Doing battle with daily dragons

Monday, July 18, 2005

Justifying Harry Potter

The first book I remember having a frenzied desire to know the ending to was My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George; the story of a boy who runs away from a stressful existence in the city and goes to live by himself in the wilderness. It was being read to us by one of my teachers in grade school. Strangely, I can’t remember who it was or even how old I was, although I’m sure it was before I was 9. Two chapters a day faithfully, she read us, always trying to find an ending point that would inflict the maximum amount of excruciating suspenseful agony, rewarded by a plaintive whine from her rapt audience. I am sorry to report that I no longer remember many details about the story other than that the boy lived in a hollowed out tree and might possibly have been involved with a large bird, but at the time, having to wait until the next day when the story would continue was unendurable. (Why it never occurred to me to ask my mother if we could check it out for the library, I have no idea)

Why is it that we as human beings become so incredibly involved in a good narrative? I spent some time asking myself that this weekend in the rather scarce free moments that I didn’t have my face shoved into Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince. I was working as the children’s section leader at a large Borders bookstore in Minneapolis when the first two books were published. There was none of the hype then, only a mild buzz; people coming and telling me, “Someone told me I had to get these books for my kids. Have you got them?” By the time I finally picked them up and month or so later, they were at #1 on the bestseller list and flying off the shelves. I don’t think it was really until the third instalment of the series that it became “the Potter Phenomenon” rather than just a nice little series of kids books that appealed to adults too because secretly, we all want to be wizards.

Wizard envy aside, what makes the narrative of this story so special that people are willing to line up at midnight outside bookstores all over the world to buy a copy and answer the thrilling question, “What happens next?”

The basic story elements are nothing new. A dis-inherited prince, the Christ figure, a great treasure, a cruel upbringing that somehow produces a kind and well-adjusted person, forgiveness, good, evil, monster-slaying, a wise sage, a bully, a great foe, valiant and loyal friends…children’s fairy tales have been woven from these threads since time immemorial. But somehow JK Rowling has managed to take them and make an entirely new tapestry to tell us the tale of “the Boy Who Lived.”

It’s obvious to see that Rowling has been writing this book in our current world climate and that echoes of counter-terrorism measures, government ineptitude and useless information can be found throughout. I particularly enjoyed her early reference to a vague and useless pamphlet sent out by the UK government to “inform and educate” the public about what they should do in the event of a 9/11 style terrorist attack. It’s little touches like that that I think illustrate why the tales are so popular; we don’t love the world that Rowling created for it’s differences to our own, but rather for it’s similarities. We love that wizards, for all of their extraordinary power, still have bumbling, inept governments. That their 17 year olds have to pass Apparation tests before being allowed to appear and disappear at will. And that they face dangerous times with uncertainty and fear. Just like us.

So, did I like the book? Of course I did. And I await, with equal parts of anticipation and dread, the book that will complete the story and answer the burning question, “What happens next?”