Harry Potter's Cauldron: The Power of Myth and the Rebirth of the Sacred

By Virole, Benoit | Queen's Quarterly, Fall 2004 | Go to article overview

Harry Potter's Cauldron: The Power of Myth and the Rebirth of the Sacred


Virole, Benoit, Queen's Quarterly


Many parents would love to wave a magic wand and make Harry Potter disappear. The boy wizard's influence has extended far beyond the immensely successful series of books, and is now a global franchise of movies, video games, and sundry Harry paraphernalia. But while we may wish youngsters were reading Moby Dick or Oliver Twist, they may well wish that we could understand what we are missing in the Harry Potter phenomenon. Author J.K. Rowling has fashioned an ongoing narrative quest in the classical tradition, but one that is particularly suited to the way today's children mentally conjure a literary adventure.

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IN LITERARY CIRCLES, the mention of Harry Potter is liable to annoy. Here's a work--we might as well call it that--antithetical to established literary values, sustained by clearly monetary interests, and which in a few short years has climbed to an astonishing peak of international glory and financial success. Those are the facts. But not content with putting in a single appearance, the success continues and is repeated with each instalment in a series whose rhythm is shrewdly orchestrated by a score combining complex lines blending writing, cinema, and the video game industry.

J.K. Rowling's uncommon success is often attributed to good marketing, to promotional campaigns, and even to the rise of mass cultural consumption. This explanation is not without substance. The existence of an industry driven by spin-offs should be enough to make us realize that Harry Potter's success is the result of a global marketing strategy designed to exploit to the lees the public's devotion to the adventures of the young wizard. Movie follows book at a measured pace. The book is just the first phase in a string of consumer goods that generate others in their turn. With their content tightly under the author's control, the movies tell the books' tales with remarkable fidelity. Harry Potter is also the first work that genuinely incorporates the new givens of the video game market. A ready-made closed world, well-defined units of time, well-defined places with their trappings differentiated like stage settings, gains and losses of power, the construction and collapse of alliances, projective identification with the principal characters, cliff-hangers pointing to the next product--all the structural elements of a video game are integrated into Rowling's very writing. Book, movie, and video game are the three facets of a single multimedia product limning what might be the objects of mass "culture" to come: composite objects launched into different consumer spaces. But it is remarkable that the root of this composite object is still a book.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

There is certainly material here for an in-depth sociological analysis of Harry Potter's success. And yet an explanation by market strategy alone cannot explain that success, because many other products have been launched and maintained in the same way without ever producing a comparable phenomenon. Advertising, evolving market expectations, and changes due to the globalization of culture certainly play an important role, but they have only amplified something that's a very real literary success among young readers. Stewing in Rowling's magic cauldron is a unique recipe that has latched on to the spirit of our time.

LET ME TRY to identify some of the ingredients in this mysterious recipe. Harry Potter is a young hero whose tragic past (the dramatic death of his parents) and singular destiny (Harry is unique: on his forehead he bears a mark of predestination) will allow young readers to identify with him since the readers are themselves locked in their own unconscious novels of origin. To live an exceptional life and to be the child of an extraordinary, but vanished, couple is a universal fantasy linked to the Oedipus complex and therefore constitutive of human nature. This is certainly a psychoanalytic theme common to many other literary works for young people, but J. …

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