Posted by: emjb | July 17, 2005

Harry Potter and the Magical Whatsit

Interesting discussion on echidne about the whole Harry Potter thing that pretty much sums up my feelings. I feel no ill-will towards Rowling–I’m glad to see any writer, especially a woman, achieve that kind of success. But my feeling towards the books has always been “meh.” Echidne feels the same way:

Maybe I’m deficient in some deep and substantive way for not getting the Potter appeal. Or maybe my reaction is the normal one for someone who has read cartloads of books in this particular genre. From that angle the Potter book I read was well-written and plotted but not earth-shatteringly different or new.

That’s about right. It’s pleasant enough, but since I’ve already read so much of this genre growing up, I’m a little too jaded to get into it now. If I were 10, I’d be a fanatic about it too.

Echidne’s post reminded me of an essay by one of my favorite authors, A.S. Byatt, that got her in trouble with Potter fans. I liked this part the best:

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.

As Byatt says, the “numinous” is lost, and it’s that shiver of dread and excitement that is missing from the Potter books–or to be fair, from the first book, the one that I read.

It might be that the later books have more darkness in them, as reviewers say, but they don’t seem to have any more magic in them–the darkness seems to come from simple conflict–adults turn out to be unreliable, good people die, Harry discovers darkness within himself. All good things for a book to include, but more magic-flavored than magical.

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