Wednesday, June 25, 2008
Harry Potter and You-Know-Why It Works
The Harry Potter books may have started off as a set of 'different' school stories for young readers, but the final work in the series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows , is nothing less than a full-pitched effort to sell England, Old and New.
The use of elements of Western mythology and folklore (including Classical, Celtic and English elements) ensured the early success of these books. They are the 'Amar Chitra Katha' of the English speaking world. The names Minerva, Pomona, Sirius, Bellatrix, Severus, Lucius and Draco are all Greek and Roman; Arthur, Percy and Ginevra are from Arthurian legend, and Hagrid, Hogwarts, and Hogsmeade have Gaelic/Celtic resonances. It is fascinating, it's entertaining, and educational.
How many young children read novels today? And yet they read these, or they have them read out to them. Myth and magic in their pure forms rule over any other form of fiction any day. Add to this the episodic format - with Harry and his friends growing up with their readers, one book every eighteen months, and you know why it all succeded. We're a civilization that loves to wait for the next episode, while we wonder what's going to happen. The number of websites devoted to guessing what would happen in the last book was mind-boggling.
The fantasies on sale are admirable : An orphaned, neglected, unloved and unremarkable boy discovers that he is a hero of sorts in a parallel, hidden world of which he first hears when he is eleven. He's a wizard; he can perform magic, but only after he's been to the school which teaches magic. He is invited to join Hogwarts, a residential school where he doesn't have to pay fees ( a sure-sell fantasy for parents), where every meal is a feast, and where he gets to sleep in a four poster bed with silken hangings. And he's inherited an enormous fortune from his parents.
He is the saviour for whom the 'other world' is waiting, because he is the only known survivor of the killing curse, which rebounded off him and neutralised its perpetrator, the evil Dark Wizard Voldemort. Once in school, he discovers that he has extraordinary skills, including sporting skills. School matches, house points and championships; night-wanderings, misadventures and punishments share the reader's attention with the hero's quest to destroy the returned Voldemort, who still wants to rule the world, but now wants to kill Harry first. The series could have coasted along these lines, but there was scope for much more, which someone was quick to realise.
After the weighty and messy Book Five, it appears that the author and her editors got down to giving a coherent shape - and a slightly different direction - to the last two books. Already the elements of the saviour and the chosen heir are in place. The last book, as many commentators have noted, has an increased number of elements of the Arthurian legend and the Grail Quest.(Remember the success of The Da Vinci Code ?) Only, this Quest is for something unholy, all the enchanted objects which enclose bits of Voldemort's soul and which must be destroyed. It is like the Dark Ages; the castle is without its king, the social order has been subverted, and fear and suspicion prevail everywhere. The school story is dropped abruptly. Harry, Ron and Hermione drop out, and are on the run through the English countryside, hiding in forests like Robin Hood and his band of men. Snape, the teacher who is Harry's tormentor and appears to be on the wrong side but is a double agent, morphs into a chivalrous lover: a Sir Galahad. He'd loved Harry's mother all his life, and he chose to suffer silently all along, maligned by both sides, to protect her son, eventually sacrificing his life. The transformation of Snape is a master-stroke.
All the elements of the Middle Ages are used to create an allegory with today's world. Voldemort is on an ethnic cleansing spree, ridding the magical world of all but Purebloods. He rules by fear, and he rules absolutely. Feudalism, hierarchies, servitude, and social discrimination are the evils which the young adventurers of the book seek to destroy. The world clamours for Harry, ' The Chosen One', Albus Dumbledore's anointed successor, but he chooses to relinquish the sceptre.
This formula has worked marvellously in an age of 'Us' and a nameless 'Them', whom it would be quite politically incorrect to name, and in an age that can't get enough of Prince William and Page Three Royalty. The Lost Heir motif is cleverly introduced in the last book, and Harry turns out to be the last in the line of the Peverells, the most blue-blooded of magical families! Potter's world becomes a metaphor for an idealised, multi-racial, tolerant and enlightened England, with an Heir-in-Waiting who chooses to abdicate! And the final flourish - J.K. Rowling puts a black man in the hot seat by making Kingsley Shacklebolt the Minister for Magic.
While Enid Blyton and the writers of her age appear hopelessly racist and xenophobic today, Rowling and team have spared no effort to produce something that is politically correct, and guaranteed to please everyone the world over. And in case they'd trodden on any toes - they seem to have done a quick review after the book was actually released - J.K.Rowling beamingly announced that Dumbledore was gay. It was like saying, 'See? We made sure no one's left out.'