phenomenon: a thing that appears … the cause of which is in question – Oxford English Dictionary
The Harry Potter phenomenon has reached its climax: the last film, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2, is undoubtedly playing in a cinema near you, probably on a couple of screens, in 2D and 3D, and in many sessions per day. In London, where the film had its premiere in July, fans slept out for days in Trafalgar Square. They were waiting for the moment when the film’s stars would walk across the red carpet sweeping down the steps of London’s most famous square to reach a podium set up at the base of Nelson’s Column. Those who weren’t lucky enough to get one of the 8000 wristbands giving admittance to the square itself on the day contented themselves with lining the route. This was also decorated and carpeted in red, and snaked from Trafalgar Square to Leicester Square, where the film was to be shown simultaneously in several cinemas to accommodate all the guests at the premiere. The many stars of the film, the books’ author J.K. Rowling, associated directors, screenwriters, directors of photography and so on were greeted with an acclaim that was almost elegiac in its intensity. The premiere marked an ending to a saga that has, so it seems, extended beyond the books and films.
The first book in the series, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, was published in 1997; the film of the same name was released four years later. Many of the fans interviewed on the day of the premiere told stories of listening to the first book as a bedtime story: they’ve really grown up with Harry Potter. The London Evening Standard reported a twenty-one-year-old from Oklahoma saying, ‘Everyone feels like they’re taking part in a major historic event’. Leaving aside the hyperbole brought on by what must have been acres of red carpet, not to mention Trafalgar Square itself rigged up with huge banners carrying portraits of the stars, and the presence of all those highly photogenic actors (it has been said, with perhaps only a little exaggeration, that the films have employed almost every living British actor, many of them present at the premiere, to the delight of the fans), the scale of the Harry Potter phenomenon is obviously worth thinking about.
The series has sold more than 450 million copies. The first book, retitled Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone in the United States, is available in Latin and sixty-six other languages (and counting). By the time the second book was published, fans were queuing at bookshops waiting for the doors to open on the day of the book’s release. After their purchase, some of the keener buyers began to read as they walked out of the shop, a sight I actually witnessed in a small market town in England. I imagine it wasn’t the only place where readers simply couldn’t wait to see what happened next.
The books have been greeted with cries of joy: look, children reading. Within a very short time the Harry Potter series took its place among what are called crossover books, which are read by adults as well as children: look, adults reading too! Such a readership is not new: many ‘classic’ books were written in the knowledge that they would be read aloud to families: all of Dickens’ major novels, appearing in serial form, were family reading. But whether J.K. Rowling has captured the same kind of audience as did Dickens—who was, of course, also very popular and feted in his time—is not entirely clear.
To begin with, the Harry Potter books were written for an audience of children. Most of the well-known motifs of children’s fiction appear in them: the hero, Harry, is an orphan; he lives with a family who do not treat him very well; at eleven he learns his true nature (he is a wizard); he discovers the existence of a parallel world to which he belongs; he also learns that he has an enemy. He goes off to boarding school, where he becomes good at games and has adventures; he makes two stalwart friends who become his helpers; he finds that he must fight for the good and risk his life doing so. Most of the elements of childish wish-fulfilment are in place here, as are those from myth, folk and fairy-tale.
And of religion, it seems. When still a graduate student teaching fellow at Yale, Danielle Tumminio, now a minister, proposed the class ‘Christian Theology and Harry Potter’ in 2009; bombarded by requests, she was forced to turn some students away. Her book God and Harry Potter at Yale: Teaching Faith and Fiction in an Ivy League Classroom followed in 2010. Hers is one of a number of books about Harry Potter and God, good and evil, spirituality, and other religious themes published in the last year or so. There’s no doubt that the crossover has gone very far indeed. Rather than children coming to understand a little about an adult’s world through reading or listening to books written with adult readers in mind—as, say, in Dickens—here we have adults thinking in terms of a book written primarily for children.
All children’s books, from picture books to those for young adults, have passed through a series of processes, beginning with writing, and moving through the defiles of publishing: editing, marketing and so on. If nothing else (and there is much else, importantly including the role children’s books play in creating the childhood they represent), books for children constitute a category of their own, have their own critics and market and, above all, must run the gauntlet of parental and educational approval. Adults undertake almost all of these processes on behalf of children or, to put it another way, for children. Adults, in short, are the producers and children are the market. This is not to dispute, of course, that child readers have the same privileges as do adults in terms of making meaning in a text, so long as their comparative lack of experience of the world, and the place of reading in it, is taken into account.
One of the themes to which the US critic Neil Postman returned again and again was the importance of the difference between adulthood and childhood, which he took to be one of the cornerstones of Western society. He thought that the differences between children and adults were disappearing as Western societies lost touch with an idea (or ideal) of childhood that, arising in the late Middle Ages, reached its height in the early years of the twentieth century. By the century’s end that idea was in the process of dissolution. As the idea/ideal of childhood began to decline, so too did the idea of adulthood, childhood’s opposite pole. A general tendency towards immaturity and irresponsibility in adults was the likely result. One of the signs of this (unfortunate) change could be found in an increasing tendency for adults and children to like the same music, films, and television programs. He didn’t have anything much to say about books, but it’s not hard to draw general conclusions from his argument.
The lost childhood that Postman had in mind is played out in the Harry Potter books that, in many respects, are reminiscent of British children’s books of the1950s or 60s. Middle-class children, dressed in nice uniforms, walk across quadrangles, go to classes in harmonious if slightly gothic surroundings, and sleep snug in their boarding school dormitories. Working and playing hard, and in many ways ordinary, the children become the means by which the fantasy of the wizard world is stitched to the fictional ‘reality’: the fantastic world is an addition to the real world, not a viable alternative to it, as the ending of the books and films makes clear. Nineteen years after the final episode in the Harry/Voldemort drama that has driven the series, Harry and his wife Ginny see their son off to Hogwarts as he begins his own wizarding education. Once he’s on the train they will turn away and go back to their lives in the hidden wizarding enclaves that exist beside the ‘real’ Muggles’ world.
With or without his fantasy self, Harry doesn’t pass very well as a contemporary boy in either the books or the films. He’s a hero of the old-fashioned kind. Chris Columbus, the director of the first two films in the series, remarked that he wanted to create a sense that the films could have been made in 1955 or 2001; what he was hoping to achieve was a ‘sense of timelessness’; the timelessness, in other words, of the idea/ideal of childhood, the one which Postman thought to be in rapid decline.
The popularity of Harry Potter and his fantasy world can be thought of as a response to the loss that Postman and many other critics have anatomised, pointing to an increasing sexualisation and ‘adultification’ of childhood, to use Postman’s term. From this perspective the books and films can be interpreted as a last flowering, not just of the childhoods of the fans who thronged Trafalgar Square, but of the idea and ideal of childhood that has taken shape over the past 500 years. If Susan Greenfield, the British scientist and professor of synapatic pharmacology at Oxford’s Lincoln College, is right, children’s brains are changing as I write, a result of developments in modern technology and social networking sites. She frequently remarks that children today tend to live in a world that limits them in ways that older generations could not have imagined. An example of this limitation is one that any person over about forty might point to: a lack of freedom from adult supervision. Children’s range of literal geographic freedom—that is, the area in which they are free to roam unattended—is, so some research claims, 90 per cent less than experienced in childhoods just twenty years ago, for example. Childhood cannot be the same again, if it ever was: childhood is as much a cultural construct as a physical stage in life, and like every other cultural form is ever-changing.
A retreat into fantasy as a compensation for the ills of the world is probably as old as time. Fantasy can also be a means by which to launch a critique of the real world. Compensatory rather than critical, Rowling’s novels are an old fashioned kind of children’s writing, in spite of all the hype and wizardry. The technology of Harry’s world, for example, is remarkably primitive in comparison to the technology that brought it to the screen. Harry and his friends and adversaries depend on spells—magic—to manage their world, not some astonishing extension of the human technology of the fictional ‘real’ world of Muggles, the non-magic folk, over which some wizards marvel with a kind of charmed but baffled condescension. It’s a world of fairytale myth and folklore, dressed up in modern clothes and complete with modern references. Yet, unlike Peter Pan, that prototypical figure of children’s books of the golden age of children’s fiction, Harry does grow up. And he does so happily ever after, with Ginny and their children, a male Cinderella figure no more.
Postman’s analysis of the end of childhood took account of the history of the ideal we have inherited, pointing out the stages of its development in which children moved from being co-workers to dependents, from marriage at eleven to schooling well into adolescence and beyond. Perhaps children’s brains are changing as a result of contemporary technology, and perhaps a new kind of childhood is emerging, for good or ill. Rowling’s novels and the films that followed them have little to say to this conundrum. Unlike Dickens, whose interest in social reform is integral to his characters and narrative development, Rowling’s world is childlike, in what is already an old-fashioned sense, from the simplicity of its concept of good and evil to its plot devices and themes. Whether this is in response to an increasingly childish or infantilised culture and/or another element in this culture’s creation remains a puzzle over which many heads will be scratched. Whatever the case, 450 million copies of the book and eight films are out there, at work. What is certain is that, for the moment at least, the Harry Potter series is a phenomenon, the cause of which poses more questions about our contemporary world than can at present be easily or simply answered.
Valerie Krips is an Arena Magazine editor and an Honorary Fellow in the School of Culture and Communication, University of Melbourne.