Potty over Potter

Harry Potter premiere: Is JK Rowling the new Shakespeare?

Jennie Bristow

Topics Politics

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It’s official: JK Rowling, author of the celebrated Harry Potter books, is Britain’s best thing since Shakespeare. Explaining the importance of keeping faithful to the book, Christopher Columbus, director of the film of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, said, ‘You don’t change Shakespeare and you shouldn’t change these books’.

Okay, we all love the Harry Potter books. But to equate them with Shakespeare betrays a level of desperation with which our decaying British culture is all too familiar. Have we finally lost the capacity to distinguish between a fun read and a work of genius, between a child’s bedtime story and an adult’s cultural gateway into understanding the human condition? Is Harry Potter really that good?

Not really. The breathlessness with which adult critics have received Rowling’s young wizard seems to be less about the books than about the existential crisis of adulthood spreading through the ranks of those in the media and culturati, to parents, teachers and politicians. Faced with the need to justify why they enjoy reading children’s fiction, once-lofty intellectuals and educators seem to view their particular Potter-fix as based on something entirely more worthy than it actually is. Forget Rowling’s pre-teen groupies: the assumption seems to be that if we like it, it has to be Great Art.

The trouble with this argument, of course, is that pre-teens are not known for their capacity to appreciate Great Art. While their parents and teachers are waxing lyrical about sentence structure and characterisation, the kids just say that they love the stories. Which is as it should be, with a good children’s book; and as it is, with any good children’s book. That adults have gone potty over Potter is probably motivated less by Rowling’s prose than by the fact that, finally, here is a book we can easily read, talk positively about and agree upon.

In explaining Potter’s popularity, many have focused on the element of fantasy – Rowling’s use of witches and wizards and dragons and beasties to open children up to a fantastic new imaginary world. This may well be true. I would guess that adults, though, are attracted by a different layer of fantasy within the books – the fantasy of a Lost Age of Innocence.

It’s not just the traditional English grub served up at Hogwarts or the fact that the school has prefects, trunks and a kindly, elderly headmaster – it’s that Harry and co exist in a pre-political, pre-neurotic world where the battles are clear-cut fights between Good and Evil. Our great escape from the complexities of the adult world is to read JK Rowling, and fantasise about the childhood we left behind.

Which is all fair enough. But let’s not get too carried away by the Hogwarts bandwagon – unless we want to be turned back into kids.

Read on:

Infantile pursuits, by Wendy Earle

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Topics Politics


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