Harry Potter as children’s literature: diminishing returns?


He Who Cannot Wear Sunglasses and the Chosen One battle for supremacy, and narrative closure. (Courtesy of Warner Bros Pictures)

Today I offer two guest blogs that present different views on the merits of the Harry Potter series — the books, rather than the films — as children’s literature. I asked each blogger to discuss, in particular, the oft-stated claim that the later books don’t hold up quite so well as the early ones.

This second post was written by Corey Olsen, a fantasy literature scholar at Washington College.

When I was first confronted with the remarkable success of the Harry Potter books, I felt it my duty, as an English professor, to try to find out what it was about them that captivated so many readers. As a student of J.R.R. Tolkien and of fantasy literature in general, I initially found the task quite pleasant and rewarding.

The primary virtue of the Harry Potter stories, in my opinion, is Rowling’s skill as a world builder. Tolkien, in his seminal essay on fantasy literature, “On Fairy-Stories,” pointed out that in order for a story to succeed, its readers must be encouraged to do more than merely “suspend disbelief”; they must be enabled to enter imaginatively into the world of the story. Getting readers past skepticism and past toleration to active engagement with a story full of magic and marvels is the greatest initial challenge facing any fantasy author. That Rowling succeeded not only with fans of the genre but with millions of readers who had never before been attracted to fantasy is the testimony of her success as a “subcreator” (to use Tolkien’s term).

“Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” introduces readers to her magical world very skillfully. The prologue gives a brief glimpse into the magical world to whet curiosity and establish an initial sense of strangeness and remoteness, but then brings readers into the comfortably familiar and resoundingly mundane world of the Dursley household, which is steadily encroached upon and finally besieged by the magical world that will dominate the rest of the story. In framing her fantastic story within the common world of her readers, Rowling is adeptly following a well-established tradition of the genre.

We can see the same approach in the depiction of Bilbo’s humdrum life in the Shire that is unexpectedly broken in upon by a wizard and a party of dwarves in “The Hobbit” and in the Pevensie children’s retreat from London during World War II, which leads to their unforeseen adventures in a wardrobe in C.S. Lewis’s Narnia books. Behind these lies the older fairy-tale tradition in which children leave their dull and meager cottages to encounter candy houses in the forest or mysterious beanstalks in their backyards. Rowling mediates the transition into her strange and magical world brilliantly through Harry, whose wonder and bewilderment parallel and guide the readers’ experience.

Besides, Rowling is simply an excellent story-teller. Her books have a remarkable narrative drive and are very hard to put down, especially on a first read. The plots of her early books are especially well crafted, culminating in the exquisitely satisfying and intricately stitched plotline of “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.”

Unfortunately, Rowling does not, in my view, sustain her creative achievements all the way through the series. Although neither her storytelling nor her invention utterly desert her, neither continues at anything like the level she attained in the first three books. As the books become longer, the stories become more and more distracted by the introduction of novelties and the generation of surprise. Instead of simply bringing the long and heroic story of the Messianic Mr. Potter to a satisfying end, she chooses to pull new rabbits out of her hat in each successive book as the series approaches its end. Prophecies, Horcruxes and Hallows pile up in what feels like needless profusion and the plot grows visibly ragged with unaccustomed loose ends.

The very fame of the books seems to undermine the later volumes; the ending of “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” in particular abandons the closure that made the early books so satisfying in favor of an overwrought cliffhanger apparently calculated to generate buzz and controversy. Even Rowling’s magical world itself starts to stiffen and creak. For instance, the depiction of spell-casting becomes increasingly and even comically physicalized, until wizard battles more closely resemble a game of laser tag than a manipulation of arcane forces. By the end of “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix,” I find myself wondering why target practice is not an obligatory exercise at Hogwarts.

People often ask me whether or not I think the Harry Potter books are “great literature.” The books are very often simply dismissed from the discussion by academics, who too frequently seem to suggest that their fantastic setting, their juvenile audience or even their mere popularity disqualify them for some reason. I myself am quite disappointed by the end of the series, but I also recognize that the discussion and debate on Harry Potter among serious readers is just beginning. I look forward to the discussion.

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