Can this really be true? Has it really been twenty years since the Harry Potter phenomenon burst onto the scene? The answer is, of course, “YES!” I confess that I was taken aback when I saw that, although I’m not sure if it feels longer, or shorter. It feels shorter, at least to me, because the whole notion of the HP universe still seems pretty fresh and worth exploring. It feels longer because I am aware of the fact that it was a good while ago when I was first exposed to the adventures of this young wizard and his friends in a world not so different (yet VERY different) from our own.
I still remember Bonnie telling me about a news story she had read online about Amazon being sued for allowing their UK division to sell copies of this book (apparently in what were considered commercial quantities) to folks in this country when the US publisher hadn’t released it yet; and it was a “kid’s” book, which seemed to make it even more surprising! It turns out that the subject of the story was Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets which was published in the US a full year after it was published in the UK, which may explain the attempts to “bootleg” copies of it. (It is worth noting that the international publication dates got a good deal closer as time went by.) Bonnie asked Margaret about the first book (which had already been published in the US and learned that she had a copy and had enjoyed it, so she (Bonnie) picked up Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and read it. Now this, in and of itself was a bit unusual. Bonnie has never been the reader I am, so her sitting down to read a book was a bit out of the ordinary. She seemed to enjoy it a lot and insisted that I read it, so we could talk about it. So, I did, and that was that; I was hooked. Eventually this would lead to our each buying a copy of each new novel as they appeared; our spending a weekend (or more) each buried in our own copy; and, eventually, giving one copy to the Sylva Public Library (under the condition that the copies be circulated) because we didn’t need to keep two, but didn’t want to fight over who got to read the new book first.
As anyone who has known me in the last twenty years can tell you, (and is obvious from the story above), I am a “true-believing” Harry Potter fan. I’ve read all of the books more than once, seen all of the movies (multiple times) and listened to the Jim Dale audiobooks more than once, as well. I don’t pretend to have the memory for specific detail that Bonnie has (I find her memory amazing), but I still think I know all of the books pretty well. I even think that the movie adaptations are, generally, pretty acceptable (I like the casting a lot), although I am less than fond of some of the cutting from the original stories and the general loss of the “texture” of the novels which I find very pleasing. I recognize the necessity of cutting for a movie, but I think the movies have lost something of the “flavor” of the books.
More important, I think, is the fact that the books and other materials have made J.K. Rowling the first female, author to become a billionaire. They say that she’s not a billionaire any longer because she has given so much money to charity. She has also become a best-selling author of detective fiction, as well, under the name of Robert Galbraith.
The cultural impact of Rowling’s work is immense, as well. Books for “young readers” have become 173% longer in the last 40 years, with most of that in the last twenty. (prior to the HP books, most “children’s” fiction was pretty short. Many people have studied the idea that a lot of young people became readers because they enjoyed these books enough to try others, although this has not, apparently, been proven. Quidditch became an actual sport in 2005 and is played worldwide, although I haven’t seen coverage of the World Cup in the press or on TV yet. The New York Times (I think due to pressure from publishers) created a special best-seller list for “children’s literature” due (I think, but I can’t prove) to the fact that the first three HP books were all on the main “Best-seller” list and it was clear that Goblet of Fire was likely to join them as the earlier books had been on the hardcover best-seller list for 79 weeks. Later, the NYT started a “series” category of best-sellers in order to free up space for non-HP books on the “children’s” list.
I confess that I find this assignment of the Harry Potter books to the “children’s” or (at best) “young adult” best-seller lists, sections of book stores, etc., amusing (and annoying). After all, I was well over 50 when the books started appearing, which would seem to eliminate me from being a child (or even a “young” adult). Nor am I alone as an “older” reader of the HP books. In fact, so many adults were reading the books that the UK publisher put out editions with a cover featuring less “childish” artwork, which was quite successful with more “adult” readers.
Of course, the HP books have not been without controversy. Several fundamentalist Christian groups (and many individuals with such leanings) have protested the “fact” that the books “teach” witchcraft and various pagan religions; while others suggest that the books should be banned (or even burned) because they promote various political agendas. There actually might be something to that last charge as a study in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology said that people who read the series tended to be more open-minded and empathic, and less likely to hold prejudices against minority groups. Clearly those are qualities which are “anti-American” and we should be suspicious of them. (Yes, I AM being sarcastic!)
As discussed in my last post (#110 in the archive), I’ve always been at least a bit suspicious of critics, but I have wondered why so many of them have been so negative about Rowling as an author and the HP books in general. As is usual, the books are said to lack “literary merit,” are “unimaginative,” “derivative,” etc. Of course, most of these same accusations have been leveled against such mediocre works as The Wizard of Oz, Alice in Wonderland, and the Hobbit-Lord of the Rings books. I confess to relatively little expertise with The Wizard of Oz or Alice, but I’ve been a fan of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit since I was in college in the 1960’s and I know them, in book (and movie) form, about as well as I know the Harry Potter materials. THEY are, of course, often referred to as “epic high-fantasy” and are clearly intended for “adult” audiences, unlike the HP books. I suppose that this is because the central character of LOTR (Frodo) came of age (at 33) when Bilbo turned 111 at the grand party which starts LOTR. That, of course makes Frodo an “adult” while Harry and friends are “just kids.” (Yes, I find that more than slightly stupid.) Of course, Alice and Dorothy are both “just kids,” but I guess that’s different (?). If I were to be unkind, I’d point out that Rowling is the only one of these authors who is female (although she was pressured to use J.K. Rowling to disguise that fact in order to appeal to boys). Is it possible that critics don’t wish to take a female’s work as literature for “adults,” but that it’s okay for kids? There is also the fact that J.R.R. Tolkien was both male and an Oxford professor. I don’t know what either has to do with his fiction, but I digress.
Actually, one doesn’t have to be a great scholar to recognize that Bilbo, Frodo, AND Harry all seem to fit rather neatly into Joseph Campbell’s notion of the universal monomyth which he suggests forms a central mythic pattern affecting most (at least) societies. In the introduction to The Hero With a Thousand Faces, Campbell summarized the pattern of the monomyth as: “A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”1
Okay, the “…region of supernatural wonder…” in both the HP and the LOTR universes is presented as just the way things are, so they may lack what one might consider the “supernatural,” “religious” overtones one can read into Campbell’s summary, but where the characters go on their travels is definitely NOT into the world they came from and are presented as believing to be “normal.” Bilbo and Frodo have heard about wizards, dwarves, elves, etc., but they don’t have much experience with them prior to their adventures. I find it carefully set up that the Shire (which is the general limit of their experience) is NOT like the rest of Middle Earth, but the reader learns about that as the story unfolds. Harry, of course, has been kept from any knowledge of the “wizarding world,” although we do find out that his aunt and uncle are aware of its existence. Still, I would suggest that both cases seem to fit into Campbell’s summary pretty well.
What’s important about this? Well, I think it’s the idea that it ties these stories to the ideas Campbell explores in his (rather well-respected) work which suggests that other examples of the monomyth include the stories of Osiris, Prometheus, the Buddha, Moses, Mohammed, and Jesus. No, I’m not really suggesting that either Frodo or Harry are exactly “Christ figures,” (although I think a case can be made), but they certainly seem to at least fit into the mold of the hero as described by Campbell. (As does Luke Skywalker, probably Indiana Jones and a lot of other fictional characters, as well.)
Perhaps I’ve pushed this a bit too far, but it annoys me when the HP stories are shoved aside by the same people who were running around wearing “Frodo Lives!” tee shirts in the Sixties. I certainly can’t prove it, but I do find it quite interesting that (according to IMDB) both The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring and Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone films were released in the same year (2001) and Fellowship grossed (US) $315.54M, while Sorcerer’s Stone grossed (US) $317.58M. However, Fellowship got more than 2½ times the number of votes in IMDB’s rather unclear voting process, which seems to be primarily a record of those who sign-in to IMDB and vote: not exactly a scientific process. I have to confess that I think that the sort of prejudice I’ve described above probably has had some influence, i.e. people think of LOTR as for “adults” and HP as “kid’s stuff,” which I hope I’ve made clear I think is hogwash. Then again, maybe that’s the way it is in a world where the value of something (a book, a movie, or a person) is defined by their poll numbers, ratings, likes, followers, etc., and score is kept on social media.
I’m disappointed that that seems to be the case, but I guess I still have to keep hoping…
1 Joseph Campbell. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1968, p. 30 / Novato, California: New World Library, 2008, p. 23.