TLG 13.3 Introduction

Frame of Reference


David Beagley

There is no doubting the Harry Potter phenomenon.  Whatever your opinion of the story, in a mere decade it has become a truism to say that Harry looms large and unrivalled in the world of literature.  Since 1997, the seven books in the series have sold hundreds of millions of copies world-wide and been translated into scores of languages.  The movie versions are nearing the later stages of the story and have also grossed staggering amounts of money.  Author Joanne Rowlings is richer than the Queen of England.

All around the world, child readers – enthusiasts, reluctant, occasional, all sorts - are happy to lug around huge volumes as a matter of pride.  The launch of each of the later titles was accompanied by the type of hype and hysteria normally only associated with pop-stars and sporting events.  Platform 9 ¾ at Kings Cross Station is a tourist attraction with a luggage trolley halfway through its wall.  Names like Snape, Voldemort, Dumbledore and Hogwarts are immediately recognizable and are now used as allusion in contexts well outside the story (“with Snape-like ambiguity”).  The fact that I can refer to “Harry Potter” as a general name, and not specifically as a character or a book title or a movie, shows how completely he is established as a social institution.

But what of the world of “serious” literature, of analysis and critical consideration?  Well, a quick search of Google Books under “Harry Potter” and “literary criticism” brings up at least 136 separate titles, not bad for a just a decade of public notice – about 20 critical texts per title in the series.  Searches in academic journal indexes build a similarly sized list of analytical, peer-reviewed articles.  The Lion and the Unicorn, alone, has published over 30.

Yet Harry is not without his critics.  The books have been pilloried for promoting witchcraft and Satanism, for representing gender roles in outdated masculinist terms, for both hiding and displaying both hetero- and homo-sexual agendas, for derivative style (Famous Five at Malory Towers go up the Faraway Tree!), for being too heavy (death and sacrifice), too light (Quidditch and Bertie Bott), and for finishing the story with Messianic redemption.

If nothing else, Harry Potter has reminded the world that a child’s reading of a story, simply going through a book for the fun of being entertained by a tale, is still an immensely powerful and influential social activity.

This issue of The Looking Glass is a Harry Potter special.  The range of critical perspectives from which this character, his story and his author can be considered is highlighted once again in our key articles: political, philosophical, sociological and historical points of view are all on offer.

In Alice’s Academy, Amy Green considers the disempowerment and marginalisation of those magical species outside the norms of Wizarding society in her “Revealing Discrimination: Social Hierarchy and the Exclusion/Enslavement of the Other in the Harry Potter Novels”.  House elves, werewolves, centaurs, hippogriffs, even half-giants like Hagrid, she notes, all serve the purposes of the Wizarding world but they are only allowed as far as the fringes.  The tensions between this identity and exclusion, purpose and rejection, are explored in ideological as well as narrative terms.

Nichole LeFebvre, in Emerging Voices, uses existentialism as a lens to view awareness of self and mortality, particularly by Harry and Voldemort.  In “The Sorcerer’s Stone, Mirror of Erised, and Horcruxes: Choice, Individuality, and Authenticity in Harry Potter” she considers the choices that these characters make around material possession, personal future and ultimate success.  With the whole story cycle framed by death – it opens Philosopher’s Stone and climaxes Deathly Hallows - cheating death defines and ties together both Harry and Tom Riddle.

Both of the articles in Jabberwocky presents challenging interpretations of JK Rowling’s authorship.  Janet Iafrate in “Expelliarmus!: Retaliation and peaceable outcomes in the Harry Potter series” asks us to examine the treatment of ‘unlovable’ characters, especially the dealing out of justice and punishment.  Compassion towards ‘nice guys’ like Hagrid, Lupin and Sirius is easy, she says, but how are we positioned to judge the desserts of Snape, Umbridge, Kreacher and Peter Pettigrew?  With each of them a victim in their own way, is there a consistent value system in place to be championed by Harry?

James Washick takes us back to Charles Dickens in his “Oliver Twisted: the origins of Lord Voldemort in the Dickensian orphan.”  While the superficialities of names and scenery of Rowling’s Wizarding world have obvious links to Dickensian stories, the characters and their stories bear closer examination in this context.  Tragic births, lost families, orphanages and workhouses create identities and personalities as well as simple atmospherics.

Two reviews round out our examination of Harry’s world.  Rachel Falconer’s The Crossover Novel: contemporary children’s fiction and its adult readership looks at the success of titles like Harry Potter with audiences beyond those for whom they were aimed, while Jenny Holt’s Public School Literature, Civic Education and the Politics of Male Adolescence discusses the construction of the adolescent hero through the boarding school stories of the 19th and early 20th century.

All the child readers would love to go to Hogwarts (it would seem), all the publishers would love a Harry Potter on their list, all the teachers and librarians and parent are glad that reading is so enthusiastic – Harry has had his effect everywhere, and shows no sign of letting up.


David Beagley

P.S. Why not also have a look at earlier Looking Glass articles on Harry:

Jes Battis - Transgendered Magic: The Radical Performance of the Young Wizard in YA Literature (Vol 10, iss. 1)

Allyson J. Casares - The Effect of Book Banning on Child Culture: A Close Look at the Harry Potter Series (Vol 8, iss. 3)

Annette Wannamaker - Men in Cloaks and High-heeled Boots, Men Wielding Pink Umbrellas: Witchy Masculinities in the Harry Potter novels (Vol 10, iss. 1)

Lana Whited - 1492, 1942, 1992: The Theme of Race in the Harry Potter Series (Vol 10, iss. 1)

Volume 13, Issue 3, The Looking Glass, September/October, 2009

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"Frame of Reference - Introduction"
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The Looking Glass: new perspectives on children's literature

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