Harry Potter and the Book of Gold, An Essay by Paul Weimer
“Harry — yer a wizard.”
— Hagrid, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Chapter 4
“And now, Harry, let us step out into the night and pursue that flighty temptress, adventure.”
–Dumbledore, Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince, Chapter 3
In the Urth series by Gene Wolfe, The Book of Gold is the name used by the Librarian to describe the magical book encountered in childhood that opens up the world of books for a child. The Harry Potter series, with its strengths and faults, is, in my opinion, intended or not by Ms. Rowling, a contemporary attempt at a Book of Gold.
In the light of that, the Harry Potter series, six books in all with a seventh planned, have been translated into 47 countries, sold 300 million copies, spawned several video games, and four movies that have collectively grossed, worldwide, 2.6 billion dollars.
In the sub-genre of Science Fiction and Fantasy, I contend that the popularity of the Harry Potter series has been part of the zeitgeist of the tilting away from Science Fiction toward Fantasy. The popularity of the novels and the movies have made fantasy novels, especially of the same formula, more popular than their high tech counterparts.
Beyond this, however, what of the novels themselves? Why are the novels so popular, that midnight book parties have been held? That the books have even impressed themselves into popular culture, such as a scene in the movie version of The Devil Wears Prada, where Anne Hathaway’s character was tasked on obtaining the latest volume in the series.
Several aspects of the series come to mind. The formulaic form of the six novels, the setting of the novels, and the novels’ characters all contribute to their appeal.
The six, and presumably the final novel, follow a formula that is modular in overall nature, but the progression through the series is one of growth and maturity in Harry, making the series overall a bildungsroman. Harry begins the book in the company of the Dursleys, has a transformative or significant event while there or in the process of leaving their company for the season, and then journeys to Hogwarts, whereupon he deals with the pressures of study, growing up, and of course, the threat of Voldemort.
With such a structure, the child and teenage audience can easily pick up successive volumes in the series and know in a broad outline what to expect. It does limit the Harry Potter series as a form of literature, of course, but I do not think that the novels aspire to be High Literature in the sense that, say, Harold Bloom, might define it. The novels are meant to entertain, and Rowling knows her primary audience. This is not to say, of course, that adults cannot enjoy the novels. I enjoyed the novels, and certainly the sales figures of the books imply that the audience for the novels go far beyond those of similar age to Harry and his friends.
The setting, to use the British vernacular, is a brilliant stroke. The idea of a magical school is far from a new one, but Rowling combines the familiar with the magical, in the setting of Hogwarts itself. A co-educational dormitory school, but for budding wizards rather than ordinary students. This provides a dual sense of community for the students, marked both by physical separation from the outside world in most cases and throughout most of the novels, and the separation of their special nature, from the muggles. The young readers are thus subtly encouraged to identify strongly with this sense of community, from the physical layout of the setting to the idea of a often fractious, but still, tightly bound group of young men and women.
The split of the student body into four Houses provides a tailor made form and structure for rivalries and competition between students in the books. The teachers are a mix of personalities ranging from the admired to the adversarial. The strange layout of Hogwarts is a character in and of itself, with its secret passages, hidden secrets, strange staircases, and unusual architecture. Rowling successively describes it and the characters in more and more detail, revealing a complete and vivid world that is just out of sight of the mundane one that the readers inhabit.
As far as the characters themselves, it is the characters that are the rock that the novels rise and fall upon. While it is arguable that Harry himself is unworthy of his position, being an averagely talented young wizard who often gets through on luck or reliance on his friends, the plight and growth of Harry makes up for the shortcomings of him as a active wizard to be. His friends, especially in the personages of Ron and Hermione, form a triumvirate of characters for the readers to identify with. Many of the young readers can see, or know, of the brilliance of Hermione, or the loyalty of Ronald, with the specialness of Harry as the center and bridge between the two.
More minor characters besides the triumvirate serve as well. Draco Malfoy is the quintessential antagonist, the school bully that all of the readers, thirteen or fifty nine, can recognize. The Weasley family, from the parents to Ginny, provide Harry, and the readers, with a vision of a true large family, with all of its faults and virtues, that Harry himself lacks in his endured living with the Dursleys. The teachers I mentioned before, ranging from Dumbledore, the school master that any young person might wish were their school principal, through the dark and mysterious Snape, to the often humorously depicted Trewlaney.
And what of Voldemort himself, Harry’s nemesis? Progressively growing stronger with each book, as Harry matures, comes into his power, gathers his allies, and learns, so does Voldemort. Starting as a parasite upon another, Voldemort gradually becomes more and more terrifyingly capable, a greater and greater foe. While the books do have an episodic and modular format, the confrontations with Voldemort, or with the minions of Voldemort, increase in intensity and danger for the protagonist in successive novels. This does allow for the emotional growth of the reader, and is an argument against a young reader reading all six novels in rapid succession.
Thusly, with Harry, his friends, cohorts, and enemies, the Harry Potter novels together have a raft of characters that engage the reader. While some border on caricature, and others are relatively simple in scope and emotional breadth, this is a feature and not a bug. It allows for the readers to quickly identify with and understand the characters in Harry’s world, and provides the last leg in the appeal of the books to readers of all ages.
Its easy, in the end, to dismiss the books but it is a mistake, in my opinion, to do so. While they might not be the lasting literature that survives a thousand years or even a single century, the novels suit well in the here and now. While the novels are not the high literature that is written with the skill of a Joyce, a Shakespeare, a Twain, the novels are written well enough both for their intended audience, and older readers, that the time spent in the world of Harry, and his friends and enemies, is time well spent. This is true both of those readers barely mature enough to read the books, or be read to, as well as adults.
And while the novels are neither the didactic message-laden books that are often found on school book lists these days, nor are high literature that will last the ages, the books can and do belong in that place for a book that wants to be read, a book that engenders a sense of wonder and adventure in the reader for all books, a book that creates a love of reading itself that will go on long past the Harry Potter series itself: A Book of Gold.
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