Harvard Educational Review
  1. Spring 2001 Issue »

    Editor's Review of JK Rowling's Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

    Leslie Nye
    I finally accepted the fact that Harry Potter was truly an unusual phenomenon when I arrived at my 82-year-old grandmother's house in Nashville, Tennessee, the day before the release of The Goblet of Fire. She greeted me, as usual, with her special blend of enthusiasm and grace, led me by the hand into her tidy little apartment, and then pointed to a Visa card on the kitchen table. "Tomorrow, you will pick up the copies I ordered," she intoned. "I need to know." That sealed it for me: J. K. Rowling has created something that is not merely a typical children's book series. But what makes it so special?

    The hue and cry about Harry Potter since the release of The Goblet has been overwhelming, and the debates are raging far and wide. Everyone seems to have an opinion: literary critics, educators, parents, journalists, 10-year-old Boy Scouts, historians, Wiccans, fundamentalist Christians, politicians, rabbis, graduate students, and especially grandmothers. Proffered concerns and opinions span quite a spectrum and address fundamental social issues: the power and purpose of the media; the demise of the written word in the Internet age; the interminable struggle over what and who is taught in schools; the decisive definition of "literature"; and the criteria used to determine admittance into the literary canon. Even Rowling's detractors should admit that the Harry Potter series has sparked new conversations about a host of critical topics and has reinvigorated a genre.

    However, public conversations and arguments about Harry, his influence, his character, his author, and his world have also tended to be oddly ahistorical. Many of his most virulent critics behave as though this is the first time a popular children's author has written about the supernatural, or a secondary fantasy world paralleling this one, or the nature and manifestations of evil. And they are both upset and threatened by these themes. According to one newspaper report:

    Parents in more than 13 states have demanded that librarians and school officials keep Harry out of their kids' hands. John Miesburg, a parent in Jacksonville, Fla., claims that the Harry Potter books "glorify witchcraft." Miesburg objected when his local library held Harry Potter parties and awarded pretend Hogwarts certificates to Harry Potter readers. "It's a travesty that the city of Jacksonville and our library would be promoting the evil of witchcraft to our children," said Miesburg. "There are no words strong enough to say how surprised I am," said the author (Rowling), who plans to write more books about Harry. "Magic will be a theme in children's literature as long as the human race exists."

    Why do so many of Harry's detractors focus on the apparently unusual aspects of magic in Rowling's work? One is tempted to suggest that this is because the majority of the voices rising above the clamor are those of folks who are not members of the typical reading public. One of the most extraordinary accomplishments of Rowling and her publishers is the ambush of numerous unsuspecting members of a complacent TV/computer generation - and their parents. Kids who have never voluntarily picked up a book in their lives - and are proud to say so on national television - are flocking to local bookstores in droves, egged on by peer pressure and natural curiosity. The complaints usually directed at more mainstream media are suddenly being rerouted to literature in a dramatic way.

    Harry Potter, as many of us now know, is a young boy who was raised along with his hateful cousin, Dudley, by his unsympathetic aunt and uncle (the Dursleys), after his parents' death in what he is told was an automobile accident. He awakens on his eleventh birthday to discover that, rather then being a perfectly normal orphan, he is in fact a wizard, and not just any old wizard either. Ten years before, his parents were murdered by the most evil and powerful wizard of modern times, and he - baby though he was - apparently caused this character's (Lord Voldemort, or You-Know-Who's) downfall, though not his demise. Harry is thus greatly revered in the wizarding world - an alternative universe with its own rules and laws, a Ministry of Magic to oversee them, shopping centers, athletic stadiums, and train stations - which exists alongside the regular mortals' (Muggles's) world, unbeknownst to, and unsuspected by, them.

    Freed from the stifling and uncaring authority of his relatives, Harry embarks upon a series of adventures at his new boarding school, Hogwarts, where the curriculum includes such courses as Defense Against the Dark Arts and Care of Magical Creatures; Quidditch (a game played on broomsticks, involving goal posts, hoops, and several different flying balls) is the sport of choice rather than football (either American or European); and trolls and ghosts prowl the hallways, wreaking havoc on students' nerves as well as the furniture. There, between classes, school dances, and surreptitious forays into the Forbidden Forest (which harbors such creatures as giant spiders, self-propelling automobiles, and centaurs), Harry consistently finds himself encountering, and then doing magical battle with, the minions of Lord Voldemort. The latest chapter of the saga finds him face-to-face with the Dark Lord himself, and Harry barely escapes with his life.

    As Rowling herself admits, however, the character type that Harry Potter represents is not new, nor is his an entirely novel world. His story is not unusual, nor are his concerns and crises (both the natural and the supernatural) particularly original. As one reviewer writes, "They share so many elements with so many children's classics that sometimes it seems as though Rowling had assembled her novels from a kit." Even the method of his publication is not unprecedented; serials and sequels were a favorite Victorian treat and continue to be employed regularly. While certain aspects of his universe are unique, Harry Potter is really only the latest protagonist in a long and honorable line of fantasy children, and the youngest general in the age-long battle against the forces of evil. The rest of this review will attempt to put Harry Potter and his magical world into historical perspective and to compare and contrast J. K. Rowling's work with some of the admitted classics of children's fantasy literature.

    It was not until the nineteenth century that children even became a target audience for authors; until then, children simply relied upon those adult tales and stories that engaged their imaginations. Naturally, their preferred chronicles generally included some element of fantasy, which should come as no surprise to people who either know - or have ever been - children. Thus, in the Middle Ages, as the oral tradition began to give way to the printed word, children were beguiled with Aesop and his fables, stories of King Arthur and his knights, Robin Hood, and Beowulf, as well as tales from the Bible. Puritans like John Bunyan deliberately included elements of fantasy in their religious tracts in order to appeal to children; The Pilgrim's Progress (1671), intended as a Christian allegory, included monsters, dragons, giants, and other imaginary creatures. Witches, faeries, and alternative worlds continued to appear in the adult realm, and consequently to appeal to children, during the eighteenth and early nineteenth century; for example, in the works of Herbert Spenser, William Shakespeare, and Jonathan Swift. Swift's Gulliver's Travels, for example, although written as a political satire, is thus described by Charlotte Bronte's child Jane Eyre:

    This book I had again and again perused with delight. I considered it a narrative of facts, and discovered in it a vein of interest deeper than what I found in fairy tales: for as to the elves, having sought them in vain among foxglove leaves and bells, under mushrooms and beneath the ground-ivy mantling old wall-nooks, I had at length made up my mind that they were gone out of England to some savage country . . . whereas Liliput and Brobdingnag being, in my creed, solid parts of the earth's surface, I doubted not that I might one day, by taking a long voyage, see with my own eyes the little fields, houses and trees, the diminutive people, the tiny cows, sheep, and birds of the one realm, and the corn-fields forest-high, the mighty mastiffs, the monster cats, the tower-like men and women, of the other.

    By the mid-nineteenth century, children finally became the primary focus of attention for certain authors, and children no longer had to "make do." One has only to glance at the works of many of the great nineteenth-century writers, most notably Charles Dickens with his A Christmas Carol and other fantasy-based stories, to recognize their attraction to the land of the faeries and their interest in engaging children's imaginations. This is the period of the Brothers Grimm, John Ruskin, Charles Kingsley, George MacDonald, and Lewis Carroll, whose Alice in Wonderland has been called the archetype of modern children's fantasy. These authors embraced dwarves and giants, conversed with mice, cats, and lizards, danced with animated chess pieces and playing cards, and explored underwater worlds and parallel "Looking Glass" universes. Moreover, they included real children in their stories who interacted with the bizarre characters and actively participated in the unfolding of the tales. They demonstrated a certain amount of knowledge about - and respect for - children's intelligence and interests, while they also portrayed a moral and rule-bound universe with clear designations of "wrong" and "right" and often deep insights into societal and political issues.

    Fantasy in children's fiction blossomed at the turn of the twentieth century - particularly in regard to the creation of "secondary" magical worlds. Edith Nesbit plagued her child protagonists with odd creatures such as the petulant Psammead (pronounced SammyAd), the vain Phoenix, and a flying carpet, which whisked the explorers out of their staid drawing room and into magical domains. Mary Poppins took up residence at the Banks's abode, from which she led her child charges on a series of other-world escapades. Sir James Barrie produced Never-Never Land, through which Peter Pan swooped, fought, and crowed his way into the hearts and minds of several generations of children. At the same time, children in the United States joyfully romped through the fields and mountains of L. Frank Baum's fabulous Oz, enjoying the first truly complete and self-contained "Secondary World" in children's fantasy literature. Rather than being the dreamy result of an overactive imagination, as Never-Never Land and Wonderland had been, Oz was a real world, a physical place, with its own topography, politicians, and laws (although those reared solely on the Judy Garland film, and not the Baum books, may not realize this).

    In these and other early twentieth-century tales, children from this reality were swept or summoned into an alternative land, a "secondary world," where they had great adventures battling and overcoming forces of evil, with the aid of friendly locals. However, the magic ended when they returned to their own worlds - cornfields, nurseries, or damp music rooms - where the return to normalcy was generally embraced, though the lost excitement was sometimes mourned.

    Like many of his predecessors, Harry Potter straddles a "secondary" world of magic - embodied by Hogwarts school, Diagon Alley, and Platform Nine and Three-Quarters - and the normal Muggle one, which includes Dudley, the Dursleys, and yellow taxicabs. And as with many secondary world fantasies, the two worlds are rather distinct; their inhabitants and cultures are kept carefully separate. Nevertheless, there is an especially warm familiarity about Harry's secondary world, where the political and social organizations almost precisely mirror those of the primary one, and whose characters and fates are clearly but ineffably tied to those of the Muggles. Clearly, Rowling, like other fantasists before her, has deliberately modeled Harry's world of dragons, flying broomsticks, and goblin-guarded gold on the one she sees around her.

    The "Secondary World" genre reached its zenith in the works of J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis, both to whom Rowling has referred as inspirations. These works also embody the epic tradition in children's literature. In this tradition, a hero, or group of heros, engages with, fiercely battles, and eventually defeats a dire and powerful embodiment of Evil. Symbolic swords and wise teachers, treacherous and faithful friends, and tests of moral strength are common factors in the tales. Generally, a single, omniscient, and practically omnipotent individual wields great moral and magical influence and guides the protagonists through their adventures. The fall of Evil is often followed by a crucial and terrible choice: whether or not the hero(s) of the story will choose a life of continued magic and presumably infinite bliss, or whether they will return to the mundane world of humanity.

    In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, C. S. Lewis's child heros and heroines initially enter Narnia through the back of an old wardrobe in an odd old country house. There they discover the wonders of talking animals and the horror of the callous White Witch, who has cast a frosty spell over the land so that "it is always winter and never Christmas." They are befriended by Aslan, the great lion, who tells them it is their destiny to overthrow the evil witch and rule Narnia as good kings and queens. They proceed, with his help, to do so. Although there are exceptions, a similar pattern evolves in most of the subsequent Narnia chronicles. Children, sitting at a common British train station or peering at a picture of a seafaring vessel, find themselves abruptly plunged into the forests or salty waters of Narnia, where they are assigned a specific heroic task, which always involves fighting the forces of Evil and reinstating the supremacy of Good. They struggle against minor jealousies and selfish tendencies, learn to appreciate true friendship and the power of trust, and in so doing inevitably grow up. Aslan acts as their oracle throughout, all-knowing, but also intent on forcing the child-heros to make their own decisions and forge their own paths. In the end, the children always return to their own world (except in The Last Battle, which is more directly a Christian allegory) where they grow old and must strive to remember the lessons they have learned.

    J. R. R. Tolkien's Middle Earth is quite different, in that it does not involve the intervention of children from this world, although the primary protagonists and heros - hobbits - are diminutive in stature and childlike in appearance. Rather, his Lord of the Rings trilogy features other-world characters such as hobbits and dwarves, elves and goblins, wraiths and Ents, engaged in a mighty and all-encompassing war for domination of their own land. But once again, the primary Evil is absolute, embodied in the Dark Lord Sauron and his minions. Minor evils fret and worry the heros throughout their quests: self-doubt and loathing, greed, anger, lust for power, and muttering beasts with bulging eyes and padding, webbed feet. Talismans, such as the One Ring to Rule them All and the Sword that was Broken, play key roles in the drama. Gandalf the Wise, the noble and ancient magician, acts as the story's main prophet and guardian of Good. After the defeat of Sauron, the last remnants of elves and wizards, along with a chosen number of heroic hobbits and other mortals, depart from the shores of Middle Earth, leaving the rest - bereft of magic and mystery - alone to rule and guard the land.

    Lloyd Alexander's Prydain series, written in the mid 1960s, and Susan Cooper's The Dark Is Rising, written primarily in the 1970s, are also prime examples of the epic tradition in children's fantasy literature. Alexander's Prydain series involves a young pig-keeper who metamorphoses into a kingly leader; a Dark Lord whose agents of menace are threatening to take over the land; magic harps and talking crows, prideful princes and lovelorn lads; an ancient and revered wizard who dispenses wisdom and is seemingly indestructible; a sword that when wielded by a true heart and an honest hand can slay even the king of darkness; and a promise of immortality and eternal happiness at the end of the tale, rejected by the hero in favor of a human life, with its associated joys and losses.

    Finally, Susan Cooper's The Dark Is Rising encompasses most of these same themes. Children vacationing in Cornwall stumble upon a valuable token of great magic, a grail that is sought by both the ancient powers of the Dark and the agents of the Light. An epic struggle ensues, drawing upon Arthurian and local legends. The forces of the Light are led by an old man who turns out to be none other than Merlin himself, while the forces of the Dark are aided by supernatural beings who assume various human shapes, as well as "normal" people, overcome by their personal and moral flaws and driven to do evil. The usual sword motif appears in the final book of the series, as the son of King Arthur delivers the final blow that turns the armies of the Dark aside and sends them out of the world forever. Faced with a choice between immortality and forgetful humanity, he elects to remain with his humble friends and share their world, rather than to return to his father's side in perpetuity.

    Harry Potter, though only midway through his epic, seems to be treading along this familiar path. Much like his literary ancestors, Harry begins as a "normal" boy in an unhappy home. As mentioned above, on the eve of his eleventh birthday, he is pleasantly surprised to find that he is, in fact, a wizard. Endowed with strange and as-yet unforeseen powers, he has already unknowingly vanquished one of the most evil and potent wizards in history, and it is now time for him to assume his rightful place in the magical realm.

    Supported and counseled by Albus Dumbledore, the headmaster of Hogwarts School and reputedly the only other wizard capable of dealing with Voldemort, Harry embarks upon a series of increasingly challenging and frightening encounters with his terrible nemesis. Dumbledore offers sage advice and presumed protection but allows Harry to engage demons on his own terms, and typically fails to turn up until the very end of each dramatic denouement. Left generally to his own devices, the boy and his brave, loyal band of friends again and again foil and frustrate the plans of the master villain and his disguised henchmen.

    The storylines are punctuated with underlying social and personal concerns, as in all other epic children's fantasies. Jealousy, anger, petty misunderstandings, budding romances, selfishness, and the other usual suspects repeatedly manifest themselves. In the latest book, Rowling does a particularly good job of portraying the various insecurities and fears suffered by young people on the eve of their first dance, as well as the destructive power of young male egos and the continued allure of the school jock. As expected, while Harry and his friends gallantly spar with their adolescent angst, they learn important lessons about themselves and the world(s) around them.

    However, certain differences set Harry Potter aside from his fellow epic heros. Perhaps most importantly, in defiance of a traditional pattern in secondary world writing, in which children from our tedious world find themselves unintentionally thrust into a magical one, Harry himself personifies magic in a Muggle World. Typically, magic happens to the child protagonists in these stories. They are spellbound or unintentionally catapulted into alternate worlds, or they just happen to stumble upon a magical ring, or book, or carpet, or creature. Harry, on the other hand, is master of his own universe. Although still an amateur, he is becoming increasingly proficient in the art and science of magic, and he belongs to Hogwarts more than he does to the Muggle world. The Dursleys's - the Muggle house in which he was raised and tormented for most of his young life - is obviously not Harry's home, nor are the train stations and taxi stands and other "normal" places and situations in which he finds himself. He is happiest and most comfortable when he is firmly and completely ensconced in the "secondary" world of magic; it is the real world that he finds truly unfamiliar.

    Another interesting twist on the children's epic fantasy tradition is the fact that the books are becoming ever more frightening and intense as the series continues. The sense of impending doom and the reader's awareness of the extent of Voldemort's nastiness are dramatically heightening as Harry grows older and more capable of understanding the scope and potential of evil. This stands in stark contrast to the works of Lewis or Tolkien, in which the horror of the White Witch and the power of Sauron are made immediately and terrifyingly apparent from the very outset. Rowling, interestingly, seems to be giving her hero - and perhaps her readers as well - time and room to grow used to the idea of Voldemort's malevolence; it is as though the level of wickedness in each book is directed at a particular developmental stage.

    Symbolism also seems to be less important in the Rowling universe than in other epic fantasies. Granted, a particular sword appears from a magic hat just in time to slay a giant serpent, and a magic goblet (grail) selects the names of the competitors in the Triwizard Tournament. But there are very few consistent themes or images throughout the four books. This may, of course, simply be because the series is only partly complete, and it is naturally difficult to determine the extent of an object's symbolism until the tale is entirely finished. However, it will be interesting to see which artifacts reappear in the next few episodes of Harry's great adventure.

    It is also impossible to predict with any accuracy whether or not Harry will eventually face the traditional challenge of the epic hero: the final choice between his two worlds. We can assume that eventually he will vanquish the powers of darkness, and that he will do so with the aid and assistance of Dumbledore, his friends, his teachers, and a few select Muggles. But whether or not his future includes the disintegration of the magical world and the reinstitution of the primacy of the Muggles depends entirely upon J. K. Rowling.

    To return to the initial question, then. What is it about this series that is so different and captivating? Without a doubt, it is not groundbreaking. Secondary worlds, witches, dragons, large sporting events, troublesome classmates, evil masterminds, ghosts, giants, nasty teachers, tests of bravery, magical swords - all have been done before. Heros have grappled with terrifying monsters and their own adolescence for centuries. Wise wizards have observed and taught, good friends have bonded and fought. Swords have been lost and broken, and tasks have been set and accomplished. Good has always overcome Evil in the end, and the boy almost always gets the girl. We expect nothing less from Harry.

    While some critics would use this point as evidence against Rowling, it seems rather more a point in her favor. She has embraced a certain genre, children's epic fantasy, and is adding a new hero to the canon. And she is doing an excellent job with him. Harry seems to us a real boy, facing real problems, and engaged in a real battle with the creeping darkness that we all know is out there. Despite the oddities of his world, we are able to recognize it as our own and appreciate the struggle for both petty and absolute power within it. This, in and of itself, is a great accomplishment. After all, J. R. R. Tolkien, who created what is arguably the greatest of the "Other Worlds," the wonderful Middle Earth, wrote in "On Fairy-Stories":

    To make a Secondary World inside which the green sun will be credible, commanding Secondary Belief, will probably require labour and thought, and will certainly demand a special skill, a kind of elvish craft. Few attempt such difficult tasks. But when they are attempted and in degree accomplished then we have a rare achievement of Art; indeed a narrative art; story-making in its primary and potent mode.

    When do you think the next Harry Potter will be out, anyway?

    Lesley Nye
  2. Share

    Spring 2001 Issue


    "Improve the Women"
    Mass Schooling, Female Literacy, and Worldwide Social Change
    Robert A. LeVine, Sarah E. Levine, and Beatrice Schnell
    Education for Democratic Citizenship
    Transnationalism, Multiculturalism, and the Limits of Liberalism
    Katharyne Mitchell
    Apprenticing Adolescent Readers to Academic Literacy
    Cynthia L. Greenleaf, Ruth Schoenbach, Christine Cziko, and Faye L. Mueller
    Book Review of Sibylle Gruber's Weaving a Virtual Web: Practical Approaches to New Information Technologies
    Bettina Fabos

    Book Notes

    Conflicting Missions?
    Edited by Tom Loveless

    Three Seductive Ideas
    By Jerome Kagan

    The Social Life of Information
    By John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid

    Classrooms and Courtrooms
    By Nan Stein

    Call 1-800-513-0763 to order this issue.