The Ivory Tower and Harry Potter: Perspectives on a Literary Phenomenon

The Ivory Tower and Harry Potter: Perspectives on a Literary Phenomenon

The Ivory Tower and Harry Potter: Perspectives on a Literary Phenomenon

The Ivory Tower and Harry Potter: Perspectives on a Literary Phenomenon


In 2000, Forbes listed J. K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter series, as nineteenth in celebrity earnings, only two places behind another phenomenon, Michael Jordan. Translated into nearly three dozen languages, Rowling's books have both elicited praise and provoked controversy. In The Ivory Tower and Harry Potter, contributors from Great Britain, the United States, and Canada offer the first book-length analysis of Rowling's work from a broad range of perspectives within literature, folklore, psychology, sociology, and popular culture. A significant portion of the book explores the Harry Potter series' literary ancestors, including magic and fantasy works by Ursula K. LeGuin, Monica Furlong, Jill Murphy, and others, as well as previous works about the British boarding school experience. Other chapters explore the moral and ethical dimensions of Harry's world, including objections to the series raised within some religious circles. Rowling's use of folkloric devices is examined, particularly in terms of how these elements increase the books' appeal for children. The handling of British slang in U.S. editions and difficulties in translating Rowling's work for foreign-language editions are also addressed. The books' appeal for adolescent boys, not customarily a strong presence in the reading market, is explored within a cultural framework, and gender dynamics are discussed from the standpoint of contemporary feminist literary theory, focusing on the character of Hermione Granger. The concluding chapters survey the development of fan communities and the implications of the Harry Potter commercial empire -- books, motion pictures, action-figure toys, and other consumer goods -- for the series' literary standing. Written to ensure its accessibility to a broad audience, this volume will appeal to librarians, teachers, parents, and the general Potter reader, as well as to literature scholars.


Since the publication of his first adventure, Harry Potter has caused more disagreement both among parents and others who decide what children ought to be reading, and among the scholars I have talked to, than any other children's book in recent memory. This may be because J. K. Rowling has done something new and bent a number of the “rules” of the fantastic.

To begin with, she has departed from the imaginary into the real. She has abandoned the realm of high fantasy and laid her story in contemporary England, rather than in the imaginary and medievally flavored otherworlds of Middle Earth or Earthsea, or even the world of Alan Garner's The Owl Service where the magic is a remnant, a revenant, of ancient and powerful myth. There are no swords in this sorcery. Rowling suggests the existence of witches and wizards in the world we inhabit here and now in a way that is disturbing to those who like their world to stay still.

In Harry's world, very little stays still. The subjects in photographs and oil paintings move about, the latter occasionally leaving their frames entirely to visit other artwork. The setting for most of the books' action, Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, is enchanted so that it cannot be plotted on a map, and its architecture is unstable: “There were a hundred and forty-two staircases at Hogwarts: wide, sweeping ones; narrow, rickety ones; some that led somewhere different on a Friday; some with a vanishing step halfway up that you had to remember to jump” (Sorcerer's Stone, 131). It is as if Rowling is saying to her reader from the start: Don't count on anything staying still. Don't count on things being what you're used to, or even what you might approve of.

In this world, magic is part of everyday life, unseen by the Muggles, but practiced with casual cheerfulness by all those who understand it. There are no quests for magic rings or dragon feathers. This is contemporary England, and instead we find bankers and government bureaucracy. People, even magical ones, have to get jobs. But across everything is the veil of magic . . .

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