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Smoke and Mirrors: The Magic of Harry Potter

By Denise Dumars     November 30, 1999

To discuss J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter books is to do more than just review them; it's a job that also encompasses explicating a phenomenon. Because the Harry Potter books--three of a planned series of seven have now been published--comprise a publishing anomaly: books that appeal equally to children and adults and which are currently dominating the bestseller charts much to the distress of the publishing establishment.

It all began with a recently-divorced Scottish mom temporarily on the dole--'a flawed role model,' as she calls herself. Sitting in cafes trying to keep her toddler warm, she wrote ideas for the Harry Potter series on napkins and scraps of paper. The result was Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (1997), or as it was published in Britain, Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone. The original title gives an important clue as to the originality--or lack thereof--of the Harry Potter stories.

When Business Week covers a series of books in its Marketing section you know there's something more going on here than just a good read. It's definitely a business decision that Scholastic's marketing geniuses came up with. One can tell this just by looking at the books' covers. They are aimed squarely at both adults and children: over 300 pages each, the Potter books have goofy illos on the covers that would appeal to kids but which are rendered not in childish primary colors but in sophisticated tones evoking Yuppie paint swatches. And that's one problem with the Harry Potter stories; they're not aimed vehemently at either market, but are perhaps best for those legions of adults who read at a fifth through eighth grade level: the post-literate generation.

But wait--Time magazine states that even those kids dubbed 'reluctant readers' by teachers and librarians have taken up the Harry Potter books. Isn't that a good thing? Of course it is. Aren't the Harry Potter books good books? That's a more difficult question to answer. Though Time also goes on to compare and contrast Rowling's tales with those of such classic authors as Tolkien, Baum, Lewis Carroll and C. S. Lewis, I see nothing at all in the Harry Potter books that would put them in a league with The Wizard of Oz and The Hobbit.

'Cultural amnesia,' is a term being bandied about in science fiction and fantasy circles when the popularity of the Harry Potter books comes up. Perhaps it could be said that they are fantasy books for folks who have never read fantasy, who have never heard of such hoary devices as the Philosopher's Stone and the Elixir of Life. And calling someone a 'muggle'--Rowling's word for non-magical folk--may seem cute to the average person, but the term 'mundane' has been used for decades in both the science fiction and the magickal communities to differentiate 'normal' people from the rest of us. Whether this is a sly aside to us non-mundanes or merely a case of the author's own cultural amnesia is a question worth pondering.

But aside from a clever marketing campaign, what is it about these books that captures the imaginations of so many children and adults? Perhaps it's their spunky hero, Harry himself, a wild-haired, green-eyed, bespectacled underdog who somehow always manages to prevail. There's quite a bit of Little Orphan Annie in Harry, and he bears a resemblance to many an Horatio Alger hero as well. Aside from Harry, his nondescript friends Hermoine and Ron, his dotty professors at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, and his Roald-Dahlian aunt, uncle, and cousin, there is only the book's conceit to drive the story forward in any sort of original manner--and that conceit is as old as the story of Moses in the bulrushes.

The conceit is that Harry is a remarkable magickal child whose parents were killed by an evil wizard when he was a baby. He survived with only a purple lightning-shaped scar on his forehead as a reminder, and was taken in very reluctantly by his aunt and uncle--true muggles, those. He is neglected and abused by his new family and when he turns 11 a summons comes from Hogwarts that eventually reveals who he is and who he is to become. His uncle is so determined to keep him away from his destiny as a wizard that he goes to greater and greater lengths to get away from the magickal folks, and each attempt is a little less funny and a little more tiresome than the last. And that's the case throughout the books; scenes are too long, ideas are explicated to the point where the reader wants to scream 'Just get on with it!' and action is so poorly rendered so that it is very hard to visualize such scenes as those of the game Quidditch, which sounds encouragingly Barkerian but turns out to be a rather tedious soccer-like sport played on airborne broomsticks.

The Harry Potter books are not anything special but they are consistent, so that once one has finished Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone one can easily pick up Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (1998) and then Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (1999) and find no unpleasant surprises, just Harry and his ongoing struggle with the evil Lord Voldemort, who plays Darth Vader to Harry's Luke Skywalker.

And that's another problem. Everything in the Potter books can be easily related to any of a number of pop cultural icons. Clark Kent/Kal El/Superman--a kid with special powers living with mundane foster parents--also comes to mind. One can analogize all day about Harry Potter.

And maybe that's not a problem. Maybe in the modern age originality isn't such a good thing, especially with reluctant readers and those on information overload from T.V. and the Internet. Maybe knowing that Harry Potter will go through seven years of Hogwarts instruction--one year per book--giving the reader six sequels to the original is a good thing in this world of never-ending fantasy and science fiction sagas. Rowling, at least, tells us that the books will get progressively darker as Harry gets older and faces escalating hardships. Maybe the fact that fundamentalists tried to remove the Harry Potter books from schools and libraries when they found out that the kids at Hogwarts actually practice sorcery and not just stage magic helps make the rest of us sympathetic to Harry and his author. (The fact that Harry Potter has what is called a 'cult following' and young fans wear stick-on lightning bolt scar tattoos to mark their allegiance to him helps inflame the fundie fire, which, remarkably, the print media at least has failed to even notice.)

To me, the books lack true literary magic; it's all just smoke and mirrors, with nothing behind the illusion. So maybe the success of the Harry Potter books comes from the simple fact that Americans, at least, love both a hard-luck story and a winner, and Joanne Rowling and her hero, Harry, both fit that bill with ease.

References:
Capell, Kerry, Larry Light and Ann Therese Palmer. 'Just Wild About Harry Potter.' Business Week 9 August 1999: 54.
Gray, Paul. 'Wild About Harry.' Time 20 September 1999: 67-72.
Jones, Malcolm. 'Magician for Millions.' Newsweek 23 August 1999: 58-59.

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