The Looking Glass : New Perspectives on Children's Literature, Vol 4, No 2 (2000)

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Alice's Academy

Elizabeth Pandolfo-Briggs, editor


The Real Magic of Harry Potter

Sarah Kate Stephenson


Sarah Kate Stephenson is a doctoral candidate in English at the University of Virginia, where she teaches composition and introductory literature courses and is the Director of the Writing Center. She is currently working on a dissertation entitled "The Disquieting Muse: Childhood and the Poetry of Sylvia Plath." She focuses on 20th century poetry and novels, with particular interests in children's literature and composition. Her most recent conference presentations include "Recovering Childhood: Sylvia Plath and the Language of Childhood" given at the University of Navarre, Pamplona, Spain (March 2000) and "Unsung Career: Sylvia Plath and Children's Literature" given at the American Literature Association in Long Beach, California (May 2000).


There's a new trial in the Triwizard Tournament! Contestants simply have to explain why Harry Potter is so popular! The answer is simultaneously obvious, multiple, and slippery. Sarah Kate Stephenson gives us an interesting outlook on this enthralling conundrum, focusing on the positive atmosphere of the books, the defining qualities of Harry, Ron, and Hermione, the importance of friendship, and how the books really are written for children.
Elizabeth Pandolfo-Briggs, editor
- Alice's Academy

 

Winner of the prestigious Children's Book Award two years running and number one on both the New York Times and USA Today bestseller lists for over thirty weeks, J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series has cast a spell on child and adult readers alike.1 The books ingeniously blend an imaginative fantasy world with real-life experience. Each book chronicles one year in the life of Harry, an orphan who escapes his evil relatives, the Dursleys, to attend Hogwarts School for Witchcraft and Wizardry. For readers bombarded daily by news reports about school violence and plummeting test scores, Harry Potter restores both the educational environment and the learning process itself with a sense of empowerment, intellectual curiosity, morality, and excitement.

Rowling's books appeal to readers precisely because Hogwarts School for Witchcraft and Wizardry is not a haven, secure from violence and cruelty, but is, instead, a place where children learn not only how to live in a world that contains evil, but also how to fight against it. The recent rash of school and church shootings in America make the books' candidness particularly relevant. There are no longer any guarantees of safety, but these books show Harry living with that knowledge and learning to fight whatever challenges come his way. The most frightening menace in the series is Voldemort, the Dark Wizard who murdered Harry's parents and threatens to regain his daunting power at any moment. The Dursleys' cruelty to Harry, whose oddness and magical powers alternately enrage and frighten them, represents evil in the Muggle (non-magical) world. That evil infects both the fantasy and Muggle realms, creating not only some suspenseful plot twists, but also an honest portrayal of real life in which evil and violence enter even the safest places we know—home and school.

Rowling's books show that young people do not have to rely solely on adults for protection, but can feel empowered by their own gifts and talents. After all, Harry and his two best friends, Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger, were not born knowing magic; indeed, they are only just beginning to learn spells and antidotes. While the main characters might think they win their battles by using magic, readers soon realize that these young wizards combine qualities that are only metaphorically magical to defeat their foes.2 Harry, Ron, and Hermione each bring something unique and indispensable to the group. They show that working together is the only way to overcome evil. Rowling's books show that while wizardry might be useful and fun, it is friendship and character that are truly magical.

Ron's loyalty and knowledge of the wizard world prove just as important as any magic spell. Ron remains fiercely loyal to Harry, for whom he often risks punishment and danger, and he refuses to let Harry face Draco Malfoy alone when the bully challenges him to a duel during their first weeks at Hogwarts. In dangerous situations, Ron encourages Harry and even sacrifices himself for the common good. When Ron gets trapped under a collapsed ceiling in The Chamber of Secrets,3 he bravely urges Harry on: "'I'll try and shift some of this rock', said Ron, who seemed to be trying to keep his voice steady. 'So you can—can get back through'" (Chamber 304). Similarly, on their quest for the Sorcerer's Stone, Ron shows his loyalty to his friends by sacrificing himself in a chess game, which they have to win to save the Stone: "'That's chess!' snaps Ron. 'You've got to make some sacrifices! I take one step forward and
she'll take me--that leaves you free to checkmate the king, Harry!'" (Stone 283). In addition, Ron always defends Hermione when other students ridicule her. Indeed, Rowling suggests in Goblet that there may be more to their relationship than friendship in books to come.

But as the series progresses, readers witness Ron struggling to overcome his jealousy of Harry, who is rich, famous, and a Quidditch star. Although Harry doesn't understand Ron's behaviour at first, Hermione realizes that as the youngest boy in a large, relatively poor family and the best friend of a veritable celebrity, Ron feels hopelessly overshadowed. Rowling's frank portrayal of their friendship reminds readers how difficult it can be to remain loyal. After Goblet, readers appreciate Ron's loyalty more than ever as we better understand his complicated emotions.

Ron also helps Harry and Hermione understand daily life in the wizarding world. The only one of the three to have grown up in a wizard household, Ron introduces his friends to magical products and teaches them about wizard traditions. For example, from Ron, Harry learns about owls, chocolate frogs, moving pictures, Quidditch teams, Bertie Bott's Every Flavor Beans, giants, Apparating, and the never-to-be-spoken-aloud name of Voldemort. Ron's description of a wizard duel exemplifies his helpfulness:

"Well, a second's there to take over if you die," said Ron casually… "But people only die in proper duels, you know, with real wizards. The most you and Malfoy'll be able to do is send sparks at each other. Neither of you knows enough magic to do any real damage." (Stone 154)

Ron's advice guides both Harry and the reader through the unfamiliar world of wizardry. A genuinely loyal and compassionate friend, Ron is one of the few students, along with the other Weasley boys and Malfoy, to treat him as a normal person rather than a celebrity to be pandered to and gawked at.

Hermione, a natural bookworm and serious student, shows young readers that studying hard, researching diligently, and being compassionate can precipitate adventures and solve mysteries. Although she can be annoying and high-strung, Hermione's hard work and good memory save her friends more than once. In Chamber, Hermione insists that they all spend their lunch hour doing research in the library. Through her efforts they discover Polyjuice Potion, which allows them to transform into Malfoy's friends. This trick helps them unravel the mystery in Chamber. But it is not just that Hermione is intelligent and hard-working that makes her character special and important to these novels. Hermione's compassion helps readers understand Ron's jealousy, and her social conscience and Muggle background encourage young readers to consider difficult issues like slavery and ethnic prejudice. She shows that compassion, coupled with intelligence and curiosity, can be used in practical ways to solve mysteries and protect her friends. Without Hermione, Ron and Harry might never have even learned about the history of the Chamber of Secrets, let alone how to solve its mystery. Like Ron and Harry, many young readers doubtlessly deem homework a chore; Hermione inspires them to consider it a useful, even fun, exercise.

While Harry, more than Ron and Hermione, seems to possess an innate talent or gift for wizardry, it is his big heart and abundance of courage that make him heroic. Like any other talent, magic must be learned and practised (an appealing trait for young readers). This suggests that Harry's early victories over Voldemort in these first books must be based on something other than magical skill. Harry displays courage in many ways: he willingly stands up for Neville, their clumsy, not-too-bright classmate; he demonstrates bravery on the Quidditch field; and he faces the dreaded Voldemort in battle. Harry's compassion and moral goodness surface most poignantly in Azkaban when he has the opportunity to kill Sirius Black, whom he believes has murdered his parents. Instead, Harry chooses to restrain Black and wait for the headmaster to arrive. His restraint and goodness are rewarded when Black is proven innocent. Harry again shows good sportsmanship and compassion throughout Goblet as he jeopardizes his own chance to win the Triwizard Tournament by sharing tips with his rival Cedric, returning Cedric's body to his parents, and rescuing another rival's sister. Harry illustrates here and elsewhere that it is not his wizarding skills that make him heroic, but his character. Dumbledore, the wise and noble headmaster, confirms this when he tells Harry: "It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities" (Chamber 333).

Rowling's books locate this group of friends in a carefully constructed world that blends fantasy with reality by rendering commonplace routines magical. Although Rowling follows in the fantasy tradition of writers like C.S. Lewis, who creates an alternate, magical world for his characters, the Potter series paradoxically locates that fantasy world in an environment children know well—school. Indeed, the series skilfully blends high fantasy with the traditional British school story.4 Perhaps the wide appeal of these books lies in this ingenious structure that suggests a surprising closeness between fantasy and reality.

Rowling's beautifully imagined setting comes to life through details. Harry's first glimpse of Hogwarts captures this sense of wonder: "The narrow path opened suddenly onto the edge of a great black lake. Perched atop a high mountain on either side, its windows sparkling in the starry sky, was a vast castle with turrets and towers" (Stone 111). Many lesser writers would stop here, allowing us to relish the idea of attending school in a castle graced by secret passageways and ancient ghosts. But Rowling's writing thrives on abundant and innovative detail; living in a castle isn't enough. There must be an interesting way to arrive:

"Heads down!" yelled Hagrid as the first boats reached the cliff; they all bent their heads and the little boats carried them through a curtain of ivy that hid a wide opening in the cliff face. They were carried along a dark tunnel, which seemed to be taking them right underneath the castle, until they reached a kind of underground harbor, where they clambered out onto the rocks and pebbles. (Stone 112)

Like Harry, the reader is continually surprised by yet another unusual mode of entry.

Once inside Hogwarts, the surprises continue as the students must constantly exercise their memories and problem-solving skills to negotiate their way through the castle. Even finding his way to classes is a challenge for Harry:

There were a hundred and forty-two staircases at Hogwarts: wide, sweeping ones; narrow, rickety ones; some that led somewhere different on a Friday; some with a vanishing step halfway up that you had to remember to jump. Then there were doors that wouldn't open unless you asked politely, or tickled them in exactly the right place, and doors that weren't really doors at all, but solid walls just pretending. It was also very hard to remember where anything was, because it all seemed to move around a lot. The people in the portraits kept going to visit each other, and Harry was sure the coats of armor could walk. (Stone 131-2)

Rowling ingeniously turns a common fear—starting a new school and finding the right classrooms—into an imaginative adventure. While Harry admits to being anxious here, he seems to enjoy the challenge. As children read about Harry mastering these tricks on his way to class, perhaps their own obstacles at school seem a little less scary.

But once Harry finds the classroom, the adventures really begin. To enter Divination class, the students have to climb through a circular trap door. (Azkaban 101) Their History of Magic professor happens to be an old ghost, and the Charms teacher, who is so tiny that he has to stand on a pile of books just to see over his desk, periodically topples backwards in mid-sentence. (Stone 133) But just like other children, Hogwarts students study hard for exams and are expected to do their homework. True, their essays are written on scrolls and assigned not by word count or number of pages, but by length—three feet seems to constitute a standard essay. The students study in the library, where there is a restricted section containing books on dark magic and other subjects inappropriate for young wizards. Rowling creates a school environment filled with challenging puzzles and unsolved secrets. Students in these classes rarely complain of boredom (except in The History of Magic) because learning is always full of surprises and excitement.

Harry's adventures inside the classroom prepare him for the real drama, suggesting to young readers that knowledge learned during lessons does have practical applications. In Defense Against the Dark Arts, for example, Harry learns from Professor Lupin how to defeat the soul-destroying Dementors, a skill that saves his life (and the Gryffindor Cup) in a game of Quidditch. Similarly, Hermione uses what she learns in Herbology and Potions to create the Polyjuice Potion used against Malfoy. Hogwarts may not be able to promise its students protection from violence and evil, but the school does teach its young wizards how to live with the threat of danger and, most importantly, how to use knowledge learned in the classroom to protect themselves. Thus, Rowling's books infuse both the school environment and the learning process itself with a sense of usefulness, excitement, and morality.

Rowling's brilliant series revitalizes learning in an even more immediate and tangible way because these books encourage children to read.5 Like the professors in her books, Rowling refuses to patronize children or to dumb down material. Her stories challenge children to expand their vocabularies and to realize, probably with the help of a parent (or Internet site6), that many of the names and words in the book have interesting histories themselves. For example, Albus Dumbledore is an Old English word for bumblebee; Voldemort, an anagram for Lord Morte, makes a pun on the Latin word for death; Hedwig's namesake is a medieval saint; and Sirius Black is named for the brightest star in the sky, found in the constellation Canis Major, meaning black dog (the pun becomes clear when he turns into a black dog in Goblet). Rowling creates many other witty names that provide clues about and insight into her characters.7

Rowling also insists that readers follow complex plots, consider the importance of history, and understand Harry's moral decisions. Children read her books not only for plot lines, but also for the sheer joy and pleasure that carefully chosen language brings. Steeped in imaginative and humorous detail, the Potter series encourages children to develop and practise skills like close reading and astute observation that will make them better, more intelligent readers. Perhaps Rowling's greatest achievement is her ability to write books which inspire millions of children to read with excitement and curiosity—perhaps for the first time in their lives.

 

Notes

1 See Crowell, Dell'Angela.

2In the process of writing this article, a debate erupted among parents and school administrators over whether or not Rowling's books encourage witchcraft at the expense of Christian morality. As this section of my argument suggests, Harry and his friends are heroic not for their magical abilities, but for their moral character. In many ways, these books seem to me deeply Christian, if one is willing to take the wizardry and witchcraft for what it is—imaginative and fun. While I fully agree with Paul McMasters that this debate suggests "we've lost touch with common sense," there are several recent articles which comment on both sides of the argument. See Glover, McMasters, Gounaud, and Kjos, among others.

3Rowling's texts will be abbreviated in the following forms in the rest of the paper: Harry Potter and The Sorcerer's Stone (Stone); Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (Chamber); Harry Potter and The Prisoner of Azkaban (Azkaban); Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (Goblet).

4Harold Bloom places the book firmly in the tradition of Tom Brown's School Days. Joan Acocella argues Rowling's series draws on a hodgepodge of traditions, including the fairy tale, fantasy, detective fiction, Milton's Paradise Lost, Victorian novels, and horror.

5Rowling's books have been particularly helpful in enticing young boys to read, which, according to teachers and parents, is often a very difficult audience to interest. See "The Magic of Harry Potter."

6 Web sites include Harry Potter Home Page and the Harry Potter Alliance.

7See "The Author J.K. Rowling: Interview" for more examples.

 

Works Cited

Acocella, Joan. "Under The Spell: Harry Potter Explained." The New Yorker 31 July 2000: 74-78.

Bloom, Harold. "Can 35 Million Book Buyers Be Wrong? Yes." Wall Street Journal 11 July 2000: A26.

Crowell, Alan. "Investors and Children Alike Give Rave Reviews to Harry Potter Books." New York Times 18 October 1999, 11 November 1999.

Dell'Angela, Tracy. "Kids Wild About Visit by Harry Author." Chicago Tribune 21 October 1999, 10 November 1999.

Glover, Daniel K. "Harry Potter Books All the Rage." Policy.com 15 November 1999, 16 November 1999.

Gounaud, Karen Jo. "Book Report: Should 'Harry Potter' Go to Public School?" Family Freindly Libraries 13 October 1999, 17 November 1999.

"Harry's American Adventure." BBC Online Network 15 September 1999, 10 November 1999.

Harry Potter Home Page. Scholastic Publishing. 15 November 1999.

"Hogwarts Halloween Hall of Fame."The Harry Potter Alliance. 28 October 1999.

Jones, Malcolm. "Why Harry's Hot." Newsweek 17 July 2000: 52-56.

Kjos, Berit. "Bewitched by Harry Potter." Kjos Ministries 1 September 1999, 16 November 1999.

McMasters, Paul. "Fear and Trembling over Pokemon and Watch Fobs." Freedom Forum 29 October 1999, 15 November 1999.

Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. New York: Scholastic Press, 1997.

---. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. New York: Scholastic Press, 1998.

---. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. New York: Scholastic Press, 1999.

---. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. New York: Scholastic Press: 2000.

Seligman, Katherine. "Harry Potter and the Celebrity Writer."San Francisco Examiner Thursday, October 28 1999, 15 November 1999.

"The Author J.K.Rowling: Interview." Stories from the Web Homepage. Library and Information Commission,10 November 1999.

"The Children's Book Awards." The Paul Hamlyn Foundation, 1 November 1999.

"The Magic of Harry Potter." BBC Online Network 2 July 1999, 10 November 1999.

 

 

Sarah Kate Stephenson


Volume 4, Issue 2, The Looking Glass, December 2000

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"The Real Magic of Harry Potter" © Sarah Kate Stephenson, 2000.

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The Looking Glass: new perspectives on children's literature

ISBN 1551-5680