Potterliteracy: Cross-Media Narratives, Cultures and Grammars

By Burn, Andrew | Papers: Explorations into Children's Literature, November 2004 | Go to article overview

Potterliteracy: Cross-Media Narratives, Cultures and Grammars


Burn, Andrew, Papers: Explorations into Children's Literature


There is something Janus-faced about the Harry Potter novels. As Nicholas Tucker observes (1999), they look backwards in time to their sources in folktale and children's literature: to the orphan changeling stories of fairytale and of Frances Hodgson Burnett: to the magical characters and anthropomorphic animals of Victorian and Edwardian children's literature, from The Princess and the Goblin to The Phoenix and the Carpet, to the portals and parallel worlds of the Chronicles of Narnia; to boarding-school stories from Tom Brown's Schooldays to Jennings Goes to School; to the obsession with tuck in the post-war stories of Enid Blyton. On the other hand, as Tucker also points out, they are also rooted in the contemporary moment. Tucker's argument here is that they contain structures influenced, above all, by the images and practices of video-games. He cites, among other things, the arcade-like game of Quidditch; and the lists, maps and other means of puzzle-solving and game-survival that characterise the books.

The question of whether games influence books or the other way round is perhaps debatable in this case: Tolkien's stories also have maps, lists, puzzles and so on: The Lord of the Rings gave rise to one of the most popular of modern game-genres, the RPG(roleplaying game); and, as Marie-Laure Ryan observes (2001), some stories are ideally adapted to serve as the basis of games. In the same way, the Potter stories may be organised around the kinds of structures that make good games: quests, magical objects, helpers, monster opponents, a bounded fantasy world, a puzzle dynamic. However, Tucker's thesis is generally convincing, and, in the context of the film and computer game adaptations which form part of the AOL-Time-Warner franchise which has acquired the Potter rights, prompts some urgent questions for the teaching of literacy and literature. We can no longer afford to see literature as an entirely distinct mode and culture, with its own distinct literacy, as early studies of the relation between games and writing show (Beavis 2001, McClay 2002, Mackereth and Anderson 2000). The books have grown into a cross-media craze, in which children's engagement extends across novels, films, computer games, the internet, and a range of merchandise worthy of StarWars. We need to think, then, how different literacies come into play, how they connect, what they have in common. We also need to consider how these are located in the context of children's contemporary media cultures--the games they play, the films and TV programmes they watch, the comics they read. However, it is worth remembering that such cross-media cultures are not by any means a new phenomenon; Margaret Mackey (2001) compares the Potter franchise to the growth of Frank L Baum's Wizard of Oz series a hundred years ago, and its extensive (and lucrative) adaptation into plays, comic strips and trading cards.

This is an opportunity to think hard about the rhetorics of multiliteracy and media literacy. What exactly do these mean when we look at the detail, at the 'micro-level' of literacy (Buckingham 2003)? How does a particular image or narrative moment 'translate' across different media? If we expect children to learn about the notion of 'character' in literature or film, what does this mean in the context of a game? If they learn the category of 'verb' in language, how do we talk about this category in film? How is the 'verb' different in the interactive media of computer games? And how do these processes relate to macro-literacy, to the broader cultural experience of books, films and games within which such meanings are situated?

And what are these different formal structures representing? At the heart of this question. I want to place the question about the social purpose of Harry Potter for children, and the forms of agency the character represents. This question runs through the literature: is the figure of Harry Potter essentially like the fairytale proxy for the child, pleasurable because he offers at least a fantasy of power in a world run by adults (Black 2003)? …

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