Harry Potter and the Spirit of the Age
Fear of Not Flying

Issue date: 11.22.99
Post date: 11.04.99

Harry Potter and the
Sorcerer's Stone

by J.K. Rowling
Scholastic, 309 pp.
(Click here to buy this book.)

Harry Potter and the
Chamber of Secrets

by J.K. Rowling
Scholastic, 341 pp.
(Click here to buy this book.)

Harry Potter and the
Prisoner of Azkaban

by J.K. Rowling
Scholastic, 431 pp.
(Click here to buy this book.)

Once upon a time, a boy on a broomstick flew into a nation that was significantly free from tradition and prescribed custom. So great was its freedom in this regard that it turned every social incident and every cultural expression into a symbolic occasion that might supply a sorely needed orientation to national life. If two teenagers went on a rampage of killing in a high school, the slaughter had partly to embody the nation's surrender to television or computers. If a series of books came out about the adventures of a nearly adolescent boy swooping around on a broomstick, the rapturous reception of these books had partly to embody the craving for an antidote to the national submission to television or computers. Yet the popularity of the Harry Potter books actually has everything to do with our symbolizing tendency itself.

That is because all this fancy pop-critical theory quickly hardens into leaden, clinical fact, testified to by an array of experts who are glad to make themselves available to all the technologies of punditry. Why the killing? Not just because of television and the Internet, but because of early trauma, poor self-esteem, a broken home, inept guidance counselors and school psychologists, and so on. Clunk, clunk, clunk: it is like dully making change for events of tremendous denomination, though none of the routine inquiries ended up applying to the Columbine killers. Swamped by these so-called facts of mental life, the specificity of what happens in the world outside the mind gets lost; the world seems to turn on what takes place in the mind, and what takes place in the mind is whatever the electronic sages tell us does.

What's more, if you protest against the clinical facts that supposedly define you--they also include the fact of where you come from, and of what group you belong to--you are deemed outside the pale of a century of improvements in scientific plain-seeing. You are "in denial," which is like saying that you are allied with the powers of darkness and irrationality. Our cultural productions reflect this state of affairs. Memoirs stress the standard, formative facts; works of art hallow the standard, formative facts. Now, this relentlessly rational organization of inner and outer reality, of cultural documents and works of art, makes for a fantastic situation. For underneath it all, life flows incalculably on, and we know and feel this.

For this reason, the rapturous reception of the Harry Potter books is heartening, because J.K. Rowling is a literary artist, and these three books possess more imaginative life than the majority of novels that are published in this country in any given year. They are full of marvelous invention and humor and fun, but they have more than that. They are not fantasy-escapes from mundane existence, as they are being hailed; they are escapes from a general condition of hyper-rationality that, because it ignores the element of incalculability in life, has become unreasonable to the point of seeming receptive to fantasy and the occult as escapes from life. With Harry Potter, Rowling has brought reality back into the literature of escape, and back into our fantasy-culture. What a rarity, a literary imagination that is not self-conscious, and studied, and uptight.

The three Harry Potter novels that have appeared to date spin the tale of an orphan who is eleven when the series begins, and grows older by a year in each successive volume. One night, the infant Harry appears on the doorstep of the Dursleys, his aunt and uncle and their gluttonous bully of a young son, Dudley. Harry spends ten years with them, during which time they treat him cruelly--they make the sadistic Aunt Spiker and Aunt Sponge of Roald Dahl's James and the Giant Peach look like hospice-workers--making him sleep in a cupboard and barely giving him enough food to survive.

Uncle Vernon and Aunt Petunia have told Harry that his parents died in a car accident. But Harry's parents had a secret, which Harry discovers on his eleventh birthday: they were powerful and respected members of England's wizard community. And they never died in a car crash. They were killed by the evil wizard Voldemort, who lost much of his power when he tried to finish off the infant Harry but, for some inexplicable reason, failed to do so, leaving Harry alive and with a scar in the shape of a lightning bolt. Indeed, Harry with his green eyes, and Voldemort with his green light, mysteriously share a granule of the same nature, though Harry is unambiguously good and Voldemort is unambiguously evil.

Harry is saved from his wicked step-parents by his parents' wizard friends and sent to Hogwarts, a famous private school for wizard children, though he has to return to his aunt and uncle over the summer holidays. The books tell the story of Harry's adventures at Hogwarts, where, among other things, he discovers that non-wizard people are called Muggles; and learns how to play the game Quidditch, which is conducted flying through the air on broomsticks; and finds his best friends in the bookish daughter of two dentist-Muggles and the son of an impoverished wizard family; and does battle with a mountain troll in the girls' bathroom; and learns how to make friends with a hippogriff (you stare unblinking into its fierce orange eye, bow, and wait for it to bow).

What is it with the British, why are they so good at creating stories in which there is this world and an alternative world? J.M. Barrie, Frances Hodgson Burnett, E. Nesbit, Lewis Carroll, J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis--they all come from somewhere in Great Britain. (Rowling herself is Scottish.) Of course, there is the creative stimulus of living on cozy little islands shrouded by fog. And there is the nice constant scare of the surrounding sea making your neighbors seem more alien and more likely to arrive unexpectedly; and the venerable class system, which enacts alternative worlds side by side; and, for a time, there was the strange, distant galaxy of empire. Or maybe it is just that the battlements and the turrets of British common sense are so solidly established that British writers can imagine its opposite with luxurious sanguinity.

But why are we so entranced by the creation of alternative worlds in the first place? The answer might have something to do with the conventional premise of so many children's stories, which is that they revolve around children whose parents are dead or absent or diminished. (Nesbit, the Fabian socialist, liked to make her fathers bankrupts or falsely accused of selling secrets to the Russians.) This is partly the reflection of a child's tyrannical wish to have total sovereignty over a parent-free world, and it is also a reflection of the adult author's childlike impulse to have total sovereignty over his or her created world. But surely there is also an attenuated Christian influence: Jesus in Jerusalem refusing to acknowledge his parents, Jesus exhorting his followers to leave their parents and their homes and to follow him. The unaffiliated, deracinated state is a state of pure spiritual receptivity, and this is the condition of much children's literature, which introduces the child to the idea of change. And since the gradual withdrawal of parents is an inevitable thing, the classic children's stories are often semi-parables of the terrors and the pleasures of separation.

The appeal of alternative worlds goes much further, deep into the vicissitudes of our maturity. As our parents recede, we rely on our imaginations to construct another authority--which is to say, another world. The pressure that our ego exerts on the objects of its hunger and its need amounts to a desire to enchant the people around us. Yet beyond our magical circle of bonds and affection lies the other world, the world outside the reach of our enchantments. We have to negotiate between these two regions on a daily basis, and to keep our balance as the boundaries move, and to maintain our poise throughout the times when our world takes on the aspect of the mundane, and the world beyond acquires the allure of enchantment (it notices us, it seizes us and holds us in its power, victory is ours).

So the children's story of a solitary imagination, operating avidly and resourcefully in the shifting world, is also the naked, subterranean story of our adult days. The point is not that a good children's story is, as people like to say, written also for adults. The point is that a good children's story is the story of the making of an adulthood. That is why the best children's stories have a wit and an urbanity that make their most extravagant inventions all the more believable.

From Peter Pan:

"What is your name?"
"Peter Pan."
She was already sure that he must be Peter, but it did seem a comparatively short name.
"Is that all?"
"Yes," he said rather sharply. He felt for the first time that it was a shortish name...
She asked where he lived.
"Second to the right," said Peter, "and then straight on till morning."
"What a funny address!"
Peter had a sinking feeling. For the first time he felt that perhaps it was a funny address...
"Don't have a mother," he said. Not only had he no mother, but he had not the slightest desire to have one. He thought them very over-rated persons.

From The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe:

In one corner there was a door which Lucy thought must lead to Mr Tumnus's [a faun] bedroom, and on one wall was a shelf full of books. Lucy looked at these while he was setting out the tea things. They had titles like ... Nymphs and Their Ways or Men, Monks, and Gamekeepers: A Study in Popular Legend or Is Man a Myth?

From Ian Fleming's Chitty Chitty Bang Bang:

Now, Joe the Monster was in fact head of an international gang of robbers and ruffians and he was known in France as Joe le Monstre.

Rowling herself, with her narcissistic wizard-professor Gilderoy Lockhart, to take just one example from her books, masterfully does this dry trace of a satirical tone, though with a touch of farce. The renowned author of Magical Me, among other volumes, Lockhart praises his student, Hermione Granger, Harry's bookish friend, for supplying the right answer to an exam question that Lockhart posed about himself:

... but Miss Hermione Granger knew my secret ambition is to rid the world of evil and market my own range of hair-care potions--good girl!

I'm sorry, but I find this sort of thing hilarious. I also find it replenishing, since I cannot think of any "adult" fiction that attempts genuinely to satirize the celebrity-fraud. Most wondrous of all is that Rowling does not use the archness, and the worldliness, and the knowingness to protect herself or to promote herself, to remind us that she is too sophisticated to be taken in by her own fictions. On the contraire, as Joe le Monstre would say. As in Barrie and Lewis and Fleming, Rowling wants to prove the strength of her fiction by testing its capacity to assimilate the worldliness. This is because Rowling, like her predecessors, has total confidence in her imagined world, and is unafraid of delivering herself up to her fancy. Or, as Peter Pan puts it, when the human children ask him to tell them how to fly: "You just think lovely wonderful thoughts... and they lift you up into the air."

The ability to fly is the most pressing issue of our time. And it is not just the trend-diviners and the glossy social-scientistic savants who make it hard to know how to fly. There are also the fantasists themselves, for instance the so-called magical realists, who pretend that fantastic occurrences are continuous with reality. Magical realism snubs the intractable evidence of reality, and thus never allows readers to exercise their capacity to believe the unbelievable against all the evidence of reality. In snubbing reality, magical realism slights the power of imagination.

But Rowling writes her tales in a manner that may be called realistic magicalism--which preserves the discontinuity between fantasy and reality. She takes it for granted that, against all the stubborn evidence that she has preserved to the contrary, her readers will nevertheless leave the ground with Harry Potter. In maintaining the gravitational pull of reality, she pays homage to the magical leap of imagination.

And there are still other obstacles to the genuine levitation of the spirit. For one thing, you have to leave your consciousness of self behind, and that is a foolish thing to do nowadays, like leaving your car unlocked on a city street. For another, developing the confidence that you may ascend above the sum of your gritty givens might stick you with the appearance of being an egotist--like puffed-up Peter Pan, or the conceited Phoenix in Nesbit's The Phoenix and the Carpet, or like all flying creatures. That would be disadvantageous in a society whose citizens feel more comfortable around narcissists with fragile egos like Lockhart than around egotists with selfless natures like Harry.

But Rowling knows the value of flying, and so do her readers. This is why she makes the game Quidditch, a combination of soccer and rugby, an event of central importance. The worst effect of a crisis at Hogwarts--a rogue troll wandering about the halls, Voldemort's minions on the loose, the dangerous Dementors going around making everyone feel sad and hopeless--is that a Quidditch match is canceled. And the happy resolution of every book involves Harry's house, Gryffindor, winning a crucial game of Quidditch. Indeed, Harry is never so happy as when he is playing the game; it keeps his mind off his troubles.

Harry would make a very bad contemporary memoirist, because when he is zooming around on his broomstick and thinks of his parents' violent deaths, sometimes remembering their screams, the experience of flying seems unreal to him and he nearly falls off his broom to his own death. The formative trauma, for Rowling, is the true unreality. Only the airborne imagination fosters self-forgetfulness, which makes work possible, work that sustains a life. Thus Quidditch, with its echo of "quiddity," meaning the essential quality of a thing. Quidditch, a vital, self-forgetful busyness, is the essential activity of Harry Potter's world.

Rowling herself seems to have the habit of pure artistic confidence, of egotistical self-abandoning. She appears to be totally immersed in her imagined world, and you can see this in her books' layers of literary allusion. At the beginning of Saint-Exupery's The Little Prince, the strangely disconsolate narrator tells us that as a boy, he once drew a picture of a boa constrictor. He showed it to several adults, who failed to recognize it for what it was. They thought the drawing showed a hat. This, says the narrator, was the beginning and the end of his career as a painter, for "grown-ups never understand anything by themselves." The capacity to read properly a child's drawing of a boa constrictor becomes a test of the litheness of adult imagination.

Now, it happens that in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone the Dursleys allow Harry to accompany them to the zoo, where he meets a boa constrictor. To Harry's astonishment, he and the reptile have a conversation, which comes down to the boa constrictor's desire to see Brazil, where he has never been, despite the information conveyed by the card on his cage; it reads, "Boa Constrictor, Brazil." Though Harry is not aware at this point of his magical powers, he somehow has the effect of making the glass front of the reptile's cage disappear, which allows the boa constrictor to slither out to freedom, hissing to Harry as he departs, "Brazil, here I come... Thanksss, amigo." Of course, Harry's non-wizard relatives could not hear Harry talking with the snake. In this way, the capacity to hear a boa constrictor speak becomes a test of the litheness of adult imagination.

There is also a willow that, rather than serving as benign backdrop to the adventures of Mole and Toad, "whomps" anyone who comes near it with its giant branches; and a wardrobe that the children use, not as a portal to a magical world, but as a hiding-place in which they can eavesdrop on adult conversations (in other words, as a more realistic portal to a more available magical world); and a phoenix named Fawkes, referring to the moment in Nesbit's tale when the children discover the phoenix on Guy Fawkes' Day (a good day for a socialist). My favorite allusion is a flying car with its own mind. It does its work and then trundles away from its owners into the Forbidden Forest, where it goes native, tooling around and covering itself in leaves and branches and mud.

There is no reason for these references, it seems to me, beyond the writer's wholehearted absorption in her universe. That, too, is perhaps why these books are so appealing: in our practical and utilitarian artistic atmosphere, they are ends in themselves. But I don't mean to make Rowling out to be another Joyce. Though she has produced works of literature, they are still primarily books for children and young adults. Their reported popularity among adults says more about the dearth of good fiction than about the books themselves.

In fact, parents expecting a respite from the violence in popular culture will be surprised by the amount of violence that Rowling introduces into her tales. I cannot think of any classic children's story that has as much of it. Rowling is a clever writer, and she has assimilated just about every basic bit of business you might encounter in an action movie. At one point, she even has Harry and his friends pointing their wands and kicking in a door. Legs get broken, the children get thrown against walls, blood drips, bones crunch. Sometimes the characters even cry out, "Aaaargh!" that trusty old comic-book exclamation.

If Rowling has absorbed Fleming's Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, she has also mastered the conventions of the James Bond movies. So far, every book ends with the standard Bond wrap-up, in which the captured British agent--in this case, Harry Potter--waits patiently to be killed while the villain helpfully explains the fine points of the plot, reviews the highlights of his villainy, and discusses his plans for the future. Then comes the violent reversal and the happy outcome.

But this patina of rough action is all to the good. Most little boys spend much of their time thinking about ways to decapitate other little boys--and of course never do. Most little girls spend much of their time thinking of ways to please little boys, mainly by laughing at their most embarrassing qualities or crying as hard as they can whenever they are around. Rowling's violence is a blessed acknowledgment of the nature of children, of their strong-willed impatience with their own alleged innocence.

Harry and his friends Hermione and Ron Weasley are good kids, but they are not innocent, Wordsworthian kids. They usually do the right thing, and they always feel bad when they do the wrong thing. But they pass through a spectrum of hurtful impulses along the way, some of which they act on. This means that their goodness is not only a passive gentleness, easily wounded by the world. It is also the goodness of being able to act in the world. Since they are built with the potential do harm, Harry and his friends are also built to endure harm. The inexorable violation of their childhood "innocence" will not lodge its leaden factuality in their minds like burrs; it will not spell their doom as persons. Harry's scar is not only evidence of a deep emotional injury but, more consequentially, it is also the sign by which everyone in the wizard world recognizes him as the famous Harry Potter, the boy who defeated the villain Voldemort.

The many-sided nature of children is also, perhaps, what Rowling is getting at when she hints that Harry partakes of Voldemort's nature. As the French name implies, Harry has stolen from death its terrible power, but only as a way to fly from death: what Harry has gotten from Voldemort is the instinct of self-preservation, which is a mercurial, double-sided thing. Such a portrait of children's complexity, at least to the degree that you find it in Rowling's tales, is something new in children's literature. She has hit our contemporary moment right on the head.

Rowling's complicated violence has a functional purpose, too. It draws in children who might otherwise be won away by empty fantasies of violence. Once distracted by Rowling's highly enjoyable scrim of action, they will find a fusion of entertainment with an autonomous artistic will. Each book follows the hero's archetypal journey--in the form of a detective story--from increasingly turbulent surface, to life-endangering depths, and back up to sunlit surface. (Uncle Vernon, whose absence of imagination perfects his cruelty, manufactures drills for a living.) And in every book, Harry confronts his parents' deaths at the same time as he fights to preserve his life, an ordeal that seems to have to do with Harry finding a way to stop dwelling on his parents' deaths.

Inside that pattern, Rowling structures each book with a different theme that she develops through reiterated words, images, and motifs. Her tales are remarkably unified for children's stories. In the first volume, Harry first learns about his wizard nature, and discovers that he is not the worthless boy that his aunt and uncle have told him he is. The theme is the nature of identity, which is hidden, elusive, and immovable. And so when he goes shopping for a wand right before school begins--it is required--Harry finds that the wand chooses him. The nicest conceit is the Mirror of Erised, with its strange inscription: "Erised stra ehru oyt ube cafru oyt on wohsi." Read in the opposite direction, it says, "I show not your face but your heart's desire." At last, a formula for identity that must be read backwards! And it teaches, both literally and figuratively, the idea that you are what you want and not what you appear to be, and that what you want follows from who you mysteriously are, and that your desires can also change. The book's conclusion has Harry fighting for his life with "The Man with Two Faces."

The second book, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, deals with origins and class. It portrays fame as a reward for character and as a path up through society, and it depicts celebrity--in the figure of Lockhart--as a scourge on character, and as an irritant to social harmony. Rowling, for all her uncanny inventiveness, means business. In this volume, the moral is that your choices define you, not your origins. Seemingly good people disclose their villainy; apparent transgressors reveal their innocence; transfiguration becomes an issue; and the phoenix, whose origins are ashes, saves the day.

The latest volume, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, pushes the artfulness further. It is about depression, black moods, days when a kid just can't go on, because everyone tells him--or her--that he is nothing, and that things will never change. Sirius Black is the villain, who turns out to be the good guy, because things do change, after all. And the Divination teacher, Professor Trelawney, ends up getting everything wrong, because nobody can tell you what the score is; you have to find that out for yourself.

People such as Professor Trelawney set themselves up as reality-instructors, but they are projecting their own inadequacies. They hope that by convincing you to bow to your supposed limitations, they will make up for their inability to overcome their own limitations. But you have to travel along the axial lines of your own unique existence... wait a minute, that's The Adventures of Augie March! Americans may love the Harry Potter books because they tell a British school-story, but the British must love them because the real lessons learned at Hogwarts remind them of America.

Rowling's world is very artfully patterned. Consider, finally, her conceit of having owls deliver the mail in the wizard world. Harry has his very own courier, an affectionate though high-strung snowy owl named Hedwig. Hedvig happens to be the name of the little girl in Ibsen's play involving another bird, The Wild Duck. Roald Dahl certainly had Ibsen's play in mind when, in The Witches, he has the Norwegian grandmother tell the story of a little girl with a pet duck who is abducted by means of nefarious magic. I have no idea if Rowling is making kindred literary mischief. But it doesn't matter. Ibsen's play is about the "life-lie" that we tell ourselves in order to bear as much reality as we can. It is about life-lies that deform and destroy, but also about those that become a part of truth because they make life possible. And J.K. Rowling has similarly qualified our spiteful and ungenerous adult notion of denial, and drawn out of it a beautiful human affirmation. She is spinning an honest and necessary deceit about the world.


(Copyright 1999, The New Republic)