The Book Club

Harry Potter and the Politics of Rowling

Should children’s books be escapist? When I was a tiny tot, my favorite Dr. Seuss book was Happy Birthday to You, a tour of the cheerful land of Katroo, where they really know how to party. My brother rightly preferred I Had Trouble in Getting to Solla Sollew, a secular Pilgrim’s Progress for the beginning reader. I now recognize that the difficult journey through a threatening landscape had a deeper meaning. Even in picture books, the happier story isn’t necessarily the better one.

David, I think you put your finger on the nail (what’s so wrong with an apt, nice cliché, professor Bloom?) when you argue that a dark, anxious tale is perfectly compatible with escapism, as long as it ends right: We escape our own troubles by triumphing vicariously along with the heroes, and the more they have to overcome, the better we feel in the end. (OK, maybe you didn’t say this exactly, but it seemed to me you were heading there; correct me if I’m overstepping.)

Indeed, many of the best children’s books take this approach. Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising series has a heart-pounding nightmare quality (yes, professor Bloom, I know, I know!) that reminds me of the first part of Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring, when the Dark Lord’s mounted riders are tracking the hobbits. So does Robert C. O’Brien’s 1968 The Silver Crown, in which a 10-year-old runs for her life from a power-mad mind-controller after watching her house burn down and her family vanish. Diana Wynne Jones’ books, although fully as funny as the best of Rowling, work just as effectively with danger. Dogsbody—I’m so glad you’re enjoying it—has its share of sorrow and suspense. So does Witch Week, one of the Chrestomanci series I mentioned earlier, important predecessors to Harry Potter. The novel takes place in a boarding school for the orphaned children of witches who’ve been burned at stake: In this alternate universe, magic is real but illegal, so when one of the children casts a spell, everyone’s in danger.

Want adolescent angst? How about A Wrinkle in Time, where awkward Meg has to rescue her beloved father from a giant brain? Or the scary, psychologically symbolic fantasy thrillers of New Zealander Margaret Mahy? Or my favorite New York novels, Suzy McKee Charnas’$2 1980s trilogy about teenaged Valentine Marsh, a native Manhattanite who draws on the magical powers of Central Park to defeat extraterrestrial evil with the help of her grandmother, a member of the Sorcery Hall wizards’ academy?

(OK, shutting up now about all the other great children’s fantasy. Sorry, I get carried away.)

But back to Harry and his family. If you believe Freud and his spawn that early upbringing governs character, you’ve got to wonder how those horrible Dursleys produced someone as wholesome as Harry. That’s part of why I have such a hard time buying them. But it’s probably a mistake to insist on psychological realism in what’s essentially a fairy tale. Can you imagine how much less satisfying Cinderella would be—I especially like an early version where the stepsisters get their feet chopped up—if it ended with a big hug in a family therapist’s office?

Yet elsewhere in the novels, Rowling seems right on the mark about what makes people tick. I’m thinking, for example, of those wonderful scenes between Harry and Cho, when he can’t figure out what she expects from him and why she keeps crying, even after Hermione explains it all patiently. I love it that Rowling dares to mix types of storytelling like this, even though I’m not sure she’s entirely successful in this case.

It may be too late in the week to bring this up, but I found myself wondering about the politics that peek out between the lines of the Harry Potter books. Some of our readers point out in “The Fray” that the Defense Against the Dark Arts textbook assigned by the dreadful Inquisitor Umbridge (love that name!) seems to have an arms-control theme. Then there’s the way the House Elves keep rejecting Hermione’s attempt to free them by leaving knitted goods lying around. Rowling dislikes prejudice: Wizards who despise Muggles and their kin are clearly bad in her book, as are Muggles who despise wizards. She also gets in knocks at bureaucrats and slanted journalists. But do you think she has a clear political agenda, and if so, what do you make of it?