A few weeks ago I mentioned to a group of friends that I was working on a review of the new Harry Potter book. Most of them scoffed and tittered, muttering, “Ugh, that’s so TRENDY,” or “Why would you waste your summer reading THAT?” One friend, however, leaped at my announcement: “Oh, of course, I bought the new book the day it came out. What are you going to say about it? You’ll probably trash it, won’t you? Just remember that Rowling produces some exquisite sentences. And the character development in the fifth book . . .” As he rambled on, I wondered why Harry generated such divided reactions among my 20-year-old friends. Was the majority right to scorn the books as overrated, or did my enthusiastic buddy have reason for his exclamations? The Harry Potter craze is sweeping the country, and even the world, but is he a worthy literary companion for a Yalie?
At the end of June, Harry Potter returned to bookstores in J.K. Rowling’s fifth novel, The Order of the Phoenix. In Harry’s fifth year at Hogwarts, the British academy of magic he and his pals attend, the narrative focus is less on the magical battles Harry fights against the evil wizard Voldemort and more on establishing the young wizard as a growing adolescent. The plot does not really take off until page 600 (yes, of 850 total), and Harry’s teen angst consumes a lot of the preceding space. Harry, uncharacteristically, spends most of the book angry either at Ron and Hermione, his best friends, or at his adult mentors. Notably absent throughout the book is the guidance of Harry’s wise and hitherto infallible mentor Professor Dumbledore, the headmaster of Hogwarts. When Dumbledore finally does appear, it is to admit he has made the mistake of loving Harry too much (the importance of this mistake is ambiguous, but a sense of Dumbledore’s imperfection comes through clearly). Harry takes on the leadership role vacated by Dumbledore, instructing a group of students in Defense Against the Dark Arts, the advanced magic skills that have saved Harry in the past four books. As I enjoyed my fifth year with these characters and their well-crafted relationships, I wondered if as Harry grows up, the age of his audience increases as well. Should college-age students read the Harry Potter series — is there anything in it that will appeal specifically to them?
My answer is a resounding yes, despite the several flaws in the series. The first reason why readers of our age should — or do — enjoy this series is because it is not really children’s literature. Rowling does an excellent job of portraying a universe that has a moral system more complicated than most children’s books. Unlike a stereotypical fantasy book in which good fights against evil, at Hogwarts good wizards do bad things and even bad wizards can seem likable. This becomes particularly clear in the fifth book where Harry learns that his dead dad, whom he worships, was a rather cruel prankster as a teenager. The seemingly sympathetic butt of his jokes turns out to be Professor Snape, Harry’s least favorite professor and one who continually ridicules and punishes him. And while Harry constantly suspects Snape to be a follower of Voldemort, Dumbledore identifies Snape as one of his trusted friends. Similarly intricate webs of good and bad, trust and distrust, are woven throughout the series, and are more reminiscent of a modern political commentary than of a children’s fairy tale.
Indeed, the series grapples with political questions in a way that classically juvenile fiction does not. Rowling’s spotlight is on the moral problems raised by class systems throughout the fifth book, as Hermione works on a campaign to free house elves, small creatures who are essentially slaves for their human owners. Although everyone else dismisses house elves as unimportant and refuses to join Hermione in her endeavors, one wicked elf ends up nearly sending Harry to his death. This elf’s unexpected agency gives credence to Hermione’s abolitionist efforts. The wizards are interested in politics as well, and some choose to play the system in their climb to power. Ron’s brother, for example, is disowned by his family when he goes to work for a wizard whose beliefs differ from those of his parents. Rowling’s magical world is inventive in its departure from kingdoms where power is gained through strength alone, and focuses instead on a social and party system inhabited by people who just happen to be magical.
Some Yalies may find none of these arguments convincing or relevant. “Wands and wings — sounds like a children’s book to me,” they may harrumph. Well, okay. Parts of Harry Potter are very similar to what you find in traditional children’s literature. This is particularly apparent in the first 650 pages of the fifth book (and of the beginnings of the preceding four), which Rowling spends in painstaking and often delightful detailed description of the candies Harry and his friends eat (Bertie Bott’s Every Flavor Beans are a favorite, including flavors such as spinach and boogers), the games that they play (Quiddich is Harry’s star sport and involves two teams flying on broomsticks and chasing balls), and the food they eat (Hogwarts is famous for a limitless supply of never-emptying plates).
However charming children may find these extended accounts of Hogwarts recreation, adults are likely to find prolonged saturation in them tedious. But this is not, I would argue, a good reason to dismiss the series. Even if college students consider Harry Potter children’s books, they should still find them appealing. As a long-time devotee of children’s books (I have read my favorite book, Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild, at least twice a year every year since I was eight), I am a firm believer in the power of children’s literature to provide durable enjoyment. Children’s books are designed to help children become readers, so they are books that want the reader to like them. They promote the idea that reading is fun, and so reading them is fun. So if you decide Harry Potter is indeed a children’s book, that in itself is a great reason to dive in.
And how exciting it is to return, book after book, to Rowling’s complicated ideas about magic. In Rowling’s vision, magic is a comfort. She does not present a normal world in which magic is a mysterious force that stirs everything up. In the Harry Potter books, the Muggle, or non- magical, world is disturbing and unpleasant (Harry lives with an aunt and uncle who lock him in an attic room and feed him only scraps), and it is magical Hogwarts that offers order, sanity, and rationality.
Additionally, at Hogwarts magic is not mysterious. It is learnable, and taught in school just like we learn French or math. A rational system of magic is one of Rowling’s most inventive ideas, and adds further comfort to her magical world. At Hogwarts, magic is taught like art. Although both disciplines essentially rely upon an innate talent, there are endless rules and techniques that a student needs to learn in order to best employ that talent. It is not until the young wizards and witches understand how to use their magic that they can wield it skillfully. And, as with art or any other subject, some students are better at it than others. Some of the most poignant scenes take place in Harry’s classes, particularly Potions, Harry’s worst subject. As Harry tries to make a teacup walk but only gets it onto its wobbly knees, we are reminded of any number of high school chemistry experiments gone wrong. Rowling, unfortunately, abandons her series-long allegiance to rational magic in order to resolve her plot, asking her readers to accept, for example, that Voldemort can reach into Harry’s mind and plant dreams there, and that Harry cannot detect this tampering. But if one disregards the book’s illogical end, the teachability and learnability of magic stands as one of Rowling’s most appealing inventions.
My only hesitation in praising Harry Potter as an excellent children’s series is my worry that the Hogwarts craze could threaten the value of other children’s books that might offer more than Rowling does. Even as I defend Harry Potter as fine reading for college students, or for anyone, I wouldn’t want to imply that these books can supplant other children’s books. Older books with adult significance (Alice in Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz) aside, a more recent book leaps to mind that has some of Potter’s appeal but perhaps more substance. The Giver, by Lois Lowry, also describes a complete and imaginary world in which one adolescent boy is able to bridge normality and fantasy, with adventure along the way. Unlike Rowling, however, Lowry’s imagined world involves an existence in which the inhabitants have less than normal people (no color, no emotions, no choices) rather than more (wands, invisibility cloaks). Lowry is able to offer a book that deeply questions what we take for granted about our perceptions of our own world, and comments on power and society at the same time. Though this approach is not necessarily better than Rowling’s, it is important to remember that Hogwarts is only one imaginary world and not somehow definitive. Although the Harry Potter series’ intricately worked-out moral content, fun character relationships, and vividly imagined world make them rewarding reading for anyone, don’t let these books elbow aside ones that you loved as a child; just add them to your list.