Harry Potter and The New Britain

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:51

    Into my heart an air that kills From yon far country blows: What are those blue remembered hills, What spires, what farms are those? That is the land of lost content, I see it shining plain: The happy highways where I went And cannot come again. ?A.E. Housman When I was last in London three years ago, I was amazed to find how many of the people I'd known at Oxford had close friends or relatives marrying into families of another race. It wasn't just our crowd: everywhere I went I seemed to encounter what you almost never see in America?comfortably unlike couples blending into the fabric of society with apparent unself-consciousness and ease. The hit play in the West End, which had been running two years, concerned a mixed-race family in the provinces: it began with a white woman calling upstairs in a Midlands accent to her several children, all of whom had Indian names, a gag that literally stopped the show. n I couldn't have been more surprised. The particular college I had attended at Oxford had not been especially backward-looking. (If anything, it was known for being a little "left wing." Terry Eagleton, the renowned Marxist critic, presided over the English department there.) Most of my English friends had been at Westminster, the Dalton of London private schools. By English public-school standards it was considered comparatively with-it and cosmopolitan. So I'd been taken aback, once, hearing myself referred to by someone I regarded as a friend as "that sharp-tongued American," and astonished at being made to feel like a foreigner and a Jew by the barrister parents of my Westminster boyfriend. I never got used to the near-open hostility and contempt the British routinely direct toward anyone they regard as an outsider, though I must have come to expect it. I remember how I used to stand braced for unpleasantness in the line at British customs, if there happened to be a West Indian or a Pakistani family ahead of me, and the wave of fierce?almost nationalistic?pride that swept over me on opening The New York Times, with the Brixton riots going on, and finding a news article written from the perspective of the nonwhite rioters.

    But in that couple of weeks I spent back in 1997, the winds of change really seemed to be blowing and London was like a new world. Tony Blair had been elected the week before and friends of mine who had been raised on socialism were saying only half in jest that for the first time in years they felt proud to be able to call themselves British. The meaning of that word, meanwhile, was changing and everyone seemed conscious of it. Wherever you looked you saw indications of a nation in the throes of self-definition, trying to reinvent itself. I began collecting anecdotes: a Sunday magazine piece about "the changing face of Britain"; news stories about how Britain was rethinking its image, edging toward a more inclusive vision of society. MI5, it was reported, had decreed that homosexuals in the British secret service need no longer keep their lifestyle and preferences hidden. One item even reported that London Transport was considering changing the color of the double-decker bus?something to do with the no-longer-desirable connotations of tradition itself.

    This opening-up of British culture and society is what I take to be the covert theme of J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter books, stories that first began to appear in 1997 about a parallel world in which a race of people with magical powers secretly educate their young in the history, traditions and mores of another culture. The particular culture in question happens to be the practice of witchcraft and "wizardry," a circumstance that has led certain fringe groups to detect Satanic overtones in the series and seek to have them suppressed.

    There have been three Harry Potter books published so far; a fourth is expected out next summer, with two or three more projected after that. Rowling has disclosed plans to produce a volume a year, and for each of the books?they are set primarily at a conservatory for young witches and wizards?to correspond with one of the years that British children spend in secondary school. Thus Harry and his friends and classmates can grow progressively older volume by volume along with their primary readership. (The first three volumes of Harry Potter have been issued in Britain in non-juvenile editions so that grownups may read them openly.) Big news in the book publishing world (big enough to be reported in an article in Time) was that Rowling's next offering would depict Harry entering adolescence, discovering girls. Bigger and better news, perhaps, is that the task of bringing Harry Potter to the screen has fallen to Steven Spielberg rather than to some less genre-sensitive filmmaker.

    A number of other circumstances have meanwhile drawn attention from the media: the overnight transformation of Joanne Rowling from single welfare mother to best-selling author and the significance of the books' popularity both in England, where children have reportedly lined up outside of bookstores in anticipation of the next installment, and here in America, where a national debate has broken out over the correct scansion of the name of Harry's school-friend Hermione. All across America, schoolchildren are arguing about which syllable to stress?penult or antepenult??and I'm told that the talk-show host Rosie O'Donnell has weighed in on this issue of prosody, voicing her preference for "Her-mi-oh-ny" over the more conventional pronunciation. The message is clear: Thanks to J.K. Rowling, children are reading again.

    In America, where nothing promotes like repression, it's tempting to dismiss the fierce popularity of the books as owing solely to efforts of the Christian right to censor them. In fact, there are good reasons why children have embraced Harry Potter so warmly. Harry Potter represents the return of something in children's literature that began to go into eclipse around 30 years ago: the idea that magic could be used as a complex literary device. Beginning in the late 60s, juvenile fiction underwent a major transformation in this country, as newspapers and book publishers came to be staffed increasingly by high-minded boomers with little experience of child-rearing but strong opinions about what children should and shouldn't want to read?people who not long before would have been more likely to inhabit children's books than to edit or critique them.

    One result was an increased emphasis on "realism" over fantasy as a desirable subject for juvenile fiction. The assumption (questionable at best) seems to have been that children like to read exclusively about children like themselves. Since most of the people who were editing and reviewing children's books saw themselves as having been unhappy as children, they turned away from tried and true formulas?books about time-travel or about children finding magic objects and places and having magical adventures?and concentrated on producing books about what they saw as real children with real problems: pimples, divorce, custody, death?that sort of thing.

    During this period, the folks who presided over questions of juvenile reading matter didn't necessarily always have children's best interests at heart, though they probably thought they did (Hedda Nussbaum, it's worth remembering, was a children's book editor). As a result, the rules governing some of the forces within children's books themselves were allowed to change. Magic, which in the 50 years since World War I had become a sort of living, breathing, interactive metaphor for growing up?a moral stomping ground in which the child-protagonist could blunder freely about testing his mettle, finding out what he was made of and who he wanted to be?almost ceased to have any metaphorical content whatever. It became, rather, a sort of extension of the ordinary world?something that was actually there if only you looked long and hard enough. A lot of humor went out of children's books around this time, too. It was as though the new-age message of the 70s was that the more seriously the child-protagonist took himself, the better his chances of finding some vestigial link with the world of Arthurian legend.

    In the hands of such highly touted children's authors as Susan Cooper and Alan Garner, magic lost a good deal of its charm. It went back to being what it had been in Victorian children's literature, an escape for maladjusted grownups forever longing for the innocence and "lost content" of childhood. Of course, in the late 60s, children's books demonstrated another trend that seemed to echo Victorian patterns of thought: a return to the notion that it is the job of childhood reading to overtly influence thinking and behavior, a moralistic fervor that manifested itself in the form of political correctness.

    No doubt the pundits of the 60s and 70s told themselves that they were fostering future readers by fostering the publication of books that could be reasonably expected to compete with television, offering vivid immediacy and relevance. The experiment failed, just as Sesame Street failed. You can't use television to promote reading. You can use it to teach the alphabet all right. But the only thing television promotes is the watching of television. Only reading promotes reading. As anyone knows who was trying to teach school in the 80s, the educational theories of the 70s produced a generation of kids who had essentially learned that reading had nothing to offer them that television couldn't do better and who consequently hardly read at all. (The polite term for these children was "language disabled"?I don't know what it is now.)

    If Harry Potter rules?here and in England?that's probably because he and his pals have put the fun back into literary magic, restoring it to a form that can be experienced on more than one level. On the surface, as everyone keeps pointing out, the books are about a lonely and neglected orphan boy who discovers he has hitherto-unknown powers, a fact that has brought the students of Bettelheim out in droves, all brandishing their copies of The Uses of Enchantment. But the fun of the books lies in Harry's discovery of a world that is mysteriously like the everyday world only different. It's English epic at its best, this duality. The juxtaposition of magic and reality, their depiction as belonging to two contrasting worlds that comment on and inform each other, is in the best tradition of the English epic and drama, Arthur's court vs. the Green chapel and Sir Bertilak's castle, white world vs. red world, Forest of Arden vs. court.

    Everything in the magical world has its counterpart in the world of "Muggles," as ordinary folk without magical powers are called. It's a separate world with its own government and its own laws, its own currency, its own customs, its own social history. The school he attends, Hogwarts, situated in a remote castle in the Scottish highlands, is reachable by a train that leaves from Platform Nine and Three-quarters at King's Cross. At Hogwarts Harry studies things like Divination, Potions and History of Magic and, just as an ordinary child worries about having to take O-Levels and A-Levels (Ordinary and Advanced Level college entrance exams), Harry and his friends worry about taking O.W.L.s and N.E.W.T.s (Ordinary Wizarding Levels and Nastily Exhausting Wizarding Tests). He turns out to excel at a game called Quidditch that is played on flying broomsticks, though it seems to inspire the same passions and excitement that cricket does in the ordinary world. Our own entrance to this world, meanwhile, is through the eyes of Harry's bigoted foster parents, "the Dursleys of number four, Privet Drive," who are ashamed of having a wizard in the family and who are, when the first book opens, desperately afraid that someone will discover their secret.

    They didn't think they could bear it if anyone found out about the Potters. Mrs. Potter was Mrs. Dursley's sister, but they hadn't met for several years; in fact, Mrs. Dursley pretended she didn't have a sister, because her sister and her good-for-nothing husband were as unDursleyish as it was possible to be. The Dursleys shuddered to think what the neighbors would say if the Potters arrived in the street.

    The Potters and Dursleys each have "a small son," which is "another good reason for keeping the Potters away." The Dursleys don't want their son "mixing with a child like that." It's the language of racism made funny.

    Rowling is no stylist?yet; she's not Edward Eager or Roald Dahl. She has no sense of the drama of words, but she has an infallible ear for the drama of childhood and the culture of its woes, its boredom and powerlessness.

    Exam week began and an unnatural hush fell over the castle. The Third years emerged from Transfiguration at lunchtime on Monday, limp and ashen-faced, comparing results and bemoaning the difficulty of the tasks they had been set, which had included turning a teapot into a tortoise. Hermione irritated the rest by fussing about how her tortoise had looked more like a turtle, which was the least of everyone else's worries.

    "Mine still had a spout for a tail, what a nightmare...." "Were the tortoises supposed to breathe steam?" "It still had a willow-patterned shell, d'you think that'll count against me?" In fact, the Harry Potter books represent something rather extraordinary?unprecedented so far in the annals of children's literature?the democratization of the English public-school story. Traditionally, the English public-school story has always been fundamentally elitist: not only was it about the privileged, it was about inculcating upper-class British values. Rowling's story seems to be more of an exploration of the whole question of what it means to be British today. One of the first people Harry sees on the magical train platform at King's Cross is a boy with dredlocks. Another of his schoolmates is a little girl named Parvati. There are girls on the Quidditch team. What's more, they're not merely suffered, they seem to be needed to play a particular position.

    Not long ago, the doyenne of children's literature criticism, Alison Lurie, considering the Harry Potter phenomenon in The New York Review of Books, pointed out that where British and American society differ from other cultures is in the inherent romanticism with which they regard childhood. Where that similarity breaks down, in attitudes toward school and authority. The British love school; they romanticize it endlessly. In America high school is considered a nightmare?literally and iconographically. The American hero is the nonconformist, the rule-breaker. Offhand, I can't think of anything in British culture before Harry Potter that valued being different over conformity. In fact, I can't think of any work of British literature since Henry V (with its four captains of different nations) that has gone so far out of its way to emphasize or explore the homogeneous nature of Englishness.

    If the Potter books seem to be becoming more American in this regard, more like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, they also seem to be exploring the moral issue of what it means to be British. The first volume in the series makes Hogwarts a pretty straightfoward equivalent to Eton: Harry's name, we're told, has been "down for Hogwarts since before he was born," and his parents were Head Boy and Girl there. By the second volume, a conflict has arisen between the children at the school who have been raised to think that pure-blooded witches and wizards are superior to the children of Muggles who are born with magical powers, "Mudbloods" they are called in what is explicitly offered as a derogatory and vulgar term. The third volume seems to put a value not only on nonconformity but on rule-breaking.

    Will Rowling, who is herself something of an outsider (she's Scottish), be able to bring herself to countenance some of the other qualities considered faults in Britain that immigrant cultures tend to value, things like passion, initiative and aggression? It will be interesting to see.