Viking / Penguin, 2001.
£12.99, 282 pages, ISBN 0670899623.
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 childrens 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 drivers.
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 worlds 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,
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
Rowlings. 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
Brussolos 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 laigle (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 childrens 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 havent 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
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. Rowlings
Muggles (humans, non magic beings) use it, when wizards tend to favour
magic, and elves etc. have never heard of computers. Whereas Colfers
Mud People (humans, surface dwellers) use technology as well as the
People, but the latters 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 hes 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
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. Colfers narrator is sometimes
on the side of the grotesque dwarf, Rowlings 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 Colfers 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