What is it about the Harry Potter books that has such power to capture the imaginations of both child and adult readers? What is the nature of the extraordinary interest that these titles generate across the generations? Child psychotherapist, Margaret Rustin, explains their powerful resonance.
Just about a year ago, I was meeting for the first time a boy of fourteen, referred to the clinic where I work as a child psychotherapist. To his appointment he brought the fourth volume of Harry Potter’s adventures, published only two days earlier – and he explained that he had already read the whole book. I soon learnt that this feat of concentrated reading was gripping significant numbers of young adolescents, and I was reminded of this when at a family wedding last week. My sixteen-year-old neighbour at the table – another boy – complained that it was too bad to be kept waiting for the next volume, which he had expected to be out by now. He went on to explain that Volume 4, brought home for him by his father, had been picked up by his younger brother and that such was the excitement that an additional copy had to be purchased immediately to resolve the fight over access.
A truly remarkable feat
What is going on when so many adolescents are desperate to get their hands on a book, and in particular so many boys, often despaired of as readers? The marketing hype played its part, but I want to suggest that J.K. Rowling has pulled off a feat of writing which is truly remarkable. Her stories wittily combine elements of fantasy and fairy story, of the traditional school yarn, of the thriller, the gothic novel, and science fiction. She also manages to appeal to a very broad age group – younger children are charmed by the wands, cauldrons and magical sweets of the wizard children and delight in hating the horrible Dursley parents who remind one of Roald Dahl’s caricatured adults. An older age-group responds to the intricacies of Quidditch, the consumer possibilities of broomsticks, the challenge to work out the unfolding mystery, the chronicle of friendships, gangs, bullies, et al. As Harry grows older, adolescent preoccupations also appear. Adults too find themselves delighted by the inventiveness of Rowling’s imagination and happily read her for their own pleasure as well as for the benefit of child listeners.
In the tradition of some earlier writers for children, Rowling is tackling big themes beneath all the fun, and it is this combination of up-to-the-minute social commentary, enjoyment of the fantastic, and exploration of the most powerful feelings of which human beings are capable which is so compelling.
She signals this from the start when we first meet Harry. He is the special child, the orphan so clearly out-of-place in the stiflingly ordinary suburban world of the Dursleys at number four, Privet Drive. He does not look right and he does not fit in, and he dreams of being rescued by some unknown relations. Freud wrote of what he called the ‘family romance’, his name for the childhood fantasy of really belonging to some other family than the one in which we find ourselves, a superior one in which we should feel more appreciated. Harry’s gradual discovery of just how important he is in the Wizard world, in contrast to his very lowly position in the Dursley household, is a delightful representation of this common childhood dream.
The magic which effects Harry’s deliverance is, of course, absolute anathema to Mr Dursley, who is utterly terrified of the unknown and unpredictable. Rowling offers us a sharply insightful account of Mr Dursley’s obsessional efforts to disregard any happening which might disturb his certainties. How interesting to note that Harry and Dudley, his detestable cousin, are just waiting to go to secondary school, a time full of anxiety for most children. How neat to show quasi-eleven-year-old panic in an adult character. Harry is temporarily rescued from the terrors of this big transition when he is carried off to Hogwarts, but once he gets there he has to face on his own all the feelings evoked by new and very unexpected experiences. We see him move from a family atmosphere dominated by hatred, rivalry and desire for revenge to one modified by the availability of benign sibling relationships as exemplified by the Weasley family and Hermione. But although there are friendly external figures around, the fundamental anxiety being explored concerns Harry’s worry about his own nature, his own qualities of mind and feeling. The magical ‘sorting hat’, which places pupils in houses according to their true natures, is a brilliant image of our access to unconscious knowledge which can render us uneasy.
Once Harry has been provided with good substitute parents at Hogwarts (Professors Dumbledore and McGonagall, and Hagrid, the giant, and Hedwig, his owl, are two such pairs) his emotional development can begin. He is a boy whose anxieties about his own goodness have been intensified by his early losses. He has a tender conscience and is easily assailed by a sense of guilt and a conviction that there is something wrong which he has to put right. His character is therefore perfectly suited for the heroism which will be required of him.
Facing the deepest human anxieties
Harry’s trials, a modern version of many a fairy-tale prince, involves his facing the deepest human anxieties. Death and fears of extinction have to be struggled with – in the Quidditch game, in the nightmare visit to the forest where he encounters the dying unicorn and repeatedly in the blinding pain of his scar, whose meaning he must come to grasp. Harry has survived Voldemart’s attack because he was a loved child, he gradually learns, but in doing so he also takes on the mantle of having to protect something which will always be subject to further attack. Rowling is representing a deadly hatred of creative love which is powered by the unbearable pain of abandonment and deprivation of her anti-hero. Each volume so far published explores new elements in this life and death struggle. Harry’s strength is shown to depend on the extent to which he can reconstruct and maintain imaginative contact with loved inner representations of his dead parents. The story of his many exciting adventures is underpinned by the story of what is happening in his mind in the process of his growing up and overcoming the tests of strength and courage that await him.
Harry’s character seems to me a very important feature of the appeal of the books. Like William of the Just William books, the Katy of What Katy Did, Jo March in Little Women, Jennings and Derbyshire and a few others, Harry as hero evokes intense involvement in most readers. Here is a child set in a specific and finely wrought background whose details are fascinating – the food at Hogwarts, Hagrid’s home, the dreadful Dursleys, the school buildings and its arcane rituals, the extraordinary teachers, and most of all, the whole world of wizardry, especially in its school-syllabus form. But most crucial is the mix of characteristics with which Rowling has endowed Harry. He combines the very everyday and the magical – his bespectacled round face with its strange scar exactly catches this enticing mix of the familiar and the mysterious, and his personality offers numerous points of identification for child-readers. The bereft orphan is also the mischievous and clever boy who will triumph. Subject to the tribulations of school rules and piles of homework, he will nonetheless outshine all in his feats of wizardry.
The struggle between good and bad
At the deeper levels, Harry’s capacity to engage children’s imagination is to do with the mix of danger, excitement and his magical capacity to triumph against all odds and the more vulnerable side of his character consequent on his orphan status. He is a hero with toughness, bravery and a capacity for endurance, who can use his intelligence to the full, but also one who is driven by intense longings, half-understood feelings about what he has lost and painful anxieties about the burden laid on him. He has to explore in his adventures the struggle between the good and bad parts of his nature, and to learn to make judgments about the world he lives in. He is truly afraid that the sorting hat will put him in the Slytherin house, because Harry senses that he too has some of the nastiness that characterizes Slytherins. He is a boy who has to struggle with the whole range of human feelings. Jealousy, cowardice, greed, guilt and disloyalty all have their hold over Harry at different points as well as his many admirable qualities. In sum, he is a boy hero fit for today, in touch with both the traditional boyish virtues (and a sporting hero on top of it), and with the softer feelings often left to girls or subsidiary characters in the work of earlier writers. This mix of tough and tender is also explored in Philip Pullman’s characterization of Lyra and Will in his trilogy (His Dark Materials), and both writers have clearly got hold of something vitally interesting to today’s children in their engagement with the nature of character and of morality. Gloomy commentators on today’s younger generation who feature individualism, materialism and mindlessness in their litany of complaint should be puzzled by the avid response to these deeply serious books. Rowling is passionate in her interest in the moral nature of her hero and his friends, and this is what underlies the most intense moments in her narratives, and their power to enchant.
Margaret Rustin works as a child psychotherapist at the Tavistock Clinic in London. A chapter on the Harry Potter books will be included in the revised edition of Narratives of Love and Loss: Studies in modern children’s fiction by Margaret and Michael Rustin, to be published by Karnac Books in September 2001 (original publication Verso, 1987).