Schoolchildren all over the world have grown up alongside Harry Potter and co. Bidisha explains how JK Rowling’s immaculate fantasy world has supplied a surrogate family to a generation.
Harry Potter: orphan, abused child, myopic magus, messiah. Since 1997, across seven novels, billions of readers of all ages and races and both sexes, all over the world, have stayed up by wand-light (remember the incantation? Lumos!) to read about the legendary wizard.
Clearly something is going on that cuts deeper than simple story excitement, fan fidelity and a romping adventure. This kind of phenomenon, in which a story becomes a permanent myth before our eyes, comes along not once a generation but once an epoch. When I saw the first Potter film, the audience was full of children the same age as Harry, Ron and Hermione. The young viewers, the child actors and the fictional Gryffindor trio have grown up at the same time. In a genius of casting, chemistry, production speed, longevity and contract negotiation, nearly all the major-character cast has stayed the same, bolstering the feeling that Harry’s magical family is an extension of our own and that its world is continuing in real time as we go about our business here.
Potter is at once the ultimate wish fulfilment and the ultimate nightmare. There is the dark magical world that recognises children’s experience of cruelty, injustice and violence, their long psychological fallout and the victims’ desire to transcend or, if not to transcend, then to gain allies in the form of a powerful surrogate family and revenge themselves.
To those who have grown up with the films, Ron is the ultimate laid-back best friend, the Great Hall feasts are the ultimate comfort food and Hogwarts is the ultimate playground. And that surrogacy is echoed in the stories themselves — the school is the home Harry never had, the Weasleys are the parents he never had, Ron and Hermione are the siblings he never had, and Voldemort’s desire to kill him gives him something to do, because before (like so many Potter fans) he was frustrated in suburbia.
Many young people feel unheard, but Harry has a destiny so important that adults squabble over him, fight for him, champion him, hunt him and protect him. He is taken seriously by a huge cast of stand-in uncles and aunts in the form of his teachers and the Order of the Phoenix, the resistance group fighting villain Voldemort’s Death Eaters. They are exactly what family members ought to be but are often not — fascinating, loving, exciting, influential and attentive advocates. Harry’s surrogate family are every child’s fantasy — shape-shifters, werewolves, jailbreakers, rebels, ministry of magic insiders, powerful witches and maverick wizards. In short, the ultimate anti-bully defence derby.
I think myths always come down to family, something that defines every single person, for better or worse. The Harry Potter series is about an orphan finding out about his father, his father’s male chums and enemies, and the boy Voldemort used to be. Both Harry and Voldemort are orphans, and suffer for it. Like all of us, they can choose which way to go, despite or because of their childhood. One chooses evil, the other good.
The films have given this epic a brilliantly realised, essentially faithful interpretation that viewers have invested with tremendous emotion. Taken together with the merchandise, video games, internet fan sites and even a theme park, the phenomenon has inspired an all-consuming, vast, detailed, immediately accessible world that mirrors, exceeds, tantalises and vindicates its admirers with its ordinary-kid-as-conjuring-Jesus secular gospel. Nobody would want to be totally Harry because he is so damaged; he and his two friends comprise one complete well-balanced personality. Jung and Freud would — unusually — both have approved.
At heart, Potter is about identity, love, hate and anger — unmagical but intense and eternal themes that are treated with unromantic seriousness.
The series always incorporated the founding elements of the classic canon, in which a misfit child finds a strange-but-apt surrogate family in a strange-but-apt surrogate world. The real parents must be absent — a dead mother like Lily Potter really helps — and the proxy parents neglectful at least and openly cruel at best. This is an interesting one, because in reality losing one’s mother is just the worst thing imaginable. But it’s only without the shield of maternal love — which is a key element in the last stages of Potter’s own story — that the child is now existentially free, though grief-stricken, to have independent adventures. Maybe there’s something in that premise: Where would you be, these stories ask, if the worst thing in the world happened, but you survived? That’s Harry in a nutshell.
Harry is given all kinds of father figures to replace his own dead dad, from Hagrid the groundskeeper, headmaster Dumbledore, his godfather Sirius Black and his best friend’s father Mr Weasley. Not all of them make it to the end of the story — the magic world is more vivid but not safer or nicer or more just than the “real” one. But at least it is not hypocritical. Lucius Malfoy, Lord Voldemort and Professor Umbridge are obviously evil, but Harry’s real-world abusive uncle passes himself off as a respectable man. In reality, children hide and sublimate the pain, bullying, cruelty and injustice they experience. Seemingly perfect families conceal unbelievable nastiness. In Potter the surrogate family are freaks and kooks on the outside and benign on the inside. They’re the weirdos who make him feel safe. In reality, mistreatment is banal, grinding, soul-destroying. The magic “other” world of fantasy narratives does not ameliorate this angst, but brings it into the open, gives its forces and symbols (good and evil, light and dark) full play, gives children some power over what happens to them and enables them to get some skills, grow up, fight back and change the world. “Changing the world” may seem trite, but it is what many unhappy people wish they could do.
I remember a sarcastic internet commenter saying that Harry Potter was an abused child with post-traumatic stress disorder, who’d made up a lie that he was a wizard because he was unable to face what had happened to him. It’s a malicious but perceptive insult — I think many wounded young readers do indeed absorb Potter as part of their own defence fantasy.
The series works as an ancient hero narrative, a family history, a political allegory, a pathological case study, a celebration of friendship, a portrait of obsession (Harry’s, Dumbledore’s and Voldemort’s), a joyfully punning and erudite magical creation, a long cry of grief and bereavement as Potter tries desperately to avenge his parents’ death. In HP5, The Order of the Phoenix, Harry goes mad, has psychic nightmares about Voldemort and begins to think that he’s turning into him. That is every abused child’s nightmare: that they will inherit the traits of the abuser and continue the cycle.
For all the significance of the “surrogate family” analysis, whenever I reread Potter I think what a peculiar, bleak story it is for billions of readers to have latched on to. Deathly Hallows the novel is a pitch-black masterpiece, an adult fantasy book, knotty, obsessive, violent, intelligent and unforgiving. Many of Harry’s fantastical family die. So do an owl and an elf. With a haunting symbolic genius typical of JK Rowling, we see in the famous epilogue that Harry is no longer a boy hero, but part of a generation of adults, grown into a father/uncle/icon in his own right.
Whatever he has learned or suffered, he has to pay it forward. This is a lesson that every single young fan of the Potter series will experience for themselves.
One tiny peeve: the females. There are several clichéd types and one-noters like butch school herbologist Professor Grubbly-Plank, standard superbad witchy-poos Professor Umbridge and Bellatrix Lestrange and spinster Scot Miss Jean Brodie — sorry, Professor McGonagall, played by Maggie Smith. But there’s only one female, Hermione, in a major role. I heard one young fan describe her as the sister she never had. Hmm. I’m not so sure.
Hermione is certainly clever, resourceful, unerring. But she lives to help and enable the chaps as much as she possibly can, even when, as for the whole of the first book, they can barely tolerate her. She has no significant female friends except Ginny Weasley — simultaneously her boyfriend’s sister and her best boy friend’s girlfriend. Hermione is the ultimate amanuensis, the happy second fiddle, the most devoted assistant any man would want.
Hermione is faithful, loyal, brave, smart and true, like a marvellous little dog. At least she’s played by the clever and talented Emma Watson.
Rowling is a sisterly woman who has spoken out countless times — and put her money where her mouth is — in support of women’s and children’s charities. She namechecks women writers all the time. She talks in every interview about her gratitude to her mother, who died before the books’ success and whose loss soaks every page of the series. That frankly resets the feminist virtue points scoreboard for me.
And even with that gripe, Rowling is a genius. It’s obvious, but nobody says so. Why? Sexist jealousy and belittlement, a classic recipe so nourishing that dear Mrs Weasley is no doubt cooking it up at The Burrow as we speak.
So if Rowling’s a good children’s writer, then it’s decided she’s too simplistic for adults. If adults like her, it’s because she’s so good at weaving together legends that men wrote in centuries past. If she’s brilliant at plotting, then her language is duff. If you love her wordplay and development of character then, oh look, her structure is formulaic. If her setting is brilliantly realised, her back-story breathtakingly complete then, silly thing, she’s a reactionary out-of-touch snob who wants to romanticise Victorian boarding schools. If she’s credited with getting children to read, that’s only to prepare them for proper literature later. And even if you admit that she is, after all, quite good, one can barely hear oneself speak over the hundreds of people recommending all the chaps who are much better.
No matter. If it’s even half as good as the book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part I should reap enough Muggle units to fill Gringotts Bank faster than you can shout Accio Profit!
Enough of Potter, says Radcliffe
When JK Rowling revealed last month that she had not ruled out writing more Harry Potter books, it delighted her millions of fans — but not, it appears, the actor who has portrayed the boy wizard on the big screen.
Daniel Radcliffe, who has grown up in public playing Potter throughout the films, said he would be unlikely to reprise the role if Rowling produced more books in the series.
“Oh God, she promised me categorically that there wouldn’t be another book involving Harry,” he told Sky News, adding that he was “very doubtful” about playing the character again once the two final films, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part I and II, had appeared. “I think 10 years is a long time to spend with one character,” he said.
Radcliffe (21) appeared in the first Harry Potter film at 11 and has made an apparent effort to stretch himself in other roles, including taking the lead in the stage play Equus.
Meanwhile, co-star Emma Watson, who was recently reported to be Hollywood’s highest-paid female actor, has said she might consider walking away from acting altogether once the films are complete. She has been modelling for Burberry.
“It happened when I was very young and this was one role and it transformed the whole of my life but it doesn’t necessarily mean that this is what’s going to make me happy,” she said. “I want to be able to explore a few other things as well.”
Part I of the final installment is the first Potter film that is not set for the most part at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry and finds Harry and friends Ron and Hermione embarking on a quest to destroy Lord Voldemort once and for all.
Rowling, who has made it on to the Forbes rich list on the back of her creation, had previously suggested that there would be no further books in the series.
But last month she said on the Oprah Winfrey show she could “definitely write an eighth, ninth [and] 10th book”, adding: “I think I am done but you never know.”
Radcliffe’s future projects include the starring role in a Hammer adaptation of The Woman in Black, in which he will take the lead role of Arthur Kipps, a young lawyer who uncovers the secrets of an old dark house.
Based on the 1983 bestseller by Susan Hill, The Woman in Black is set in a haunted village on the east coast of England. Hill’s tale inspired a 1989 TV movie, as well as a hugely successful London stage play.