immigrated Madonna.
Every French supermarket I have visited in the past six or seven weeks displayed the book on its general fiction shelves – as opposed to its children’s literature section. Surely that is significant, but of what exactly?

Even France has its answer to Harry Potter now, a teenager called Peggy Sue Fairway, and her creator is Serge Brussolo. The novels that narrate her adventures are also to be found on general fiction shelves. Peggy Sue has a very special power: she alone is able to see the evil wraiths (the Invisibles) who keep playing cruel jokes on mankind, and generally wreak havoc on the planet. “They were to blame for the miseries that plagued humans. Peggy Sue often caught them organising accidents. They stood waiting at a crossroads and leapt into a car to seize the steering-wheel, placing their hands on top of the driver’s.” I suspect Brussolo decided to make his heroine an American living in the United States for two reasons. Firstly, his novels would sell abroad more easily; secondly, his novels would sell in France more easily. French children being fed practically nothing but Japanese and American cultural products, they might be put off if suddenly given to read about a Françoise or a Chantal living in Brive-La-Gaillarde or Charleville-Mézières.

Young Harry Potter is, of course, a wizard, gifted with all sorts of powers, and he too meets supernatural creatures. Artemis Fowl, on the other hand, at least in this first volume, has no paranormal powers. But he is extremely clever for a twelve-year-old boy; and he gets to meet numerous magical beings. Like Rowling, Colfer unrestrainedly recycles all sorts of legends; the world’s entire stock of Celtic folklore in particular is relied upon to entertain and thrill. As in the Harry Potter books, there are centaurs and elves and goblins and dwarves and sprites and fairies, the latter allowing for all sorts of transatlantic jokes that might not be entirely deliberate (“come and get me, fairy boys”).

Journalists are unfair when they seem to imply that Colfer or Brussolo woke up one morning and decided to write books that would compete with Rowling’s. As if they had been butchers or something, bus conductors maybe, suddenly taking up bestseller-writing to make millions as they might have taken up professional tennis. I remember reading and enjoying Brussolo’s very imaginative science fiction and fantasy or horror short stories in underground fanzines, back in the seventies (how time flies). Then his Fleuve Noir / Anticipation as well as Denoël / Présence du Futur novels in the eighties made him something of a cult figure. He has won half a dozen awards and was once short-listed for the Goncourt (with La Maison de l’aigle (1994). Besides, he has written several more or less mainstream thrillers, like Le Nuisible (1982). Indeed he may be seen in many respects to have more in common with Stephen King than with J.K. Rowling.

As for Colfer, he did not wait for Rowling to inspire him either. The very funny Benny and Omar (1998), his first novel, became a bestseller practically overnight. Its sequel Benny and Babe (1999), though not quite as entertaining, did not do badly either. In The Wish List (2000), Colfer does not hesitate to tackle life after death, and suddenly his fiction stops being strictly children’s stuff. There are some good jokes there, beginning with Beelzebub in Hell worrying about arrivals. “These days there were as many Irish down here as there were in America.” Hell is also filled with “members of boy bands and mime artists”, reflects Saint Peter, before conferring with the demon about the heroine, Meg Finn:

‘You getting the same count as me?’
‘Yes. Dead even. A balanced account. She saved herself at the last minute. I haven’t seen one of these since…’
‘Since that rock ‘n’ roll singer with the hair.’
‘Exactly. And look at all the trouble he caused when he went back.’

In The Wish List, television studio guards have “a first from Trinity in medieval poetry”, Lucifer uses state-of-the-arts computers, and hoodlums find their molecules rearranged to fuse with those of fierce dogs, in the manner of The Fly. Colfer and Rowling incorporate technology in radically different ways. Rowling’s Muggles (humans, non magic beings) use it, when wizards tend to favour magic, and elves etc. have never heard of computers. Whereas Colfer’s Mud People (humans, surface dwellers) use technology as well as the People, but the latter’s is far more advanced. There was a time when the People and the Mud People lived more or less in harmony (“back when we coexisted to a certain extent”), but the People now remain underground, miles below the polluted surface.

Another tremendous difference between the works of the two authors is that Harry Potter is really rather good, in an old-fashioned heroic unselfish way – some might even say he’s insufferably good; whereas Artemis Fowl (great name!) is a bad boy, a criminal mastermind who wants to steal gold from the People. But they will not let him get away with his fairy-kidnapping (should that be fairynapping?) without putting up an epic fight, using every conceivable weapon, and even a few inconceivable ones. There are James Bond parodies along the way, and many comic scenes. Irish jokes abound, though not in the traditional sense of the phrase. “Thankfully, the rest of the world assumed that the Irish were crazy, a theory that the Irish themselves did nothing to debunk”. The People have “several undercover operatives stationed [at Disneyland Paris], most of them working in the Snow White exhibit”. They too have evolved, in a Darwinian sense (“one school of thought believed that the People were descended from airborne dinosaurs”). They still have to obey old magic rituals, though, in spite of their technology and distrust of humans. There is only one place where they do not feel so threatened… yes, you have guessed correctly, Ireland. “But in spite of all that, if there was one race the People felt an affinity for it was the Irish.”

Colfer has his People being compelled to put up like the Mud People with the PC police, but in many ways, he is more politically correct as a novelist than Rowling. It is easy to read Rowling as a nostalgic, white supremacist, capitalist, antifeminist, eurocentric conservative; while Colfer is clearly none of that. Colfer’s narrator is sometimes on the side of the grotesque dwarf, Rowling’s never is. Colfer resorts to irony much more frequently than Rowling. They both rely on the orphan status of their main character, whose “job” is inherited from a dead or missing father. They both use to considerable advantage the notion that appearances can be misleading, and the idea of the power of the word – often binding, and spellbinding. Understanding the language of the People is the first step to dominance, and translation is an interesting theme.

So Colfer’s Artemis Fowl is undoubtedly destined to continue being translated into all sorts of languages, although perhaps not in People language, in spite of the People signs inscribed on the cover and even on the pages themselves. It is no doubt going to be followed by many sequels, Harry Potter style. But Colfer will never reach the stratospheric level that Rowling enjoys (getting higher every second as of November 2001, with the first film coming out). Because although he may entertain adults as well as children, like Rowling, his Artemis can never be as universally liked as her Harry. There are students writing theses on Harry Potter all over the place, and at least two of my literature-teaching colleagues devour the books, eagerly waiting for the next one. We are considering the creation of a club, and I dare say we might, at a pinch, let Colfer aficionados join.