"The idea that we could have a child who escapes from the confines of the adult world and goes somewhere where he has power, both literally and metaphorically, really appealed to me." J.K. Rowling's life, like that of her character, Harry Potter, has the lustre of a fairy tale. She has made her fortune, yet it isn't all plain sailing...
For years grown-ups have been worrying about the terrible effects of television and computer obsession on children's literacy. They just don't want to read any more! But give them something good to read and they will. The controversy surrounding the popular Harry Potter books proves that there are two sides to every coin. Anyone in the UK who has anything to do with children, from parents through schoolteachers to educationalists, has been issuing dire warnings for years about the state of young people's literacy. Children are reading less and less, goes the complaint.
They find books boring and superfluous, and their eyes only light up with enthusiasm when they are presented with a new computer game, which their more old-fashioned parents and teachers frequently do not understand.
But children's increasing antipathy to the printed word now appears to have been halted. Responsible for this miracle is a series of books which have been written by a single mother with no previous literary aspirations, and whose main character is a young apprentice magician. So much for the streetwise kids of the modern age who can no longer be fobbed off with fairy tales. The name of the hero who has captured the hearts and imaginations of children (and many adults) all over the world? Harry Potter, of course.
The Harry Potter books, of which there are four to date, have been translated into 33 languages and have so far sold over 30 million copies worldwide. They have also topped bestseller lists not only in the UK, but in countries with such widely differing cultures as Germany, Brazil and the USA. This testifies to the books' global appeal. For those still not initiated into young Harry's world, here is a brief synopsis of the story so far...
Harry Potter is the orphaned son of a witch and a wizard (who naturally worked for the powers of good), and who learns as he grows older that he, too, is a wizard. He is 11 years old when we first meet him in Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, and has been brought up by his cruel and stupid Uncle Vernon and Aunt Petunia. This is an important aspect of the Harry Potter story, but only forms the background to the main plot, which takes place in and around Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, where Harry is a pupil. Despite the somewhat unusual range of subjects taught at the school, it is nevertheless a modern version of the traditional British boarding school, complete with rich snobs who despise Harry for his poverty, made obvious by his broken glasses mended with tape. The magical powers which Harry learns at Hogwarts - as in any school, with homework and exams - are a combination of grand sorcery, such as travelling in time, and spells of the kind that all children would love to be able to cast, like sliding up banisters.
This all sounds like a good old-fashioned fairy tale that could not cause offence to anybody, but in fact the Harry Potter books have triggered off a large-scale debate in Britain about the state of modern British literature! The majority of school teachers are delighted at the enthusiasm with which so many of their pupils are lapping up Harry's adventures, and have even found themselves having to confiscate Potter books so that students do not read them during lessons. This has been an increasingly rare occurrence in the last decade, but the UK's
literary elite is sharply critical of the books. Anthony Holden, a well-known royal biographer and book critic, who was also a judge at last year's Whitbread Book Awards, one of the UK's most prestigious annual literary prizes, was less than impressed by the Potter books.
"These are one-dimensional children's books, Disney cartoons written in words, no more," he wrote recently in the Observer newspaper. "The characters, unlike life's, are all black-and-white. [The] story lines are predictable, the suspense minimal," he added scathingly. And he accused them of being too full of sentimentality.
Some critics have spoken out against the snobbish atmosphere of Hogwarts School and its emphasis on differences between the social classes in the UK, saying that the books are nothing more than a wistful yearning for a Britain which had already disappeared by the 1950s at the latest. In Mr Holden's opinion, the Potter saga was essentially patronising, very conservative and discouragingly "nostalgic for a bygone Britain".
According to the New Statesman magazine, the first three books in the Potter series have sold well over 8 million copies in the United State to date. Some British critics have commented that such popularity was to be expected in the States, as the books are full of the stereotypes that many Americans love to believe about the UK. In this way they help to confirm an entirely false impression of the country and its people.
The books have also been criticised for not assisting children to come to terms with the complex world in which they live, but helping to lead them, instead, into a world of escapism. Children's books, say the enemies of Harry Potter, should help to prepare young people for the adult world.
Of course, there are many arguments against this point of view. It is debatable whether the majority of books written for adults assist their readers in understanding or coping with the complexities of modern life. So why should children be forced to face aspects of reality which many adults choose to ignore? Pro-Potter critics argue that a good book is one which engages the reader's attention from cover to cover, which the Potter stories have already amply proved they can do.
Jerry Hall, actress and model, (as well as the former wife of Mick Jagger), was also on the panel of judges of the Whitbread Awards last year. She originally intended to vote for the Potter books. One reason that she gave for her initial choice was that her children enjoyed having Potter read to them. While some other members of the panel remained unimpressed by this argument, others said that there is none better for demonstrating the worth of a children's book. Surely even the literary elite does not expect young children to read Charles Dickens at the breakfast table.
As far as realism is concerned, one pro-Potter critic, comparative mythologist Wendy Doniger, made clear that she finds this unnecessary in children's literature. She paid the Potter books the compliment of adding them to the canon of classical myths like King Arthur, which would ensure their popularity for many years to come. "Myths survive for centuries, in a succession of incarnations," she explained, "because they are available and because they are intrinsically charismatic."
The issue of myths is a further bone of contention in the Harry Potter debate. Books that are attributed with myth-making qualities are generally also praised for their originality. But precisely this point is disputed by the two camps in the Potter controversy. Pro-Potter critic Ms Doniger says, "The fact that the Harry Potter books are an amalgam of at least three familiar genres works for, not against, their spectacular success." Mr Holden, on the other hand, has said that the Potter books are "highly derivative" and complained about their "pedestrian, ungrammatical prose style." The author has been accused of barely concealed plagiarism, and that she created the Potter stories from a mixture of well-known and loved children's classics such as Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan.
The author herself, J. K. Rowling, has not been left out of the debate surrounding her books and the fortune they have brought her (she earned ł14.5 million in 1999, which put her third in the list of top women earners in the UK). Joanne Kathleen Rowling was, according to reports, persuaded by her publishers to use her initials rather than her full name, so as to spare embarrassed young male readers the indignity of enjoying a book written by a woman! This is a real rags-to-riches story. According to this version of her biography, Rowling was a struggling single mother who lived in an Edinburgh garret with her young daughter, and was barely able to afford the coffee in the café where she sat to write the first Potter book. This is a touching and exciting story in its own right, but hardly the exact truth.
To her credit, the fact that this portrayal has become part of Harry Potter mythology appears to have little to do with the author, but rather to have been created by her marketing strategists and the excesses of popular imagination. In fact, Rowling has a middle-class background and is university educated. When she chose to leave her Portuguese husband and settle with her daughter in Scotland to be near her younger sister, Dianne, she began working as a French teacher.
Bloomsbury, the British publishing house which brings out the Potter books and whose shares have risen eightfold in the last two years, is responsible for much of the hype surrounding Potter and his creator. The company has been accused of turning Potter into a marketing
phenomenon with no real content, particularly following the news that Mattel, the toymakers, had planned a number of games and action figures based on the books. The first games, including quizzes and
jigsaw puzzles, were released at the end of December. Although the firm was disappointed that they had missed the pre-Christmas sales period, they are well aware that anything related to Harry Potter is likely to bring them good business in the long run.
The controversy over the intrinsic worth of the Potter books will continue for the foreseeable future. There may only be two sides to every coin, but this debate has at least three coins to it. Firstly, is any book which interests young readers to be greeted with open arms, or is a children's book which remains outside the experiences of the real world merely an early lesson in escapism? Next, are the Potter books an inspired new invention or a hybrid of several tried and tested formulae for writing successful children's books? And finally, is the author a genius who has risen from poverty to become one of the UK's wealthiest women, or is she merely a sophisticated marketing manager of her own and her daughter's future?
Despite all these questions, one thing is certain - the Harry Potter books are a great read, for children and adults alike. For anyone searching for a book that can help improve their English skills and is enjoyable at the same time, this is definitely a good place to start!
by Katya Andrusz