This past weekend I found myself entertaining two disparate groups of friends. One of whom, a lady of about my own age, remarked that she had never seen any of the Harry Potter films.
The other group, all in their early twenties, reacted with a stunned awe that it took a while for this child of the ’80s to fathom.
For all those kids born after 1990, the Harry Potter books were their Lord of the Rings, the films were their Star Wars. They are the only generation that got to see their characters grow into adolescence and adulthood in real-time alongside them.
While I understand and appreciate that this generation may be the ones to get the most out of the mythology, they are by no means the only ones in a position to appreciate it.
Indeed, the franchise earns a curious disdain amongst many my own age, even amongst people who have a great love for popular mythologies like Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, The Dark Tower et al.
For my own part, I was happy to let the whole cultural phenomenon pass me by, until a few short years ago.
I couldn’t sleep one night while staying over at an acquaintance’s house. In a desperate grab for something, anything to read (they weren’t the most literate family) I pulled an old and dog eared copy of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone from the shelf.
Much to my surprise I found myself blitzing through it that very night and upon returning home, I checked out the remaining six books in the franchise from my local library and set about devouring them with the same fervour… Although I must confess that Goblet and Phoenix gave me indigestion.
As easy as it can be to criticise Jo Rowling (Stephen King famously said that the author “never met an adverb she didn’t like”) she hit on some important themes that struck a chord with audiences of all ages, all over the world.
Film adaptations were inevitable, and while at first i could take or leave Chris Columbus’ original Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (changed to the marginally more exciting Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone for the Yanks), the sheer craft and talent of the film’s production gives me something new to appreciate every time.
As much as the films serve as milestones for cinematic family entertainment (it would be no hyperbole to say that the Potter franchise is WB’s Star Wars), there are certain intrinsic cultural and narrative resonances in the source material that just make the stores work.
And they work for just about everybody, given a chance. Here’s why…
- Enduring Characters
Harry himself is kind of a cipher. he has a lot of given circumstances, don’t get me wrong, but in terms of personality he’s something of a bland slate. This is both deliberate and clever, mind you. Heroes, especially heroes of children’s literature (come on folks, I love them too- but they are kids’ books), need to have an amorphous aspect to their nature. The reader needs to be able to project elements of themselves onto their hero in order for the story to really resonate and Harry is a neat metaphor for the adolescent trying to make sense of the strange, wonderful, magical, terrifying world around them.
Drawing from a little bit of Dickens and a little bit of C S Lewis and a little bit of Edward Lear, Rowling manages to weave magic with both the fantastical and ordinary characters.
They’re keenly observed too!
Look in any school playground and you’ll find a Ron Weasley cursing his threadbare hand-me-down coat. You’ll see a Hermione Granger, clutching her books in an effort to prove her worth to a skeptical world. You’ll probably find a Neville Longbottom if you look hard enough, head bowed, hands in pockets, hiding from the world little dreaming that he’s going to turn into a smoking hot adult with perfectly chiselled abs.
Voldemort, like Darth Vader, is a parable for the dangers of misuse of power and talent. The Weasley twins show us that academic achievement isn’t the only means through which one can become successful. Sirius Black serves as a reminder that we shouldn’t believe everything we hear (or read) about someone. Remus Lupin shows that yes grown-ups have shit to deal with as well. Draco Malfoy is a quintessential bully whose motivations become increasingly tragic the more we get to know him.
And Dumbledore… The grandfather we all wish we had. Infinitely wise, patient and forgiving and he’s even afforded a few moments of wizarding badassery!
I could go on and on.
Suffice to say that Rowling draws on some mythic archetypes (more on that later), infuses them with some literary homages and crafts some wonderful characters.
2. Growing Pains & Power Fantasy
Like any form of super-power, be it from a radioactive spider bite or an alien power ring, the magic in the Potterverse is a metaphor for adolescence.
Between the ages of 11 and 17 we grow out of being coddled dependants and are given our first taste of adult power and responsibility. Opportunities present themselves to drive cars, drink alcohol, vote, fall in love and even get married. It’s an exciting but bamboozling time and these allegories of power-fantasy lay the groundwork for preparing ourselves for this.
Even if you don’t share a timeline with Harry Potter (who, weirdly, if he’d existed would be 35 now- that’s even older than this creaky blogger), his quotidian adolescent dramas will raise some familiar memories.
3. Mythic Archetypes
This is a fascinating subject. Carl Jung identified 12 recurring archetypes of classic literature and there are countless examples, variations and amalgams of these in the Potterverse. To list them would be a dry and boring exercise but there’s some clear Jungian influence on Rowling’s prose (as well as a smattering of Joseph Campbell’s “The Hero With a Thousand Faces”.
Check out this link and count them off as you go; the innocent (Luna Lovegood / Hermione Granger), the orphan (Harry / Tom Riddle), the Jester (Fred & George Weasley / Gilderoy Lockhart), the caregiver (Dumbledore/ Madame Pomfrey/ Hermione), the rebel (Draco Malfoy), the ruler (Voldemort / Cornelius Fudge). It’s an interesting exercise and Rowling clearly did her homework in carving loveable characters out of enduring mythic archetypes.
While set specifically in the early to mid 1990s there’s a charming anachronism to the Potterverse, particularly when we take that first step through the blank wall at King’s Cross.
It’s another shrewd move by Rowling, who probably guessed that the endearing twee-ness of her mythology would play very well with American notions of just how quaint and charming it is over here.
It also grants the franchise built in longevity. These stories could quite easily take place at any time and your children and grandchildren will have no trouble relating to the characters and settings.
5. A World of Magic… Just Outside Our Reach
The films in particular do a great job of illustrating the interstitiality between the world of magic and our own (even if it’s tourism friendly face lift of London makes it a very different beast from the one we know). Walk down the right alley, tap the right brick and you’ll slide seamlessly into a world of every-day impossibilities hidden an inch behind the surface of our own.
It’s well trodden ground for sure, but its a trope that rarely fails to captivate and excite, because it makes the real world around us that little bit more special. In fact, if you want to see an intelligent and politically astute spin on this theme, you simply must check out China Mieville’s “The City and The City”, which is due a BBC miniseries adaptation (fuck knows how they’ll manage it, mind!).
If think you’re too old for Harry Potter, you’re not.
If you think it belongs to a generation other than your own, you’re wrong.
If you’ve been content to let it pass you by then mend your ways.
In fact at the time of writing there’s a gorgeous box set of AF format hard covers due for release next month. Do yourself a favour and pick it up.
Populist literature it may be.
Over exposed? Possibly.
But a good yarn is a good yearn!