Academic journal article Michigan Quarterly Review

A Little Touch of Harry

Academic journal article Michigan Quarterly Review

A Little Touch of Harry

Article excerpt

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. By J. K. Rowling. London: Scholastic Press, 1999. Pp. 317. $19.95.

Like its two predecessors, this third volume of a seven-part series taps into that area of a reader's imagination least concerned with reality and most taken up with those immemorial, compensatory fantasies found whenever folk or fairy tales have been recorded. Yet because any indefinitely prolonged feast, imaginary or otherwise, eventually palls through excess, the author J. K. Bowling also includes a very different group of fantasies in her books. These are equally remote from reality, but they are more of the depressive, persecutory type familiar to all readers in moments of gloom or, more frighteningly, as the stuff of nightmares.

The end product of this particular fantasy cocktail in the Potter stories is a formula that provides moments of great imaginative fulfillment arising from episodes of suspense and occasional terror. Adult readers, accustomed to the way of novels, can assure themselves that Harry will survive come what may. Younger, less experienced readers may not always be so certain. No wonder they are sometimes seen reading this latest book while walking home immediately after making its purchase.

The wish-fulfillment side is little different in all the books so far. In this latest work Harry still enjoys the power of flight, courtesy of his favorite broomstick, other artifacts, or various mythological animals. He now possesses a cloak of invisibility and continues to command a variety of impressive spells. There is also his ongoing, enormous fame, which derives from the fact that he is the son of eminent but long-lost parents-the type of Family Romance that Freud identified as a common fantasy among children. When in the early pages Stan the bus driver exclaims gleefully on discovering he has actually given the famous Harry a ride, readers can cherish for themselves the type of celebrity that has nothing to do with having had to work hard or possess some outsize talent. Fantasies of achieving that type of celebrity exist too, but children particularly are drawn to the idea of possessing extraordinarily famous parents as the shortest of cuts for winning instant respect for themselves.

Once at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, Harry joins an already elite corps of pupils insulated from the "villagers" below who, as in any standard horror film, are shown as a humble group ignorant of all the adventures going on at the castellated building looming over them. Even among his own highly privileged group of pupils, Harry stands out. He is a genius at the all-important game of "quidditch," a special friend of the twinkly-eyed headmaster Professor Albus Dumbledore and popular with other pupils, teachers, and ground staff except those who persist in behaving in outlandish ways toward him. Yet even this bad behavior is another backhanded endorsement of Harry's natural superiority. He creates jealousy among a few simply by his very fame and skill at games or because of the enviable fame of his witch and wizard parents.

The implied flattery of being the object of such hatred even when young coexists with a vein of masochism running through these stories. This motif in no way works against their popularity, since, as Freud pointed out, an attraction to the idea of masochism is part of what he famously called the psychopathology of everyday life. Harry's mainly passive suffering of the cruelties of his appalling uncle and aunt provides a fictional reflection of the general sense of injustice known to most children in some moods or on some occasions. From Cinderella onwards, initially masochistic stories like the Potter books have often proved particularly popular. Readers can identify both with the initial self pity and with the succeeding fantasy of omnipotence when all wrongs are eventually put right.

Yet there is another note in the Potter stories that goes beyond masochism into something more frightening. …

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