'Abandoned Boys' and 'Pampered Princes': Fantasy as the Journey to Reality in the Harry Potter Sequence

By Webb, Caroline | Papers: Explorations into Children's Literature, December 2008 | Go to article overview

'Abandoned Boys' and 'Pampered Princes': Fantasy as the Journey to Reality in the Harry Potter Sequence


Webb, Caroline, Papers: Explorations into Children's Literature


With the publication of the seventh and final novel in the Harry Potter sequence, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (2007), it is at last possible to judge not only the thematic agendas of the sequence but also its overarching narrative strategy. The early novels of the Harry Potter series were derided, among other things, for an apparent formulaic quality, effectively identified by critics such as Zipes. Not only did Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (1997) demonstrably owe a large debt to the structure and characterisation of the conventional early twentieth-century British school story, but its two sequels, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (1998) and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (1999), closely imitated the structure of the first, as Zipes has shown in some detail (Zipes, 2001, pp. 176-77). (1) To such critics as Zipes, this imitative structure made manifest the poverty of Rowling's invention and the consequent unoriginality of her writing.

The later novels of the sequence, however, introduced more disturbing elements at both plot and emotional level, and moved away from the cosy pattern so effectively established in Philosopher's Stone. The return of Voldemort in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2000) was accompanied by the sudden death of a likable if minor character. In Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2003), admittedly the longest of the sequence, Harry did not reach Hogwarts for over two hundred pages, and when he did it was to discover that Hogwarts was no longer the safe home he had generally found it, despite the unpleasantness of Severus Snape and the betrayals of Quirrell and the fake Moody, across the first four novels. If Goblet of Fire proved that Harry could in fact be abducted from within Hogwarts, Order of the Phoenix turned Hogwarts itself into a place of physical and emotional pain as well as of a much more threatening, because all-encompassing, injustice than the malice of Snape. But Rowling was to go further than this. The deaths of Cedric Diggory in Goblet of Fire and even of Sirius Black in Order of the Phoenix, for example, upsetting as these were, did not prepare readers either for the much more shocking death of the apparently omniscient and omnipotent Dumbledore at the end of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2005) or for the bloodbath of Deathly Hallows, in which I count over twenty deaths of named characters. (2)

In this paper I wish to consider the implications of the final Harry Potter novels, especially Deathly Hallows, for understanding the pedagogic strategies of the sequence as a whole. Several educators have pointed out ways in which Rowling's novels can be used illustratively for the teaching of various topics, from the trauma of Holocaust survival (Katz 2003) to the operation of Latin etymology in English (Nilsen & Nilsen 2006). I argue here that Rowling's developing narrative not only describes Harry's moral journey, as is made very explicit in the later texts and which I therefore shall not belabour, but requires the reader to enact a journey from the cosy and cliched fantasy derided by Zipes (who says Rowling 'remains within the predictable happy-end school of fairy-tale writers' [Zipes 2001, p. 182]) to a readiness for moral and intellectual encounter with reality. While the early novels do provide easy satisfaction, I argue that the sequence as a whole leads us beyond them and invites us to interrogate their pleasures not only through the development of the action but through Rowling's changing narrative strategies.

The opening chapter of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix offered a clear demonstration of Rowling's interest in the adolescent experience both of her protagonist and of her readers. (3) Whereas earlier novels opened with a glimpse of a lonely, resigned, or upset Harry, Order of the Phoenix depicts the protagonist seething with adolescent frustration. Harry is here portrayed also as nasty to his cousin Dudley unprompted for the first time.

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