The Harry Potter Phenomenon

Harry Potter is a publishing phenomenon. I got the following from Wikipedia:

Title Sales
Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone 107 million
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets 60 million
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban 55 million
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire 55 million
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix 55 million
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince 65 million
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows 50 million

 

No need for any further illustration of the popularity of the series! Whatever be the critical opinion (and I have heard both sides of the argument, and in my opinion, both have merit), this character is the darling of millions. He has a created a whole industry: movies, amusement parks, memorabilia… even for people who have not read the books, the name of the boy wizard will be familiar. Harry Potter is a household name.

According to detractors, this is the only reason for the popularity of the series – media hype by corporate entities, interested in making a fast buck. The books have no real merit as literature. They have been forced down the throat of a gullible public.

What is the truth?

I read Harry Potter and quite enjoyed the books. They are not great literature; there are logical holes in the plot; and the series flags towards the end. However, J. K. Rowling has managed to spin a rip-roaring yarn in the tradition of the campfire storytellers of yore. If you leave your brain outside, you can enjoy the rollercoaster ride.

But the reason for the enormous popularity of the novels, I think, is because of the underlying themes in the stories and the way they have been structured. Let us look at the structure first.

The School Story

If there is a class of children’s literature that is quintessentially English, it is the school story. Which among us who grew up in the sixties and seventies don’t remember Enid Blyton’s school stories – The Naughtiest Girl, St. Clare’s or Malory Towers? For boys (though maybe from a previous generation), the Jennings stories have been always popular. I think the most recent example is the Wimpy Kid series, even though it is not set exclusively inside a school and is not British.

All these school stories follow a common pattern. There is a protagonist, not necessarily brilliant or an achiever, but possessing some quirk of character (not necessarily positive) which makes him or her endearing to readers and makes them want to follow his/ her adventures. There is the boarding school, with its forbidding or fun teachers. There are the other characters: the loyal sidekick, the insufferable know-it-all, the snotty rich boy… further stereotypes can be listed. Each novel will comprise roughly one term in school: the chapters will generally be episodic in nature, but there will be an overarching theme; and the boys and girls will grow up as the series progresses. There will be midnight escapades, minor mayhem and hair-breadth escapes from frightening teachers. There may be puppy love and minor heartbreaks. But the overall impact will be feel-good.

What if such a school taught witchcraft?

I think this is the question Rowling asked herself before launching into the story – and in my opinion, this is the main reason why the story took off in the first place. Hogwarts is a brilliant creation. As teachers, we have the kindly principal Dumbledore: the strict yet fair Minerva McGonagall; the ineffective Sybil Trelawney; the forbidding Severus Snape; the boring Cuthbert Binns, who is a ghost… and many others. As students, we all have all the familiar stereotypes mentioned above. The stories (the initial ones at least) is contained in one school term, with Harry overcoming one obstacle and coming out the winner at the end.

But what makes Hogwarts different from other schools are the subjects which are taught: Defense Against the Dark Arts, Magic Potions, Transfiguration, The Care of Magical Creatures… Rowling has drawn liberally from Britain’s rich lore of faerie. And this is the second part of the structure – the flesh on the bones.

The Magical Landscape

As a member of a generation which grew up on Enid Blyton, pixies and brownies are my old friends. Britain has a sylvan landscape, peopled by a race of woodland sprites who seem to inhabit every copse and wood (having visited England and seen the beautiful countryside, I am not surprised at all that these beliefs came into being). These supernatural beings move in and out of the human world in seamless transition: humans are also sometimes pulled into their world with disastrous consequences. Rowling has drawn on this enchanting universe, and also on the magical European lore of giants, centaurs, hippogriffs and similar magical beasts to populate her world, which coexists with the everyday universe.

Instead of science, this universe has magic. That in itself is nothing new – parallel worlds with magical laws of nature are legion in the field of fantasy literature. Where Rowling breaks new ground is the way this magic is implemented. For in Harry’s universe, wizards and witches cannot bloom just like that: they have to undergo a gruelling seven year course and pass written and practical examinations at different levels. And nobody can do magic just like that – there are laws to be strictly observed. The whole thing is controlled by the Ministry of Magic, a political institution bound by red tape and bureaucracy like any other in a democracy.

The magical subjects are taught according to a strict syllabus. Brooms and wands are manufactured according to specifications (and are branded!). Textbooks are prescribed, and purchased from recognised shops in Diagon Alley (this place, including the wordplay on “diagonally”, is a masterly creation). Magical creatures are like wild animals, to be treated with understanding and compassion. Even the magical game Quidditch has its own complicated rules, and a world cup.

It is in the interplay of the magical and non-magical worlds that Rowling creates her own brand of magic. Not everybody has the wizard touch – in fact, the majority of humanity don’t. They are called “muggles”. This magical world is also not spared of racial bigotry – there are “purebloods” (having only wizardly ancestry), “half-bloods” (having a muggle parent) and the muggle-born wizards, who are contemptuously termed “mudbloods” by racist purebloods. These tensions are present throughout the novels, and ultimately culminate in the racist takeover of the ministry by the extremist purebloods (“The Death Eaters”) under Lord Voldemort, the “Dark Lord”.

The God-child

Now we come to the crux of the concept – the mythical structure which holds the story up.

Most mythologies of the world talk of the god-child who is sought to be killed by his father (or guardian figure, who is usually a king) as a child, because of a prophecy that the child will grow up as his nemesis and ultimately kill him. Many a time, the divine child’s life is in danger, but he is miraculously saved every time until he faces the villain and bests him in one-to-one combat. Zeus escaped being swallowed by his father Cronus as a child and took revenge on him. Krishna was pursued by his maternal uncle Kamsa until the hero choked him to death. Jesus was persecuted, but he managed to escape death and rise to the crucifixion and everlasting life.

According to Sir James Frazer in The Golden Bough and Robert Graves in his Greek Myths, the ritual murder of an elected king at the end of the term of his reign was a common practice in the ancient world. According to Wikipedia:

The Golden Bough attempts to define the shared elements of religious belief and scientific thought, discussing fertility rites, human sacrifice, the dying god, the scapegoat and many other symbols and practices whose influence has extended into twentieth-century culture. Its thesis is that old religions were fertility cults that revolved around the worship and periodic sacrifice of a sacred king. Frazer proposed that mankind progresses from magic through religious belief to scientific thought.

This thesis was developed in relation to J. M. W. Turner’s painting of The Golden Bough, a sacred grove where a certain tree grew day and night. It was a transfigured landscape in a dream-like vision of the woodland lake of Nemi, “Diana’s Mirror”, where religious ceremonies and the “fulfillment of vows” of priests and kings were held.

The king was the incarnation of a dying and reviving god, a solar deity who underwent a mystic marriage to a goddess of the Earth. He died at the harvest and was reincarnated in the spring. Frazer claims that this legend of rebirth is central to almost all of the world’s mythologies.

Naturally, the supplanted king would take precautions to put paid to his nemesis before he grows up! But in true mythical fashion, he is never successful (in the stories at least) and is killed in the pre-ordained manner. This may have happened in real life, but we are more concerned here with the mythical power of the story, where the king is the villain and the challenger the hero, and the victory is of good over evil.

Because, all said and done, this is the essence of Harry Potter – the Dark Lord Voldermort tries to kill the child Harry, but he escapes every time until they meet face to face at the very end, and the villain is predictably killed. All the mythical elements are here: the magical child, his pursuers and protectors: the education of the hero in a secluded place: the slow growth in power of the villain, and the final apocalyptic showdown. It is this which gives the books the real appeal; the myth where we know that good will triumph at the end, still we want to go through the whole story to find out.

Harry Potter may not deserve all the praise showered on him – but he touches us in that place beyond rationalisations, where the mythical core of our being resides. Hence his continued success.

The Returning King

I could not do the usual weekly update of my blog last week as we were busy with the “Onam” celebration of our college alumni here in the United Arab Emirates. “Onam” is the main festival of the people of Kerala in South India. It’s a harvest festival of mirth and plenty, when people are supposed to forget all worries and celebrate four days with song, dance and feasting. We make the “pookkalam” (floral carpet), have a sumptuous “sadya” (feast) in the afternoon, and there are various traditional games. In the Middle East, due to the abundance of expatriates from Kerala, Onam celebrations go on for literally months.

Belief is that the legendary ruler of Kerala, “Maveli”, comes to visit his subjects on that day from his abode in the netherworld: and we have to show him that we all are living in the lap of luxury as we used to during his reign which is regarded as a mythical golden age. As the following famous song says:

“When Maveli ruled the land,

All people were equal,

All people were happy,

And all free from harm…

 

There was no anxiety or disease,

Child deaths were unheard of,

Evil people could not be seen,

There were only the virtuous on earth!

 

There was no deceit or cheating,

Not even a trace of lying,

All the weights and measures,

Were according to the norms…”

 


 

This local king is now strangely entwined with the Asura (demon) king, Mahabali, of Hindu myth who was humbled by Lord Vishnu in his Vamana avatar. According to the original myth, Bali was an Asura – one of the permanent antagonists of the Devas, who are the ostensible “good guys” in the Hindu pantheon (however, their “goodness” is highly questionable). Bali was the grandson of the virtuous Prahlada, a devotee of Lord Vishnu. His only negative personal trait was his pride. Bali conquered all three worlds (heaven, earth and the netherworld).

The Devas were distraught, and rushed to Lord Vishnu as usual to intervene. Vishnu was loath to proceed against his devotee; but the Devas had to be pacified. Also, the god was upset that his devotee was subject to the sin of pride. So he took the form of a Brahmin dwarf (“vamana”) and visited the Asura king during the Aswamedha Yaga (Horse Sacrifice) he was conducting to cement his mastery over the universe. Bali welcomed the Brahmin boy and asked him what he wanted as an offering, according to custom. Vamana asked for the land he could cover in three paces.

King Bali was amused and granted the boon, against the advice of his Guru Shukracharya: and Vamana grew to a massive size, and paced out the earth and netherworld with his first step and the heavens with his second. Then he asked the king for space to put his third step. Bali could now recognise the dwarf for what he was: his lord, out to kill the sin of pride in him. Humbled, the Asura removed his crown and asked Vamana to put the third step on his head.

Lord Vishnu was delighted at the grand gesture of his disciple. Bali became “Maha” (great) Bali on that day: and Vishnu raised him to the region of Sutala, where he could reign forever without pride.

Readings

This myth has been interpreted in many ways. It is a classic story of the humbling of a great person, thus rounding out his virtues – a staple of Hindu myth. It is seen as a symbolic retelling of the treacherous takeover of Dravidian lands by the Aryans through the machinations of wily Brahmins. In Kancha Ilaiah’s book that I have reviewed elsewhere on this blog, there was even a very strange retelling where the Brahmin Vamana crushed the Dalit Mahabali’s head with an iron boot!

The classical myth has been appropriated by the Malayali, and the Asura king has been recreated as Maveli, the ruler of Kerala as mentioned at the beginning (maybe a symptom of the Keralite conceit that all three worlds are contained in his small fertile strip on the southern tip of India). However, the conclusion of the story has been modified and a tailpiece has been added. Instead of setting up Mahabali to rule in Sutala, Vamana kicks him down to Patala, the netherworld. Properly humbled, Maveli begs a boon of Vishnu – to be allowed to visit his subjects once a year, and see his fertile country. Vishnu agrees.

Thus “Onam” is born.

Of course, the country is no longer the egalitarian paradise it was earlier. But we should not let the monarch know that, lest we hurt his feelings: therefore we have to pretend. It is said that one should sell even his ancestral property to celebrate Onam!

The fact that Onam is actually the harvest festival of a bountiful country, and Maveli is supposed to come up from the netherworld, set a lot of mythical wheels turning in my mind. The first thing was the abduction of Persephone by Hades in Greek myth.

Persephone, the daughter of the earth goddess Demeter, was coveted by Hades, the god of the underworld. Demeter did not want her daughter to go permanently underground, so refused marry Persephone off to Hades – and the Lord of the Underworld kidnapped her. The angry Demeter made the earth barren in retaliation. Hades had to return Persephone; but he tricked her into eating the food of the underworld before she came back to earth. Therefore, she had to spend part of the year underground – the winter months. Then she comes up along with the first shoots of spring.

This is an agrarian myth, developed around the annual cycle of the crops: and we can immediately see the parallel in Maveli, who comes back to visit his people during the harvest month of Chingom (August-September). The previous month, Karkidakam, is known as “drought-month”, when torrential rain pours down and many people would have starved in the era when the state was dependent upon the produce of the fields for its livelihood. So the golden sunshine of Chingom would have been seen as really divine – and the larders would have been full after a month of starvation.

I would also like to link this myth with the history of the immolated kings. Joseph Campbell, in his The Masks of God, Vol.I: Primitive Mythology, talks about kings among primitive peoples who were killed at the end of a certain cycle of years, as a form of ritual regicide (there is a curious story about the king of “the south Indian province of Quilacare In Malabar[!]” who publicly used to hack himself to death, but I take this with a pinch of salt). Campbell quotes from Leo Frobenius regarding the mythical significance of this gruesome act.

The great god must die; forfeit his life and be shut up in the underworld, within the mountain. The goddess (and let us call her Ishtar, using her later Babylonian title) follows him into the underworld and after the consummation of his self-immolation, releases him. The supreme mystery was celebrated not only in renowned songs, but also in the ancient new-year festivals, where it was presented dramatically: and this dramatic presentation can be said to represent the acme of the manifestation of the grammar and logic of mythology in the history of the world.

The dying and returning god is a motif which is as old as the hills. Krishna has promised to return every time Dharma weakens in the world. Jesus Christ is supposed to return, once and for all, at the end of the universe.

Our king, Maveli, returns every year to bless us with bounty. And as we Keralites spread out across the world, our king’s visit becomes more and more global.

Ultimately (who knows?) he may conquer the universe once again…