Things have been a bit quiet this week around our house, as the place hummed with the silence of satisfied reading. This came to an end last night as I emerged blinking into the light clutching my daughter’s copy of the latest Harry Potter. A book, I might add, which has already been read by three other pairs of eyes since it was released a few weeks ago.
The aforementioned daughter announced that she had finished the book sometime on a Sunday morning, a little over twenty-four hours after booksellers first cut the thing from secure cardboard boxes and placed it on the store shelves.
I’m usually pretty immune from these mass pop culture obsessions that grip the population from time to time. I’ve never read the ‘Da Vinci Code’ for example, have never bought a Maria Carey album, still haven’t seen ‘The Blair Witch Project’ or ‘Titanic’. This doesn’t give me much to talk about to hairdressers, but I have an instinctive dislike for compulsory fashions in taste. I’m not saying I’m too good for them, but it’s just the unthinking conformism that I object to.
This has all come unstuck with the tribulations of Harry and the wizards of Hogwarts. Reading it, I felt like I was a participant in a global mind-meld, a mass exercise in group therapy allowing us all to forget about terrorist bombs and fanatics and the clash of uncivilisations, escaping into fantasy for just a few hours.
While acres of print have been dedicated to arguing about Harry’s relative worth or worthlessness in the cultural scheme of things, I’d like to at least own up to the opinion that Rowling’s writing possesses just enough of the spirit of Charles Dickens to entertain so deeply that you forget where you are and what you’re supposed to be doing while you’re reading it.
For those who might think that the comparison to Dickens is unwarranted, I’d just tell them to look to beautifully drawn minor characters and in particular, the utterly convincing description of the new teacher Professor Slughorn in the new novel. Caricatures they may be, but they’re stronger images for it; and what minor character in Dickens is not a caricature?
Millions of children might disagree with me, but I don’t find the major player in these books anywhere near as convincing. Rowling seems to struggle with Harry at times, and he often functions simply as a catalyst for the actions of others who are more finely drawn. This can be seen most clearly in the last book, ‘The Order of the Phoenix’ where he was more like the irritating teenager who keeps mugging for the camera and spoiling the family photos. I could be wrong here, as the motivations of teenagers are often completely inscrutable to adults (and often to themselves), so maybe it’s asking too much for a writer to open up a character to readers completely, especially when the writer is over thirty.
It’s interesting to consider the place of the movie versions of the books in the minds of readers, how they might actually alter the inner eye of readers of future books, unwritten when the movies were made. I find it impossible now to imagine Rowling’s descriptions of Ron without seeing the mannerisms of the actor Rupert Grint in the role, who completely steals every scene he’s in.
Dumbledore, on the other hand, has been played by both Richard Harris and Michael Gambon, quite different actors, and I find my image of Dumbledore hovers somewhere between the warmth of Harris, the eccentricity of Gambon, and some other qualities unique to the written image on the page.
Other adults, who haven’t read the books, have asked me what the appeal is, and I find this answer both easy and difficult to give. Easy in the sense that the original conception, before Rowling’s pen ever touched the page, is brilliant and does a lot of the work all by itself. Firstly, it’s an old-fashioned school boy’s tale, like ‘Tom Brown’s School Days’ and any number of others; a form at least as old as the British Empire - only it’s a school for witches.
(You can imagine the Hollywood pitch now: 'It's like Tom Brown's School Days - for witches!')
Secondly, it’s set in a recognisable present reality, where the Minister for Magic can suddenly appear in the fireplace at 10 Downing Street for an important discussion with a startled PM about a series of unexplained murders that have been mystifying Scotland Yard. In other words, the enchanted world is not some magical place far far away, but lurks and thrives just outside our peripheral vision, confirming the suspicion of every child that magic is really real, and not just a tale told by grownups in old books.
The other aspect of its appeal is a quality the books share with good science fiction — the fact that the fantastic world described here is internally consistent and therefore believable and could be an alternate reality as real as the one we occupy, at least for as long as we are in it. The book becomes the portal to this other world, which is why when a good fantasy story grips us, we can become slightly obsessed with the book itself, as if it has magical properties.
While Rowling’s literary skills have not always been quite up to the challenge of doing her conception justice, they have improved considerably over the time the books have been written. Chapters don’t meander any more, or get caught up in descriptions of repetitive business about getting to class; now the chapters are tight and propel the reader towards distinctive goals. And you can feel the confidence of the author every time she takes us round some hair-pin turn in the plot or kills off a much-loved character. ‘The Half-Blood Prince’ feels purposeful, not only in the mechanics of plot, but morally as well. Possibly motivated by current events, you feel the author is gripping her own creation by the collar and taking it somewhere she wants this whole generation of children, which are her audience, to go.
The bone-headed ‘Christians’ who condemn Rowling for turning their kids on to witchcraft and the occult obviously haven’t been reading their Bibles closely enough. There is no book more saturated in the supernatural than the Bible. The point is what you do with the knowledge, and I’m reminded that Plato thought knowledge of the truth had two faces: Logos and Mythos — both the real and the imagined. I suspect what Rowling is doing, and the reason these books have connected with children like nothing else for several decades, is that they reawaken the power of Mythos in an age where reality is becoming a little too real to bear.