Monday 3 September 2007

On Harry Potter

The advent of Post-Potterdom

Harry Potter, Harry Potter, you’re fictional and more famous than real people. Your world is more exciting than mine, it seems, and you’re not scared by it, no, not even by those giant spiders in the Forbidden Forest. But if I were in a book I’d be in something really fantastical, like Naked Lunch where they do drugs and stuff and nobody’s ever heard of narrative. As it is, I’m quite firmly rooted in this world thank you very much, and hopefully not going out of it anytime soon.

Whilst cases of so-called ‘JK Rowling envy’ have been toited up around the country, not least by Clive James, I’m beginning to think the deeper jealousy is of Harry Potter himself. He’s young, powerful, Things Happen To Him, including girls. Sure, he gets a bit confused sometimes, makes blundering errors, but things always and excruciatingly end up rosy. He’s the goody-two-shoes you love to loathe, that person in your class at school who was always one step ahead, that nonce.

But there is a more serious reason for contemplating Harry. It’s tempting to think the Potter phenomenon has been written about so widely because it gives commentators the hook they’d been looking for in order to write about values, religious censorship, capitalist economy, mass-marketing, behavioural analysis, cross-cultural appeal, the master narrative: all are united in one grand theory of HP. Down with the postmodern (or lazy) idea that no single theory can explain everything about society.

In fact, such is the interest in the phenomenon surrounding the Boy That Lived that there is dearth of critical engagement with the book themselves. Instead, a whole new vocabulary or ‘discourse’ has sprung into being: Pottermania. (If nobody has yet coined it, let’s get it over with - we’re officially into Post-Potterdom.) Instead of engagement with the text there’s been an obsession with petty moralising and the rags-to-riches rise of JK Rowling and empty analysis of the mechanics behind Potter’s worldwide fame. Apparently there are lessons to be learned about the dark side of celebrity: being bullyed, being laughed at, having poison-plumed journalists lie about your private life to the nation…. but whilst these petty traumas distract the lesser characters, battles are being fought, bigger issues are burning.

And talking about bigger issues, most alarming was the tag line for the fifth film - ‘the rebellion begins’ - a perfectly accurate and economical description, but fantastic that it got emblazoned on buses zooming round the capital. This ‘message’ of Harry Potter - that individuals can outdo themselves and change the world in which they live - is at its most explicit, and digestible, in the widescreen wizardry of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Voldemort is back, and the self-serving Ministry for Magic, unwilling to inform the magical community and mobilise resistance, does its best to bury its head in the sand. Onwards the march of media censorship, shocking propagandist tendencies made flesh, onwards risk-averse interventionist policies. The Ministry becomes a presence at Hogwarts school of Witchcraft and Wizardry in the form of Imelda Staunton’s fuscia-suited Dolores Umbridge. And as Hermione explains in pained stage whisper - to any in the audience who haven’t yet ‘got it’ - the Ministry is ‘interfering’ with Hogwarts. A bit like all those new educational documents from New Labour you may say, this centralised interference with school syllabuses, a bit like Real Life? Well, a bit maybe, but this isn’t political analysis: it’s a kids’ movie.

Or is it? Just as the books were released both in child-friendly colour and much maligned adult-attracting sedate black sleeves, so the films appeal variably to awed and terrified kids and adults alike. This dual appeal is not carried off so crassly as in one of those films you see with younger relatives/the child you followed in, where the story pleases the young and the awful puns amuse the old, but is more subtle, more structural. Grown up fans have been attacked for their awful escapist tendencies, as if that’s the only reason for enjoying Rowling’s work. Whilst a healthy dose of disbelief-suspension goes a long way, the balm of Potter has little to do with fantastical imaginative romping and more to do with its easy explanations of today’s world. As many have realised, Harry Potter isn’t at all a new story, it’s an updated version of the very old (see Joseph Campbells’ Hero with a Thousand Faces). Whereas, the point of all of this devolution of the master narrative business is not about updating old stories, but radically recreating them, coming up with strange and new ones.

If anything, Harry Potter shows what stories can mean to people and what they can do when they grip the popular imagination. His popularity shows that, no, stories aren’t dead; they can inspire, motivate and comfort, they can say something about contemporary society - however obvious - they mean things to people. Perhaps moral certitude has reached an all time low; the Conservatives confusingly changed their logo from green back to blue; some Christians weirdly both condone Potter for its depiction of witches but champion CS Lewis’ The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe (where all the witches get killed); cultural relativism is on the up and we’re supposedly being attacked by both Terror and The Planet. No wonder we turn to stories to make sense of it all, and no wonder we envy Harry’s being one step ahead.



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