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Daniel Radcliffe as Harry Potter in Warner Brothers' Harry Potter and The Sorcerer's Stone
Daniel Radcliffe as Harry Potter in Harry Potter and The Sorcerer's Stone

Rowling’s Magic Spell: Two Parts Fantasy, One Part Familiar?

 


By Ben Patrick Johnson


LOS ANGELES, 12 November 2001 - The film version of best-selling novelist J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone opens in the U.S. on 16 November and the inevitable advertising and publicity blitz is underway. Reflecting Potter’s status as a cultural phenomenon, the popular periodical media gush with stories about Rowling’s fantasy world. So, this seems like a good time to regain a little perspective, and examine what made Rowling's Potter quartet so engaging to readers in the first place. And who could better offer such a fresh look than someone yet unexposed to Rowling's work? (I'm speaking, of course, of myself: if young Harry were on trial for some heinous crime, I'd be a perfect tabula rasa juror.)

I decided to approach my task by comparing the first Potter tome with the work of Rowlings' literary forbearers. This meant buying two books at the local chain bookseller.

"Wait, you mean you've never read Harry Potter?" shrieked a pudgy, bespectacled ten-year-old boy (who would fit in very well, I would later discover, among Rowling's cast of appealingly-awkward characters.) He stood next to me in line at the store. I glanced at him, then back down at the garishly jacketed hardcover copy of Sorcerer's Stone that lay in my hands. I had been scanning Rowling's biography on the rear flap—single mother, lives in Edinburgh, started the book on scraps of napkin in a local café—but now shut the book quickly, the kid's incredulity leaving me self-conscious.

I shook my head 'no'. (No, I am not one of the one hundred million readers wowed and seduced by the peculiar-looking protagonist whose likeness I can no longer avoid.)

"Oh my heck, you'll love it," he assured me. "You'll start reading and then just lie in bed and turn page after page all night!"

I offered a conflicted grimace of a smile, as if someone were stepping on my insole. I then slipped the book, along with a copy of Ursula K. Le Guin's A Wizard of Earthsea, behind my back where presumably other sophisticated, grown-up customers wouldn't notice either as I approached the register.

How could I have avoided the Potter phenomenon for so long? For the past four years, I've put up with friends gushing about Rowling's engaging story, while I, as a self-styled literary elitist, refused to go anywhere near it as a matter of principle. They carried on about how delightfully Rowling's characters had leapt out of the genre of youth fantasy and found a home with adults. I worried for them. They told me they'd read her books several times, and I smiled vacantly or, if the conversation was on the telephone, theatrically held my nose and rolled my eyes.

It turns out, however, that most of my eschewal was unwarranted.

At its worst, Rowling's writing is harmless, droll fantasy fiction that doesn't diminish the genre or rouse controversy with thematic sharp edges. While I tend to get bogged down and go a little blurry on witches and warlocks—in reference to Anne Rice, a bookish friend once confided to me over a double espresso, "I just can't do goblins," and I nodded my emphatic agreement—Rowling gives these kiddie-pleasers just enough snap and human foible to make them viable.

She seems quite pleased with her invention of referential, onomatopoetic terms and names: in the shadow of headmaster Dumbledore, Potter attends the sorcerer's school Hogwarts where he plays the soccer-like game Quidditch and is taught to fly a broom by Madam Hooch. While this cloys after a while, a measure of slack is due Rowling. She is, after all, writing for children, who are fond of words that tickle your mouth when you say them. And I suppose mouth tickling is a better way to keep readers' attention than stooping to scatology.

In her stronger passages, Rowling's writing is clean, letting her well-crafted, archetypical characters do their thing unencumbered. At these times, the narrative unspools elegantly. Her humor is dry and typically Scottish, which serves the material well and gives adult readers fuel to push forward through repetitious descriptions of lavish suppers and drooling, three-headed dogs.

While Rowling has broken sales records, she's hasn't exactly turned new soil thematically. This is far from the first coming-of-age yarn about a young man with supernatural powers, the concept stretching back to ancient mythology and having been successfully exploited by a number of writers in the twentieth century.

Most notable among these, as a point of comparison for Ms. Rowling, is the aforementioned American writer Ursula K. Le Guin. A literary-minded mom like Rowling, Le Guin sat down in 1968, thirty years before Harry Potter's debut, and turned out A Wizard of Earthsea, the first of a four book fantasy series which, like Potter, is centered on a young wizard and his powers.

In place of Harry, Le Guin gives us Sparrowhawk, whose name suggests many of the stylistic differences between the works of the two novelists, and may hold a clue not only to Potter's success, but to why Le Guin never achieved Rowling's astonishing readership with her own series:

While Harry is a mousy product of familiar, modern-day suburbia, Sparrowhawk hails from the mythical island of Gont in the Northeast Sea (an illustrator was employed to create some not very useful ink pen maps for Le Guin's 1991 reprinting), a bleak, craggy place, in an unidentified, medieval-feeling “time of legends.” A loner and, viewed from a distance even by his author, Sparrowhawk is hard to get to know. His powers separate him from us, whereas Harry's invite us closer.

Both books find their young protagonists uncomfortably bound in small-town environments, and with the help of mid-level magicians, they are each transported to schools for wizardry, where their precocity leads them into trouble.

Harry is easily the more likeable of the two. He's someone you'd have to dinner (though a hot meal is probably the last thing he'd need after the umpteenth button-bursting banquet at Hogwarts.) Sparrowhawk is elusive and darker. He'd less likely have washed recently, and I don't imagine he'd be very good at telling a joke (humor not being Le Guin's long suit either.)

But while noble Harry involves himself in the investigation of a sinister plot at school, Sparrowhawk is the creator of his own woes, his predicament born of arrogance and immaturity—reaching beyond the grasp of his imperfectly developed powers, he conjures a dark spirit which he will spend the rest of the book hunting, lest it take over his own body and will and use his gifts for evil.

Sparrowhawk is drawn with greater complexity than Harry—and is certainly more conflicted—which makes him better fodder for literary dissection. But a conflicted protagonist is clearly not what drives book sales in this genre and this market. (What does this bode, one wonders, for George Lucas’ Star Wars films? Can star-crossed Jedi moppet Annakin Skywalker slide towards Darth Vader-dom in the upcoming Attack of the Clones, without losing his universal appeal? No wonder Lucas told light-hearted Luke’s story first.)

And, for the record, the kid in line at the bookstore was right. Unlike The Wizard of Earthsea, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone kept me up, laughing out loud and turning pages, until well past my bedtime.




Ursula Le Guin: The Wizard of Earthsea

A Wizard of Earthsea (Earthsea Trilogy)
by Ursula K. Le Guin, Ruth Robbins (Illustrator)
Bantam Spectra; Paperback; 182 pages

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (Book 1)
by J. K. Rowling, Mary Grandpre (Illustrator)
Scholastic Trade; Paperback; 312 pages


Ursula K. Le Guin's sixth book in the Earthsea cycle, The Other Wind, was published in September 2001 in a hardcover edition by Harcourt, Inc.

Ursula Le Guin, The Other Wind

The Other Wind
by Ursula K. Le Guin
Harcourt, Inc; 256 pages
$25.00


Photo © Copyright Warner Brothers

Related: Star Wars: The Phantom Menace



Ben Patrick Johnson is a writer and free-lance journalist in Los Angeles. His novel, The Valley of Smoke, will be published by Palari Press in 2002.

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