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A.S. Byatt has published an interesting essay on the popularity of the Harry Potter novels. The entire piece is worth a read, but I was particularly interested in this section:

Childhood reading remains potent for most of us. In a recent BBC survey of the top 100 "best reads", more than a quarter were children's books. We like to regress. I know that part of the reason I read Tolkien when I'm ill is that there is an almost total absence of sexuality in his world, which is restful.

But in the case of the great children's writers of the recent past, there was a compensating seriousness. There was - and is - a real sense of mystery, powerful forces, dangerous creatures in dark forests. Susan Cooper's teenage wizard discovers his magic powers and discovers simultaneously that he is in a cosmic battle between good and evil forces. Every bush and cloud glitters with secret significance. Alan Garner peoples real landscapes with malign, inhuman, elvish beings that hunt humans.

Reading writers like these, we feel we are being put back in touch with earlier parts of our culture, when supernatural and inhuman creatures - from whom we thought we learned our sense of good and evil - inhabited a world we did not feel we controlled. If we regress, we regress to a lost sense of significance we mourn for. Ursula K Le Guin's wizards inhabit an anthropologically coherent world where magic really does act as a force. Ms Rowling's magic wood has nothing in common with these lost worlds. It is small, and on the school grounds, and dangerous only because she says it is.

In this regard, it is magic for our time. Ms Rowling, I think, speaks to an adult generation that hasn't known, and doesn't care about, mystery. They are inhabitants of urban jungles, not of the real wild. They don't have the skills to tell ersatz magic from the real thing, for as children they daily invested the ersatz with what imagination they had.

I haven't read any of the novels, but from what I've seen in the films I can see where some could poke holes in Byatt's argument. Still, though, I like this idea that there's little room for real "mystery" in the popular consciousness right now.

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It's an interesting claim. I'm not sure she's right, at least as the point has been put. Like you, Darren, I sense something there in the idea of "little room for real mystery in popular consciousness right now," but I don't know what Ms. Byatt means when she says "It is small, and on the school grounds, and dangerous only because [Rowling] says it is." (I mean, on one level, obviously, everything in a novel is only because the writer says it is; if there's another sense in which something else is the case, I think the point needs to be drawn out and explained, not just taken for granted.)

For me, part of what is lacking in the HP books (as I remember them; it's been a few years since I've read any of them) relative to other series like Lloyd Alexander's Prydain Chronicles is what I remember as a lack of moral depth. Harry's world can be interesting, dangerous, imaginative, gratifying, grotesque, amusing, frustrating, and more, but I don't recall it often being illuminating, insightful, or wise. Everything turns on whether or not Harry and his friends can achieve their ends and defeat their adversaries, but little attention is given to how they grow or change, what they are becoming, what they learn, whether they do the right thing or the wrong thing.

The Prydain Chronicles are, very largely, about Taran's gradual transition from foolishness to wisdom, irresponsibility to responsibility, pride to humility and self-sacrifice and service to others, love of glory to satisfaction in meaningful accomplishments. Very often the overriding question is what is the right thing for Taran to do? The HP books, by contrast, are largely about will Harry figure out what's going on, escape certain doom, thwart Voldemort, pay out Malfoy, win the Quidditch match, etc. The overriding question seems to me generally to be what does Harry need to do to win?

Not that the stories are entirely devoid of moral depth; but the anti-snobbery theme, for instance, is somewhat thwarted by the book's own almost total lack of interest in Muggles and Muggle affairs; and Dumbledore's tidy moralizing does usually seem a bit tacked-on.

Edited by SDG

“I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.” — Flannery O'Connor

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This essay is 23 months old, and coincides with the New York Times essay that we discussed in the thread on that topic nearly two years ago. I haven't picked the essays apart yet to see if there are any variations between them, but the substance seems the same (e.g., a search for the word "numinous" turns up the sentence "Ms Rowling's magic world has no place for the numinous," the only variation being that "Ms" is followed by a period in the American paper but not in the British one).

"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

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