Potter And The Childish Adult
New York Times
11 July, 2003
What is the secret of the
explosive and worldwide success of the Harry Potter books? Why do they
satisfy children and a much harder question why do so
many adults read them? I think part of the answer to the first question
is that they are written from inside a child's-eye view, with a sure
instinct for childish psychology. But then how do we answer the second
question? Surely one precludes the other.
The easy question first.
Freud described what he called the "family romance," in which
a young child, dissatisfied with its ordinary home and parents, invents
a fairy tale in which it is secretly of noble origin, and may even be
marked out as a hero who is destined to save the world. In J. K. Rowling's
books, Harry is the orphaned child of wizards who were murdered trying
to save his life. He lives, for unconvincingly explained reasons, with
his aunt and uncle, the truly dreadful Dursleys, who represent, I believe,
his real "real" family, and are depicted with a relentless,
gleeful, overdone venom. The Dursleys are his true enemy. When he arrives
at wizarding school, he moves into a world where everyone, good and
evil, recognizes his importance, and tries either to protect or destroy
The family romance is a latency-period
fantasy, belonging to the drowsy years between 7 and adolescence. In
"Order of the Phoenix," Harry, now 15, is meant to be adolescent.
He spends a lot of the book becoming excessively angry with his protectors
and tormentors alike. He discovers that his late (and "real")
father was not a perfect magical role model, but someone who went in
for fits of nasty playground bullying. He also discovers that his mind
is linked to the evil Lord Voldemort, thereby making him responsible
in some measure for acts of violence his nemesis commits.
In psychoanalytic terms,
having projected his childish rage onto the caricature Dursleys, and
retained his innocent goodness, Harry now experiences that rage as capable
of spilling outward, imperiling his friends. But does this mean Harry
is growing up? Not really. The perspective is still child's-eye. There
are no insights that reflect someone on the verge of adulthood. Harry's
first date with a female wizard is unbelievably limp, filled with an
8-year-old's conversational maneuvers.
Auden and Tolkien wrote about
the skills of inventing "secondary worlds." Ms. Rowling's
world is a secondary secondary world, made up of intelligently patchworked
derivative motifs from all sorts of children's literature from
the jolly hockey-sticks school story to Roald Dahl, from "Star
Wars" to Diana Wynne Jones and Susan Cooper. Toni Morrison pointed
out that clichés endure because they represent truths. Derivative
narrative clichés work with children because they are comfortingly
recognizable and immediately available to the child's own power of fantasizing.
The important thing about
this particular secondary world is that it is symbiotic with the real
modern world. Magic, in myth and fairy tales, is about contacts with
the inhuman trees and creatures, unseen forces. Most fairy story
writers hate and fear machines. Ms. Rowling's wizards shun them and
use magic instead, but their world is a caricature of the real world
and has trains, hospitals, newspapers and competitive sport. Much of
the real evil in the later books is caused by newspaper gossip columnists
who make Harry into a dubious celebrity, which is the modern word for
the chosen hero. Most of the rest of the evil (apart from Voldemort)
is caused by bureaucratic interference in educational affairs.
Ms. Rowling's magic world
has no place for the numinous. It is written for people whose imaginative
lives are confined to TV cartoons, and the exaggerated (more exciting,
not threatening) mirror-worlds of soaps, reality TV and celebrity gossip.
Its values, and everything in it, are, as Gatsby said of his own world
when the light had gone out of his dream, "only personal."
Nobody is trying to save or destroy anything beyond Harry Potter and
his friends and family.
So, yes, the attraction for
children can be explained by the powerful working of the fantasy of
escape and empowerment, combined with the fact that the stories are
comfortable, funny, just frightening enough.
They comfort against childhood
fears as Georgette Heyer once comforted us against the truths of the
relations between men and women, her detective stories domesticating
and blanket-wrapping death. These are good books of their kind. But
why would grown-up men and women become obsessed by jokey latency fantasies?
Comfort, I think, is part
of the reason. 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.
Similarly, some of Ms. Rowling's
adult readers are simply reverting to the child they were when they
read the Billy Bunter books, or invested Enid Blyton's pasteboard kids
with their own childish desires and hopes. A surprising number of people
including many students of literature will tell you they
haven't really lived in a book since they were children. Sadly, being
taught literature often destroys the life of the books. But in the days
before dumbing down and cultural studies no one reviewed Enid Blyton
or Georgette Heyer as they do not now review the great Terry
Pratchett, whose wit is metaphysical, who creates an energetic and lively
secondary world, who has a multifarious genius for strong parody as
opposed to derivative manipulation of past motifs, who deals with death
with startling originality. Who writes amazing sentences.
It is the substitution of
celebrity for heroism that has fed this phenomenon. And it is the leveling
effect of cultural studies, which are as interested in hype and popularity
as they are in literary merit, which they don't really believe exists.
It's fine to compare the Brontës with bodice-rippers. It's become
respectable to read and discuss what Roland Barthes called "consumable"
books. There is nothing wrong with this, but it has little to do with
the shiver of awe we feel looking through Keats's "magic casements,
opening on the foam/Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn."
(A.S. Byatt is author, most
recently, of the novel "A Whistling Woman.")