Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1777
J. K. Rowling 1966–-
(Full name Joanne Kathleen Rowling) English novelist.
The following entry presents an overview of Rowling's career through 2000.
The basic premise for Rowling's “Harry Potter” series came to the author while riding on a train from Manchester to London in 1990. Her first book, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (1997) achieved immediate worldwide success, and Rowling followed the first novel with several sequels: Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (1998), Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (1999), and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2000). Combining many traditional elements of fantasy fiction and the fairytale, Rowling's stories provide a familiar backdrop for readers who can empathize with a young protagonist adrift in a sometimes cruel and challenging world. Full of clever wit, sly humor, high imagination, and brilliant invention, Rowling creates a world of mystery and magic in which Harry is able to free himself from the bonds of his cruel aunt and uncle, the Dursleys, and escape into the pleasant and peculiar setting of the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Harry also finds refuge and friendship amongst his companions at Hogwarts. Critics acknowledge that the Potter books are masterfully inventive and display an acute sense of child psychology. While aimed primarily at a younger market, many adults have found the series to be a compelling, adventurous read, and take delight in the many humorous, macabre, and occasionally violent episodes.
Rowling was born in 1966 in Chipping Sodbury, Gloucestershire, England. Her father, Peter, was an aircraft factory manager, and her mother, Ann, a lab technician. Rowling grew up in Winterbourne, a hamlet close to the Welsh border, and lived four doors down from a family named the Potters, which is presumably where she drew inspiration for her main character's name. Her family moved again when she was nine, to Tutshill in the Forest of Dean. During her high school years, she was made head girl, despite the fact that she was generally a shy student. Rowling read often as a child, and began writing when she was six years old. According to interviews, she admired the works of writers such as E. Nesbit, Elizabeth Goudge, and Noel Streatfeild, among others. Although Rowling wanted to pursue a writing career, her parents convinced her to study French at Exeter University, with the hope that she would become a bilingual secretary.
Rowling's rise to her position as an acclaimed author is virtually one of rags-to-riches. According to reviews, Rowling began writing the first Harry Potter book in 1990 after her revelation on the train. She was working full-time and in a long-term relationship. Shortly afterward however, her mother died, and Rowling lost her job with the Manchester Chamber of Commerce. At the age of 26, Rowling moved to Portugal to teach journalism, and there met Portuguese journalist Jorge Arantes. They married October 16, 1992. During their brief marriage, she gave birth to a daughter, Jessica. Rowling separated from Arantes in 1993, and returned to Edinburgh, Scotland, to be near her sister. For almost a year afterward, Rowling lived with the aid of public assistance, struggling to survive and support her daughter as a single parent. Rowling recounts that during this time, she took daily trips to a nearby café with her infant daughter to escape their unheated apartment. Rowling's situation began to improve when the Scottish Arts Council gave her a grant to finish her first book, and she found a job as a French teacher. After a number of rejections, she eventually sold Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone to British publisher Bloomsbury for about $4000. A few months later, Arthur A. Levine Books bought the American rights, and Rowling was able to stop teaching. Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, was published in the UK by Bloomsbury Children's Books in 1997. Renamed Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, the book was published in the United States in 1998.
Prior to writing about Harry Potter, Rowling wrote short stories and novels, but never attempted to publish them because of a lack of confidence in her work. Since the success of the first novel, Rowling has published three sequels: Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Rowling intends to write a series of seven books, with each book chronicling one year in the life of Harry Potter at the Hogwarts School. Work on a film adaptation of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone is planned to start late in 2000. Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone was named Children's Book of the Year, and won the British Book Award and the Rowntree Neslte Smarties Prize in 1997. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets received a Children's Book of the Year shortlist citation and the Rowntree Smarties Prize in 1998. Rowling won the Smarties Prize in 1999 as well, for Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. In addition to these awards, Rowling was named author of the year by the British Book Awards in 2000, and also received her first honorary degree, from Dartmouth College in New Hampshire.
Readers are introduced to Harry Potter in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. Orphaned while still an infant, Harry has been reluctantly and negligently raised by his relatives, the Dursleys. At the approach of his eleventh birthday, mysterious letters begin to arrive addressed to Harry. His Aunt and Uncle intercept his letters until one is delivered in person by a giant wizard named Hagrid, who arrives to escort Harry to the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Harry learns that he is a wizard, and that his parents died saving him from Voldemort, an evil sorcerer. Somehow, Harry survives Voldemort's attempt to kill him, leaving him with a lightning-shaped scar on his forehead. Harry's introduction to the life of a wizard begins with the purchase of school supplies: a wand, robes, cauldron, broomstick, and message-carrying owl. On the train to Hogwarts, Harry meets Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger. Upon arrival, the three students are placed into houses by a magical sorting hat. Harry, Ron, and Hermione are all placed into the house of Gryffindor. At Hogwarts, Harry takes classes such as Herbology, the History of Magic, Charms, Potions, and Defense Against the Dark Arts, and he becomes a star at Quidditch, an extremely complicated game played on broomsticks. He, Ron and Hermione spend their free time exploring areas of the forbidden third floor at Hogwarts, trying to discover the secret of the sorcerer's stone.
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets relates events during Harry's second year at Hogwarts. Someone is turning residents of the school into stone, leaving threatening messages that refer to a mysterious Chamber of Secrets and to an heir to the house of Slytherin. Harry is frequently nearby when the attacks occur, and he is soon suspected of being the culprit. In addition, he hears a mysterious, threatening voice in his head that speaks of escape and murder. Harry, Ron, and Hermione discover that a figure known as “Tom Riddle” is seeking to destroy all students at Hogwarts who have any non-wizard, or Muggle, ancestry. The book culminates with Harry's fight against a giant serpent in the depths of the Chamber of Secrets. In Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, a reportedly dangerous killer named Sirius Black breaks out of Azkaban, the wizard prison, and is suspected of heading towards Hogwarts to murder Harry Potter. To guard Harry, the school is surrounded by Dementors, who are hooded, faceless demons that drain feelings of peace and hope out of those they encounter. In this book, Harry's Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher guards a dangerous secret; Hermione suddenly has the ability to be in more than one place at a time; and Ron's pet rat, Scabbers, is mysteriously wasting away. Using his Invisibility Cloak and a secret map, and with the aid of Ron and Hermione, Harry escapes the confines of the school's campus to lead readers through an intricately twisted plot with a surprising conclusion. Rowling designed Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire to be the culmination of books one, two and three. For the first time, she touches on themes such as political intrigue, jealousy, fame, and romance. Almost as long as the first three novels combined, the story opens with a description of events at the 422nd Quidditch World Cup before shifting to Harry's fourth year at Hogwarts. When Voldemort's sign, the Dark Mark, appears in the air at the Quidditch World Cup, the wizard world is thrown into a state of alert, and it appears evident that Voldemort's strength is returning. The fourth book focuses on the Triwizard Tournament held at Hogwarts, in which champions from three wizard schools compete for a thousand Galleons in prize money. Events throughout the story foreshadow a climactic future conflict between Harry and Lord Voldemort.
Rowling is praised for her highly imaginative and creative talent. Her work is intricately plotted, and she is often compared to authors Roald Dahl, P. L. Travers and C. S. Lewis. The first four books of the “Harry Potter” series have been translated into thirty-three languages, in 130 countries. In November 1999, Rowling's books occupied the top three spots on the New York Times Bestseller List. Overall, her books are liked by adults as well as children, and are favored by both genders. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire had the largest first printing ever recorded. Critics and readers alike have noted Rowling's ability to collect and use interesting words and names in her books. Though critics comment that the plots of the first three books are rather formulaic at times, almost all state that the books are nevertheless highly entertaining and well worth reading.
One of the most striking things about Rowling's works is the amount of excitement they have generated. Initial marketing of the series was minimal—most of its popularity spread by word of mouth. The books are upbeat, humorous and light-hearted, making them very different from much of the children's and young adult fiction currently published. Many people feel that the Harry Potter books turn non-readers into book lovers. Some factions, however, deem the books as anti-christian, and are working to have them banned from public schools and libraries. Christian parents, the driving force behind this movement, are suspicious of books that contain descriptions of sorcery and witchcraft. According to the American Library Association's Office for Intellectual Freedom, the “Harry Potter” collection tops the list of the ten books most challenged in 1999. Overall, however, the series has received the support of parents, teachers, and librarians who contend that the books have renewed the public's interest in reading.
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Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone [published in the United States as Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, 1998] (novel) 1997
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets [published in the United States in 1999] (novel) 1998
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (novel) 1999
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (novel) 2000
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SOURCE: “The Race for Harry Potter,” in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 246, No. 7, February 15, 1999, p. 33.
[In the following review, Maughan declares that the success of Rowling's “Harry Potter” series is not simply beginner's luck. Maughan also discusses the issue of territorial rights, concerning the books' publication history in the U.K. and the United States.]
Rarely has there been a success story as sweet as that of Scottish author J. K. Rowling. Her book Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone was first published in Britain in 1997. The attendant praise and accolades (winner of the 1997 British Book Award and Smarties Prize, among others) brought Rowling from a strained existence on public assistance to life as a celebrated author. On this side of the Atlantic, Scholastic/Arthur A. Levine Books published the book in September 1998 (bought at auction for just over ＄100,000) as Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, and the title has received the same kind of whirlwind attention. It currently boasts an in-print figure of 275,000 copies with nine trips to press.
On the heels of this initial fanfare, Rowling has already lain to rest any talk of beginner's luck. Her second book about Harry (there will eventually be seven volumes in all), Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, was published in the U.K. in July 1998. It debuted as England's number one bestseller and has just won the 1998 British Book Award. Such an outpouring of favor has already ensured a large audience for the forthcoming U.S. edition.
There's just one hitch: Scholastic is not scheduled to publish its edition of Chamber of Secrets until this September. For the many Harry Potter fans in the U.S., that's just too long to wait; a number of eager American readers have procured the British edition of Chamber of Secrets from Amazon in the U.K., and several U.S. booksellers have even stocked the British edition in their stores. PW spoke to several key players to determine what this unprecedented development means for Scholastic and for the future of territorial rights.
A WHOLE NEW GAME
In the past, U.K. and U.S. readers have frequently shared a fondness for the same popular book titles. And since the U.K. book-buying market is so much smaller than that of the U.S., until now it has been British readers who have obtained American editions of books not available in England. This situation has arisen a few times with titles for adults; recent examples include Bag of Bones by Stephen King, The Royals by Kitty Kelley and The Day Diana Died by Christopher Andersen.
But with Harry Potter, the flow of goods has been reversed, and the issue of monitoring U.S./U.K. territorial rights is a more significant one for children's publishers for the first time. The simultaneous emergence of globe-spanning online booksellers and a generation of Web-savvy kids hungry for more volumes of Rowling's fantasy/adventure series has raised concerns not only for Scholastic, but for any publisher buying rights in books originating in Britain.
“We are aware that Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets is finding its way into the country,” said Michael Jacobs, senior v-p, trade, at Scholastic. “We're not happy about it, but we are working with Bloomsbury [Rowling's U.K. publisher] to address the situation.” So far, that has meant contacting U.S. booksellers or distributors directly by letter or telephone. “We have heard of scattered instances of U.S. booksellers and distributors carrying the book,” Jacobs said. “Those people are clearly in violation. We don't want to be heavy-handed about it, but whenever we have heard of people selling the book, we've checked it out and informed them that we have the U.S. rights. We have felt that this has been effective.”
One East Coast bookseller made the decision to stock Chamber of Secrets based on demand. “Our customers have been clamoring for the second book because Harry Potter is so popular,” she said. The bookseller ordered the title from a British distributor with whom the store has regularly done business, with assurances that it was acceptable to do so. To date the store has sold 29 copies of the book, at a retail price of ＄23.95. “We've also had a lot of customers who told us that friends traveling to England brought the book back for them,” she added. “I don't think this number of books will hurt sales of the U.S. edition. It will probably help in the long run, spreading the word of mouth.”
A bookseller on the West Coast reports that her store carried Chamber of Secrets until a few weeks ago. “We had been purchasing the book through an importer until Scholastic contacted that company with a cease-and-desist request,” she said. “We considered finding another source, but thought, ‘Why make waves with Scholastic?’” The store has sold 53 copies of Chamber of Secrets at ＄25.95, and there are 77 people currently on a waiting list for the U.S. edition of the book.
“We've shared all of our feedback with Scholastic,” this bookseller continued. “The first book was so popular that people immediately starting asking about a sequel. We don't make a whole lot of money on these books, but as an independent, we do anything we can for our customers.”
Joyce Sampler, a sixth-grade teacher in New Orleans, exemplifies the initiative taken by many individual Harry Potter fans. “After I read the first Harry Potter book, I exchanged some e-mail about it with someone who had posted comments on Amazon.com,” Sampler explained. “That person told me that she had ordered the sequel directly from Bloomsbury in England. I went to Bloomsbury.com and did the same thing.” Unfortunately, Sampler's order went astray, and because of the delay, she decided to also order the book from Amazon in the U.K. She purchased the paperback Chamber of Secrets for £3.99 plus shipping.
“The kids just clamor for it,” she said of her students. “I could read it to them all day. I've never had this kind of reaction to a book. Several of the kids have also purchased it [Chamber of Secrets] from Amazon U.K. with no problem.” In addition, Sampler said, the fourth- and fifth-grade teachers in her school are reading the first Harry Potter book to their classes now, and will be looking forward to the sequel as well. In Sampler's opinion, “Scholastic is foolish not to change their publishing schedule if there's any way they can.”
At this point, Jacobs of Scholastic finds it impossible to quantify the impact of the transatlantic sales of Chamber of Secrets. “We find it encouraging and distressing at the same time,” he said. “It's great that people are keyed up for the second book, but we don't want booksellers to think it's okay to sell the U.K. edition at retail. We're looking to protect our rights.” Jacobs also insisted that Scholastic has no plans to change its September '99 publication date of Chamber of Secrets.
BEYOND HARRY POTTER
Of course, the Harry Potter books are not the first British fantasy-adventure series to excite young readers in the U.S. Such British authors as Brian Jacques (“Redwall” series, Philomel/Berkley) and Philip Pullman (“His Dark Materials” series, Knopf) have a large and loyal fan base in this country. But neither Penguin Putnam nor Random House report any significant infringement on their territorial rights, mainly due to each house's publishing schedule. “When we published The Golden Compass [Pullman's first “His Dark Materials” book] in 1996, online book-sellers did not really exist,” said Simon Boughton, publishing director at Knopf. “In 1997 we published The Subtle Knife simultaneously with Scholastic U.K. and will do the same with the third book in October 1999. We're conscious of it [U.S. sales of British editions] and would prefer not to be in that situation.”
Boughton also cited some recent pre-U.S.-publication buzz about another British import: Skellig by David Almond, published in Britain last October and to be released by Delacorte in April. “At ALA Midwinter, librarians were telling us that kids already knew about the book,” said Boughton. “That's a noticeable change, I think, that kids and librarians already know what's hot in England.”
Craig Virden, president and publisher of Random House Children's Books, doesn't foresee any problems with U.S. sales of the British edition of Skellig. “The question was raised early on as to whether we should be worried about it’ he said, “but this is the first time it has really come up for us and there's been no instance where anyone has bought it in any quantity that we know of. Down the road this may become an issue. And if it does, we will decide how to deal with it.”
At Penguin Putnam, Doug Whiteman, president of the Books for Young Readers division, agrees. “It has not really been a problem for us,” he said. “We wouldn't change our publishing plan based on a few copies of the British edition being sold here. We do try to publish Brian's [Jacques] books when he is available for touring and promotions in the U.S. because it dramatically helps the books. By coincidence, our edition usually follows only a month behind the U.K. publication.” The most recent “Redwall” book, Marlfax, was released in the U.K. in late November and shipped in the U.S. in late December.
When British-edition copies of Jacques's The Long Patrol (published here in February 1998) were being purchased through the Internet at a substantially higher price, Whiteman said it infuriated the author. “Brian did not want to be seen as approving of his book being positioned at that price,” Whiteman explained. “But we talked him through it, because we also wanted him to see the potential for legitimate online book sales in the future.”
But only time will reveal the true impact of this trend. Boughton speaks for many when he refers to territorial rights potentially becoming more of a hot issue for U.S. publishers. “I have seen more discussion about the future of territorial rights in the U.K. trades,” he noted. “You have to think about it a little differently now.
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SOURCE: “The Harry Potter Halo,” in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 246, No. 29, July 19, 1999, pp. 92–4.
[In the following review, Maughan contends that the increasing popularity of hardcover fiction is due in part to the success of the “Harry Potter” books.]
What are kids clamoring for these days? Believe it or not, it's hardcover fiction. Sure, young people have always been drawn to great books, from Charlotte's Web to Redwall to The Golden Compass. But since last fall, middle-grade and young-adult readers, including both girls and—gasp!—boys, have been buying and reading new hardcovers like never before. And, according to many children's book experts, at least one catalyst for this trend is the unprecedented success of J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter books.
With 800,000 copies in print and 30 weeks spent on the New York Times Bestseller list, the first title, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, published in the U.S. in September 1998, is nothing less than a phenomenon. Rowling's fantastic, adventurous tale about a young wizard-in-training (as well as its recent sequel Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets) has captured the imaginations of kids and adults alike, many of whom have been eager to buy the books in hardcover. “Kids are wanting to get the book and wanting to keep it,” said Colleen Shipman, manager and children's book buyer at The Book Rack/Children's Pages in Winooski, Vt. “Parents are learning to appreciate the immediacy of buying the latest book in hardcover and the importance of adding books to a child's permanent collection. The phrase ‘we'll wait for the paperback’ is falling by the wayside.”
Demand for the Harry Potter titles is reflected not only in bookstore sales, but in library circulation as well. Young readers have checked them out from school and public libraries in very healthy numbers. “The first Harry Potter title was so popular, we bought 173 copies of Chamber of Secrets,” said Judy Nelson, head children's librarian in the Bellevue (Wash.) Public Library. “We've got 730 people waiting to read it.”
Other libraries across the country are experiencing similar traffic. “I just read a posting on the CCBC listserv where 300 kids were on a library waitlist for Chamber of Secrets,” said Arthur Levine, editor of the U.S. editions of the Harry Potter books, which were published under his imprint at Scholastic. “We couldn't do anything to create that kind of response,” he commented. “That's kid-to-kid. They can get really passionate about a great book.”
ON HARRY'S COATTAILS
The word-of-mouth recommendations of Sorcerer's Stone began flying fast and furious upon the book's U.S. release. Originally published in the U.K. by Bloomsbury in July 1997, Rowling's work garnered both praise and popularity well before landing stateside. And once American readers got a taste of Harry's first adventure, they were eager for more. The frenzy led U.S. readers to seek the U.K. edition of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (released in July 1998) via online booksellers and trips to London prior to the sequel's scheduled American release. Demand was so high, in fact, that Scholastic moved up the publication of its edition from September to June 1999. Chamber of Secrets quickly joined Sorcerer's Stone on the bestseller lists, and has 900,000 copies in print to date.
But the mega-watt power of Harry Potter spells more than just big money for its author and publishers. Rowling's books have spurred significant numbers of readers and would-be readers to visit libraries and bookstores in search of other great reads. And it's this halo of success that has those in children's book circles beaming. “We're very excited,” said Judith Rovenger, youth services consultant for the New York's Westchester County public library system. “There's lots of buzz among kids and parents. Anytime there is a publishing phenomenon like Harry Potter it's good for children's books in general. More and more adults are discovering children's books and saying ‘Hey, this is good stuff.’”
Booksellers and librarians have happily capitalized on the success of the Harry Potter books, using readers’ interest in those titles as a bridge to other books. “Kids come in and tell me they loved the book,” Shipman said, “and I can say ‘I liked it, too.’ That connection makes kids a little more willing to listen to and trust my other recommendations.” Shipman said she directs Potter fans not only to other fantasy titles but to family stories as well. Rovenger spoke of similar experiences. “Kids are initiating the asking about books now, whereas the librarian usually initiates that conversation,” she said.
On the retail front, Harry Potter has seemingly bolstered some buyers’ confidence, especially in the chain stores. “We've seen more willingness on the part of the big chains that were always reluctant to take hardcover fiction,” said Brenda Bowen, v-p and publisher of Simon & Schuster Children's Books. As an example, Bowen comments, “Our title The Raging Quiet by Sheryl Jordan has gone out in very good numbers in part because booksellers are looking for what readers will want to read next, after Harry Potter. All our sales reports are indicating that buyers are now trying titles in hardcover that they normally wouldn't.”
Elise Howard, editor-in-chief of Avon Books for Young Readers, agrees. “We're in an unusual situation because our hardcover program is only a year old. But we are definitely seeing retail taking a bigger interest in our hardcovers. Independents have always done so, but this is new for the chains,” she said. “Retailers are awakening to the fact that if they can make it happen, hardcovers are a nice business. They're not writing those books off as purely an institutional sale anymore.
Howard also cited an increase in consumer review activity for hardcovers, as well as a surge of interest from the chains in doing more creative hardcover fiction promotions. She noted that a holiday 1998 promotion in one of the large chains that included two hardcover sequels (Poppy & Rye by Avi, which now has 30,500 copies in print, and The Key to the Indian by Lynne Reid Banks, currently at 150,000 copies in print) was particularly successful.
According to Steve Geck, director of children's books for Barnes & Noble, hardcovers are riding high in his company's stores. “Even before the buzz on Harry hit, we had planned a big hardcover fiction promotion for the holidays [in 1998], including Holes, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, Bloomability and some other titles,” he said. “Lots of people were already giving those books as gifts, and then the Harry Potter profile ran on NPR, which was the beginning of all the media attention. Since then this continues to be an exciting business for us.”
Geck reported that Barnes & Noble buyers are “selectively taking more copies of a book. We look at [hardcover] titles that we would have taken four or five copies of and we say, ‘Let's take 10.’ There is now a feeling that we can handsell these books more than in the past.”
He also believes that the stalwart support of teachers and librarians has played a key role in the current popularity of hardcover fiction. “Teachers and librarians have always given real support to hardcover books by authors like Sharon Creech, Gary Paulsen and Avi. Whenever a new one comes out, they buy it”
And Geck pointed out that an enthusiastic response to some of Barnes & Noble's outreach events suggests an increased interest in hardcovers as well. “We have more teachers and librarians than ever shopping in our stores now,” he said. “At some of our ‘Educator Night’ events we've had 300 400 attendees. It's very gratifying to know that we have become a part of their community.”
The country's robust economy has also had an effect on the fiction resurgence. Bowen of S&S noted that these days consumers are simply willing to spend more on books. “We're feeling more confident about the price point that the public can bear,” she said. She believes that Scholastic's unjacketed hardcovers in the Dear America series, selling at ＄10.95 each, has helped ease more book buyers into the hardcover market over the past couple of years.
Bowen also stressed that the packaging of books has become increasingly important. “One of the smart things Scholastic did was to go all-out designwise and make Harry Potter a book you wanted to touch and feel and read,” she said. “And I think people will want more books like that. We have to make our titles attractive in a way that says, ‘Buy this hardcover book.’”
QUALITY WINS OUT
Most children's book experts agree that the attention paid to the Harry Potter books is well-deserved, primarily because they are first and foremost works of quality fiction. “History has shown that there has always been room for hardcover fiction to do well,” said Levine of Scholastic. “The difficult thing is to get the books to the attention of the public. You can't artificially reproduce a phenomenon like Harry Potter. You can try any clever gimmick or throw any amount of money at a book, but if it's not a great book, it won't happen:’
Others in the field share that opinion. “We can't try to ape Harry Potter,” Bowen said. “What we can do is discover what's the next great book of its genre and then blow that out.” Nelson of the Bellevue Public Library commented, “If it's a good title, it really doesn't matter if it's hardcover or paperback. Hardcovers won't ever replace paperbacks in popularity, because kids like to carry the paperbacks around. But as long as we see fun, engaging fiction, the hardcovers will continue to go out of the library.”
Though the hype may indicate otherwise, Harry Potter was hardly the only standout hardcover of the last couple of publishing seasons. Louis Sachar's Holes, in which a boy unravels a family secret while serving time at an unusual juvenile detention camp, won the 1999 Newbery Medal as well as the National Book Award in the Young People's Literature category. But perhaps even more exciting in the eyes of the children's book world, Holes has well exceeded the expected boost in sales that award winners typically experience, and continues to sell steadily. Other solid-selling, popular hardcovers of late have included Marlfox, the latest installment in Brian Jacques's Redwall series; Brian's Return, a sequel to Hatchet by Gary Paulsen; Karen Hesse's Newbery-winning Out of the Dust; and Newbery Honor titles Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine and Lily's Crossing by Patricia Reilly Gift.
Certainly, no one can predict what the next children's-book phenom might be, other than to note that the third Harry Potter book is due out in September. For now, the children's book industry is happy to bask in Harry's glow, as it means also garnering attention for the entire spectrum of quality fiction titles being published. “Everybody seems to be thrilled about Harry Potter and heartened that juvenile hardcover books can do that well,” Howard of Avon observed. “We all wish we had Harry Potter on our list,” she added with a laugh. “But if it happened once, maybe it can happen again.”
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SOURCE: “The Truth about Harry,” in School Library Journal, Vol. 45, No. 9, September, 1999, pp. 136–39.
[In the following interview, Rowling shares the origins of the “Harry Potter” books, her own background, and her expectations for the series.]
Slide over Mr. Clancy, Mr. King, and Ms. Higgins Clark. Make room for J. K. Rowling. In three short years, the 33-year-old British writer has been transformed from a hapless, yet-to-be-published novelist into one of the hottest authors on Earth. Her first novel, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, the tale of an orphan who is sent to the Hogwarts School for Witchcraft and Wizardry, soared onto bestseller lists, and, for good measure, wowed the critics, winning Britain's Smarties Prize, and being named the U.K.'s children's book of the year. Beginner's luck? Not by a long shot.
Harry's two serial siblings—Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (both published this year by Scholastic)—are even hotter than the original. The trio has sold more than two million copies in 115 countries. And not all of those copies went to kids. At the moment, Harry occupies the top three spots on Amazon.com's adult bestseller list. And the wizard-in-training's final curtain call is nowhere in sight: Rowling is already at work on Harry the Fourth and plans to write a seven-book saga. (She also plans to crisscross the U.S. on a book tour, beginning next month.)
Joanne Rowling is a latecomer to both fame and fortune. After graduating from Exeter University (where she studied French), Rowling landed a job as a secretary. (The best thing about the job, she once confided, was that she could “type up stories on the computer when no one was looking.”) Seven years ago, she moved to Portugal and taught English. And then, of course, along came Harry. Nowadays, Rowling and her five-year-old daughter, Jessica, live in Edinburgh, Scotland. This telephone interview took place in mid-June.
[Feldman:]What were your expectations for Harry initially?
[Rowling:] I had no idea truthfully what kind of reception it would get. If indeed it would ever get published, because I never looked to publish before. I knew how difficult it would be just to get a book published. I was a completely unknown writer. I certainly could never have expected what's happened. It's been a real shock.
Are there any misconceptions about you?
When I read the inaccurate reports that I decided to turn my hand to writing out of poverty, I feel indignant. When I had the idea for Harry and when I started writing the [first] book, I was working full time, as I was for my entire adult life, and I was not a single parent. I finished the book under those conditions. But it obviously does make a better story. It sounds more like a rags-to-riches tale.
You're often portrayed as an overnight sensation.
That couldn't be further away from the truth. I actually started writing Harry in 1990.
What were you working on before that?
Short stories. A lot of started-and-abandoned novels before I sort of hit my stride. It would be totally untrue to say [my success] is overnight or it came out of nowhere. I'll even say that I am mildly indignant when people say that to me, because I worked very hard and served my apprenticeship in terms of writing before Harry.
Are the reports true that you were working on Harry in cafes while your daughter slept beside you?
It was more difficult to write because at that time I was a single parent and I had no money for child care at all. It is absolutely true that I used to go to cafes. I had to basically find out which cafes would allow me to sit in for a bit of coffee and let me just write for a couple of hours while my daughter napped. A substantial part of the [first Harry Potter] book was written and rewritten in those conditions.
How did you come up with the idea for Harry?
I had the idea for Harry on a train in the summer of 1990. … I was sitting on the train. I was staring out the window. As far as I can remember, I was staring at some cows. Not the most inspiring subject. [Although cartoonist] Gary Larsen would disagree, now that I think of it. [The idea] just came. I can not tell you why or what triggered it—if indeed anything triggered it. I saw Harry incredibly clearly. The idea basically at that point was wizard school and I saw Harry very, very plainly.
Are any of the characters autobiographical?
Hermione is loosely based on me. She's a caricature of me when I was 11, which I'm not particularly proud of. She's quite annoying in a lot of ways. I like her as a character, but I'm very aware that some people wouldn't.
I know girls who are a lot like Hermione—endearing and pesky at the same time.
I've met a lot of girls who say they recognize themselves in Hermione. I think it's a very female way of coping, to try and be the best. Hermione is a character I understand really, really well. I consciously try to make it clear that underneath the aggravating surface is someone who is actually quite insecure, hence her constant struggle to be the best. I think boy readers can grudgingly see the point of Hermione. Girls tend to identify with her a lot more. It probably is a particularly female characteristic for young girls to cover up their insecurities about feeling plain, or whatever inadequacy, by trying to get the best marks. Hermione will loosen up a lot. In fact she does loosen up a lot in Chamber of Secrets—as I did as I got older.
What did you like to read when you were growing up?
I adored E. Nesbit. I think her books are wonderful. My favorite book as a child was called Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge. I liked [Noel] Streatfeild, who did those girly books about ballet shoes and things. I was a bit old for Roald Dahl. I did read Charlie and the Chocolate Factory when I was about 11, and I really enjoyed it. But a lot of his later stuff, like Matilda and The Twits, I haven't read.
Some readers compare the two of you.
I'll be honest with you, I take it as a huge compliment because he's very popular. … However, I don't actually think we're that similar. I think that superficially, very superficially—because from what I know about Roald Dahl, he was very good on quirky details—we have something in common. But at a deeper level, we're quite different. This is not at all meaning that I'm better than Roald Dahl. He's an absolute master at what he did. It's just that I think we set out to do quite different things. I think his characters are more cartoonlike than mine are. I also think—unfashionable a word as that is—that my books are a lot more “moral.”
What were you like as a young girl?
My life's ambition has been to write full time. … This is all I have wanted from the age of six. I cannot overstate how much I wanted that. But I didn't talk about it at all. I just never really spoke about it, because I was embarrassed. And because my parents were the kind of parents who would have thought, “Ah yes, that's very nice, dear, but where is the pension plan?”
Talk about your earliest attempts at writing.
The first story I ever wrote was about a rabbit. [I wrote it] when I was six. The whole story was [about the rabbit] getting measles. I wrote stories about rabbits for a couple of years. I definitely have a rabbit fixation. … I actually own a rabbit now. Maybe that will help me get rid of the fixation.
How have kids responded to your books?
Talking to children about the books is actually just about the most enjoyable thing you could possibly do. They are great.
What are they most curious about?
They are very keen to know whom I'm going to kill. Very, very, very keen. That fascinates me. I think I understand why. They are all really worried about Ron. They've seen so many films where the main character's best friend died [that] I think they have become incredibly wise and know the storyteller's tricks, basically. They know that if Ron died, Harry would have such a grudge, that it would make it very personal.
Are you planning to kill off Ron?
I can't let on too much.
The first two Harry Potter books are very lighthearted. Will the series remain that way?
[The books] are getting darker, and that's inevitable. If you are writing about Good and Evil, there comes a point where you have to get serious. This is something I really have had to think about.
Early on, I had to consider how to depict an evil being, such as Lord Voldemort [in books one and two]. I could go one of two ways: I could either make him a pantomime villain … [meaning that there is] a lot of sound and Thunder and nobody really gets hurt. Or [I could] attempt to do something a little bit more serious—which means you're going to have to show death. And worse than that, you'll have to show the death of characters whom the readers care about. I chose the second route.
What about the strange names you use?
Most of the words came in my head full-formed and I have to kind of trace them back. And I can only try to speculate to where they came from. I think that I derived “Muggle” [the word wizards use to describe humans without magical powers] from the word “mug,” which in Britain means a stupid person or a fellow who's easy to dupe.
I read somewhere that you are a collector of weird names.
That's absolutely true. Names have always fascinated me. It is such sheer indulgence to be able to invent names and use strange names in the Harry books. It's going to make it very difficult for [me to work on] the next thing I write. If it's realistic, I'll have to give up all those names. Boy!
How do you pronounce “Quidditch,” the name of your invented ball game?
It's KWI-ditch [stress on the first syllable].
Where did that name come from?
I met a British journalist from quite a serious newspaper not very long ago. She said to me: “You obviously got the name ‘Quidditch’ from ‘quiddity,’ which is the word that means the essence of a thing.” And I looked at her and thought, “Oh, I really want to say, Yes.’ Because that sounds so much cooler than the truth.” But the truth is that I invented the word for a totally whimsical reason. I just wanted a word that began with Q. Don't ask me why. Just pure whim. I still have the notebook in which I invented all these words beginning with Q. On the page, you can see where I wrote Quidditch, and I circled it five times. I just really liked the sound of it.
Did you ever imagine you would be such an enormous success?
When I went into this, my agent said to me, “I don't want you going away from this meeting thinking that you're going to make a fortune.” Then I said to him, totally truthfully: “I know I'm not gonna make any money out of it. I know I'm not gonna be famous. And that is fine.” All I ever wanted to do is to see the book published. That was the truth. I was very, very, very realistic. … I knew that most children's writers don't make any money. They will never ever, ever be very well known. I was totally OK with that. I just wanted someone to publish Harry so I could go to bookshops and see it. [I wanted] to be able, somehow, to support myself writing so I didn't have to give it up.
Did you consider quitting?
What I was terrified of at one point was I just wouldn't be able to justify to myself continuing to write. I thought it would be selfish for my daughter if I could earn a better living doing something else. … However much I loved writing, she still needed new shoes. If writing wasn't helping to buy new shoes, then it just felt very self-indulgent. That's what I was praying for … to just make enough for me to be able to continue to justify financially to write.
I know a lot of readers are glad you never had to make that sacrifice.
I have been incredibly fortunate because I didn't have to give up my dearest dream. But I was ready to do it if I had to. But now my daughter and I have security. I can't tell you what that means to me.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 688
SOURCE: “Potter's Field,” in Horn Book Magazine, Vol. 75, No. 5, September–October, 1999, pp. 500–01.
[In the following review, Sutton ponders the uproar over Harry Potter.]
On this occasion of our 75th anniversary issue, I'm reminded what a constant presence the past is at the Horn Book offices. When, as we do here with some regularity, we invoke past editors of the Horn Book, we don't bother with chronology. They aren't Back Then but (with the exception of my immediate predecessor) Up There and at the same time, with physical as well as intellectual evidence at hand, Still Here. We often call upon them while assigning books for review. Something arcanely Anglophilic? “Assign it to Ethel.” A new book about Babe Ruth? We wonder if baseball fan Anita Silvey can be lured back to bat for two hundred words or so. I outrage the doll collectors of America (see last issue's editorial, and next issue's letters) and ask Bertha for help. But then I remember her Bookshop muse, Alice-Heidi, and sadly think, no help there.
Right now I really want to ask them all about Harry Potter. I don't have any opinions about Harry; at least, I didn't have any opinions until J. K. Rowling's series became a “publishing phenomenon” (ghastly but apt phrase) and—as Canadian critic Perry Nodelman recently discovered when he appeared on a Boston radio call-in show—children's books became All About Harry. So I'm feeling suckered—neither by the book nor by the publisher, but by the cosmic forces that have ordained that this likable but critically insignificant series become wildly popular and therefore news, and therefore something I'm supposed to have an opinion about.
We are given to understand that the presence of the Harry Potter books on myriad bestseller lists means something beyond the obvious redundancy, that is, the books are bestsellers because lots of people are buying, and, presumably, liking them. But what else does it mean? As I write, the New York Times fiction bestseller list includes, along with the first two Harry Potters, books by Thomas Harris, Stephen King, and Danielle Steel. Steel's Granny Dan, this week, is doing better than either of the Harrys, therefore … well, therefore nothing.
I will be accused of disingenuousness. The difference is that Harry Potter is a children's book on the bestseller list. Of course. But when R.L. Stine's Goosebumps started invading the lists, I don't recall a similar atmosphere of jubilation. Reactions ranged from condemnatory to dismissive. And all that the annual appearance of Dr. Seuss's Oh, the Places You'll Go! means is that it's June. I have more respect for Harry Potter than I do for most children's books, both real and so-called, that bleep onto the adult-attention radar screen, but I can't help asking why all those literati who regularly demonstrate disdain for the latest bestseller craze have decided to change the rules for Harry. Why, for heaven's sake, did the British Library Association feel it needed to publish a prepared statement explaining why Harry had not figured in this year's Carnegie Medal? Mr. and Mrs. Heins are appalled (they told me).
In a letter accompanying a reader's copy of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Scholastic says of the Harry books, “all of this attention focused on a children's book can only be good for the visibility of children's literature in general—everyone wins.” Most teachers, librarians, booksellers, and parents I've talked to agree; Harry Potter is not a success born of publishers' hype. But I feel compelled to add that Harry's blessing is not unmixed. It sets an odd standard for success; in fact, success itself becomes the standard. Bestseller lists are a perilous blend of reportage and marketing: lots of people have bought this book and, therefore, so should you. Harry Potter has become a case not of attention focused on a children's book, but attention focused on attention; the “visibility of children's literature” less important than the inevitable search for the “next Harry Potter.” For, to paraphrase the late Jacqueline Susann (who certainly knew a thing or three about how bestsellerdom works), once is never enough.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 244
SOURCE: “Harry Banned?” in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 246, No. 40, October 4, 1999, p. 10.
[In the following essay, Rosen presents the viewpoints of those who oppose the “Harry Potter” series.]
There's something about Harry Potter that has been labeled “anti-Christian.” Although Kris Moran, director of publicity at Scholastic, the series’ U.S. publisher, said, “We're not aware of anything negative,” the rumblings are just starting to be heard elsewhere.
In the past two weeks, Beverley Becker, associate director of the ALA's Office for Intellectual Freedom, has gotten word of three challenges to the popular J. K. Rowling series, in Michigan, Minnesota and New York. “I've also talked to a couple of librarians,” she said, “who are concerned about the books being challenged because of witchcraft [elements in the plot],’
For Charles Suhor of the National Council of Teachers of English, it comes as no surprise that some parents might want books about the students at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry banned. Objections used to come from parents concerned about “a Communist plot to take over the schools. Now it's Satan himself and insidious New Age satanism.” Although Suhor hasn't received any calls on Harry yet, that's not unusual, either.
“Actually, we've had a slight diminishing of censorship calls,’ he remarked, a situation he doesn't necessarily regard as healthy. Instead, Suhor hypothesizes that the drop-off in protests, from a high of 740 in 1995 to 478 in 1998, may actually be due to self-censorship on the part of teachers and librarians.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1252
SOURCE: “It's Witchcraft,” in National Review, Vol. 51, No. 19, October 11, 1999, p. 60.
[In the following review, Stuttaford remarks that Harry Potter follows in the footsteps of the finest of children's stories.]
It's enough to make you choke on your fava beans. In bookstore new-fiction aisles, this was meant to be the summer of Hannibal Lecter: aesthete, Renaissance scholar, and serial killer. Instead he has had to share the limelight with Harry Potter, the schoolboy hero of a series of British children's books. The second of these, The Chamber of Secrets, was released in the U.S. at about the same time as Thomas Harris's Hannibal. On September 19, more than three months later, it was Number Three on the New York Times bestseller list, five places ahead of the unfortunate Dr. Lecter. The same week, the first Harry Potter (The Sorcerer's Stone), which has been on the list for the better part of a year, came in at Number Two. That's pretty good for works of very English fantasy, and astonishing for books aimed at children. To add to the cannibal's misery, the most recent Harry Potter, The Prisoner of Azkaban, has now arrived in America, released early by its U.S. publishers as a result of the large number of copies of the British edition that were making their way across the Atlantic.
Probably by broomstick. For the Harry Potter books are about witches and wizards. In the finest tradition of children's stories, Harry is an 11-year-old orphan being brought up under appalling conditions by grotesque relatives. But, as always in these tales, our hero discovers that he has another, greater destiny. To find his future, Arthur pulled a sword out of a stone. Young Potter just receives letters, hundreds of them, delivered by owls. Harry Potter, it turns out, is a wizard, and he is required to attend Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.
Not least because he has an enemy, Voldemort (the splendidly chosen names are one of the strengths of these books), a great wizard who has gone over, as George Lucas would recognize, to the dark side. Voldemort was responsible for the deaths of Harry's parents and wants to finish off the son. If Harry is to survive, he will need all the training he can get in the magical arts. The books (there will eventually be one for each of the seven years Harry is due to spend at Hogwarts) detail his adventures at the school and the intensifying struggle with the forces of the wicked Voldemort.
So far, so good, but this is unexceptional stuff, not enough to explain why so many people are wild about Harry. Part of the answer, of course, lies in skillful marketing, not only of the novels but their author. And why not? Hers is a story almost as magical as Harry's.
J. K. Rowling was a divorced single mother on welfare at the time she wrote The Sorcerer's Stone, mainly, it is said, in an Edinburgh cafe (her apartment was too cold). A Kinko's Cinderella, she couldn't even afford to photocopy her manuscript. She typed it out twice on, naturally, a battered old typewriter. In interviews she comes across as a pleasant sort, the only worrying note coming when she describes her books as “moral.”
Moral? In the sanctimonious world of contemporary children's literature, that's a frightening word, all too often a synonym for “politically correct.” Rowling does her best to oblige. Minority characters are carefully included in a saga that is otherwise inescapably Anglo-Saxon. Unusually for an English boarding school, Hogwarts is coeducational. Its principal sport, the enjoyably savage Quidditch (a sort of aerial hockey), can be played by both sexes. Harry's boarding house includes girls on its team: Their unpleasant opponents at Slytherin House do not.
It's no surprise, therefore, when Rowling reveals leftish social prejudices all too typical of the British intelligentsia. Harry's main rival at the school, nasty Draco Malfoy is—two strikes—both rich and aristocratic. Meanwhile, the dysfunctional Dursleys, Harry's ghastly family, are a caricature of the vicious bourgeoisie that would have delighted Vyshinsky. They are contrasted with the poor-but-happy Weasleys, a wizard household that befriends Harry. Old man Dursley is a brutish capitalist, director of a company that makes drills. The Bob Cratchit-like Mr. Weasley, on the other hand, is a good-government type, a noble, underpaid bureaucrat at the Ministry of Magic.
But by the standards of our irritating era this is mild. Neither Harry nor any of his circle appears to have two mommies, inner-city malaise is confined to the sinister folk in Knockturn Alley, and no one hugs a Whomping Willow tree (it would hit back). The Potter phenomenon is, in fact, reassuring. The lad's no pinko. There is plenty here for the more traditionally minded, and tradition sells, it would seem. Part of the appeal of these books is that they offer fantasy, but within a reassuring structure. There are rules.
Hogwarts School is strict, and its exams are tough. Strip away the contemporary trimmings, and the reader is left with a rather old-fashioned English boarding-school tale, even down to the feasts. Harry “had never seen so many things he liked to eat on one table: roast beef, roast chicken, pork chops and lamb chops, sausages, bacon and steak, boiled potatoes, roast potatoes, fries, Yorkshire pudding, peas, carrots, gravy, ketchup, and for some strange reason, peppermint humbugs.” This is not a school for our tofu times.
Nor is it for wimps. There are plenty of challenges for Harry, almost none of which can be resolved by “counseling.” Undaunted, he tries to do the right thing. This is a boy who sticks by his friends, and they stick by him. There is evil and betrayal, but by the final page, the bad guys are generally in disarray. Children still like a happy ending and a hero to cheer for. And who better than Harry? He is no comic-book savage. Laudably enough, he wants to avenge his parents, but he doesn't want to lose his humanity (if that's the word for a wizard) in so doing.
And Rowling does not lose sight of her principal objective, which is to tell a good story well. The writing is vivid and of high quality—it has to be to hold a child's attention for over 300 pages (books in R. L. Stine's bestselling Goosebumps series are around 150 pages each). The lesson of Harry Potter is that well-crafted, intelligent stories can indeed flourish in the marketplace—if the gatekeepers of our contemporary culture give them a chance. Tellingly, a British publisher that rejected The Sorcerer's Stone did so because it was “too literary.”
If this is another way of saying that the author doesn't patronize her readers, it is true. Unlike many writers of children's books, she doesn't talk down to her audience. She is not, however, writing for their parents. Harry's adult fans (so many in the U.K. that the British publisher produced an edition with a more “grown-up” cover to allow them to read it in public) need to get a grip. Comparisons between Harry Potter and the immortals of children's literature should also be treated with care. The greatest of the classics retain their appeal over the years. They are more than a craze. With the much-hyped Harry it is still too early to say, although the signs are good that Hogwarts will stand the test of time. But what's the hurry? We don't yet know how the saga will end. Voldemort still lives.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 741
SOURCE: “Potter for Parents,” in Library Journal, Vol. 124, No. 17, October 15, 1999, p. 60.
[In the following review, Fialkoff discusses the appeal the “Harry Potter” series has to adults.]
Like every other 11-year-old in America, mine is devouring Harry Potter. But so are many adults, and the phenomenon extends beyond those who have 11-year-olds, or, indeed, any children at all. In the UK, where Potter was born in the imagination of author J. K. Rowling, the publishers have even replaced the original cartoony cover of the first book with a more symbolic and evocative cover that won't embarrass adults who are toting it on the tube.
“You have to read it,” said my daughter, although she wasn't sure she'd characterize it as an “adult” book. Since I relish sharing her reading experiences and have often enjoyed books she has recommended (though I was more squeamish than she at parts of The Professor and the Madman), I couldn't wait to get started. And she's right. The book is clearly a page turner. Every chapter ends on a cliffhanger. The heroes are appealing, the villains appropriately evil, the imaginary world transporting, the game of Quidditch (perhaps Rowling's best creation)—a wizards and witches on broomsticks sport that combines a soupcon of baseball, basketball, and football—exciting, the ending sufficiently surprising.
Yet even as I rush to finish the first book in the series, I wonder why so many adults are reading it, except for the pleasure of keeping up with their children. When my daughter hands me the second Potter, I begin slightly less breathlessly. Now, it sits, night after night by my bed, only half finished, with a handful of other forgotten books.
True, on the surface the second book (Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets) is no less engaging than the first (Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone). My daughter tells me it is, in fact, a better story, with an even more surprising ending. Like its predecessor and the third book in the series (… and the Secret of Azkaban, which came out September 8), it resides on the New York Times best sellers list, a rare feat for a children's book.
My friends who are fantasy readers tell me that had I read fantasy as a child I would be as caught up in the phenomenon as other adults, who are reconnecting with their childhoods. Us SF & Fantasy columnist, Jackie Cassada, thinks there's more to it than that. “It may just be the need for whimsy in our lives,” says Cassada. Moreover, the books are “safe,” she says. “They're not prurient, not Satanic” (though there is some violence), so they may appeal not just to parents but to adults who want a nonthreatening read. And, says Cassada, ever the fantasy-lover, “It's time fantasy made a big swoop.”
The last time fantasy made such “a big swoop” might have been with the publication of Richard Adams's Watership Down. Like Harry Potter, that book originated in the UK as a juvenile title; unlike Harry, though, by the time it moved across the Atlantic in 1974 it was officially an adult title, regarded by its American publisher, Macmillan, as too sophisticated and too hefty (at 429 pages) for just children.
While Watership Down brought comparisons to J. R. R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, LJ's reviewer nevertheless called it “stunning in its own right,” “lyrical,” and “a sensitive blend of fantasy and reality.” Yet, said our reviewer, “Adams's vision is not as broad or fantastic as Tolkien's.”
Those remarks shed light on why Potter doesn't belong up there with the two earlier adult blockbusters. There is no lyrical writing here, no greater truths about our world or ourselves to be found, no “ulterior or inner meaning beyond the events of the story” (to borrow from one of Cassada's criteria for good fantasy). Potter doesn't transcend its genre the way those two books do. In sum, Harry Potter is not great literature.
“Maybe,” said a colleague, “it's what adults who haven't been reading are reading.” That certainly seems plausible, given the language, accessible to even some second- and third-graders. Moreover, according to librarians, the books are breaking all barriers not only for children's collections but for gender, appealing to men (and boys) as much as to women (and girls). Harry Potter may not be great literature, but it's certainly great escapism. And that combination of factors makes Potter deserving of its raging success, both in libraries and out.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1376
SOURCE: “Keeping Up with Harry,” in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 246, No. 44, November 1, 1999, p. 36.
[In the following review, Maughan describes the marketing of the “Harry Potter” books and the resulting reading frenzy.]
As the industry's traditionally busy fall continues apace, Harry Potter is clearly the runaway story of the season. J. K. Rowling's first two books about wizardry student Harry have been riding high on the New York Times bestseller list for months, but with the release on September 8 of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (which promptly joined its predecessors in bestsellerdom) and the paperback of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, fans—and the media—have been truly whipped into a frenzy. In the past six weeks, the junior wizard's face has graced the cover of Time, and Rowling and her books have been featured on “60 Minutes,” the “Today Show” and the “Rosie O'Donnell Show,” where Prisoner of Azkaban was named the inaugural selection for O'Donnell's new Rosie's Readers children's book club in partnership with eToys.com. And recent publicized complaints from conservative groups seeking to ban the books for perceived anti-Christian content may have even helped fuel the fire.
This widespread Harry fever has put Scholastic in a race to keep readers plied with books. The numbers are staggering: for the three hardcovers combined, there are 5.2 million copies in print and 5.7 million copies on order. For the paperback Sorcerer's Stone, there are 3.7 million copies in print and 1.7 million copies on order. “We've got nine printing plants and various paper mill houses across the country working around the clock to fill our orders,” said Judy Corman, senior v-p, director of corporate communications at Scholastic. “We've never done anything like this before.”
With such massive exposure, the climate couldn't have been better to launch the Listening Library audiobook, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, on October 5. “In my 20 years in this business, I've never seen a children's audio title selling at this level,” said Tim Ditlow, publisher of Listening Library. “We're seeing the kind of numbers that only the likes of a John Grisham has achieved with an audiobook. We've got several duplicators working on this title to help us keep up with the demand.”
According to Ditlow, the audiobook fills a niche, as no other licensed Harry Potter merchandise is currently being sold. But that should change soon. Christopher Little, Rowling's literary agent, reports that 30–40 potential licensees are contacting his office every day, with the number totaling “well into the thousands” over the last two months. “It's quite extraordinary,” Little said. “We've had the same reaction in Germany and Korea and Mexico and Portugal [as in the U.S. and U.K.].” Warner Bros., which plans to produce a Harry Potter film, has an option for worldwide licensing rights, and Little called a deal “imminent.”
The audiobook is also the first children's audio title (and the first new audio title, period) to be included in the Book Sense 76, landing on the November-December list. According to Book-Sense's Carl Lennertz, “[Narrator] Jim Dale's characterizations are superb—so much so that I think kids who have read the book already will enjoy it anew, along with the whole family.”
MEETING THE CROWDS
Rowling has just completed a U.S. bookstore tour that has consistently drawn a minimum of 1000 people at each stop. “The tour is spectacular,” commented Scholastic v-p of marketing Jennifer Pasanen, calling from the road. “It's amazing—it's like traveling with a rock star,” she said of the crowds, often filled with children donning wizard cloaks and Harry-like lightning bolt scars on their foreheads. Pasanen said that Rowling signed an average of 800–1000 books during the scheduled two hours at each store and that customers were limited to one signed book each. “Our goal is to accommodate as many people as we can,” she said. “We hate to turn anyone away, but we also have to be sensitive to the fact that Jo is just one person and can only do so much in a limited time.” Fans lucky enough to meet Rowling have offered nothing but warm praise, according to Pasanen. “One man came through the line and made the comment to [Rowling]: ‘Thanks for bringing back reading,’” Pasanen said.
As an unprecedented turnout can be expected for any Rowling appearance, Pasanen said, “Scholastic stipulated that stores needed to be prepared for tremendous crowds”; booksellers arranged for security and organized various ticketing systems, in response.
Diane Garrett, owner of Diane's Books of Greenwich, Conn., who hosted Rowling on October 16, explained her strategy: “We worked months and months on this and were excruciatingly organized. We held the event at the Greenwich Teen Center, which is just south of my store. We had three security people and 15–20 staff members on hand. And we were careful not to overticket. Because of this, our signing was fantastic. Jo was relaxed and had a marvelous time.”
Garrett's experience is representative of other events held at both chain and independent stores in other states. But at an event at the Borders in Livingston, N.J., on October 15, things did not go so well. When a crowd estimated to be well over 2000 became unruly, police were called in and recommended that the store end the signing after one hour. Jill Zimmer, a teacher, and her 11-year-old daughter, Allison, were among the Potter fans in Livingston. “It was handled so poorly,” Zimmer said. “The store managers drew chalk marks on the parking lot pavement and asked people to stand in line. I was amazed that there were no partitions or anything.” Zimmer said many latecomers to the event did not heed the lines or markings and began pushing their way to the store's entrance, where tickets were seemingly handed out “willy-nilly.” Despite arriving more than two hours early, Zimmer and the majority of others were turned away. “I had prepared the kids for disappointment,” she said. “But the saddest thing is, we were about 400th in the line we were told to stand in and we should have gotten in the store.”
“It was a total fiasco, really ugly,” said Matthew Demakos, another attendee. “Irate parents were screaming; people who had bought books were demanding their money back. One teacher remarked [about the chalk mark system]: ‘If it doesn't work in first grade, it won't work here.’”
Young Allison Zimmer decided to express her disappointment in a letter she sent to the local newspapers. In part she wrote: “A dark cloud fell over the parking lot. Lots of little kids were screaming and crying. If Borders could only see how many customers were upset they would be amazed.”
Ann Binkley, manager of public relations for Borders Inc., emphasized that this “very unfortunate incident” was an isolated case and that subsequent signings at Borders in Chicago and Baileys Crossroads, Va., “went extremely well.” Of the Livingston confusion she said, “We were expecting a large turnout, but nobody anticipated a crowd of more than 2000 people. The managers told customers that only 800 tickets would be given out, but many of the people did not leave.” In the midst of an angry crowd, Binkley said the store's general manager was bitten and punched.
“We're very sorry that this happened,” Binkley continued, “and we are doing everything we can to apologize to our customers.” She said that people who have phoned and sent e-mail have received apologies and that the company has drafted a conciliatory letter to send to the kids who missed out. In addition, Borders is “currently working with Scholastic to possibly get some signed bookplates for those Livingston customers who were disappointed.”
A VOTE OF CONFIDENCE
PW has learned that in response to the right-wing Family Friendly Libraries organization's efforts to ban the Harry Potter books from schools and libraries, a resolution defending the books will be presented for membership vote at the ALA's Midwinter meeting in San Antonio. The resolution, drafted by ALA Councilors at Large GraceAnne DeCandido and Karen G. Schneider and ALSC Councilor Eliza Dresang, praises Rowling's works as having “brought the pleasure of reading to millions of children and adults” as well as “reminding us all of the value of books that delight and instruct through metaphor and fantasy.” The resolution also calls for making Rowling an honorary member of the ALA.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 992
SOURCE: “Dame Enid Wows the Yanks,” in New Statesman, Vol. 128, No. 4460, November 1, 1999, p. 24.
[In the following review, Stephen traces the rising success of J. K. Rowling and her books about Harry Potter, and comments on the growing “Americanisation” of the British series.]
Yes, I was right when I said last week you never know who you'll meet next in Washington. Last week I found myself lunching on successive days in the company of J K Rowling (currently the most successful novelist in the world), the Right Honourable Chris Smith (Minister for Culture and Sundry Other Things Too) and Sir Christopher Meyer (the cleverest British ambassador here for decades). It would be nice to report that bodyguards had to hold back the baying American masses from the latter two: what is true, though, is that security men did have to control huge crowds from overwhelming Joanne Rowling.
Over lunch, Rowling confided that only three years ago—when Bloomsbury were insisting on calling her “J K” rather than “Joanne” Rowling because they thought her Harry Potter books might not go down so well with boys if it was known they were written by a woman—she would happily have allowed herself to be called “Enid Snodgrass” in order to see her books in print.
Now the 34-year-old Ms Snodgrass (I rather like that name) is feted everywhere she goes here as the rags-to-riches Scottish multi-millionairess who, for six weeks running, has been occupying the top three places in the New York Times' best-seller fiction lists—not just of children's fiction, but of any fiction.
When she visited the National Press Club, she was mobbed: children playing truant from school lined the balcony and hundreds of tickets had to be handed out to keep orderly queues for book-signings. If the Harry Potter books— typically for nine to 11 year olds and about a boy who discovers he has magical abilities—have been a huge success for Bloomsbury (the market price in their shares has risen by 176 per cent since April), then their success is literally unprecedented here.
So far, 8.2 million copies of the three Potter books have been sold in the US—with four more to come by 2003. Ms Snodgrass, we're told, made £14.5 million last year alone. This is before the mass-marketing machine has even had time to get off the ground: there are no Harry Potter costume sets for Halloween this weekend, for example, as there surely will be next year. By which time, of course, Warner Brothers will be producing the Harry Potter movie, The Sorcerer's Stone, guaranteed to make more zillions. If businessmen and faceless telly moguls are deemed worthy of honours for service to their country, surely Dame Enid Snodgrass cannot go unrewarded long for her contributions to British culture and exports.
What is fascinating about the phenomenon here is that it is genuinely generated by consumer demand from kids, rather than by slick marketing. I somehow never believed those stories about people queueing along streets to buy the latest Dickens instalment, but that is how it's been here with the Potter books: boys and girls all over the country can't wait to get their hands on a copy. School librarians have been run off their feet and last week bookshops had to turn people away. So keen have some computer-savvy kids been that when they realised the third Potter book was published in the UK in July but not in the US until last month, countless parents were persuaded to order the book direct from the UK via the Internet.
Americans love rags-to-riches myths, of course. Rowling is not even Scottish, but a middle-class Chipping Sodbury girl who read French at Exeter University before working for Amnesty International; after her marriage to a Portuguese journalist ended she stayed with her sister in Edinburgh, went on social security and started writing the first Potter book. To the average middle-class American, hearing how somebody goes from “welfare” to overnight millions is vindication of the notion that hard work is all that is required for success; it is the very apotheosis of Clintonian and Blairite feel-good economics. But how many adult Rowling admirers here, I wonder, know that she named her six-year-old daughter after Jessica Mitford?
The Americanisation of both Harry Potter and Rowling is now gathering pace. Harry Potter swats his school timetable and goes on holiday in the original British editions; in the US, Harry studies his schedule and goes on vacation. In the American version of the latest book, “Spellotape” is translated into “Scotch Tape”—and a clever play on words is lost. “Philosopher” becomes “sorcerer” here. Though Rowling insists she'll have the final say on the film, I'm sure Hogwarts School—to take one example —will be adroitly turned into an Americanised high school, complete with lockers and cheerleaders.
Equally inevitably, in a culture blind to the real works of Cinderella or Snow White or Hansel and Gretel—to say nothing of C S Lewis or Roald Dahl—accusations are now flying that Rowling is nothing short of a witch trying to promote the occult: “The books have a serious tone of death, hate, lack of respect and sheer evil,” one Elizabeth Mounce told the South Carolina Board of Education in a bid to have the books banned. Clarence Dickert, a member of the board, replied: “Censorship is an ugly word, but it is not as ugly as what I've heard this morning.”
Lack of respect for grown-ups like these two dolts is precisely what makes kids gravitate to the wondrous world of Harry Potter—or even to Cinderella and other fairy tales, for that matter.
If she bothered to respond, Rowling could tell them that she is actually a member of the Church of Scotland and that young Jessica was baptised there. So, meanwhile, a memo to my other two lunch companions of the week: how about Dame Enid Snodgrass by the time the millennium honours come around, chaps?
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1694
SOURCE: “A World of Wizards,” in New Leader, Vol. 82, No. 13, November 1–15, 1999, pp. 13–14.
[In the following review, Allen comments on Rowling's unprecedented popularity.]
A phenomenon is afoot in the publishing world. As I write, the top three slots on the New York Times best-seller list are not occupied by Frank McCourt or Roddy Doyle, nor even by crowd-pleasers like Danielle Steel or Tom Clancy. They are held by a charming and unpretentious children's series about a young wizard named Harry Potter, the creation of J. (for Joanne) K. Rowling, a single mother living in Edinburgh. Entirely unknown until the publication of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone in Britain two years ago, Rowling has now put out the third novel in the series, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Her triumph is the more remarkable for having been achieved without benefit of marketing blitzes, toy tie-ins or movie deals.
Good as they are, though, it is not easy to explain Rowling's stupendous popularity. She is certainly no better than her great predecessors in dealing with ordinary kids caught up amid magical goings-on—writers such as L. Frank Baum, Mary Norton, E. Nesbit, and C.S. Lewis. Nesbit, the late Victorian Englishwoman whose sublime fantasies include Five Children and It and The Phoenix and the Carpet, has yet to be surpassed for style, suspense and wit. Lewis' classic Narnia series is practically a required item in the bookshelves of well-heeled children on both sides of the Atlantic. None of these authors, though, has ever knocked the adult blockbusters off the shelves.
The only success that sets any kind of precedent for Rowling's is that of Roald Dahl, who has dominated the juvenile fiction lists for the past 20 years, especially in England. But when Dahl, who died in 1990, began writing children's fiction he was already a famous author. He had the savvy to understand just how well his proven genius for the macabre was likely to go down with a generation of children far more attuned to the violent and grotesque than their parents had been.
Rowling's work is less calculating and less commercial; in fact, it is rather old-fashioned. Harry Potter lives in an anonymous English suburb with his Uncle Vernon and Aunt Petunia Dursley and their rotten son Dudley. His parents, according to the Dursleys, were killed in an automobile Accident when he was a baby and his forehead still bears a lightning-shaped scar from the impact. He is the Cinderella of the household; he sleeps in a cupboard under the stairs, dines on the obese Dudley's leftovers and is forced to wear his baggiest, grottiest hand me-downs.
Things change for Harry on his 11th birthday. He receives an invitation to attend the Hogwarts School for Witchcraft and Wizardry, where it is revealed that, like his parents before him, he is a wizard. The Dursleys are mere Muggles (that is, ordinary folk like you and I). The Muggles' world comprises only half of the real world, and the less interesting half at that. Another entirely magical society has always coexisted with it, one in which Harry's parents were killed, not by a car, but by the evil Voldemort, a being so terrifying that he is generally referred to as “He-who-cannot-be-named.”
And so, during the school year at least, Harry leaves his Muggle foster family and heads off to the fantastic Hogwarts School, the Eton or Rugby of the magical world. There, with his best friends Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger, he jockeys for position within the school hierarchy, plays a key position on the quidditch team (quidditch being the wizard's answer to cricket) and has a series of thrilling, funny and sometimes terrifying adventures.
Rowling starts her series a little shakily. The first 50 pages or so of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone are awkward in exposition and undistinguished in voice, with the dreadful Dursleys merely a flat imitation of the grotesques that throng Dahl's pages (viz. the horrible parents in Matilda, or any number of characters in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory). The narrative gains assurance as it goes on, however, and by the time Harry arrives at a wizards' shopping neighborhood that is hidden deep within London to buy the required Hogwarts textbooks and school supplies, Rowling has assumed control.
“Uniform,” Harry reads from Hogwarts' standard list. “Firstyear students will require:
1. Three sets of plain work robes (black)
2. One plain pointed hat (black) for day wear
3. One pair of protective gloves (dragon hide or similar)
4. One winter cloak (black, silver fastenings) Please note that all pupils' clothes should carry name tags. …
Students may also bring an owl OR a cat OR a toad”
After procuring the necessary items, Harry proceeds to “Ollivanders: Makers of Fine Wands since 382 B.C.” and to a second shop bearing the sign, “Eeylops Owl Emporium—Tawny, Screech, Barn, Brown, and Snowy.” As a treat he continues on to the candy store, where he chooses Bertie Bott's Every Flavor Beans. Every flavor, he discovers, means exactly that, for as well as the ordinary sorts like lemon and strawberry there are curry, sardine, and even vomit-flavored ones.
There is the same juxtaposition of the ordinary and the extraordinary in the Hogwarts classrooms. Here, for instance, is Sybill Trelawney, Professor of Divination, briefing the students on what they can expect from her class:
“In the second term … we shall progress to the crystal ball—if we have finished with fire omens, that is. Unfortunately, classes will be disrupted in February by a nasty bout of flu. I myself will lose my voice. Around Easter, one of our number will leave us forever.”
Rowling is at her best with this sort of tomfoolery, and before long the reader gets so caught up in the spirit of it as to begin, like Harry, to see wizard ways as sensible and those of Muggles as absurd. We understand, for instance, why Ron, who comes from an ancient wizarding family, is vaguely ashamed to mention his distant cousin the accountant. We also laugh along with one of Harry's wizard friends who, when walking through Muggle London, is amused by the unfamiliar sight of a parking meter: “See that, Harry? Things these Muggles dream up, eh?” The beauty of it is, of course, that no self-respecting child reader will ever think of himself as a Muggle. It is simply another name for the unimaginative, the pedestrian and the mediocre—in short, for the grown-up.
All the best children's authors have been adept at creating a world in which their young characters can move freely, with the minimum of adult intervention. Rowling has stated her belief that young people enjoy reading about fictional children who—as is not generally the case in real life—have a large measure of control over their own destiny. Indeed, this is one of the key delights of that perennially popular British genre, the school story. Although it has never really caught on in this country, where only a small percentage of children attend boarding school, in England it has had a large following for over a century.
The prototype is Tom Brown's School Days, the 1857 Thomas Hughes classic that tells of the adventures and misadventures of a fictional youth at the real Rugby School with its real headmaster, the legendary Dr. Thomas Arnold. Hughes inspired a long list of disciples, including some female ones like Angela Brazil and, later, Enid Blyton, whose hearty, hockey-playing heroines were wildly popular in England from the 1930s through the 1970s and continue to have their share of readers even to this day. Rowling would certainly have known them well as a child.
The appeal of these tales is obvious: The fictional school provides an enclosed world with its own rules and standards. The reader can enjoy a certain measure of drama and even danger while resting assured that right will, in the end, prevail. Over a long series the schoolchildren become As familiar as one's own friends, and a lot more reliable. The imaginary school amounts to an idealized version of the reader's own imperfect one, a place where a chivalric code of honor, loyalty and fairness always triumphs.
The Harry Potter books faithfully follow the tradition as set out in Tom Brown's School days. The Hogwarts headmaster, Albus Dumbledore, while disconcertingly eccentric as befits an elderly wizard, is every bit as wise and benevolent as Dr. Arnold himself Harry, good-hearted yet impetuous and naive, is much like Tom Brown, while Ron is a dead ringer for Tom's bosom friend Harry East. The athletic scenes at Hogwarts (never mind that quidditch is played on broomsticks) are as integral to the story—and just as boring, by the way—as Tom Brown's travails on the playing fields of Rugby. Tom Brown's schoolboy villain Flashman, like so many of his ilk the most colorful character in his story, finds a worthy successor in Harry Potter's arch-rival Draco Malfoy.
All the other familiar types are present, too, with a witty and knowing twist. Hermione is the classic swot, always maddeningly at the top of her class in spells and arithmancy, (rather than in French and biology). Professor McGonagall is the standard tough but fair old broad, except that she can, when necessary, transform herself into a cat with spectacle-shaped markings around her eyes. Professor Snape, the Potions master, is more than just the mean, unfair teacher we all remember from our own school days; he is so extremely mean and unfair that we can never be sure he hasn't given in to the ever-present Dark Forces and joined up with Voldemort.
Witty, ironic and self-referential, J. K. Rowling's books are the first postmodern school stories. But what makes them appealing is that they manage alongside this contemporary knowingness to maintain all the wholesome and innocent appeal of their predecessors. If the Harry Potter series amounts to almost a parody of the genre, it is one inspired by affection rather than the urge to mock. As with all the very best children's books, Rowling's are almost as much a pleasure for adults as for children—a fact that, among other things, can't do the sales figures any harm.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4282
SOURCE: “Harry Potter and the Spirit of the Age: Fear of Not Flying,” in New Republic, November 22, 1999, p. 40.
[In the following review, Siegel applauds the works of J. K. Rowling because they, in all their imagination, have brought reality back into society's escapist literature and “fantasy culture.”]
Once upon a time, a boy on a broomstick flew into a nation that was significantly free from tradition and prescribed custom. So great was its freedom in this regard that it turned every social incident and every cultural expression into a symbolic occasion that might supply a sorely needed orientation to national life. If two teenagers went on a rampage of killing in a high school, the slaughter had partly to embody the nation's surrender to television or computers. If a series of books came out about the adventures of a nearly adolescent boy swooping around on a broomstick, the rapturous reception of these books had partly to embody the craving for an antidote to the national submission to television or computers. Yet the popularity of the Harry Potter books actually has everything to do with our symbolizing tendency itself.
That is because all this fancy popcritical theory quickly hardens into leaden, clinical fact, testified to by an array of experts who are glad to make themselves available to all the technologies of punditry. Why the killing? Not just because of television and the Internet, but because of early trauma, poor self-esteem, a broken home, inept guidance counselors and school psychologists, and so on. Clunk, clunk, clunk: it is like dully making change for events of tremendous denomination, though none of the routine inquiries ended up applying to the Columbine killers. Swamped by these so-called facts of mental life, the specificity of what happens in the world outside the mind gets lost; the world seems to turn on what takes place in the mind, and what takes place in the mind is whatever the electronic sages tell us does.
What's more, if you protest against the clinical facts that supposedly define you—they also include the fact of where you come from, and of what group you belong to—you are deemed outside the pale of a century of improvements in scientific plain-seeing. You are “in denial,” which is like saying that you are allied with the powers of darkness and irrationality. Our cultural productions reflect this state of affairs. Memoirs stress the standard, formative facts; works of art hallow the standard, formative facts. Now, this relentlessly rational organization of inner and outer reality, of cultural documents and works of art, makes for a fantastic situation. For underneath it all, life flows incalculably on, and we know and feel this.
For this reason, the rapturous reception of the Harry Potter books is heartening, because J. K. Rowling is a literary artist, and these three books possess more imaginative life than the majority of novels that are published in this country in any given year. They are full of marvelous invention and humor and fun, but they have more than that. They are not fantasy-escapes from mundane existence, as they are being hailed; they are escapes from a general condition of hyper-rationality that, because it ignores the element of incalculability in life, has become unreasonable to the point of seeming receptive to fantasy and the occult as escapes from life. With Harry Potter, Rowling has brought reality back into the literature of escape, and back into our fantasy-culture. What a rarity, a literary imagination that is not self-conscious, and studied, and uptight.
The three Harry Potter novels that have appeared to date spin the tale of an orphan who is eleven when the series begins, and grows older by a year in each successive volume. One night, the infant Harry appears on the doorstep of the Dursleys, his aunt and uncle and their gluttonous bully of a young son, Dudley. Harry spends ten years with them, during which time they treat him cruelly—they make the sadistic Aunt Spiker and Aunt Sponge of Roald Dahl's James and the Giant Peach look like hospice-workers—making him sleep in a cupboard and barely giving him enough food to survive.
Uncle Vernon and Aunt Petunia have told Harry that his parents died in a car accident. But Harry's parents had a secret, which Harry discovers on his eleventh birthday: they were powerful and respected members of England's wizard community. And they never died in a car crash. They were killed by the evil wizard Voldemort, who lost much of his power when he tried to finish off the infant Harry but, for some inexplicable reason, failed to do so, leaving Harry alive and with a scar in the shape of a lightning bolt. Indeed, Harry with his green eyes, and Voldemort with his green light, mysteriously share a granule of the same nature, though Harry is unambiguously good and Voldemort is unambiguously evil.
Harry is saved from his wicked step-parents by his parents' wizard friends and sent to Hogwarts, a famous private school for wizard children, though he has to return to his aunt and uncle over the summer holidays. The books tell the story of Harry's adventures at Hogwarts, where, among other things, he discovers that non-wizard people are called Muggles; and learns how to play the game Quidditch, which is conducted flying through the air on broomsticks; and finds his best friends in the bookish daughter of two dentist-Muggles and the son of an impoverished wizard family; and does battle with a mountain troll in the girls' bathroom; and learns how to make friends with a hippogriff (you stare unblinking into its fierce orange eye, bow, and wait for it to bow).
What is it with the British, why are they so good at creating stories in which there is this world and an alternative world? J. M. Barrie, Frances Hodgson Burnett, E. Nesbit, Lewis Carroll, J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis—they all come from somewhere in Great Britain. (Rowling herself is Scottish.) Of course, there is the creative stimulus of living on cozy little islands shrouded by fog. And there is the nice constant scare of the surrounding sea making your neighbors seem more alien and more likely to arrive unexpectedly; and the venerable class system, which enacts alternative worlds side by side; and, for a time, there was the strange, distant galaxy of empire. Or maybe it is just that the battlements and the turrets of British common sense are so solidly established that British writers can imagine its opposite with luxurious sanguinity.
But why are we so entranced by the creation of alternative worlds in the first place? The answer might have something to do with the conventional premise of so many children's stories, which is that they revolve around children whose parents are dead or absent or diminished. (Nesbit, the Fabian socialist, liked to make her fathers bankrupts or falsely accused of selling secrets to the Russians.) This is partly the reflection of a child's tyrannical wish to have total sovereignty over a parent-free world, and it is also a reflection of the adult author's childlike impulse to have total sovereignty over his or her created world. But surely there is also an attenuated Christian influence: Jesus in Jerusalem refusing to acknowledge his parents, Jesus exhorting his followers to leave their parents and their homes and to follow him. The unaffiliated, deracinated state is a state of pure spiritual receptivity, and this is the condition of much children's literature, which introduces the child to the idea of change. And since the gradual withdrawal of parents is an inevitable thing, the classic children's stories are often semi-parables of the terrors and the pleasures of separation.
The appeal of alternative worlds goes much further, deep into the vicissitudes of our maturity. As our parents recede, we rely on our imaginations to construct another authority—which is to say, another world. The pressure that our ego exerts on the objects of its hunger and its need amounts to a desire to enchant the people around us. Yet beyond our magical circle of bonds and affection lies the other world, the world outside the reach of our enchantments. We have to negotiate between these two regions on a daily basis, and to keep our balance as the boundaries move, and to maintain our poise throughout the times when our world takes on the aspect of the mundane, and the world beyond acquires the allure of enchantment (it notices us, it seizes us and holds us in its power, victory is ours).
So the children's story of a solitary imagination, operating avidly and resourcefully in the shifting world, is also the naked, subterranean story of our adult days. The point is not that a good children's story is, as people like to say, written also for adults. The point is that a good children's story is the story of the making of an adulthood. That is why the best children's stories have a wit and an urbanity that make their most extravagant inventions all the more believable. From Peter Pan:
“What is your name?” “Peter Pan.” She was already sure that he must be Peter, but it did seem a comparatively short name. “Is that all?” “Yes,” he said rather sharply. He felt for the first time that it was a shortish name … She asked where he lived. “Second to the right,” said Peter, “and then straight on till morning.” “What a funny address!” Peter had a sinking feeling. For the first time he felt that perhaps it was a funny address …“Don't have a mother,” he said. Not only had he no mother, but he had not the slightest desire to have one. He thought them very over-rated persons.
FROM THE LION, THE WITCH AND THE WARDROBE:
In one corner there was a door which Lucy thought must lead to Mr Tumnus's [a faun] bedroom, and on one wall was a shelf full of books. Lucy looked at these while he was setting out the tea things. They had titles like … Nymphs and Their Ways or Men, Monks, and Gamekeepers: A Study in Popular Legend or Is Man a Myth?
FROM IAN FLEMING'S CHITTY CHITTY BANG BANG:
Now, Joe the Monster was in fact head of an international gang of robbers and ruffians and he was known in France as Joe le Monstre.
Rowling herself, with her narcissistic wizard-professor Gilderoy Lockhart, to take just one example from her books, masterfully does this dry trace of a satirical tone, though with a touch of farce. The renowned author of Magical Me, among other volumes, Lockhart praises his student, Hermione Granger, Harry's bookish friend, for supplying the right answer to an exam question that Lockhart posed about himself: but Miss Hermione Granger knew my secret ambition is to rid the world of evil and market my own range of hair-care potions—good girl!
I'm sorry, but I find this sort of thing hilarious. I also find it replenishing, since I cannot think of any “adult” fiction that attempts genuinely to satirize the celebrity-fraud. Most wondrous of all is that Rowling does not use the archness, and the worldliness, and the knowingness to protect herself or to promote herself, to remind us that she is too sophisticated to be taken in by her own fictions. On the contraire, as Joe le Monstre would say. As in Barrie and Lewis and Fleming, Rowling wants to prove the strength of her fiction by testing its capacity to assimilate the worldliness. This is because Rowling, like her predecessors, has total confidence in her imagined world, and is unafraid of delivering herself up to her fancy. Or, as Peter Pan puts it, when the human children ask him to tell them how to fly: “You just think lovely wonderful thoughts … and they lift you up into the air.”
The ability to fly is the most pressing issue of our time. And it is not just the trend-diviners and the glossy social-scientistic savants who make it hard to know how to fly. There are also the fantasists themselves, for instance the so-called magical realists, who pretend that fantastic occurrences are continuous with reality. Magical realism snubs the intractable evidence of reality, and thus never allows readers to exercise their capacity to believe the unbelievable against all the evidence of reality. In snubbing reality, magical realism slights the power of imagination.
But Rowling writes her tales in a manner that may be called realistic magicalism—which preserves the discontinuity between fantasy and reality. She takes it for granted that, against all the stubborn evidence that she has preserved to the contrary, her readers will nevertheless leave the ground with Harry Potter. In maintaining the gravitational pull of reality, she pays homage to the magical leap of imagination.
And there are still other obstacles to the genuine levitation of the spirit. For one thing, you have to leave your consciousness of self behind, and that is a foolish thing to do nowadays, like leaving your car unlocked on a city street. For another, developing the confidence that you may ascend above the sum of your gritty givens might stick you with the appearance of being an egotist—like puffed-up Peter Pan, or the conceited Phoenix in Nesbit's The Phoenix and the Carpet, or like all flying creatures. That would be disadvantageous in a society whose citizens feel more comfortable around narcissists with fragile egos like Lockhart than around egotists with selfless natures like Harry.
But Rowling knows the value of flying, and so do her readers. This is why she makes the game Quidditch, a combination of soccer and rugby, an event of central importance. The worst effect of a crisis at Hogwarts—a rogue troll wandering about the halls, Voldemort's minions on the loose, the dangerous Dementors going around making everyone feel sad and hopeless—is that a Quidditch match is canceled. And the happy resolution of every book involves Harry's house, Gryffindor, winning a crucial game of Quidditch. Indeed, Harry is never so happy as when he is playing the game; it keeps his mind off his troubles.
Harry would make a very bad contemporary memoirist, because when he is zooming around on his broomstick and thinks of his parents' violent deaths, sometimes remembering their screams, the experience of flying seems unreal to him and he nearly falls off his broom to his own death. The formative trauma, for Rowling, is the true unreality. Only the airborne imagination fosters self-forgetfulness, which makes work possible, work that sustains a life. Thus Quidditch, with its echo of “quiddity,” meaning the essential quality of a thing. Quidditch, a vital, self-forgetful busyness, is the essential activity of Harry Potter's world.
Rowling herself seems to have the habit of pure artistic confidence, of egotistical self-abandoning. She appears to be totally immersed in her imagined world, and you can see this in her books' layers of literary allusion. At the beginning of Saint-Exupery's The Little Prince, the strangely disconsolate narrator tells us that as a boy, he once drew a picture of a boa constrictor. He showed it to several adults, who failed to recognize it for what it was. They thought the drawing showed a hat. This, says the narrator, was the beginning and the end of his career as a painter, for “grown-ups never understand anything by themselves.” The capacity to read properly a child's drawing of a boa constrictor becomes a test of the litheness of adult imagination.
Now, it happens that in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone the Dursleys allow Harry to accompany them to the zoo. Where he meets a boa constrictor. To Harry's astonishment, he and the reptile have a conversation, which comes down to the boa constrictor's desire to see Brazil, where he has never been, despite the information conveyed by the card on his cage; it reads, “Boa Constrictor, Brazil.” Though Harry is not aware at this point of his magical powers, he somehow has the effect of making the glass front of the reptile's cage disappear, which allows the boa constrictor to slither out to freedom, hissing to Harry as he departs, “Brazil, here I come … Thanksss, amigo.” Of course, Harry's non-wizard relatives could not hear Harry talking with the snake. In this way, the capacity to hear a boa constrictor speak becomes a test of the litheness of adult imagination.
There is also a willow that, rather than serving as benign backdrop to the adventures of Mole and Toad, “whomps” anyone who comes near it with its giant branches; and a wardrobe that the children use, not as a portal to a magical world, but as a hiding-place in which they can eavesdrop on adult conversations (in other words, as a more realistic portal to a more available magical world): and a phoenix named Fawkes, referring to the moment in Nesbit's tale when the children discover the phoenix on Guy Fawkes’ Day (a good day for a socialist). My favorite allusion is a flying car with its own mind. It does its work and then trundles away from its owners into the Forbidden Forest, where it goes native, tooling around and covering itself in leaves and branches and mud.
There is no reason for these references, it seems to me, beyond the writer's wholehearted absorption in her universe. That, too, is perhaps why these books are so appealing: in our practical and utilitarian artistic atmosphere, they are ends in themselves. But I don't mean to make Rowling out to be another Joyce. Though she has produced works of literature, they are still primarily books for children and young adults. Their reported popularity among adults says more about the dearth of good fiction than about the books themselves.
In fact, parents expecting a respite from the violence in popular culture will be surprised by the amount of violence that Rowling introduces into her tales. I cannot think of any classic children's story that has as much of it. Rowling is a clever writer, and she has assimilated just about every basic bit of business you might encounter in an action movie. At one point, she even has Harry and his friends pointing their wands and kicking in a door. Legs get broken, the children get thrown against walls, blood drips, bones crunch. Sometimes the characters even cry out, “Aaaargh!” that trusty old comic-book exclamation.
If Rowling has absorbed Fleming's Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, she has also mastered the conventions of the James Bond movies. So far, every book ends with the standard Bond wrap-up, in which the captured British agent—in this case, Harry Potter—waits patiently to be killed while the villain helpfully explains the fine points of the plot, reviews the highlights of his villainy, and discusses his plans for the future. Then comes the violent reversal and the happy outcome.
But this patina of rough action is all to the good. Most little boys spend much of their time thinking about ways to decapitate other little boys—and of course never do. Most little girls spend much of their time thinking of ways to please little boys, mainly by laughing at their most embarrassing qualities or crying as hard as they can whenever they are around. Rowling's violence is a blessed acknowledgment of the nature of children, of their strong-willed impatience with their own alleged innocence.
Harry and his friends Hermione and Ron Weasley are good kids, but they are not innocent, Wordsworthian kids. They usually do the right thing, and they always feel bad when they do the wrong thing. But they pass through a spectrum of hurtful impulses along the way, some of which they act on. This means that their goodness is not only a passive gentleness, easily wounded by the world. It is also the goodness of being able to act in the world. Since they are built with the potential do harm, Harry and his friends are also built to endure harm. The inexorable violation of their childhood “innocence” will not lodge its leaden factuality in their minds like burrs; it will not spell their doom as persons. Harry's scar is not only evidence of a deep emotional injury but, more consequentially, it is also the sign by which everyone in the wizard world recognizes him as the famous Harry Potter, the boy who defeated the villain Voldemort.
The many-sided nature of children is also, perhaps, what Rowling is getting at when she hints that Harry partakes of Voldemort's nature. As the French name implies, Harry has stolen from death its terrible power, but only as a way to fly from death: what Harry has gotten from Voldemort is the instinct of self-preservation, which is a mercurial, double-sided thing. Such a portrait of children's complexity, at least to the degree that you find it in Rowling's tales, is something new in children's literature. She has hit our contemporary moment right on the head.
Rowling's complicated violence has a functional purpose, too. It draws in children who might otherwise be won away by empty fantasies of violence. Once distracted by Rowling's highly enjoyable scrim of action, they will find a fusion of entertainment with an autonomous artistic will. Each book follows the hero's archetypal journey—in the form of a detective story—from increasingly turbulent surface, to life-endangering depths, and back up to sunlit surface. (Uncle Vernon, whose absence of imagination perfects his cruelty, manufactures drills for a living.) And in every book, Harry confronts his parents' deaths at the same time as he fights to preserve his life, an ordeal that seems to have to do with Harry finding a way to stop dwelling on his parents' deaths.
Inside that pattern, Rowling structures each book with a different theme that she develops through reiterated words, images, and motifs. Her tales are remarkably unified for children's stories. In the first volume, Harry first learns about his wizard nature, and discovers that he is not the worthless boy that his aunt and uncle have told him he is. The theme is the nature of identity, which is hidden, elusive, and immovable. And so when he goes shopping for a wand right before school begins—it is required—Harry finds that the wand chooses him. The nicest conceit is the Mirror of Erised, with its strange inscription: “Erised stra ehru oyt ube cafru oyt on wohsi.” Read in the opposite direction, it says, “I show not your face but your heart's desire.” At last, a formula for identity that must be read backwards! And it teaches, both literally and figuratively, the idea that you are what you want and not what you appear to be, and that what you want follows from who you mysteriously are, and that your desires can also change. The book's conclusion has Harry fighting for his life with “The Man with Two Faces.”
The second book, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, deals with origins and class. It portrays fame as a reward for character and as a path up through society, and it depicts celebrity—in the figure of Lockhart—as a scourge on character, and as an irritant to social harmony. Rowling, for all her uncanny inventiveness, means business. In this volume, the moral is that your choices define you, not your origins. Seemingly good people disclose their villainy; apparent transgressors reveal their innocence; transfiguration becomes an issue; and the phoenix, whose origins are ashes, saves the day.
The latest volume, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, pushes the artfulness further. It is about depression, black moods, days when a kid just can't go on, because everyone tells him—or her—that he is nothing, and that things will never change. Sirius Black is the villain, who turns out to be the good guy, because things do change, after all. And the Divination teacher, Professor Trelawney, ends up getting everything wrong, because nobody can tell you what the score is; you have to find that out for yourself.
People such as Professor Trelawney set themselves up as reality-instructors, but they are projecting their own inadequacies. They hope that by convincing you to bow to your supposed limitations, they will make up for their inability to overcome their own limitations. But you have to travel along the axial lines of your own unique existence … wait a minute, that's The Adventures of Augie March! Americans may love the Harry Potter books because they tell a British school-story, but the British must love them because the real lessons learned at Hogwarts remind them of America.
Rowling's world is very artfully patterned. Consider, finally, her conceit of having owls deliver the mail in the wizard world. Harry has his very own courier, an affectionate though high-strung snowy owl named Hedwig. Hedvig happens to be the name of the little girl in Ibsen's play involving another bird, The Wild Duck. Roald Dahl certainly had Ibsen's play in mind when, in The Witches, he has the Norwegian grandmother tell the story of a little girl with a pet duck who is abducted by means of nefarious magic. I have no idea if Rowling is making kindred literary mischief. But it doesn't matter. Ibsen's play is about the “life-lie” that we tell ourselves in order to bear as much reality as we can. It is about life-lies that deform and destroy, but also about those that become a part of truth because they make life possible. And J. K. Rowling has similarly qualified our spiteful and ungenerous adult notion of denial, and drawn out of it a beautiful human affirmation. She is spinning an honest and necessary deceit about the world.
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Christian Century (review date 1 December 1999)
SOURCE: “Wizards and Muggles,” in Christian Century, Vol. 116, No. 33, December 1, 1999, p. 1155.
[In the review below, the critic recounts the position some parents have taken against “Harry Potter,” deeming the series anti-Christian.]
Books of fantasy can help us see the ordinary in fresh ways.
Scottish author J. K. Rowling has written a wildly popular series of children's books about Harry Potter. Harry discovers on his 11th birthday that he is the son of two legendary wizards murdered by an evil magician named Voldemort. Harry has been living with his loathsome aunt and uncle (who make him sleep in a cupboard) and their mean son, Dudley. Apprised of his real identity, Harry eventually makes his way to Hogwarts, a boarding school for wizard children, and starts learning the family trade.
Kids of elementary-school age can't get enough of Harry Potter. The arrival of a new Potter title (so far there are three in the series) has caused frenzy at bookstores. When teachers read portions of the books aloud in class, the students clamor for more.
But some Christian parents are suspicious of works so full of sorcery and witchcraft. The New York Times reports that some evangelical ministers have begun to preach against Harry, and that the use of the books in schools has been challenged in eight states. Some parents argue that, given the books' embrace of magic, their use by schools amounts to an unconstitutional endorsement of religion.
Rowling is not the first fantasy writer to be attacked by conservative Christians. Even the explicitly Christian writer Madeleine L'Engle has taken heat for the “magic” elements in A Wrinkle in Time.
Such critics are right in thinking that fantasy writing is powerful and needs to be taken seriously. But we strongly doubt that it fosters an attachment to evil powers. Harry Potter's world, in any case, is a moral one: there are clear differences between good wizards and evil ones, and the virtues of courage and generosity are pitted against the vices of pride and spitefulness. Though Rowling's world lacks the theological weight of C. S. Lewis's Narnia Chronicles or the solemnity of J. R. R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, it is a marvelous and witty invention.
Especially delightful is the way the world of the wizards and their apprentices exists alongside and penetrates the everyday world of “Muggles,” or nonwizards. Muggles are largely blind to the magical signs about them. When they do perceive something out of the ordinary, they tend to regard it indignantly as so much nonsense.
It's difficult to know exactly the effect books have on us, but one of the salutary effects of fantasy writing is to remove us from the everyday world and prompt us to look at the ordinary in fresh ways. In a chapter in Orthodoxy called “The Ethics of Elfland,” G. K. Chesterton claimed that his own journey to Christian faith began with his childhood absorption in fairy tales. From fairly tales he learned that the world is precious but puzzling, coherent but mysterious, full of unseen connections and decisive truths. The fantasy tales taught him that the world is “a wild and startling place, which might have been quite different, but which is quite delightful.” In their own way, the Harry Potter books are teaching that lesson too.
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SOURCE: “Not for Muggles,” in New York Review of Books, Vol. 46, No. 20, December 16, 1999, pp. 6–8.
[In the following review, Lurie summarizes the story of Harry Potter and describes the similarities between the lives of Harry and friends and that of American and British students.]
Why are so many of the best-known children's books British or American? Other countries have produced a single brilliant classic or series: Denmark, for instance, has Andersen's fairy tales, Italy has Pinocchio, France has Babar, Finland has Moomintroll. A list of famous children's books in English, however, could easily take up the rest of this column.
One explanation may be that in Britain and America more people never quite grow up. They may sometimes put on a good show of maturity, but secretly they remain children, longing for the pleasures and privileges of childhood that once were, or were said to be, theirs. And there are some reasons for them to do so.
In most nations there is nothing especially wonderful about being a child of school age. For the first four or five years boys and girls may be petted and indulged, but after that they are usually expected to become little adults as soon as possible: responsible, serious, future-oriented. But in English-speaking nations, ever since the late eighteenth century, poets and philosophers and educators have maintained that there is something wonderful and unique about childhood: that simply to be young is to be naturally good and great. It may be no coincidence that the romantic glorification of youth of the Sixties and early Seventies was most evident in America and Britain, or that when they want to make an especially touching appeal to voters, American politicians always speak of “our kids.”
Because childhood is seen as a superior condition, many Americans and Britons are naturally reluctant to give it up. They tend to think of themselves as young much longer, and cling to childhood attitudes and amusements. On vacation, and in the privacy of their homes, they readily revert to an earlier age; they wear childish clothes and play childish games and sometimes read children's books.
The authors of great juvenile fiction, whatever their nationality, often continue to think and feel as children. They are spontaneous, dreamy, imaginative, unpredictable. E. Nesbit spent many hours building a toy town out of blocks and kitchenware, and wrote a book, The Magic City, about it; Laurent deBrunhoff, who has continued his father's Babar series for many years and is now over seventy, still climbs trees with childish skill and delight. James Barrie spent his summer holidays playing pirates and Indians with the four Davies boys, and Lewis Carroll also much preferred the company of children to that of adults.
Since so many juvenile classics are written by people like this, it should be no surprise that they often take the side of children against adults. These books are, in the deepest sense, subversive. They make fun of grown-ups and expose adult pretensions and failings; they suggest, subtly or otherwise, that children are braver, smarter, and more interesting than grown-ups, and that grown-up rules are made to be broken.
J. K. (Joanne) Rowling, the Scottish author of the newest British children's classics, the brilliant and phenomenally successful Harry Potter books, is clearly in this tradition. She has created a world in which children have special abilities, while conventional adults are either clueless or cruel or both. Her hero's secret power takes traditional folk-tale forms (flying brooms, transformation, spells and potions). But it can also be seen as a metaphor for the power of childhood: of imagination, of creativity, and of humor (as well as being exciting, her books are often very funny). And like other famous children's authors, Rowling remains close to her own childhood. “I really can, with no difficulty at all, think myself back to eleven years old,” she recently told Time magazine.
Essentially, the Harry Potter stories belong to an ongoing tradition of Anglo American fantasy that takes off from Tolkien and C. S. Lewis, and has been continued splendidly by writers like Lloyd Alexander, Susan Cooper, Alan Garner, and Diana-Wynne Jones. (Jones's excellent Charmed Life, like the Potter books, takes place in a school for juvenile witches and wizards located in an enchanted castle.) What sets Rowling's books apart from their predecessors is partly a lighthearted fertility of invention that recalls L. Frank Baum's Oz books. Even more important is the fact that hers is a fully imagined world, to which she has a deep, ongoing commitment. For six years, even before she began the first book in the series, Rowling was imagining and elaborating its fantasy world. She has already planned seven Harry Potter novels, one for each year Harry will spend at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, and institution which seems to be located (like J. K. Rowling herself) somewhere in Scotland.
Harry, Rowling's hero, is a natural born wizard, but at first he doesn't know it. When we meet him he is ten years old and in the classic Cinderlad situation: a poor, lonely orphan, despised and abused. Harry lives with his deeply unpleasant aunt and uncle, Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, in a country that much resembles Britain in the 1960s or 1970s, before the Internet, digital phones, and interactive video.
The Dursleys live in a village called Little Whinging (a joke that American readers may not get: we would call the place Little Whining). Like most of their neighbors, they are Muggles—people who have no magic powers. They hate the very mention of the supernatural, and refuse to give Harry any information about his dead parents. (“They were weirdos, no denying it, and the world's better off without them in my opinion,” Uncle Vernon declares.) Uncle Vernon and Aunt Petunia are as cruel to Harry as any fairy-tale stepparent: they feed him poorly and clothe him shabbily; they make him sleep in a dark spider-infested cupboard under the stairs and destroy his mail. Even worse is their son Dudley, a spoiled, overweight, greedy bully who, with the help of his large and hateful friends, makes Harry's school and home life actively miserable.
From the point of view of an imaginative child, the world is full of Muggles—people who don't understand you, make stupid rules, and want nothing to do with the unexpected or the unseen. Harry's story also embodies the common childhood fantasy that the dreary adults and siblings you live with are not your real family, that you are somehow special and gifted. Harry has an outward manifestation of his gift: a scar in the shape of a lightning bolt on his forehead, the sign that even as a baby he could not be killed by the evil off-stage Dark Wizard Voldemort, whose very name most people fear to utter.
As in many folk tales, you can often tell a character's character from his or her name, and “Voldemort” neatly combines the ideas of theft, mold, and death. Harry Potter, on the other hand, has a name that suggests not only craftsmanship but both English literature and English history: Shakespeare's Prince Hal and Harry Hotspur, the brave, charming, impulsive heroes of Henry IV; and Beatrix Potter, who created that other charming and impulsive classic hero, Peter Rabbit.
At the start of each story Harry Potter is living in exile at the Dursleys. But presently, with the help of magic, he is rescued and enters an alternate world in which imagination and adventurousness are rewarded. A comic cockney giant named Hagrid introduces him to a parallel magical Britain, one entrance to which is through the back door of a scruffy London pub called the Leaky Cauldron. After a shopping trip in which Harry visits a bank run by goblins and purchases unusual school supplies, including “one plain pointed hat (black) for day wear” and The Standard Book of Spells (Grade 1), he takes a special train to the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry from Track Nine and ThreeQuarters at King's Cross Station—a train and track which are, naturally, invisible to Muggles.
Hogwarts School, it turns out, is located in a huge ancient castle, well-equipped with towers, dungeons, ghosts, secret passages, and enchanted paintings and mirrors. The subjects taught there include Divination, Defense Against the Dark Arts, and Care of Magical Creatures. But in some ways Hogwarts resembles a classic English boarding school—one which, in keeping with the times, is co-ed and multiracial. There are four houses, which compete intensely in the school sport of Quidditch, a sort of combination cricket, soccer, and hockey played on flying broomsticks, in which Harry turns out to excel. The teachers wear black gowns and dine at a head table, and there are prefects and a Head Boy and Head Girl.
Just as in many American schools, however, the student population is roughly divided into jocks, brains, nice guys, and dangerous Goths. Harry and his two best friends are in the jock house, Gryffindor, where, according to tradition, “dwell the brave at heart.” Ravenclaw House emphasizes “wit and learning,” while the kids in Hufflepuff are described as “just and loyal … / And unafraid of toil.” The bad characters live in Slytherin House, whose students “use any means / To achieve their ends.”
Even before he arrives at Hogwarts, Harry acquires an enemy in Slytherin House, the mean, snobbish, unscrupulous Draco Malfoy, whose name translates readily into “Dragon Bad-Faith.” Like Cousin Dudley in the Muggles world, Draco has a couple of goons (these ones are named Crabbe and Goyle) to back up his constant sneering and bullying. As a hero and local sports star, Harry also attracts fans; naturally modest, he finds their intense admiration and constant attention as embarrassing as J. K. Rowling reportedly does.
But Harry also has more serious problems. The plot of each book essentially centers around the attempts of dark forces to destroy him. As is customary in modern fantasies, from Tolkien's Lord of the Rings to Star Wars, lurking in the background is an evil, powerful figure (almost always male) who wants to rule the world.1 Often these characters have something in common with Milton's rebel angels: at first they seem impressive and even convincing. There is something admirable in their desire for knowledge and power, whereas their followers, motivated mainly by fear, greed, and revenge, are wholly repulsive.
Harry, of course, always escapes his enemies, but it gets harder with each book. Rowling has said that as time passes the stories will turn darker. “There will be deaths,” she has informed Time magazine. Already in volume three it is not so easy to tell which side anyone is on. Those who at first seem friends may be foes, or vice versa; and good but weak people may be seduced into doing evil because of their own fear or folly. In the latest volume, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, a scruffy but harmless looking pet rat called Scabbers turns out to be a wicked wizard who, even in human form, has a “pointed nose and … very small, watery eyes.”
Rowling describes her characters with a psychological subtlety rare in children's books and sometimes even in adult fiction. In Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets a ragged, oppressed house-elf named Dobby is constantly torn between loyalty to his masters and his wish to save Harry's life. Whenever he is on the edge of revealing their plots, Dobby hits himself over the head with the nearest blunt object, repeating “Bad Dobby!”
One attraction of the Potter books is that the good characters are not perfect. Harry excels at Quidditch, but he is only an average student, unlike his friend Hermione, who studies for the fun of it and is a bit of a prig. Hagrid, the lovable giant gamekeeper, has a weakness for dangerous magic creatures: he sees his vicious pet dragon and the huge spiders that live in the Forbidden Forest as cute and cuddly. The British, of course, are fanatic animal lovers; and it may be that this is Rowling's comment on some of the peculiar or even dangerous but beloved pets that visitors to England sometimes encounter.
Though Rowling's child heroes are imperfect, they are usually smarter and braver than adults. Some of the nicest teachers at Hogwarts, though friendly and knowledgeable, often don't have a clue to what's going on around them. Others are weak and incompetent, or complete phonies, like the handsome, media-intoxicated Professor Lockhart, who claims to have performed the magical exploits of other, less photogenic wizards. A few, even, may have sold out to the Dark Powers or their representatives.
The headmaster of Hogwarts, elderly silver-haired Professor Dumbledore (like Tolkien's Gandalf, whom he much resembles), maintains a kind of benign detachment from events except in moments of great crisis. A.O. Scott, writing in the on-line magazine Slate, has perceptively remarked that “Dumbledore's benevolent but strict theology, involving the operations of free will in a supernaturally determined world, is classically Miltonian.”
The appeal of the Harry Potter books, to judge by the flood of reviews and essays that have greeted their appearance, is wide and varied. They can be enjoyed, for instance, as the celebration of a pre-industrial world: Hogwarts Castle is lit by torches and heated by fires, and mail is carried by owls of different sizes, including “tiny little scops owls (‘Local Deliveries Only’).
As with most first-rate children's books there is something here for everyone. Pico Iyer, in The New York Times Book Review, sees the stories as only half-fantastic accounts of life in an English public school (in his case Eton), “designed to train the elite in a system that other mortals cannot follow.” There, as at Hogwarts, he claims, “we were in an alternative reality where none of the usual rules applied.” A. O. Scott, on the other hand, thinks that “being a wizard is very much like being gay: you grow up in a hostile world governed by codes and norms that seem nonsensical to you, and you discover at a certain age that there are people like you.” (It seems unlikely that Harry Potter is gay: in the latest volume he shows romantic interest in an “extremely pretty” girl Quidditch player called Cho Chang.)
Joanne Rowling's own story, like Harry's, is in the classic folk-tale tradition. As almost everyone now knows, when she was writing Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone2 she was a young single mother with long red hair, living on public assistance in Edinburgh. Because her flat was unheated, she would put her small daughter into a stroller and push her about the streets until the child fell asleep. Then she would go to a cafe, order a cup of coffee, and write.
Rowling's fairy godmother was the Scottish Arts Council, which gave her a grant that made it possible for her to finish the first volume. But even then she had trouble getting transportation to the ball. Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone was rejected by nine English publishers before Bloomsbury took it, and they had no idea it would be such a success. At first they made no special attempt to promote the book, and printed only a small number of copies.
Now, of course, all that is history. Currently the three volumes of the series are number one, two, and three on the New York Times best-seller list. (This has annoyed several publishers of adult fiction, who have protested that a children's book really doesn't belong there.) The first volume is being translated into (at last count) twenty-eight languages. A new plaincover edition has also appeared in England, for adults who are embarrassed to be seen reading a children's book. Though this edition costs two pounds more than the original, it has already sold 20,000 copies.
Recently Rowling's publishers have announced that Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone will be made into a “live-action” film by Warner Brothers. The script will be written by Steven Moves, the author and director of The Fabulous Baker Boys—a strange choice, some might think. Soon, no doubt, the original book will be edged out of public consciousness by the movie. There will be Harry Potter T-shirts, lunchboxes, video games, and action figures.
There are other looming threats to Harry Potter. In the American South and in Southern California, the same sort of people who object to the teaching of evolution and the Big Bang theory of creation have begun to complain that the stories portray witchcraft in a favorable light. From time to time, of course, the same complaint has been made about the Oz books, which in some cases have been removed from schools and bookstores along with all other representations of cute or friendly wizards and witches. The publishers have not tried to hush this up; from their point of view, any publicity is good publicity.
As a result of all this attention and success, the folk-tale heroine J. K. Rowling, once a welfare mother, has become a fabulously rich princess. Will she now find true love and live happily ever after? Will she be destroyed by the curses of fundamentalist Christians, or fall under the spell of wicked merchandisers and publicists? Her story promises to be almost as interesting as the future adventures of Harry Potter himself.
The most striking exception to this rule occurs in C. S. Lewis's Narnia series, in which the wicked, powermad figure is female.
The British title of the book is Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone; the American edition substituted “Sorcerer” for “Philosopher” on the assumption that most American readers know nothing about the history of alchemy and think of philosophy as dull.
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SOURCE: A review of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, in Cornwall, Vol. 98, No. 1, January, 2000, pp. 35–6.
[In the following review, De Lint states that the “Harry Potter” books extend beyond the realm of fantasy and young adult literature precisely because they are books that can be enjoyed by readers of all ages.]
I'm a late convert to this series, but since you might be as well, I think it's worth a brief discussion. Originally published as young adult novels, the Harry Potter books have gained widespread fame outside the limits of both the fantasy and young adult fields for one good reason: they really are wonderful books that can be enjoyed by readers of all ages—And happily, there are no cliffhangers here; the novels stand up quite well, each on its own.
The series begins with Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. For some reason, the U.S. publisher decided to change the title from its original: Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone—perhaps they thought that Americans wouldn't understand the reference? Anyway, here we meet Harry, learn a little bit about his background as a potential magician living in a world of Muggles (ordinary, non-magical folk), and briefly touch on his ten years of hellish childhood (courtesy of his aunt and uncle, who raised him with extreme ill-will), then follow along as he enters Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, which exists on another plane of existence from our own.
It's classic British boarding school fiction with the delicious twist of magic and a decidedly different curriculum.
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets finds Harry as a second year student at Hogwarts and proves to be just as enchanting and entertaining as the first book—a rarity in itself, when it comes to books in a series. By the third book, readers are welcoming back old friends, hissing at the recurring villains, cheering Harry's Quidditch team (Quidditch is a kind of aerial basketball played on broomsticks with five balls), and completely enthralled with the new mysteries that arise. And let me add here that Rowling is one of the few authors who, while playing fair, has still taken me by surprise with who the villain is in each book.
But it's young adult, you say. Yes, Harry's only eleven when the series begins, but these are not your regular young adult novels, though they do bear a superficial resemblance. They're smart and clever, funny and serious, but most importantly, they're not written down to any particular age group, so that they can be equally enjoyed by readers of all ages. Harry isn't a little adult either; he's subject to the awful insecurities that plague all children. But he's also a gifted child, so the ways he deals with his adventures don't feel out of character. Rowling plans seven books in the series, one for each year Harry is at Hogwarts. Each year Harry grows a little more mature and the books reflect that in how the characters react to and deal with situations, so it'll be like watching your children, or those of a neighbor or sibling, growing up.
Yet the real draw is Rowling's language, her grasp of character (and caricature), and her ability to write humorously without being slapstick or cynical. In fact the only thing that surprises me about the success of the Harry Potter books is why they've been so readily embraced by such a wide spectrum of readers, while Diana Wynne Jones, who's been doing this also, and with as much warmth and skill, for so many years, is still best known only within the fantasy and young adult fields. No disrespect to Rowling; she deserves all the kudos the books are receiving. But I'm hoping the door she's opened might also allow some of Jones's wonderful books to slip through into wider acceptance as well.
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SOURCE: “Six Questions: J. K. Rowling,” in Writer's Digest, Vol. 80, No. 2, February, 2000, pp. 10–11.
[In the following interview, Crawford discusses the very busy life of J. K. Rowling.]
J. K. Rowling (pronounced ROHE-ling) has made a lot of friends lately, and she doesn't know most of them. According to Publishers Weekly, there are 8.9 million hardcover and paperback Harry Potter books in print. Her US publisher had to move up the publication of the second book in the series because fans of the first were busily ordering the UK edition from Amazon.com. The series has been translated into 28 languages, and Christopher Little, Rowling's agent, receives “a considerable amount” of requests from potential Harry Potter licensees every day. Her book-signings are mob scenes—kids wearing wizard's robes and lightning bolt decals on their foreheads wait hours for a glimpse of “the Harry Potter Woman.”
Even with millions of new friends, there are still bad days. At a tour stop at a New Jersey Borders, staff drastically underestimated demand, and in the resulting frenzy, a store manager was punched and bitten. Rowling's domination of the bestseller lists (at one point, Harry Potter books were one, two and three on The New York Times bestseller list) prompted some in the publishing business to grumble about children's titles being listed with general adult fiction. At the same time, protective parents and librarians in Michigan, Minnesota and New York called the books anti-Christian and expressed concern that kids might be encouraged to practice witchcraft. “Yes, I've heard it's been banned” Rowling frequently told attendees at signings during her fall US tour.
But never mind that. Rowling's original problem, getting time to write, has only intensified. It's been widely reported that Rowling wrote the first Harry Potter book in Edinburgh cafes and had to squeeze in paragraphs between diaper changes and feeding time. That may be partly true, but if she had to juggle before, she has many more balls in the air now. Her appearances include 60 Minutes, The Today Show and The Rosie O'Donnell Show. Fan letters and promotional tours combine to compete for other slices of Rowling's time. Fortunately, she set aside a few minutes for WD.
[Crawford:] You've said that you've always wanted to be a writer but intended to write for adults. Will you try that after you've finished the “Harry Potter” series?
[Rowling:] If I'm known forever as a children's writer, I will never consider that “second best”—I don't feel I need to write for adults before I'm a “serious” writer! For me, the idea always comes before I consider an audience. In truth, I never consider the audience for whom I'm writing. I just write what I want to write. So, perhaps I will write for adults one day, but only if the idea is right.
Whom do you consider your influences? How have they affected your writing?
Writers I most admire are: E. Nesbit, Jane Austen, Vladimir Nabokov and Colette. But as for being influenced by them … I think it [may be] more accurate to say that they represent untouchable ideals to me. It is impossible for me to say what my influences are; I don't analyze my own writing in that way.
How do you meet the demands of raising your daughter, deal with the press and promotion, and still make writing a priority?
I meet the demands of writing, promotion and my daughter in the same way every working mother copes—with great difficulty sometimes, and by learning to say no! My daughter comes first, Harry second, and then I start weeding out non-priorities.
Will you get input into any “Harry Potter” spin-offs (or do you want it?)?
I have input into the film [script approval]. Other than the film, there are no spin-offs at the moment. I have turned down everything else. I would never have sold film rights to Warner if I hadn't believed that they would do a faithful interpretation of the book, and I still believe that they will.
Do you find that non-English language readers identify with your brand of humor?
As far as I can tell—I can't read Norwegian—the reaction in other countries has been very similar to here. The humor seems to have translated very well, from the reaction I get from foreign children.
You've said before that you want to keep your favorite authors to yourself. Are there secrets about Harry that you'll keep to yourself?
There are things I know about many of the characters in the Harry books that might not make it into the books themselves … too much information, not enough space!
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 530
SOURCE: “Harry Potter Update: Is It for Young Adults?” in Urbana, Vol. 89, No. 4, March, 2000, pp. 137–38.
[In the following review, MacRae states that “Harry Potter” is more than just a children's series.]
Several months ago I received a review copy of a new British fantasy novel just released in the US: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone by J. K. Rowling. I glanced at the cover, skimmed the flap copy, and decided I wasn't interested in the book because (1) it clearly was a children's book and (2) it was fantasy. …
I began hearing more and more about the phenomenal success of Harry Potter and its sequels but continued to ignore the book for the reasons stated above. Then Newsweek ran an article (23 August 1999) about the Potter craze, which was soon followed by a cover story in Time (20 September 1999) about the jaw-dropping, unprecedented success of Rowling's new series. Apparently everyone—children, teens, and adults—was reading the Potter books.
Having never been one to ignore an oncoming freight train, I asked one of the leading experts on YA fantasy, Cathi Dunn MacRae (editor of VOYA and author of Presenting Young Adult Fantasy) for her opinion on whether or not the Potter books could be considered YA literature.
Here's her response:
Guess what? I'm going to ruin your conclusion about Harry Potter not being a YA book.
This very day, I received the results of two teen book groups' votes on the Teens' Top Ten Best Books, a pilot project that I am working on for YALSA to provide a nationwide teen vote on the ALM Best Books list every year. We're trying it with two test groups, one in Pittsburgh and one in Arizona,
The Pittsburgh students (grades 7–10) rated the first volume of Harry Potter as number two in their top ten list from all of last year's Best Books. The Arizona students rated Harry Potter number one in the Teens' Top Ten Best Books.
One librarian said, “Harry Potter is hands down, number one favorite of everyone. It is definitely a YA book—and a children's and adult book too! The teens LOVE it—they are all buying their own copies because the library has over 100 reserves on each title in the series!”
Having listened to everyone, including many grownups in my office, raving about Harry, I have come to the only conclusion I can: It's one of those rare “all-ages” books that can be enjoyed by absolutely anyone who loves rousing good stories full of fun, suspense, adventure, humor, and very real seeming people in a magical world. If it's a children's book and adult book, it's also a YA book. But it isn't just a YA book. It's a book for human beings!
How about approaching Harry on that premise? There are very few books with such universal appeal—and some of them are fantasy (C.S. Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia approaches this type of popularity)—and they can be read on many levels. Harry might not be as sophisticated as Narnia, but it is certainly becoming as beloved. When I surveyed teens for my book, the Narnia books were the only ones that almost everyone bad read and loved!
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 229
SOURCE: “Harry Potter Most Challenged,” in Library Journal, Vol. 125, No. 4, March 1, 2000, p. 19.
[In the essay below, Rogers writes that “Harry Potter” tops the list of the ten most challenged books in 1999.]
The best-selling “Harry Potter” series of children's books by J. K. Rowling tops the list of the ten books most challenged in 1999, according to the American Library Association's (ALA) office for Intellectual Freedom (OIF).
The Potter books drew complaints from parents and others concerned about their focus on wizardry and magic. The OIF received 472 reports of challenged titles in 1999. A challenge is defined as a formal, written complaint filed with a library or school about a book's content or appropriateness. Most challenges are reported by public libraries, schools, and school libraries.
After Potter, the list includes Phyllis Reynolds Naylor's “Alice” series; Robert Cormier's The Chocolate War; Judy Blume's Blubber; Walter Dean Myers's Fallen Angels; John Steinbeck's classic Of Mice and Men, all for using offensive language and being unsuited to its targeted age group.
Books that made the list for other reasons, include Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, for being too explicit in its portrayal of rape and other sexual abuse; Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, for its sexual content; Alice Walker's The Color Purple, for sexual content and offensive language; and David Guterson's Snow Falling on Cedars, for sexual content and offensive language.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 457
SOURCE: “Mind Your Language,” in Spectator, Vol. 284, No. 8957, April 8, 2000, p. 19.
[In the following review, Wordsworth examines the word “muggle”, the term Rowling uses to refer to those without any magical abilities.]
‘Oh, not Harry Potter!’ whined Veronica when she saw the cover of a book lying on the kitchen table. She is of an age that defines itself by having outgrown books supposedly for children. But she need not have worried, because all that remained was the cover, and the pages I had preserved and marked with fascinating insights in manuscript had fallen into my knitting-bag or the cat's basket or somewhere, and I won't be able to find them unless I invoke St Antony in desperation.
Yet J. K. Rowling keeps popping up, even in the pages of the TLS this week, where its diarist J. C. is discussing the etymology of Muggles. The word is used in the books as a name for ordinary human beings in the language of wizards. (The discussion in the TLS was not made clearer by the word wizard being printed as lizard.) J. C. suggests we may look to the mediaeval word muggle or muggling for an origin of the term used by Harry Potter's wizard kin. Actually it is, in the unreadable 13th-century ramblings of Layamon, only an alleged word: in Kent people with tails were said to be called mugglings.
The word muggle seems beset with mystery wherever it occurs. Quite separately from the Kentish example, it turns up in a play by Thomas Middleton in the line, ‘I shall nere be married until I see my muggle again.’ Since no one knows what this means, it is unclear whether it is the same word that appears in 1617 in a book called England's Bane or A Description of Drunkenness by Thomas Young, who wrote, ‘I have seene a company amongst the very Woods and Forests, drinking for a muggle … Sixe have determined to trie their strengths who could drinke most glasses for the muggle.’ We are none the wiser.
Muggle does appear as an element in place-names and personal names. The village of Muggleswich in County Durham is apparently named after the people led by one Mucel. But where the strange 17th-century heresiarch Lodowicke Muggleton got his surname from, who can say? There is still a Muggleton in the London telephone directory, living not far from Lodowicke's place of birth, though the DNB tells us the family came from Northampton, where the name survives.
It seems to me that whereas names in Tolkien are deeply rooted in historical philology (eut meaning ‘giant’ in Old English; Wetwang being wet-field, and so on), the names in J. K. Rowling owe their forms to fancy and the tricks of memory.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1028
SOURCE: “New Heights for Harry,” in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 247, No. 16, April 17, 2000, p. 29.
[In the following review, Maughan discusses the film adaptation of the “Harry Potter” books.]
FILM DIRECTOR CHOSEN, PUBLICATION DATE SET FOR FOURTH BOOK
After three books that have, in some combination, dominated bestseller lists for more than a year and a half, and a firestorm of media attention, it might seem old-hat to refer to J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter as a phenomenon. But the term is still accurate, as Rowling's young wizard continues to blaze through uncharted territory, setting new benchmarks for popularity wherever he goes. Here, we catch up with the latest on Harry, including numerous licensing and rights deals, and the progress of the much-anticipated fourth book in the Potter series.
Back in the fall of 1998, David Heyman of Heydey Films in London (in conjunction with Warner Bros.) purchased film rights to Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, just before the books hit U.S. shores. The studio paid an undisclosed seven-figure sum to create one film based on the first two books of Rowling's series and to secure worldwide licensing rights to the property. Heyman has said that screenwriter Steve Cloves (The Fabulous Baker Boys) is carefully preserving the books' original flavor, which, in part, means adhering to Rowling's stipulation that the film be live-action and (purportedly) that the role of Harry be played by a British actor.
In recent weeks, Hollywood was buzzing about the impending production of the Harry Potter film. Director Steven Spielberg was said to be mulling it over as his next project, while a shortlist of other big-time directors was also bandied about. When Spielberg eventually declined to take the helm (reportedly because he would not have the creative carte blanche he often has on his films), the buzz again reached fever pitch. On March 28, it was announced that director Chris Columbus (whose film Mrs. Doubtfire, incidentally, was also adapted from a British children's book) had won the coveted job. The studio is tentatively planning to release the film in summer 2001.
Mattel and Hasbro are two companies that are hoping Warner Bros. sticks to that release date, or even bumps it up, as they are the first official Harry Potter toy licensors, with plans to begin releasing product lines this fall. Mattel will produce a line of toys based on characters from the books/movie and Hasbro has plans to produce Harry Potter electronic toys, collector's cards and candy through several of its subsidiaries. The first rollout of merchandise will be based on the books and will be sold exclusively in Warner Bros. Studio Stores for a period of time this fall. Closer to the holiday season, the merchandise will receive selective placement in other retail outlets (which include specialty and gift stores). A second phase of merchandise will be introduced to coincide with the film's release in 2001.
Other rights spun off from the Potter books include those for audiobook productions, which have been procured by Listening Library, now the children's audio imprint of Random House Audio. Harry's wizardry school exploits have proved magic to listeners' ears thus far, with last October's unabridged adaptation of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, read by veteran British actor Jim Dale, garnering outstanding sales as well as a Grammy nomination. Audiobooks two and three, also read by Dale, were released in November 1999 and February 2000, respectively. The three Potter audiobooks combined (available on both cassette and CD) have shipped more than 500,000 copies and earned spots on PW's audio bestseller list. Listening Library will also be producing the fourth installment, and publisher Tim Ditlow said, “We're doing everything we possibly can to have the fourth audiobook out by Scholastic's publication date.”
THE BOOK IS THE THING
Sure, all the hoopla over Harry's film debut and licensing deals is exciting, but it takes nothing away from the continued astounding performance of Rowling's books. To date, Scholastic reports that there are 19.8 million copies in print of its editions of Harry's adventures, a grouping that so far includes the first three hardcovers as well as the paperback edition of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. The Scholastic paperback edition of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets is due August 15, but no first printing figure has been announced. Scholastic ought to think high, if the recent release of the British paperback Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is any indication. A few weeks ago, children all over Britain were once again rushing to their local bookstores, this time hoping to purchase one of the 900,000 paperback copies of Prisoner of Azkaban that began shipping to stores the last week in March. Bloomsbury, Rowling's British publisher, announced that the print run was the company's largest ever for a children's book. As of April 3, British booksellers reported that the latest incarnation of the Rowling title was outselling, by a five-to-one margin, all other children's books combined.
But what of Book Four in Harry's saga? Scholastic has confirmed that the fourth installment, currently said to be more than 700 pages long, with a retail price of ＄25.95, will hit store shelves in both the U.S. and the U.K. on Saturday, July 8. though they declined to release first printing numbers. According to the Bookseller, the U.K. edition has a first printing of one million copies (including 400,000 for book clubs) and will retail for £14.99.
To say that fans are eagerly awaiting it is an understatement. Tentatively titled Harry Potter and the Doomspell Tournament, the book has been in the number one spot (or at least in the top five) on Amazon.com's bestseller list for months. As for plot points, Rowling seems to be following her earlier hints that the books will become increasingly darker as Harry matures. She has said that in Book Four, Harry will confront death. But lest readers be concerned about things getting too heavy, Rowling has also intimated that Harry will discover girls in this latest work.
For the subsequent Potter books, Scholastic expects that a new hardcover will be published each fall. If only Harry could concoct a spell that grants patience for his fans. …
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 189
School Library Journal (essay date May 2000)
SOURCE: “Harry's Defense Team,” in School Library Journal, Vol. 46, No. 5, May, 2000, p. 17.
[In the following essay, the critic describes “Muggles for Harry Potter,” a national organization dedicated to fighting efforts to ban J. K. Rowling's titles in schools.]
“Muggles for Harry Potter” is a national organization launched to fight efforts to restrict access to J. K. Rowling's titles in schools. Eight associations—representing booksellers, librarians, publishers, teachers, writers, and citizens—formed the group to counter growing censorship of the Harry Potter series. “Muggles for Harry Potter is fighting for the right of students and teachers to use the best books that are available to children, even when some parents object;’ explains Christopher Finan, president of the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression. “The Potter books are helping turn videogame players into readers. We can't allow censorship to interfere with that.” One of the group's objectives is to encourage people to report censorship attempts to www.mugglesforharrypotter.org. Although the group currently lacks funding, it is applying for grants and hopes to raise money through the sale of buttons featuring the organization's Potter artwork.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1113
SOURCE: A review of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, in Philadelphia Inquirer, July 10, 2000, p. K418.
[In the following review, Combs states that reading Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire is a satisfying experience, and was definitely worth the wait.]
So, was it worth the wait?
With the publication of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, the story of Harry's fourth year at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, J. K. Rowling proves once again that she is a riveting storyteller. Rowling's fans have been clamoring for more about Harry since the publication last year of the third book, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, and she rewards us for the wait with 734 pages, crammed full of marvelous characters, wizard and Muggle intrigue, the chilling return of Voldemort, and the growing pains of Harry Potter.
From the way that Rowling builds Book Four on the experiences and characters from the earlier books and uses the ending to set up the chain of events for Book Five, it's clear that she has carefully thought out Harry's entire Hogwarts career, a fact she has confirmed in several interviews. The result is a very tightly written book, with all of the loose ends neatly tied up and seamlessly integrated into the series as it has been written so far.
This time around, the action begins before the students even return to Hogwarts, with Harry and many of his classmates attending the Quidditch World Cup, where we get our first clues about events that will come later in the book.
Back at Hogwarts, Quidditch—a high-speed, dangerous ball game played on flying broomsticks—is temporarily put aside; at the center of Book Four is the Triwizard Tournament, in which champions from three wizard schools compete for glory and a thousand Galleons (gold coins) in prize money. A mythical contest reminiscent of the 12 labors of Hercules, the tournament tests the budding wizard skills and bravery of its champions with dragons, merpeople and plenty of Hagrid's magical creatures.
The highly public nature of the Triwizard Tournament allows Rowling to introduce more characters from outside Hogwarts—students and teachers from two foreign wizard schools, Beauxbatons and Durmstrang; Rita Skeeter, a yellow journalist whose stories are read by the entire wizarding world; and some high-placed politicians in the Ministry of Magic. By broadening her magical setting and still placing Harry at the center of it, Rowling slyly prepares us for Harry's eventual ascent to a place of power in his world.
Despite all of the exciting new characters and events, the heart of the story lies in the skillful development of the Hogwarts' characters. It seems that even wizards aren't immune from puberty, and Rowling has a lot of fun with this part of her story. Middle school antics abound, and every painful adolescent moment rings true. Instead of a homecoming dance, Hogwarts students have the Yule ball, a traditional part of the Triwizard Tournament. Everyone is atwitter with anticipation and preparations—even Harry, who has actually faced down You-Know-Who and survived, trembles when he is forced to find a date for the ball.
It's clear that Harry is no longer a boy but a teenager, as becomes evident from his new superior attitude toward the Dursleys and his tremendous crush on Cho Chang. His friends also succumb, especially Ron, who becomes moody, cranky, and jealous of Harry and Hermione, who develops a bad case of hero worship for Quidditch star Viktor Krum; and becomes lovesick over Beauxbatons' Tournament champion Fleur Delacour. Even Hagrid (an oversized middle schooler if ever there was one) falls in love.
As they have been throughout the series, the characters are interesting in their ordinariness. Even though they are endowed with magical powers, we can still recognize children we know: Draco Malfoy the bully, Hermione the smart girl, and Ron the average boy. Rowling also provides further insight into characters we've met before. We begin to find out why Neville Longbottom is so quiet and nervous; Harry's crush, Cho Chang, has a bigger part to play, as does the handsome and confident Hufflepuff Cedric Diggory. We meet more members of the Weasleys, Harry's surrogate family. The mischievous Weasley twins, Fred and George, have an interesting subplot in the book, as does Hermione, who is trying to unite the house-elves to throw off their household slavery.
Typical teenage problems notwithstanding, Harry and his friends become adept at much more sophisticated spells, as befits their fourth-year status. They are growing in power, and Rowling provides them with a healthy cabinet of magical items and spells, some of which we've seen before. “The Goblet of Fire” and the Pensieve join the Sorting Hat and the Mirror of Erised as magical objects to be respected, and we learn that wizards can transport themselves by Apparating (simply disappearing from one place and appearing in another) or by use of a Portkey (a transformed object that will whisk you away when you touch it).
As the students' knowledge of helpful magic grows, they also learn more about the treacherous kind. The newest Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher, Mad-Eye Moody (will he last any longer than the previous three?), teaches them about the three Unforgivable Curses—Imperious, Cruciatus and Avada Kedavra, the Killing Curse. Even more frightening than these curses, however, is the discovery that Dumbledore, Harry's protector, can be fooled. This unfortunate detail sets up a truly terrifying encounter between Harry and Voldemort, a chapter that is best read in the daylight.
Even with all of the humor Rowling provides in the story, this is the most frightening book of the series—it begins and ends with murder and contains a more graphic depiction of Voldemort's evil than we've seen so far.
Of course, as we begin to understand the vast depths of Voldemort's evil, we see Harry's good shining by comparison. As before, Harry proves himself to be at once an ordinary boy and a force for good. Even though he feels the blow of peer disapproval and is ostracized by his classmates (even by Ron) because of the Tournament, he proves himself to be fair and compassionate, helping the other champions and growing stronger for his eventual climactic meeting with Voldemort.
The Harry Potter series has been criticized for being formulaic—but it's a time-honored formula. Rowling has successfully managed to unite three successful elements often found in children's books: a well-paced, terrific story; the escapades of kids at school; and the battle between good and evil. She's packaged them into a most satisfying experience—the kind of reading experience that has you charging headlong through the book, oblivious to the outside world.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1093
SOURCE: A review of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, in Sun-Sentinel, July 10, 2000, p. K439.
[In the following review, Mabe reports that despite the “unseemly hype” preceding it's publication, the fourth installment in J. K. Rowling's “Harry Potter” series will not disappoint readers.]
Despite the unseemly hype preceding the publication of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire—surely the work of Muggles—there was really no reason to fear that the fourth installment in J. K. Rowling's incredibly popular series of children's fantasies would disappoint.
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire finds the young wizard-in-training facing his most dangerous challenges yet, including the return of his nemesis, evil Lord Voldemort. Complicating matters, he must participate in a lethal magic tournament. And perhaps scariest of all, he tries to muster the courage to ask a girl to the holiday dance.
And yes, a recurring character dies.
Today, millions of Potter fans—adults and children—will be poring over the new installment. Those who couldn't wait till morning to pick up their reserved copies either bought it at midnight bookstore parties when it went on sale at 12:01 a.m. last night, or had it delivered by UPS from Amazon.com, which reportedly shipped nearly 400,000 copies Friday.
Scholastic has pushed the book as though it were the cure for cancer, withholding review copies and swearing stores to secrecy on pain of being cut off from future Potter books.
All the strong-arm promotion was unnecessary anyway: Since 1997, the first three volumes have sold 37 million copies worldwide in 28 languages, including Braille, making Harry Potter one of the biggest successes in publishing history. In all likelihood, Scholastic's first print run of 3.8 million copies for the fourth volume will not be enough to meet the initial demand.
Before today, the only worrisome thing known about book four was its length. The entries in the series have gotten progressively longer, from a modest 309 pages for Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, to 341 to Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets to 435 for Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. The new book is almost twice that—734 pages, enormous compared to most traditional children's books.
Now that The Goblet of Fire is finally here, the excessive length turns out to be not a danger but an asset. Scottish author J. K. Rowling uses it efficiently to deepen and enrich Harry's magical world, investing the narrative with an almost Dickensian complexity.
But that enhanced dramatic texture does not come at the expense of the chills and excitement readers have come to expect. Rowling remains a vivid, highly visual writer whose prose flows smoothly, spiced with clever wordplay. The Goblet of Fire reads like a much shorter book.
Rowling picks up Harry's life very shortly after the end of The Prisoner of Azkaban, with the hero on summer break from Hogwarts School of Wizarding and Witchcraft. Harry has returned to the house of the cruel and detested Dursleys, his Muggle (non-magical) relatives; his parents were killed when he was an infant, defending him from an attack by the nefarious Voldemort.
Soon Harry, now 14, is rescued from the Dursleys by his school chum, Ron Weasley, whose family takes the boys to the World Cup Quidditch finals. (Quidditch is the wizards' airborne equivalent of soccer, played on broomsticks with four balls.) But when the insignia of Lord Voldemort appears in the sky after the match, a riot breaks out among the hundred thousand or so assembled magical sports fans.
What's worse, the lightning shaped scar on Harry's forehead, the only mark left by the early attempt on his life, has been throbbing, a clear sign that Voldemort is nearby, scheming to regain his powers. You see, the spell the Dark Lord cast to murder the baby Harry rebounded, leaving the evil wizard weakened and horribly deformed.
But Harry has much more to occupy him than the shadowy machinations of Voldemort. For one thing, he has been smitten by Cho Chang, a beautiful rival Quidditch player at Hogwarts. Furthermore, Hogwarts is hosting the Tri-Wizard Tournament, a long-defunct contest pitting the champions of the three largest wizarding schools in dangerous contests of magical skill.
It seems the tournament had been discontinued centuries before due to the high fatality rate among competitors. With the minimum age set at 17, Harry is too young to enter. But someone who doesn't have his welfare at heart surreptitiously places his name in the Goblet of Fire, an enchanted urn that selects the contestants.
Rowling spins this complex scenario easily. Each scene—from the Quidditch finals to the Tri-Wizard competition to Harry's conversations with friends—is portrayed with impressive detail, humor and inventiveness.
And there's a great deal more happening. Not only Harry, but also all of the principal characters—Harry's schoolmates Ron and Hermione, and the giant gamekeeper-turned-teacher Hagrid—have romantic entanglements of their own.
Adult wizards jockey for influence in a manner that resembles backroom politicking, with the ante raised immeasurably by the knowledge that some are secretly loyal to Voldemort. In the course of the story, Harry—and thus the reader—learns a great deal about the battles between good and evil that preceded his birth.
Old characters return with expanded or clarified roles, including the odious professor Severus Snape, whose past is even shadier than anyone suspected; the secret turncoat Lucius Malfoy (and his despicable son Draco, the thorn in Harry's side); and the outlaw wizard Sirius Black, who is actually Harry's protector. In addition, there are numerous new characters, all engaging or hiss-worthy, led by the hideous wizard Mad-Eye Moody and the delightfully sleazy and unscrupulous journalist, Rita Skeeter.
Rowling leads us through this maze of grown-up tension and school-age conflict with a such a sure hand that she is able to honor the traditions of her genre while also exploring topical themes. For example, Hermione mounts a campaign to liberate the school's house-elves, whom she considers slaves because they work without pay or benefits.
The climax is a titanic showdown between Harry and Voldemort. The confrontation manages to be hugely satisfying, while also setting the stage for the next chapter in the proposed seven-book series.
If there is anything to fear from Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, it is that J. K. Rowling may have succeeded too well. The book is a triumph on so many levels, it's hard to imagine how she will top it—and she has three more volumes to go. But so far, she has yet to let her readers down, so here's hoping the magic continues.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 610
SOURCE: An essay on the “Harry Potter” books in Tacoma News Tribune, July 10, 2000.
[In the following essay, Merryman strongly praises the “Harry Potter” books, and states that a certain amount of fantasy is healthy and enables children to learn important values for life.]
Aren't you glad you're not J. K. Rowling?
Imagine the responsibility.
What her stories have built—aside from the most profitable publishing phenomenon in recent memory—is a community of kids.
And their grown-ups.
I'd bet my car that at this very moment, there are children in Bombay, Federal Way, London, Capetown, Mexico City and Hong Kong reading the exact same page of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.
It's Book Four in the series, and it's a sure thing that here in the South Sound, children who stood in line to get it at 12:01 Saturday morning fell asleep over it that night, woke up to it Saturday morning and finished it sometime Sunday. In our house, the bookmarks are set at pages 75 (mine) and 375 (my daughter's) of the 734-page book.
Friday at 10:30 p.m. we rolled into Barnes & Noble in Lakewood to get in line for one of the 100 or so copies available to people who had not reserved copies.
By 11 p.m. there were over 50 families in line, and by 11:45 the line stretched to the Fantasy section at the back of the store.
It was a great line. Families of every ethnic background. Readers of all ages and tastes.
This line was part of a great literary tradition. In the 18th and 19th centuries, when authors like Charles Dickens released their novels as serials, crowds would gather to grab each new installment and rush home to read it.
These days, we're used to waiting in line for tickets to the Backstreet Boys and Garth Brooks, but not for books.
I'm delighted that J. K. Rowling has revived this fine tradition.
Our stories have called this a publishing phenomenon. I look at it as millions of children finding joy in the same book and having something in common to discuss with one another.
Rowling, this single mom from Scotland, has helped build a world-wide community of kids. They have Harry as a common denominator, and as they talk about him on Web sites, phones and in chance meetings, they can move on to discuss other things. This is how we build understanding.
Yes, there are many people who won't allow their children to crack these covers. They believe that Harry teaches witchcraft, and that children who read the books will be seduced by satanism. They believe that the fantasy is unhealthy.
Obviously, I disagree.
The great and beloved books for children take them to places they have never been—and never will visit—to learn about values they can use every day.
When kids read about Winnie-the-Pooh and his friends in the Hundred Acre Wood, or Mr. Toad and Mole in The Wind in the Willows, they learn about friendship and cherishing each others' differences.
When they sail off to Treasure Island or swash through Sherwood Forest, the journey is about bravery, justice, and choosing between right and wrong.
When they join forces with the woodland creatures of Redwall, they triumph through honesty, generosity and loyalty.
Magically, Rowling has invested all of these values—and quite a bit of humor—in her Harry tales.
This time, there is a new element. Loss. Many kids face it, and it helps them to read about it and know they are not alone.
We've known for a year that Rowling was going to kill one of the series' significant characters.
But did you think it would be …?
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 715
SOURCE: “This Is More than Hype: Harry Feels Like Me,” in Globe and Mail, July 10, 2000, p. R3.
[In the following review, Canadian children's book author Robert Munsch lightheartedly gives his reaction to the success of the “Harry Potter” books and explains his reasons for enjoying the series.]
So I walk into The Bookshelf in Guelph, Ont., and there is a whole shelf of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire residing in the recommended reading section.
This is interesting because the recommended reading section at The Bookshelf means just that, a whole shelf of books that the staff recommends. Publishers do not buy space here—so it's usually an imposing bookcase full of highbrow stuff that I pass on the way to the science-fiction ghetto at the back of the store.
And there is a kid's book sitting right in the middle of this recommended reading. Actually, there is a whole shelf of Harry sitting in recommended reading. A book to read aloud to your kids is intruding into the intelligencia's domain, kind of like a mushroom in a rose garden.
But surprises do not end, because when I take a copy of the Potter book up to the front desk, a truly stupefying sight meets my eyes. The wall behind the cash register is usually filled up with assorted special-order books waiting to be picked up. Today, the wall is completely full of just one book and it is the Harry Potter book. An utterly bizarre and confounding event.
I just stand there and look until the clerk kindly says: “We call it Potterization.”
“What?” says I.
“Potterization,” says the clerk. “When people stand here in shock, we call it Potterization.”
I am mildly surprised when I leave to note that the streets of Guelph are not yet paved with Potter books.
So I run home and check out Amazon.com and they have sold 371,653 copies of it and that is not bad considering that the book has been out for 24 hours.
So the book is news! An astounding event. Potter is NEWS, sort of like an earthquake or a comet. A very old-fashioned low-tech book is news.
And it's big! Six hundred and thirty-six pages. Is this a good idea? I mean, it's supposed to be a kid's book.
And I would not mind if it were a real clunker (The headline: ROWLING LAYS AN EGG), because a couple of years ago at Scholastic Canada, somebody ran up to me and said: “We're trying to get a weird and wonderful English book! Here it is. Read it and tell us what you think.”
So I read three chapters and said: “I love it, but I think it is too English—boarding schools and all that.”
I should have kept my mouth shut.
Now when I go to Scholastic, people snicker behind my back or even to my face. They think my IQ is—45. So I am really hoping that the latest book is lousy. My reputation depends on it.
Well, I start reading to find out if it is a good book and I am laughing by Page 9. And I am reading and reading and then the book is all done and it is one rollicking good read and where did the day go?
Damn! She did it again and my reputation is further in ruins. The phone rings and somebody snickers and then hangs up. Probably it's the CEO at Scholastic.
So why did I like the book?
1. I identify with Harry's world. He lives in a weird world where weird things happen and people are sometimes nice and sometimes not, a world that is terrible and wonderful at the same time. It even has weird bureaucrats who wander around making weird rules.
It feels like my world. All this weird magic stuff feels like my world.
2. I identify with Harry. Harry is basically a sort of klutz who keeps making good, an outsider who does not fit in, a starved-for-affection sort of nice guy, I mean, Harry feels like me. Not bad for a kid's book.
The phone is ringing again. Probably another snicker call.
I pray that the next Harry book will be a real loser. I'm sorry Harry, but I really do. My reputation depends on it.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 717
SOURCE: A review of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, in Orlando Sentinel, July 10, 2000, p. K42.
[In the following review, Pate affirms that what is rumored about Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire is true, but chooses not to give any of its secrets away.]
Dragons and giants and mazes, oh my! Death Eaters and Dark Marks and curses, gee whiz! And let's not forget You-Know-Who..
J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire offers all of the above and more—much more— in its 734 deftly plotted, thrill-packed pages. The pivotal fourth book in the phenomenally popular series about a fledgling wizard is too long to be quite the midnight oil-burner of its predecessor, The Prisoner of Azkaban, but many of its pages fly by as fast as Harry's Firebolt racing broom. And even the saggier of the 37 chapters will please Potter fans with their rich details of Harry's fourth year at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.
Yes, pretty much everything you've heard about the book is true. A character readers care about dies. Harry turns 14 and starts paying more attention to girls, especially when he has to invite one to the Yule Ball. And Harry and his friends Ron and Hermione get to go to the Quidditch World Cup—the most important sporting competition in the wizard world—but it serves as just a set-up for the novel's true centerpiece, the Triwizard Tournament.
In this dangerous event, representatives from three European schools of wizardry compete in a series of death-defying challenges involving magical creatures, spells, charms and hexes. Meanwhile, Harry's mortal enemy, Lord Voldemort, the dark wizard who murdered Harry's parents and whose powers were diminished when he failed to kill baby Harry, is plotting his comeback. Harry suspects Voldemort may be nearby because the lightning-bolt scar left on his forehead after the attack has begun to ache. The Death Eaters—masked supporters of Voldemort—stage a march at the World Cup, tossing around Muggles, ordinary people without magical powers. A fearful skull-image appears in the night sky … And all this happens in the book's first 100 pages.
It's no secret that part of the appeal of the Potter books lies in their secrets and the thrill of discovery. So we're not going to be giving away too much here. Rowling follows her by now-familiar formula of mixing the magical with the mundane, involving Harry and his friends in one hair-raising adventure after another, leavening the tension with her trademark humor.
Harry and his friends may be wizards but they are still young teens who love silly jokes, gorge on candy, get mad at their friends and worry about everything from their appearances to their grades. One girl tries to cure her acne with a curse and now her nose is off-center. Not surprisingly, Hermione “is the only person in class who has managed to turn a hedgehog into a satisfactory pincushion.” Everyone pays attention to sneering Professor Snape's Potions lessons on antidotes “because he had hinted that he might be poisoning one of them before Christmas to see if their antidotes worked.”
These kinds of lines lead to grins, but Harry's ongoing battle against evil is no laughing matter. Each book is darker and more complex than the one before, and Goblet of Fire moves inexorably toward a chilling climax. But even then Rowling isn't finished, adding some more twists before concluding with a chapter appropriately titled “The Beginning.” It's not so much a cliffhanger as a compass indicating the direction of the fifth book in what she has said will be a seven-volume sequence.
After finishing Goblet—and we haven't even talked about grindylows, Mad-Eye Moody, the House Elf Liberation Front and the three Unforgivable Curses—you may well wonder what Rowling has left up her imaginative sleeve. My bet is plenty. The Harry Potter series is a classic fantasy quest as its appealing young hero, with the help of loyal friends and wise mentors (Albus Dumbledore resembles Tolkien's Gandalf and T. H. White's Merlin more and more), calls upon his own courage to find his true destiny. That quest continues, so like Arthur Weasley, I'd start collecting batteries now just in case the “ekeltricity” goes off. Trust me, you don't want to be left in the dark with You-Know-Who …
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 861
SOURCE: “Yarn Unfolds as It Should—in Mystical Fashion,” in Globe and Mail, July 10, 2000, p. R3.
[In the following review, Perren confirms certain rumors surrounding Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, the fourth book in Rowling's series, and feels the book lives up to its high expectations.]
Well, it's a doorstopper. Weighing in at almost two pounds, over 600 pages long, Harry Potter IV is a lot of book. You wouldn't be blamed for asking the obvious: Is this logorrhea writ large?
And the answer? Maybe. It all depends how much time you want to spend with Harry, Ron, Hermione, Dumbledore, Hagrid, et al.
Unlike its predecessors, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire doesn't begin at No. 4 Privet Drive with an underfed and very badly treated Harry longing to escape his ghastly relatives, the Dursleys. Instead, it opens in an abandoned manor house in the village of Little Hangleton.
There, in a room full of the smell of decay, a conversation takes place between a man called Wormtail and a man whom Wormtail addresses as “My Lord.” It's a chilling conversation and a chilling beginning, with intimations of the evil connected to He Who Must Not Be Named (Lord Voldemort), and it sets the stage in a number of ways for the action that follows.
Immediately following this scene, the reader arrives at terra cognita—No. 4 Privet Drive—and all that it entails. Significantly, though, Harry, now 14, has just woken from a nightmare and, even more importantly, he has a terrible pain emanating from the jagged scar on his forehead. Lord Voldemort inflicted the injury that left that scar and Harry is sure that the pain must mean that Voldemort is close at hand. Where? And Why?
Harry doesn't have much time to dwell on Voldemort. Relief from those troubling thoughts—and from the Dursleys—is provided by the Weasleys, the large family of Harry's best friend Ron, who arrive to take Harry away to stay with them. Mr. Weasley has tickets to the Quidditch World Cup—the action of which, every feint and swoop, is recounted in meticulous detail. And then, we're on the train to Hogwarts, that almost celestial school for young wizards.
It has taken almost 100 pages to get to Hogwarts. The journey there in Harry Potter I, II and III seemed much shorter and somewhat more focused. But who's to quarrel. Let's just say that more is more. Life at Hogwarts in all its gothic, fantastical, magical and improbable glory unfolds as it should: For Harry, it is where he has always been happiest.
One of Dumbledore's first announcements is that there will be no interhouse Quidditch Cup competition this year. Instead, Hogwarts will host the Triwizard Tournament, which will pit the finest athlete from each of the three largest schools of wizardry—Durmstrang, Beauxbatons and Hogwarts—against each other for the Triwizard Cup. The competition will have three phases, each involving a Herculean task to be undertaken by the athletes.
The three competitors are to be chosen by the Goblet of Fire, into which the names of suitable athletes, 17 years of age or older, have been fed. Mysteriously—and begging the question of why?—Harry's name has been entered in the competition and, somewhat improbably because he is below the age limit set, his candidacy as a fourth competitor is accepted.
On this three phase competition hangs much of the action of Harry Potter IV. More than that we are not prepared to reveal except to say that characters we have come to know and love (or loathe) play out their appointed roles in new, often surprising, imaginative and very lively ways.
Invisible Cloaks, wands, spells, dragons, Death Eaters, Dementors and house-elves abound. There is even bubo-tuber pus, a potion to cure acne that, given the age of Harry Potter's chief protagonists, has reared its troublesome head.
Safe to reveal, too, that the plot takes more twists and turns than the Golden Snitch at a Quidditch Cup tournament. And, if truth be told, the book is longer than any of the aforesaid tournaments could be, and longer than most ordinary Muggles (that's you and me) would want it to be.
It could also be said that in Harry Potter IV the sense of humour has shifted; some might now call it occasionally puerile, but perhaps the word “adolescent” would be a better description.
The rumours are true: Love, or first glimmerings of it, makes an appearance. And so does death. The questions of where? and why? and who? are answered. And once again, goodness smites evil.
At their core, the Harry Potter books, long or short, are about the triumph of goodness over evil; they offer the kind of moral clarity that children need and adults yearn for. Harry Potter's world is a lovely place for readers of many ages to inhabit. The books are not, however, profound. They do not reside in the same country as say, the Narnia stories or The Hobbit or Charlotte's Web.
They are adventure stories and tremendous fun and for that we can say thank you and. All hail Harry! All hail Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire!
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 999
SOURCE: “Harry Is Back Again,” in Time, Vol. 156, No. 3, July 17, 2000, p. 70.
[In the following review, Sachs comments that the hype surrounding the release of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire was unnecessary, but the book itself is as enchanting as it promised to be.]
A few seconds past the wizarding hour of midnight last Saturday, the most annoying and unnecessary marketing campaign in publishing history finally delivered the goods. J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire would have sold millions of copies had its U.S. and British publishers simply dumped them in bookstores, unannounced, and then got out of the way as word of mouth spread among stampeding Pottermaniacs. That is pretty much the way the first three books about the boy wizard so phenomenally caught fire among young readers and then their parents and other adults as well. The trouble with such spontaneous, rapturous enthusiasm, at least to those with their gimlet eyes on the bottom line, is its unpredictability and fickleness, as with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers. (The who? The what?) So this time out, the Harry Potter franchise decided to leave as little as possible to the whimsies of taste.
Hence the teasing, intensely publicized secrecy; the warehouses bristling with security; the demands that bookstores not sell or even unpack copies of the new book before the first moments of July 8 (although a few did slip out earlier). Publishing records were noisily announced: a 3.8 million-copy first printing in the U.S., a million more in Britain.
“To guard a title that was rich before/To gild refined gold, to paint the lily,” wrote Shakespeare, “Is wasteful and ridiculous excess.” True, but this is a new millennium, and the gilding of Harry Potter seems to have worked. The carefully built-up demand produced long lines of customers and the curious at the many U.S. bookstores open for business at the crack of last Saturday. Some of these settings seemed surreal. At Books of Wonder in lower Manhattan, local TV and print reporters swarmed among the expectant book buyers. “The A.P. has already hit us,” said Dave Lambert, 28, who was waiting with his girlfriend. “You've got two lines here, one interviewing the other.” A p.r. woman called out, “Anybody need a sound bite from Scholastic?” A satisfied film crew from ABC's “Good Morning America” packed up to leave. “We got the cute little girl,” said a cameraman. “I think we're all set. Are we ready to go out and drink?”
It is worth remembering right about here, that Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire is not a Hollywood summer blockbuster, although its weekend grosses will probably be announced in a breathless press release. It is a book, a really long book, with no moving images, sound track or joysticks. Reading it or listening to someone else read it aloud requires a modicum of silence, the exact antithesis of all the bells and whistles and clarions that heralded its arrival.
What will happen once the shouting stops? First of all, those millions who were enchanted by the first three books will almost certainly feel the same way about Goblet of Fire. Like its predecessors, the new novel is heavily dependent on surprises and suspense. Rowling's readers understandably resent being tipped off about details before they can discover them on their own. But many of them then go back and read the books multiple times. Indeed, the last chapter of Goblet of Fire, which starts on page 716, is called “The Beginning,” which looks like a clue telling readers to start over again.
The new novel follows, in broad outline, the formula of the earlier books, rescuing Harry from some summer suffering at the home of the Dursleys, his dreadful Muggle (nonmagical human) relatives; transporting him and his two best friends, Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger, to the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry; and then exposing the hero to another threat from Lord Voldemort, the fearsome Dark wizard who murdered his parents but mysteriously failed to kill the one-year-old Harry at the same time.
As she has in past books, Rowling introduces new elements and characters to keep readers on their toes. This time the trip to school on the Hogwarts Express does not occur until Harry and friends attend the 422nd Quidditch World Cup, pitting Ireland against Bulgaria, in front of a crowd of 100,000 wizards and witches, all of whom managed to assemble unseen by any oblivious Muggles. Back at Hogwarts, the students learn that something called the Triwizard Tournament will take place during the school year, involving competitors from two other magic-training establishments, Beauxbatons Academy and Durmstrang Institute. (Guess, from their names, where those schools are located.) New characters include Alastor (Mad-Eye) Moody, the latest in the series of professors of Defense Against the Dark Arts, and Rita Skeeter, a manipulative reporter for the wizard paper, the Daily Prophet.
Although Goblet of Fire sags a little now and then, Rowling's astonishing inventiveness in describing new wizardly wonders and her sly sense of humor usually keep things moving along briskly. Nearly every page offers something intriguing or funny. There are, for example, the odd books on magic that the studious Hermione consults, including Men Who Love Dragons Too Much and Where There's a Wand, There's a Way. No wonder the parents who started reading these books to their children found themselves hooked. But this time, some of those parents may want to keep the book away from their younger ones. The rumors that Goblet of Fire is darker and more violent than the first three turn out to be true. A significant character dies (don't fear, we won't say which one). Also, in a lighter vein, Harry goes on a date. Rowling has promised three more Potter books, and the direction she's taking may disquiet some fans. But it is the publicity blitz for the next one that will probably be truly, relentlessly horrifying.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1126
SOURCE: “Popular Harry Potter Book Series Offers a Lesson in Business,” in Tribune Business News, July 19, 2000.
[In the following essay, Kanfer explains why he thinks literary excellence is good business, as illustrated by the success of the “Harry Potter” books.]
More than 3 million copies of the latest Harry Potter are in print, with more en route. The evidence is irrefutable, and measurable in any bookstore.
The success of J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter books demonstrates that literary excellence—even when coupled with ethical seriousness—is good business.
Rowling presents a moral universe with abiding values: There, honor is not obsolete, nor are trust, courage, loyalty and the dignity of labor. And there, deceit is nothing to snicker at, but something to be reviled.
Strangely, it is this moral conviction that threatens handfuls of yahoos who want to see Rowling's creations taken off the shelves. The South Carolina Board of Education, for example, is considering a classroom ban.
“These books have a serious tone of death, hate and sheer evil,” said one of the parents who addressed the board. And in Marietta, Georgia, one elementary school principal commented ungrammatically, “It's questionable whether every parent wants their child to read or be exposed to books having to do with magic or wizardry.”
The principal has lost sight of the principle. Yes, the Potter fantasies deal with fictive evil, but not so fictive that it can't be recognized as a metaphor for the threats facing civilization every day. That evil is well-armed with the weapons of chaos, violence, ignorance and, worst of all, indifference. The way to fight it is not with moral relativity but with moral conviction. Granted, some parents raised on “Question Authority” bumper stickers might not be able to handle certitude of any kind. J. K. Rowling may be just the tutor to help them grow up.
Appropriately enough, Rowling's life contains aspects of a fairy tale: The graduate of Exeter University started her professional career teaching French. Married and divorced early, she was an impoverished single mother living in Glasgow when she wrote her first children's book, hoping to bring in a few extra quid. The Scottish Arts Council provided a minuscule grant that allowed Rowling to reach the finish line. The rest is publishing history.
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone appeared in 1997 and promptly elicited lyrical reviews, awards and cries for more adventures of the remarkable 11-year-old. Two more bestsellers followed. The fourth in the series was already a smash well before its release late last week—Amazon.com had received more than 250,000 advance orders.
This success might suggest books aimed at the lowest common juvenile. Not so. The Potter books are intelligent, witty, and filled with references to classical myths and English lit. The parentless, unloved and unprepossessing Harry has all the traits of the young hero we have met many times before. He is Arthur, the lost soul with strength enough to pull the sword from the stone. He is the wooden Pinocchio, the orphaned Oliver Twist, the pre-lamp Aladdin, the pre-spinach Popeye.
Like them, Harry is no ordinary soul. As he comes to learn, his late mother was a good witch, his father a gifted wizard. Evil powers did away with them when Harry was a mere infant. Grumbling all the way, his oppressive Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon take the child in. The drab and vile-tempered Dursleys are bad enough, but their son, Dudley, gives new meaning to the word “lout.”
Rowling has a word for these miserable wretches and their ilk: Muggles—people without the gifts of magic and high-powered imagination. (As all sensitive children can testify, Muggles constitute a distressingly large part of the population.) The Dursleys bully and neglect Harry until a strange caller arrives from Hogwarts Academy, offering the boy a scholarship. The Dursleys grudgingly allow Harry to go, little suspecting that Hogwarts is the official prep school for wizards.
There, Harry enters an enchanted parallel world where miracles happen daily. Owls deliver the mail, and rather than toll the hours the clock says, “You're late” and “Time to make tea.” Harry studies subjects such as Potions and Transfiguration. Nevertheless, enchantment has its price. Like every school, Hogwarts has its tyrants and snobs. Harry often faces humiliation and learns to survive with an amalgam of craft, courage and a willingness to learn from grayer and wiser heads. One of them is the wizard headmaster, Dumbledore.
With Dumbledore's aid, Harry harkens to the value of valor and the uses of arcane knowledge. Eventually he learns to navigate through time; although Harry can never speak to his late parents he learns to see them, as vivid as dreams and as significant as memory.
It would be unsporting to reveal the plots of the four books; suffice to say that they contain more than mere convolutions of narrative. Rowling has picked up the baton carried by the great writers of children's literature. Harry's adventures with talking chess pieces, for example, evoke chapters of Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking-Glass. The boy's ability to talk to snakes recalls Merlin's interspecies fluency in T. H. White's The Once and Future King. Other influences include J. M. Barrie's Peter Pan and C. S. Lewis' Narnia tales. Rowling has chosen her ancestors well.
What makes Rowling's books especially appealing is her refusal to write down to her audience. Many publishers are convinced that prose must be made “accessible” (read “insipid”) for a TV-trained generation. J. K. Rowling will have none of it.
If the universal hero has a thousand faces, Harry's is surely one of them. And his journey is one of those heroic journeys, buoyed by a sense of humor and driven by youthful discoveries. Among them: that action is character, that morality is not relative, that wickedness must be confronted, that the values of the material world last about as long as a toy, while the values of the spirit endure. In Hogwarts, all this is known as magic. In the real world it is known as ethics.
Rowling's books should keep enthusiasts busy for years to come. Moreover, they serve as a high-water mark for publishers. To be sure, saccharine children's books, Harlequin romances and celebrity exposes jut out from the bestseller list like gargoyles. These time-killers will always be with us. But Rowling has proved to publishers and readers that to be a first-rate minor novelist may be the best way to make a major statement: There is a public out there for the so-called reactionary attributes of taste, style and virtue.
Therefore, readers, take heart. Valuable counter-movements are at work. Giving in to the current cultural backslide would be like Harry Potter moving into Slytherin. Say no to the Muggles, and carry on. The spyglass is half full.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1125
SOURCE: “Growing Up with Harry,” in Hindu, July 24, 2000.
[In the following review, Padmanabhan states that Rowling has shifted fictional gears in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire and that the series appears to have arrived at a pivotal stage.]
It is exquisitely fat and meaty and children all over the world are said to marvel at its plump comeliness. Even so, the very size of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (640 pages dressed in handsome hardback) is the least significant characteristic that sets it apart from its three relatively anorexic predecessors.
The first three novels in the planned seven-part series do have their distinctive features but, on the whole, you might be forgiven for thinking that each is a little more of the same. HP4 is something else. And J. K. Rowling loses no time in demonstrating that she has firmly shifted fictional gear.
Gone is the seemingly mandatory first chapter that sets the stage for the story (Harry during the summer hols at the Dursleys preparing to go to Hogwarts). In its place is a chilling prologue which stages a pitiless murder and features Harry's shadowy adversary Lord Voldemort. It is only much later, after a perambulatory narrative introduces new characters and re-introduces old ones at a Quidditch World Cup match, that Harry and his friends board the train to Hogwarts.
Rowling has said more than once that the Goblet of Fire would be a “darker” novel, which it is. But it is also far more complex than the others and never before has Rowling's larger design-of making the reader grow up with Harry-been more apparent. In fact, it is difficult to escape the feeling that her fantasy series has arrived at an awkward intermediate stage, the pivot on which she is going to spin stories that are far more ‘nuanced’ and are of far greater complexity. They will continue to be crossover novels but the balance of appreciation may just tilt a little further towards adults.
The traditional Quidditch match at Hogwarts is forsaken for the Triwizard Tournament, a dangerous challenge for champions from three rival schools of magic, which involves outwitting dragons, underwater rescue missions and threading a maze which is complicated by the presence of giant spiders and golden mists. Harry is underaged but is tricked into participating by no other than Voldemort, who we learn a fair amount about in the Goblet of Fire.
Raised as an orphan (like Harry), detested by his relatives (like Harry again) and schooled in magic at Hogwarts (ditto), armed with a wand which shares the same core as Harry's, Voldemort begins to appear almost like Potter's double-an evil counterpart or a brother gone astray. In an odd but revealing twist towards the end of the novel, Voldemort requires a drink of Harry's blood to regain his strength.
In twinning good with evil, Rowling seems to be taking a tentative (but discernable) stab at moral complexity. At one point, Voldemort has Harry caught in a totally helpless position, but chooses to challenge him to a duel after untying the young boy and returning his wand. How exactly Rowling develops Voldemort's character in the remainder of the series in anybody's guess, but it will be no surprise if we see her painting some fine and subtle shades in the moral canvas of her future novels. Before the launch of this book, Rowling had said Harry (now all of 14) would start getting interested in girls in the Goblet of Fire, provoking considerable (and sometimes anxious) speculation about just how she would make her retiring bespectacled hero go. Although the author has made it clear all along that Harry will grow up like any regular guy, there were suggestions that sex may take a little magic out of Hogwarts. And then (or so the argument continued), was it really necessary to expose an audience comprised largely of pre-pubescents to sexuality?
As it turns out (perhaps, wholly appropriately in a novel of such intermediacy), Rowling does not reveal her full hand. Harry does not get a girlfriend, but acquires a full-blown crush, the object of his hidden affection being Cho Chang, a pretty girl from a rival house who goes to the Yule Ball (the traditional dance) with another boy.
Her section on the Ball is the only tedious part of the book and it is somewhat sad to find Harry, Ron and some of the other kids scurrying around trying to find partners for the dance and little jealousies and insecurities breaking out. Wouldn't they be much better off practising magic, one wonders. Though there is a faint suggestion of some nooky behind the bushes, not much happens during the Yule Ball. Rowling can hardly be accused of excess here, only of being somewhat humdrum.
On the whole, however, the book piles miracle upon miracle, much in the manner you would expect of Rowling. To this reviewer's list of favourite Rowling inventions—the diary which writes back and the moving portraits which primp and curl their hair—is added a third: The Quick-Quotes Quill which belongs to tabloid journalist Rita Skeeter and which can twist what is said out of all recognition and spin stories that are wrapped in a tissue of lies.
Rowling's talent as a writer is sometimes judged largely by the cleverness of her inventions, but her real accomplishment lies in her ability to invest her fantasy world with very life-like people, contexts and circumstances. Her brilliance does not lie alone in thinking up Boggarts, Skrewts and all manner of creatures she effortlessly creates but also in the painstaking little details that make a whole range of characters spring to life—Hermione, the school swot; Draco Malfoy, the insufferable snob; Albus Dumbledore, the kindly professor; or Colin Creevey, the insecure sycophant. There can be no magic without realism, after all.
The Goblet of Fire contains many little sub-plots which Rowling is certain to exploit in the next novel or somewhere down the series. If they have been used to tease the reader, to keep him honest and interested, then they have worked very well indeed. For instance, the matter about Hermione Granger's struggle for the rights of house-elves is left hanging and Rowling is bound to return to this shortly. We know that Lucius Malfoy is a Death-Eater and that this must have some bearing on his son Draco. We know that the manner in which Cho Chang turned down Harry's invitation to the Yule Ball suggests that she probably likes him a lot too. And of course we know that a Voldemort with his power regained is not going to stand around wasting time at all.
Having finished the fourth novel, I am not surprised to find myself hungering for the fifth.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 185
Bouquet, Tim. “The Wizard behind Harry Potter.” Reader's Digest (December 2000): 95–101.
Biographical sketch of Rowling.
Plummer, William and Blonska, Joanna. “Spell Binder.” People Weekly (12 July 1999): 85–6.
Brief biographical sketch of Rowling.
Johnson, Sarah. “First Review: New Harry Potter ‘A Cracker.’” London Times (7 July 2000).
Positive review of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.
Jones, Malcolm. “Magician for Millions.” Newsweek (23 August 1999): 58.
Positive review of the “Harry Potter” series.
Maguire, Gregory. “Lord of the Golden Snitch.” New York Times Book Review 104, (5 September 1999): 12.
Positive review of the “Harry Potter” series.
Pendle, George. “Harry Goes to Hollywood.” London Times (29 June 2000).
Preliminary look at the film based on Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone.
“The Wizard of Hogwarts.” Time (12 April 1999): 86.
Review and discussion of Rowling's beginnings as the author of the “Harry Potter” series.
Treneman, Ann. “Harry and Me.” London Times (30 June 2000).
Interview in which Rowling discusses her writing, characters, and success.
Additional coverage of Rowling's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vol. 34; Children's Literature Review, Vol. 66; Contemporary Authors, Vol. 173; and Something about the Author, Vol. 109.