The Appeal of Harry Potter
reviewed by Peter Gottesman - 2004
When a book, any book, becomes the most rapidly published and highest selling in modern history, the phenomena merits our examining “Why?” The financial magic which J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and its sequels has conjured is a commercial milestone. Yet what is more miraculous is the book’s ability to have lured millions of children of varying ages and cultural backgrounds away from the instant gratification of video games, television, and movies, to read. What is it about the book’s characters and story that so satisfies young readers that they cannot wait for the next in a string of sequels? I contend that five vital needs in children’s psyches coalesce in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and account for the book’s astonishing appeal.
The world of fantasy attracts children because it allows for the most unbinding type of imagination a child can experience - and children, by nature, love to expand this imagination, especially in a world of adult limitations. Secondly, through books about magic and super powers, children can vicariously achieve fantasies for power which they, as children, do not have. Examples include Harry’s ability to torment his aunt by instantly regrowing his hair after she shaves it, and to scare his abusive cousin Dudley by magically freeing a snake from its cage when Dudley punches him.
Add to this potent attraction for super powers the youthful fondness for beasts, creatures, and animals - all omnipresent in Rowling’s novel in the form of baby dragons, trolls, the three-headed guard dog Cerebrus of Greek mythology, etc. - and one understands a child’s initial rush to the bookstore for Harry Potter.
But in order for such living out of fantasy to be truly experienced, the fantasy must have relevance to children. That is, young readers must relate to the main characters in their youth, vulnerability, passions, joys, pressures, tribulations, and worries, concerning family, school, peers, parents, acceptance, and friends. The specific stresses of child and adolescent years are carefully embedded into the narrator’s voice, Harry’s eleven year old mind, on every page of Harry Potter. Furthermore, as we are introduced to Harry’s best friends, Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger, these character’s opinions of the unfolding events are pivotal to the novel. Through Harry’s eyes, and Ron’s and Herimione’s, the reader is given the emotional viewpoints of someone with whom he or she can sympathize.
Closely related to the idea of escaping the natural world’s rules and adult rules is the notion of subversion. The act of being a child wizard is the very essence of subversion: being able to do what adults and the real world do not allow - and in Harry’s case, being able to do what an entire world of humans (muggles) cannot! Subversion, the act of rebelling, is vital to children’s fantasies. Indeed, once he discovers he has magic powers, Harry, the underdog, is able to leave the home of his abusive uncle, disobeying him and proudly shrugging off ten years of mistreatment at his hands. Harry’s newfound pride and newfound magic friends allow him to live out this rebellious fantasy. Discovering wizard best friends, an inherited wizard fortune, and an entire school of peers who admire him, gives Harry a freedom any child would envy! Being able to open forbidden passages by magic spells and hiding from adults under an invisibility cloak are other examples of Harry’s subverting adult order. The pages of Harry Potter are replete with more such examples which are the subtle linchpin of children’s attraction to the novel .
This independence fantasy is all the more potent when contrasted with the complete lack of freedom, privilege, friendship, and love which J.K. Rowling has Harry suffer for the previous ten years living at the Dursley household. Indeed, Harry’s is a rebellion to happiness; Harry rebels not merely by refusing to obey the Dursley’s household rules, but rather, by refusing to remain unhappy and unloved. With the excessively controlling Dursleys not allowing Harry to enjoy any happiness or have anything he ever wants, undoubtedly child readers will relate here to something they are not allowed to do, or have not been allowed by adults, or the world around them, to have. Clearly, it is no mere oversight by Rowling that the foremost rule in the Dursley home is that magic, that most potent symbol of ultimate freedom, or even the mention of it, is strictly forbidden.
GOOD VERSUS EVIL
As mentioned above, Harry’s subversion would not be so emotionally captivating to young readers were he not an obvious underdog. Why? Because children, have a burning desire for worldly justice to be meted out - for the deserving and the good to prevail and for the mean and evil to be defeated. The myriad sub-stories of personal justice Rowling resolves throughout the novel are necessary for children’s contentment: for example, when the mean, obsessively orderly Mr. Dursley is driven mad by a chaotic avalanche of magical letters meant to deliver innocent Harry from misery; and when the gluttonous, bullying Dudley is cursed with a pig’s tail by helpful Hagrid.
Interwoven with these multiple, personal instances of justice, is the mythic struggle between the worldly forces of good and evil, represented by Harry’s mission to defeat the evil Voldemort, a wizard who killed Harry’s parents. Rowling’s use of traitors to epitomize Lord Voldemort’s evil at the book’s climax indeed emphasizes this dialectic for young readers; a traitor used to be good, but is now evil. Indeed, traitors or turncoats, such as Benedict Arnold or Darth Vader, force us to deal with good versus evil in a frighteningly personal and immediately threatening manner: A traitor was once loyal and closely-trusted but is now the most fearsome and virulent of enemies.
These conflicts together reinforce a moral order in which kids are craving to believe, and witness, even if they do not see this justice being served in their everyday lives. The triumph of good helps children cope with life’s problems by keeping their hope for worldly justice alive.
Finally, children adore Harry Potter because of the sympathy they feel for Harry himself, and for Harry’s love of his parents, friends, and professors. Through her sympathetic characters, Rowling has been able to transfer feelings of true friendship and love. Indeed, an entire chapter entitled The Mirror of Erised, is devoted to the theme of parental love. In it, Harry is able to see his greatest desire: his loving parents, who died saving him, reunited and smiling at him lovingly in a magic mirror. It is not only Harry’s love for his parents which binds the book’s pages, but also the combined concern of Hagrid, Professor Dumbledore, Hermione, Ron, and the close-knit community of Hogwarts school, a community looking out for Harry, and vicariously, for the reader.
Children all wish they could subvert order as Harry does, experience a magic world without limitations as Harry is able to, use awesome powers as Harry does, make true, caring, supportive friends as Harry makes, feel the love of family that Harry does, and conquer the evil forces in life with the help of all of these. Through Harry Potter, children experience this powerful, combined sense of support, love, power, rebelliousness, excitement, and victory at once, as friendship, love, goodness, great adventure, and powerful magic prevail!