The world is full of thoroughly ignorable attacks on the Harry Potter Phenomenon. I’ve skimmed over the words of plenty of self-satisfied critics and columnists who fail to grasp why adults would want to read children’s literature, or, more commonly, simply don’t get fantasy literature at all. In a world with more time I might try to address them; nowadays I don’t even bother to read them.
A.S. Byatt is another creature entirely, though. I deeply admire her novel Possession. She knows from fantasy. And on July 7, she laid into the Harry Potter books and (obliquely) the people who read them. It pains me that a writer so brilliant could be such a poor reader in this case. I know, I’m coming very late to the party, but I’ve got to go after her NYT editorial, “Harry Potter and the Childish Adult.” (You won’t be able to view the full text at the Times, so a better place to look would be here.)
Byatt invokes Freud to peg the Potter books as a “family romance,” where a child fantasizes about a noble origin far away from his or her mundane life. So far, so good, though it’s all downhill from there. Of all people, she should know that you can’t open the Sigmund Box in lit crit for very long without making a fool of yourself:
In psychoanalytic terms, having projected his childish rage onto the caricature Dursleys, and retained his innocent goodness, Harry now experiences that rage as capable of spilling outward, imperiling his friends. But does this mean Harry is growing up? Not really. The perspective is still child’s-eye. There are no insights that reflect someone on the verge of adulthood. Harry’s first date with a female wizard is unbelievably limp, filled with an 8-year-old’s conversational maneuvers.
Rowling pegged age-15 adolescent angst pretty darn well, as far as I’m concerned. Harry’s encounters with Cho are deftly written and incredibly funny, though I can see how you might miss that if you were busy psychoanalyzing at the time.
Next sentence: “Auden and Tolkien wrote about the skills of inventing ‘secondary worlds.'” Well, Tolkien did, anyway, and Auden only wrote about Tolkien writing about it, but that’s a quibble — the main point is that by invoking the term, Byatt has upped her fantasy street cred. It lasts for all of one sentence. Then:
Ms. Rowling’s world is a secondary secondary world, made up of intelligently patchworked derivative motifs from all sorts of children’s literature – from the jolly hockey-sticks school story to Roald Dahl, from “Star Wars” to Diana Wynne Jones and Susan Cooper.
What, exactly, is the difference between Rowling’s “intelligently patchworked motifs” and, say Cooper’s? Or Tolkien’s? Or Lewis’s? Cooper: a potpourri of Celtic mythology, ransacked in order to work in a bunch of modern-day kids. Tolkien: wholesale assimilation of Anglo-Saxon history, and a loving pastiche of rural English life. Lewis: goodness, where to begin? Even Tolkien criticized his grab-bag approach to putting Narnia together, a place where Greek gods and Nordic giants out of mythology shared space with talking beavers.
I love Cooper and Tolkien and Lewis, of course — and I fail to see what makes Rowling’s secondary world such a pale one in comparison to the others. Byatt recognizes a big difference: “The important thing about this particular secondary world is that it is symbiotic with the real modern world.” For her, this is damning. Having owls deliver your messages instead of email is “derivative,” whereas hobbits, presumably, are not. “Ms. Rowling’s magic world has no place for the numinous.”
Ho boy. First of all, creating a fantasy world that parallels and mirrors our own is one of the things that make the Harry Potter books unique — that keep them from being merely derivative of the excellent children’s fantasy that has gone before. I’m sorry that upon first reading of Platform Nine and Three-Quarters, or Diagon Alley, or the Sorting Hat, or of Potions class, or of wands and their threads, that Byatt didn’t feel that twinge, or hear that inner voice that said “yes! Here’s someone who cares as much about her world as she does her characters and her plot — someone who can actually write fantasy!”
But I will give her Quidditch. Never liked it much myself, mainly because, compared to the many other magical analogues to things in the Muggle world, this one seemed sloppy. And 150 freakin’ points for catching the Quaffle — come on! With that much at stake, a smart team would forget about scoring goals and devote all their energy to supporting their Seeker. But I digress.
Not quite having made her case, Byatt devolves into insulting fans of Harry Potter. And not just their bad taste, too — she manages to get in a sidelong dig at their sex lives!
Childhood reading remains potent for most of us. In a recent BBC survey of the top 100 “best reads,” more than a quarter were children’s books. We like to regress. I know that part of the reason I read Tolkien when I’m ill is that there is an almost total absence of sexuality in his world, which is restful.
There’s more. “Ms. Rowling, I think, speaks to an adult generation that hasn’t known, and doesn’t care about, mystery.” She praises LeGuin and Pratchett; by comparison Rowling’s world is “dangerous only because she says it is.” Stop before it’s too late, Ms. Byatt! People may start to think you didn’t actually read chapters 23-25 of Book Five, which are full to the brim with mystery and terror and sharp, sharp writing. Whatever you do, don’t conclude your essay by trying to somehow blame all of this on “the leveling effect of cultural studies.” Oops, too late. OK, well in that case, if you really want to avoid becoming the caricature of a stuffy English critic, whatever you do, don’t end your essay by quoting Keats . . .
Oops, too late.
I’ve barely mentioned in all of this what I actually thought of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix — that’s coming next.