Now don’t get me wrong. When I was young I devoured science fiction, but the stories focused on ordinary people in fantastic worlds, not fantastic people in fantastic worlds. Sure, the hero had a laser pistol, but he usually met his adversary armed only with guts, grit, and gumption.
People told me Harry Potter did just that; he did not use magic to solve his problems. But I doubted it, so I stayed clear of the books and movies. I found, however, that staying clear of Harry Potter was difficult; it has so infused our culture. And this gave me pause.
Now, I’m writing a book series that targets Harry Potter’s audience: young boys (girls have Hermione, but she’s outnumbered by Harry and Ron) and I’m curious as to why Harry Potter is such a phenomenon, so I gave the first book another look and here is what I found:
For 90% of the book, Harry is a cipher. Granted, he’s a famous cipher, but he barely speaks and we rarely hear his inner thoughts. Ron and Hermione are far better developed and more proactive. But Harry has these inborn powers. For example, the first time he reaches out for the broom, it pops up into his hand. This immediate success violates the mainstay of fiction, the try-fail cycle. Even Luke Skywalker gets zapped in the hind end by the remote with which he’s sparring. It takes at least a couple of minutes for him to take his “first step into a larger world.”
But Harry has no difficulty with the broom. Or with Quidditch—he single-handedly wins the very first game in which he plays. He easily bests Malfoy throughout the book and navigates Hogwarts with only minor difficulties.
And yet Harry is such a shade throughout the book that I wondered how he was going to survive the inevitable confrontation with Voldemort, much less prevail. Of course he does, but his success has nothing to do with him; his parents are more responsible than he is. Indeed, as an infant, Voldemort couldn’t kill him, and then, in the climax, Quirrell can’t kill him either, due to the fact that he cannot touch Harry’s bare skin because of Harry’s innate “goodness.”
It is at this impasse—Harry unable to subdue Quirrell and Quirrell unable to touch Harry—that the lights go out. Harry wakes up three days later to discover that Dumbledore arrived in the nick of time—a deus ex machina—and defeated Voldemort. (For now, of course.)
Deus ex machina (lit. “god from the machine”) was a device used in Greek plays, most of which involved mortals getting into trouble and the gods arriving via a literal elevator to resolve everything. This device has been eschewed for hundreds of years because it deprives the hero of the power to resolve his difficulties.
Dumbledore deprived Harry of his greatest moment by arriving and defeating Voldemort. Not a very good showing for our young hero. At least Luke Skywalker fired the shot that destroyed the Death Star.
But the first question remains: why, given the passivity of the hero and his marginal involvement in the climax, did Harry Potter find his way into our consciousness?
I think it goes back to the same issue faced by all authors of fantasy and science fiction. The world in which they place their plot, whether it is outer space, Middle Earth, or Hogwarts, is fantastic, and thus the world itself becomes a character in the story, and in the cases I’ve mentioned, unfortunately the main character.
Tolkien’s dwarves in The Hobbit are so interchangeable as to be the same person with different names. George Lucas put his storm troopers behind masks in order to remove their individuality. And Harry Potter is allowed to be a cipher because it’s not so much what he does at Hogwarts, it’s what Hogwarts does to the reader: it captivates with potions, spells, ghosts, secret passageways, floating candles, and, in the single stroke of true genius I saw in the book, the Mirror of Erised, wherein our hero sees that which he most desperately desires: himself with his parents. In this moment, Rowling achieves what she is unable to do through the first half of the book: she gives Harry humanity, shows us his pain, and promises healing.
So the book really works, not because Harry is at Hogwarts, but because we are. This fantastic place, where magic is real, is the secret hope of all children, who are faced with a world that is too big, too confusing, and too powerful to overcome. In reality, we must wait to grow up to drive a car, understand politics, or get money. But for the children at Hogwarts—and their tag-along readers—magic is a shortcut to adult power.
Unfortunately, in the real world, there is no magic, and so Harry can’t help an 11-year-old boy understand fractions. In fact, his constant disobedience, fighting, cheating, and general disrespect of rules gets him in hot water and people are injured and die, right under the noses of the very adults who were entrusted with these children. Dumbledore is guilty of child abuse for allowing Harry, Hermione, and Ron to go into the trap door to confront Voldemort, where they might have been killed. He could have stopped the whole adventure at any time by destroying the Sorcerer’s Stone. Instead, he encouraged them and even secretly gave Harry the invisibility cloak to allow them to sneak around Hogwarts undiscovered in the middle of the night. Seems to me the most dangerous person at Hogwarts is not Voldemort’s ghost—it’s Dumbledore.
That aside, the fantastic place that is Hogwarts may convince you that I’m just a killjoy curmudgeon. To you I say: J.K. Rowling has cast a spell on you. The story you love so much is at best unsatisfying dramatically and at worst destructive of the very virtues you teach your own children. A child who grows up thinking, even on a subconscious level, that his problems can be solved with magic is going to be terribly disappointed when real life proves impermeable to wizards, wands, and wishful thinking.
Sure, it’s just a book, but a book you let your child read instead of the classics you grew up on. Unless your 11-year-old boy reads Treasure Island and Kidnapped before you let him eat the cavity-causing cotton candy that is Harry Potter, you’re depriving him of a balanced literary diet and a fighting chance at the gladiator camp that is real life.