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.


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