Harry Potter and the "Deeper Magic": Narrating Hope in Children's Literature

By Griesinger, Emily | Christianity and Literature, Spring 2002 | Go to article overview

Harry Potter and the "Deeper Magic": Narrating Hope in Children's Literature


Griesinger, Emily, Christianity and Literature


With the remarkable 3.5 million first printing of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, the fourth volume in the series, thirty-seven-year-old Joanna Kathleen Rowling has achieved the dream of every adult or children's author: people everywhere are buying, reading, writing, and talking about Harry Potter. "You don't have to be a wizard or a kid," says columnist Cathy Hainer in USA Today, "to appreciate the spell cast by Harry Potter." Roger Sutton, editor of one of the best-known journals in the field of children's literature, The Hornbook Magazine, rained on Rowling's parade by judging the first book" critically insignificant" (500), but sales of the first four novels--Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (1997), Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (1999), Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (1999), and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2000)--have earned their author over $30 million to date (Abanes 8n2). Her American publisher, Scholastic Inc., has made more than that, already as much as $200 million according to some estimates (Abanes 2), and will make even more when the remaining three novels are published in 2002 and 2003. Who could have predicted that Rowling, a single mother on welfare, would produce the "`cash cow'" (qtd. in Sokoloff) or, as others have said, the "golden goose" of the century (Maslin), inspiring a huge industry in everything from lunch boxes and beach towels to coloring books and jelly beans? And, since she recently sold the film rights for the complete series to Warner Brothers, the first film, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, earning $31.3 million on the first day, with ABC picking up the television rights in a deal estimated at $140 million, there no doubt will be more Potter products to come (Abramowitz and Day). Meanwhile Rowling has toured the United States and Europe, been on dozens of talk shows, and was even invited to Buckingham Palace, where she received the Order of the British Empire (Soares). By any estimate this first-time author has made a significant contribution to the field of children's literature.

In questioning the critical significance of Harry Potter, Sutton perhaps means to imply that these books, while wildly popular with the masses, are not to be read or taken seriously by scholars. Some scholars, however, are taking them seriously. Nicholas Tucker's "The Rise and Rise of Harry Potter" in Children's Literature in Education contextualizes Rowling's work within the fairy-tale tradition. The popularity of Rowling's "determinedly old-fashioned" (222) fairy tale suggests that modern children and their parents are tired of contemporary realism in children's fiction--stories about drugs, alcohol, divorce, and sex, none of which appear so far in the Potter series. What we have instead is a "distinctly backward-looking" fantasy of the children's boarding-school variety that, according to Tucker, caters to the escapist dreams of anyone who ever went to school and didn't like it. Harry Potter contains "melodrama, moral certainty, and agreeable wish fulfillment," which makes it "good but not great literature" (228). Still, we should not write off the series altogether because three titles remain. Perhaps it will get better. Feminist critic Deborah Thompson loves the series but cautions against "unbridled adulation" because, despite the cute fun and the magic, Harry Potter contains "gendered images more common to the mid-twentieth century than to the twenty-first" (42). Boy wizards like Harry have all the fun while girl wizards like his friend, Hermione, mope around, nag, or go to the library. Children's fairy-tale expert Jack Zipes agrees. The fantasy world in Harry Potter is not skeptical enough about the original messages of conventional fairy tales, which, claims Zipes, were sexist and patriarchal. Like all the other one-dimensional "good" characters in the story, Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger circle around Harry with his "phallic wand" in order to "highlight his extraordinary role as Boy Scout/detective" (180). …

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