Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Harry looked around; there was Ginny running towards him; she had a hard, blazing look in her face...

This post from The Valve talks about the appeal of Harry Potter. Before Rowling, there were books about school, books about magic, and books about school and magic, but never books about magic schools.
[Little kids] want the comforting, rather repetitive opportunity to feel the way they want to feel about fairly ordinary things - school friends and hard classes and homework and mean teachers. But they also want the fantastic.
As Holbo says, the fantastic is a reason in itself for Harry Potter's appeal. But it's not enough - a book simply about Hogwarts the magic school with episodic bad-guy attacks (a la Sailor Moon) would not have made J.K. Rowling this rich. What makes the Harry Potter books such page-turners is that the ordinary occupies an elevated position; schooltime has become essential.

In other young-adult books about school and magic (e.g. K.A. Applegate's Animorphs or the Spiderman series), the scenes which took place in school were mostly background, to get you to sympathize and identify with these heroes that are just like us. Both the character(s) and the reader usually just spent classtime worrying about what was happening outside - Have the Yeerks taken over my parents yet? Is Doc Oc at this very moment torturing helpless citizens? If we cared about what went on in these scenes at all, it was only because we cared about the character. These series also had both the fantastic and the ordinary, but they weren't inextricably linked. Peter Parker could have dropped out of school, and it wouldn't have adversely affected his ability to stop crime.

But with Hogwarts, it's all of a sudden necessary that Harry stay in school and hone his Quidditch skills because he'll need all this in his final battle. The school scenes are just as exciting and fun as the fight scenes because learning has become part of the fight. Throughout the entire book, something is at stake - Rowling even tries to make a case for the necessity of the love-affair subplots:
'You are protected, in short, by your ability to love!' said Dumbledore loudly. 'The only protection that can possibly work against the lure of power like Voldemort's! In spite of all the temptation you have endured, all the suffering, you remain pure of heart, just as pure as you were at the age of eleven, when you stared into a mirror that reflected your heart's desire, and it showed you only the way to thwart Lord Voldemort, and not immortality and riches.' (478)
It's treacly, but now we know that even Harry and Ginny's heart-warming puppy love is crucial to Harry's success.

In short, Harry Potter gives you, vicariously, a little bit of what you've always wanted - the assurance that the everyday activities and problems you go through have a deeper importance. They probably don't, but that's what escapist fiction is for.