Wednesday, August 01, 2007

What Is It About Harry?

Everywhere I go lately, people are deconstructing the Harry Potter series--trying to figure out how J.K. Rowling did what she did. According to Wikipedia, the series has made Rowling the highest-earning novelist in literary history.

So what is it about these books that ensnares readers?

About two weeks ago, ABC News tried to identify the qualities that any Rowling wannabee would need to capture in writing another runaway bestseller. Reporter Aswini Anburajant asked Arthur A. Levine, the U.S. publisher of Harry Potter, what he thought. Here are some of the characteristics Levine suggested:
  • Humor
  • A fully imagined magical world
  • A universally appealing hero: the classic "fish out of water," a little boy who is suddenly empowered and able to defeat his enemies
  • Rowling's personal story as an underdog fighting to raise her child alone

Stephen King, who knows something about bestsellers, also took a stab at what makes the Rowling books so engaging. In an article titled "Wild About Harry," back in July of 2000, King offered the following:

  • Rowling's "one-eyebrow-cocked sense of humor"
  • The books are at heart "satisfyingly shrewd mystery tales"
  • "Harry is the kid most children feel themselves to be, adrift in a world of unimaginative and often unpleasant adults"

King also said something I've thought every time Harry returns to the Dursleys after the school year ends: Harry is the male Cinderella.

As an adult reading the Potter novels, I find that Rowling allows me to re-capture childhood feelings. The fact that those memories are still so strong makes me believe that Rowling tapped into a vein of universal juvenile themes.

I can remember my inflated sense of injustice as I was sent to clean my room. I was convinced that my parents had adopted me in order to do the housework {grin}. The fact that I had my father's green eyes and my mother's orangey red hair did nothing to allay my conviction that I'd been adopted.

Like many children, I imagined my "real" parents. They were noble and loving and brilliant--just like me! I'd been lost during some horrific accident, and they'd never stopped searching for me.

Without the benefit of Harry's lightning-shaped scar, I had to find some way my "real" parents would recognize me. To my great relief, after an exhaustive search of my body, I found matching freckles--in exactly the same place on top of each of my knees.

Despite the fact that I KNEW my mother wasn't my real mother, I made a point of having her examine those freckles so she would always be able to identify me in a crowd of similarly undersized, green-eyed, orange-haired female children. Periodically, I quizzed her as to how she would know I was hers. Of course, she humored me by saying, "Oh, my little girl has matching freckles on her knees."

Never mind that my entire body was covered with very pale freckles--those two were the magic ones that would keep me safe.

Recalling those childish fantasies, I also remember a sense of impotence. Everywhere I went, there were adults dictating my fate: my parents, grandparents, neighbors, teachers, policemen, doctors and nurses, priests and nuns. I was expected to respect and obey adults even when it was clear to me that they didn't always deserve that respect.

My earliest attempts at writing were stories in which I figured prominently as the heroine in this adult world. My super powers varied according to my mood. Sometimes I wore a towel tied around my throat and flew like Superman. Other times, I rode my bike very fast like The Flash. On occasion, I was The Invisible Girl. It didn't matter what power I possessed; I always triumphed over the adults in my life--just like Harry does.

Reading Harry Potter, I can remember the pure adrenaline rush of fear, another powerful force in my young life. Not a lot of what went on around me made sense so I was frequently afraid. I fought back in the only way I knew--with magical rituals and spells. My closet door had to be closed just so. My shoes had to be aligned exactly parallel beside my bed.

These childish rituals and chants ("Now I lay me down to sleep") provided shields against the darkness and the creepy noises surrounding me in the dead of night. A child who has lain awake in the dark has no trouble believing in dementors, those foul creatures who "infest the darkest, filthiest places."

Equally strong was the power of laughter. Silly jokes, foolish games and unexpected sounds (sneezes, farts, hiccups) were endlessly entertaining. Bertie Bott's Every Flavour Beans and all the disgusting sweets produced by Ron's twin brothers are a reminder of the low level to which children will stoop for humor (the Skiving Snackboxes include Fever Fudge, Nosebleed Nougat, Fainting Fancies and Puking Pastilles).

My oldest brother and I could careen from hysterical laughter to frozen terror in seconds if we disturbed my father when he wanted quiet. Even so, that never seemed to stop us from pushing the envelope time after time. We were gamblers and adventurers, egging each other on to see who would be the first to awaken the sleeping dragon in our house. The tricks and pranks of Fred and George Weasley are a reminder of the risks kids will take in order to entertain themselves and each other.

Harry Potter evokes all the feelings I had as a child: the uncertainty, the sense of injustice, the paranoia, the glee, the sneaky humor, the pride, the unparalleled joy, the camaraderie--everything.

If I had to pick the qualities that make Harry Potter so magical, these would be my choices:

  • A world in which what the children do matters; adults are secondary
  • A world in which emotions are powerful and easily identified
  • A world in which the hero ensures that good triumphs. Evil may still be alive and well, but the book ends on a hopeful and positive note

I'm reminded of another series I dearly loved: Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle by Betty MacDonald. It had all of the characteristics I loved in Harry Potter. A set of those books still graces the top shelf in my study--alongside Harry Potter and The Velveteen Rabbit. Those volumes are my talismans against the diseases of adulthood: smugness, melancholy, despair and all their dark fellows.


Sandra Ferguson said...

Great insight. Perhaps, this is why I write romance -- so often it is an adult surviving the scars of their childhood and actually WINNING!

Who doesn't want the underdog to win?

Maya Reynolds said...

Sandra: Great point. Perhaps that's why all writers write. It's a chance to rewrite history the way we want it to be.

With distance and time, we can look more dispassionately at what was.

Warm regards,