Young Harry Potter’s parents are dead. So far, so good: many of the heroes and heroines of the classics of children’s literature are orphans, while others have invisible, unmentionable or irrelevant parents. The sorrow of grieving, not to mention the terror of helplessness, is quickly glossed over in favour of the joy of a fantasised freedom. (A particularly sharp 13-year-old patiently explained to me that if Harry’s parents weren’t dead, there would be no point in writing the book: it wouldn’t be interesting, no matter how many creative details there were.) The problem, for Harry Potter as for most orphans in children’s books, is not the absence of parents but the presence of step-parents. From infancy Harry has been raised by his horrid Uncle Vernon and Aunt Petunia Dursley, who hate him and dote on their own cruel and stupid son, Dudley Dursley; they starve Harry and, when he’s forced to spend summer holidays with them, they intercept his letters from his school friends, his only link with the world of people who care for him.
Harry’s dead parents, Lily and James, were not ordinary humans but a powerful witch and wizard. The Dursleys seldom speak about them, and when they do it’s always with contempt, but as Harry grows up he begins to learn about them and to learn that he, too, is a wizard, though he is not (generally) allowed to use his powers in the world of the Muggles, as the witches and wizards call unmagical humans. This aspect of the story is familiar from mythological literature. Alison Lurie, praising the Harry Potter books in the New York Review of Books, saw in them ‘the common childhood fantasy that the dreary adults and siblings you live with are not your real family, that you are somehow special and gifted’. Freud called this the Family Romance and argued for its utility in defining your apparent parents as people whom (unlike your real parents) you are allowed to desire or hate. This is the Oedipal configuration, best known from the eponymous case that Freud wrote about, but also from the myth of the birth of the hero explored by Freud’s disciple, Otto Rank. The child’s joyful expectation of coming someday into the greatness of his parents sustains him in the present situation of humiliation and impotence. The sign of Harry’s greatness is a scar on his forehead, where a lightning bolt hurled by the evil wizard Voldemort hit him when he was still a baby, and would have killed him but for his mother’s self-sacrificial intervention; the scar functions, like the mark of Cain, to set Harry apart. (The evil upper-form boy Malfoy calls him ‘Scarhead’.)
The Family Romance haunts the story of the ugly duckling, raised among scornful ducks until he discovers that he’s really a swan. It haunts real-life adoption, too, fuelling the obsessive search for biological parents, and part of it (the rags-to-riches, Cinderella part) shapes the real-life story of J.K. Rowling, who rose out of obscurity and deprivation to claim her literary sovereignty. Rowling has been praised for what Lurie and others regard as a particularly British talent for writing for children, but the story she tells is widespread in other cultures, too: the birth of Cyrus in Herodotus, of Krishna and Karna in the Hindu tradition, not to mention Superman in American comics.
Rowling brings new life to the old chestnut. At the end of the first book,Harry learns from the good wizard Dumbledore why Voldemort’s successor could not kill him: ‘Love as powerful as your mother’s leaves its own mark. Not a scar, no visible sign ... to have been loved so deeply, even though the person who loved us is gone, will give us some protection for ever.’ In the second book, Harry explains this protection to the revenant Voldemort: ‘You couldn’t kill me ... because my mother died to save me.’ In the third book, Harry is haunted by his mother’s dying screams, but now that he is older he moves on, in Lacanian fashion, to come to terms with his father. Thanks to a wonderfully complex and subtle episode of time travel that traces a Möbius twist in the chronological sequence, Harry encounters himself in the loop where past and present come together and overlap. The first time he lives through this period, he sees, across a lake, someone he vaguely recognises: perhaps his father? No, his father is dead, but that person sends a silver stag which saves him from present danger. When he goes back in time, he runs to the same place to see who it was, and there’s no one else there: he is the one who sends the stag to save himself in the future. (I hesitated to divulge the surprise of this ending, but the number of people under, say, 12 who read the LRB and have not read the Harry Potter books cannot be large.) The moment when Harry realises that he mistook himself for his father is quite powerful; and it is, after all, the only real kind of time travel there is: each of us becomes, in adulthood, someone who lived some thirty years before us, someone who must save our own life.
The Family Romance is just one part of Harry’s story; it is embedded in a familiar, very English setting, the boys’ boarding school: Harry is sent to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, where he has strange and dangerous adventures, makes friends, and is happy for the first time in his life. Hogwarts is a modern version of the classical boarding school, now co-ed but only superficially multiracial – and still classically francophobe (all the villains have French names). There are passing references to a girl named Parvati Patel and to one black boy; and no Jewish names. Class, rather than race or religion, is the central issue, and sometimes makes Hogwarts seem like a public school of the Thirties: Harry, who is poor in the Muggle world (his glasses are mended with tape), though he has secret deposits of gold in the magic world, is taunted by the rich, snobbish, cowardly, cruel Malfoy, who is backed by his powerful, manipulative father and talks a lot of proto-Nazi drivel about pure blood. But the true epoch of Hogwarts is medieval: it teaches things like Potions, Transfiguration and Defence against the Dark Arts (a hard post to keep filled).
Besides the Family Romance and the schooldays genre, Rowling weaves in a third inherited theme: what might be called the banality of magic. This is magic which is used not to slay dragons or turn men into swine but to slide up the banister (as Mary Poppins does) or to light fires instantly in damp weather (as the Hogwarts wizards do). Harry is told that people who read without permission a book called Sonnets of a Sorcerer are cursed to speak in limericks for the rest of their lives, and there’s a charm to demist your glasses in the rain (which proves to be of crucial use for Harry during a Quidditch match on a foul day). There’s also a clock that, instead of saying the hours and minutes, says: ‘You’re late,’ and ‘Time to make tea.’ Hogwarts is reached by a train that leaves from Platform 9¾ at King’s Cross, visible only to people who know where to look for it. The ceiling in the school dining hall is a constantly changing lifelike simulation of the sky, and the portraits are alive: they visit one another and talk to the people outside the frames. Though Games loom large, the game of Quidditch is played in the air on flying broomsticks. (For most American children, upper-form boys treating the lower forms as slaves will seem even weirder than people flying around on broomsticks.)
Life at Hogwarts is very different from the life Harry is condemned to live with the Dursleys, but not all that different from the Muggle world in general. The social situations are the same; the people are just the same; and the tasks are the same – go to classes, do homework, pass exams. All that’s different is the extended powers of people at Hogwarts, which are not unlike the powers imagined in futuristic novels. Hogwarts is in our world, but pieces of magic are studded in it here and there, almost at random. The line between the magic and non-magic worlds is further blurred when magic is used in the Muggle world. This happens more often than you might think (some Muggle-baiters amuse themselves by putting spells on Muggles’ keys so that they shrink to nothing and can’t be found), but a Forgetfulness potion is always used to wipe out all record of it.
Rowling handles quite well the inconsistency that follows from having magic forbidden in some situations and allowed in others; a Hogwarts nurse can mend broken bones overnight, but no one can fix a magic broomstick when it shatters on a tree. The line between the things that you can and cannot change (as in time travel) might seem arbitrary. Why not just use magic to get all the answers right in exams? Because it’s no fun that way; so the quill pens used in exams are bewitched with an Anti-Cheating spell. This is magic played according to Hoyle, with one hand – the narrative hand – tied behind its back.
The fact that the Harry Potter books are an amalgam of at least three familiar genres works for, not against, their spectacular success. (In December, the three books occupied the first three spots on the New York Times bestseller list, where they had been for 50, 25 and 11 weeks respectively.) Myths survive for centuries, in a succession of incarnations, both because they are available and because they are intrinsically charismatic. Rowling is a wizard herself at the magic art of bricolage: new stories crafted out of recycled pieces of old stories. As I began to read the books, my inner child, as they say, steeped in children’s classics, joined forces with my adult self, a comparative mythologist, and I found myself unable to resist playing the game of ‘Can You Spot the Source?’, a philologist’s variant on the old children’s game of ‘How Many Animals Can You Find Hiding in This Picture?’ (there was always a stag in the trees, whose branches were his antlers). I found the Family Romance of King Arthur, particularly as reincarnated in T.H. White’s Sword in the Stone, in the magic weapon that no one but Harry can wield, and in the gift of talking to animals, that White’s Merlin gives to Arthur (Harry just does snakes). Where Mary Poppins gave the children a medicine that tasted different for each of them (each one’s favourite taste), Rowling gives us Every Flavour Beans, always a surprise. The talking chess pieces from Through the Looking-Glass appear here as small pieces on a conventional board, but they talk back when you move them: ‘Don’t send me there, can’t you see his knight? Send him, we can afford to lose him.’ Snow White’s talking mirror appears, but Rowling transforms it both with humour (the mirror over the mantelpiece shouts at Harry, ‘Tuck your shirt in, scruffy!’ and whispers, ‘You’re fighting a losing battle there, dear,’ when he attempts to plaster down his cowlick) and with something deeper: there is a mirror that shows you your heart’s desire (Harry imagines his mother, ‘a very pretty woman ... her eyes are just like mine,’ and his father, whose hair ‘stuck up at the back, just as Harry’s did’). And where both Peter Pan and Mary Poppins taught children to fly or float by thinking happy thoughts, Rowling takes the concept into a more sinister area. Harry learns that the only way to defend himself against the Dementors, who will destroy him by assuming the form of what he most fears, is by mentally conjuring up a Patronus, ‘a projection of the very things that the Dementor feeds upon – hope, happiness, the desire to survive’; and he overpowers one Dementor by imagining life with a loving father-figure who has offered to adopt him. After a while, however, the collage began to transcend its piecemeal sources, and I stopped playing the philologist’s game. But children who do not read – and much of the dancing in the streets celebrating Rowling’s success comes from the fact that most of the Harry Potter crowd are allegedly converted hardcore television and video-game addicts – will here encounter the charisma of Lewis, Carroll, Barrie, Tolkien, Nesbitt and Travers, not to mention Dickens and Stevenson, all at once.
The old themes are continually fleshed out with touches of comic genius. There are child-pleasing scenes of mayhem, as when the pixies get loose in the Defence against the Dark Arts class, or the bookstore sells the Monster Book of Monsters, which has to be kept in a cage (‘Torn pages were flying everywhere as the books grappled with each other, locked together in furious wrestling matches and snapping aggressively’) – the bookseller weeps when someone insists on buying two. And when one boy’s wand gets bent, his curses rebound on him; on one noteworthy occasion, he vomits black slugs for several hours. There are also lovely moments of whimsy and satire. The final exam in the class on Transfiguration is to turn a teapot into a tortoise; afterwards the students compare notes (‘Were the tortoises supposed to breathe steam?’ ‘It still had a willow-patterned shell, d’you think that’ll count against me?’). And there is gallows humour: Professor Sprout grows a crop of anthropomorphic Mandrakes to chop up and use in a potion to revive certain petrified children; waiting for them to mature so that she can harvest them, she is heartened when they get spots and throw a loud and raucous party. ‘The moment they start trying to move into each others’ pots,’ she tells Harry, ‘we’ll know they’re fully mature.’
The fights adults have waged over the innocent body of these books are far more childish than the fights of the children inside the books. The books’ US editor, Arthur Levine, translated for the benefit of benighted Americans British words like ‘wonky’ (to ‘crooked’), ‘bobbles’ (to ‘puff balls’), ‘barking mad’ (to ‘complete lunatic’), and ‘bogey’ (to ‘booger’), while leaving in their pristine arcaneness ‘ickle’, ‘nutters’ and ‘humbugs’. He even translated the first title, from ‘philosopher’s stone’ to ‘sorcerer’s stone’, apparently on the assumption that Americans have never heard of alchemy and should be encouraged, instead, to think of Mickey Mouse in Fantasia. Some of his changes seem superfluous, some of them remain equally arcane, and some fall between two stools and are mired in mid-Atlantic translatorese: ‘cracking’ becomes ‘spanking good’, which has surely never escaped the barrier of any American teeth; and translating ‘Sellotape’ as ‘Scotchtape’ loses the pun on ‘Spellotape’ (used to mend broken wands). American children have protested, in places as sophisticated as the New Yorker’s ‘Talk of the Town’, against this insult to their intelligence.
A stupider fight has been waged by parents (some of whom identify themselves as ‘born-again Christians’ and are known to others as the Mullahs of the Midwest) who have outlawed the Harry Potter books in American schools; legal challenges have been filed in at least eight states, and some evangelical ministers have preached against the books’ satanic allegiance. Apparently, their astonishing popularity is taken as evidence of a Faustian bargain, the work of the devil. (How else can you get on the New York Times bestseller list?) In an ironic twist, some parents have cited the First Amendment and argued that witchcraft (i.e. the Potterian heresy) should not be taught in school because it is a religion; somehow this has failed to ignite the watchful passions of the American Civil Liberties Union. ‘I realised that it’s for my own sake that I’m not listening,’ one child whose parents forbade him to listen to Potter readings reported. ‘There’s a lot about witchcraft and evil and spells and magic. I was taught at church that that was not good.’ No doubt C.S. Lewis’s Narnia books slipped through because of their thinly veiled Christian message (Aslan as the Lamb of God), not to mention their anti-Muslim message (the worshippers of the evil Tash are dark-skinned men in turbans). On the other hand, when Lewis’s books were first published, covens of real witches were not as prominent as they are now; always popular, Narnia is enjoying a resurgence in Harry’s wake.
Events at Columbine High School last year may explain the reaction of some American parents who have opposed the Harry Potter books. The students who shot and killed their classmates said they were out to get the school bullies, and were themselves part of a widespread teen cult inspired to some degree by The Matrix (the students dressed like the film’s heroes). The Matrix invoked the ancient criteria of rule-breaking excellence – innovation, courage, creativity – but also of lawlessness and anarchy: the film imagines a world of computers that create an alternative reality through the kind of mind control that is also at the heart of Harry Potter’s magic. (The Matrix even exploits the banality of magic: the oracle is a woman just like your aunt, who bakes cookies and has magnets on her fridge.) The alternative reality of The Matrix is made possible by a new, computer magic (nouveau-Orientalist rather than vieux-Brit) which is both the medium of the film (its stunning special effects) and its message, the antinomian ethic of the new capitalism. This greedy, solipsistic ethic extends far beyond the film; television advertisements for some computer products boast of ‘breaking the rules, remaking the rules’. This is understandably scary stuff for the more repressive sort of parents (who may also be troubled by the popularity of the premise of their own dispensability in books such as these). It gives them nightmares that make them want to burn Harry Potter at the stake.
Harry Potter, too, has moments of computer magic: a more banal version of his magic map which shows people moving on its surface is available at most Hertz and Avis headquarters, not to mention in hightech alarm systems. But most of the magic is of another kind, dependent on education and mental training. Indeed, where the protests go wrong is in assuming that, since magic does not seem to obey the rules of either science or religion, it has no rules at all. This is certainly not the case. Harry Potter must abide, not only by the complex moral rules of magic, but even by the moral rules dictating when to use, and when not to use, magic. More important, the world of Harry Potter is deeply coloured by a Victorian code of public-school loyalty that offers a positive antidote to the ‘no holds barred’ capitalism of the computer world which some parents have wrongly conflated with the world of magic. In its original form, the code represented a kind of parity among the privileged, a noblesse oblige that gave a veneer of democracy to an imperialist and militarist class. This code, ‘Never let the side down’ and, above all, ‘Never snitch’, was seldom invoked in 20th-century America – except, perhaps, during the McCarthy trials. It was replaced by the sauve qui peut mentality best epitomised, for me, in a wonderful game called ‘So long, Sucker’, invented by four economists in 1964; the object of this game for four players is to get someone to go into partnership with you and then double-cross them.
Though these books have not (yet) been burnt, they have gone underground: a new plaincover edition has appeared in the UK, for grown-ups who don’t want to be seen reading a children’s book. (I was reminded of the old Mad Magazine edition printed to look like a black and white school notebook.) The ‘adult’ edition (an ironic twist on the contemporary meaning of ‘adult’, designating hard-core pornography) costs two pounds more but has already sold more than 20,000 copies. Clearly this is pretty hot stuff, subversive literature. ‘Some old witch in Bath had a book that you could never stop reading!’ one of Harry’s friends informs him. ‘You just had to wander around with your nose in it, trying to do everything one-handed.’ That old witch must have been called Rowling.