Sunday, July 22, 2007

Harry Potter Day

Not here at the Snakepit Inc., though I will most likely read the last Potter book one day. I bought the others in 2005 and ended reading them all within two weeks or so. That made the experience a slightly indigestible lump, but I'm still going to say a few things about the appeal of the books in general.

The level of the Potter-mania today has to do with the odd sociological or psychological phenomenon of "fads". When people write about fads they usually explain why fads come and go but rarely explain WHY something becomes a fad. Or at least I don't find the explanations satisfactory. Once the marketing engines get clacking a fad is strengthened, naturally, and the more people know about it the more positive reinforcing one is likely to find. But the initial question of why certain ideas or products become fads and others do not is not well understood, in my not-so-humble opinion.

Back to Potter-mania. I wrote a post about this earlier where I suggested that there would have been no comparable mania if the books were about Harriet Potter. Boys don't want to read about girl heroines. Girls are fairly used to reading about boy heros and on the whole don't seem to mind it as much. I'm pretty sure that this difference is not an innate one but has to do with the fact that being a boy is still a better thing than being a girl. A tomboy girl is not really ridiculous, because she is seen as striving upwards in the society. A sissy boy is very ridiculous indeed, because he is going down on the ladder of esteem. But even a tomboy girl is not a good role model for boys who are already a rung or two higher on the ladder.

So much for some of the feminist thoughts the books evoked in me. There is much more grist for my psycho-babble mill in the books. For instance, Rowling understands the importance of getting rid of the good parents by making them dead at the beginning of the first book. That way parents won't censor the books and the children who read them can allow themselves to read about evil adults without any guilt. The boarding school links to that hidden desire of most children, too: to be free of that pesky family, to be found to be a changeling, a prince or a princess meant for better things. Note that I don't mean that children would just think evil thoughts about their families. Mostly they don't, but those angry thoughts are part of real life and here is a book which almost celebrates them.

The trick is an old one. Fairy tales use that by having evil stepmothers in place of the biological mother. If we remember that families are the strongest limits children experience, in most cases, it makes excellent sense to get rid of the good aspects of families at the very beginning. This lets freedom in and imagination needs that.

Getting rid of the parents is the first step. The second step is the Cinderella story. Harry Potter is a male Cinderella, with special talents and a great destiny, but he is held in contempt by his uncle, aunt and especially by his horrible cousin whom the uncle and aunt love best. Lots of children have suspicions that their siblings are more loved than they are, so this setup allows those feelings a safe outlet.

Just as the real Cinderella, Harry gets to his ball and it lasts for years. That would be the boarding school where the magically talented go.

That some people are magically talented and the rest are Muggles allows children to feel that in-group thing without the guilt that usually goes with it in reality. Yet the distinction is not that different from the British class structure or from the way some people think about other races or about women. Rowling later addresses this whole issue in a more nuanced and realistic way, but I'm pretty sure that a part of the attraction of the book is in that common human desire to be found to be "special", better than others, a little closer to gods.

Add to this the fun of magic and imaginary creatures and horrible battles where children are taken seriously, and it looks like a winner. Which the books are, of course. They are also fun and interesting to read, and I feel like a traitor to write any of what I wrote above. Still, I've read better fantasy books, and that is what makes me ask the questions about the success of the Potter series. I think that the real secret may be in Rowling's skill to weave the fantasy just close enough to reality to make the transitions credible.