–Ron Weasley, Chapter One: “Owl Post”, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
I’ve had Harry Potter on the brain, just like every other bookish geek in the universe. My sister has her copy of The Half-Blood Prince ordered, and since we share our HP books (it’s cheaper that way), I’m going to be re-reading The Order of the Phoenix in the meantime. Mags at Tilneys and Trapdoors posted about taking flak for being an adult fan of Harry Potter (some douchebag wrote an op-ed calling HP “simplistic fairy tales”). I commented
Whether the Harry Potter books are Great Literature is a matter of debate that only time will settle, but they’re damn good. And clearly Mr. Stein knows nothing about fairy tales beyond Disney movies. Fairy tales are complex, enigmatic, and dark, full of archetypes and surrealism. They aren’t simple. They’re a culture’s subconcious dreaming, and every society has them.
The tendency to dismiss Harry Potter as “kid’s stuff” and criticize adult fans of it is just part of a larger trend of disparaging fantasy. Residual effects of the Enlightenment and all that Cartesian rationalism, I guess, combined with our dour Puritan heritage. Fantasy isn’t “serious.” It’s escapism, childish, wishful-thinking, immature. Adults who read fantasy, who take it as real art, are seen as foolish. You might as well still believe in Santa Claus and the tooth fairy. Genre fiction is always the bastard child of the literary world, especially fantasy, never mind the fact that some of the classics are fantasy to the bone. Alice in Wonderland, anyone? Animal Farm? The Divine Comedy? How about the Iliad and the Oddessy? I was at The Dan Brown Wholesale Warehouse the other day, also known as the mall bookstore, they had Ray Bradbury shelved in both Science Fiction and Literature. Fahrenheit 451 is Literature; The Martian Chronicles is Sci-Fi. It can’t be literature if it involves aliens. The Lord of the Rings is the only fantasy that’s taken seriously by the mainstream, and only because the movies were a success. The fact that it’s written by an Oxford don (as opposed to a single mom on welfare) helps quite a bit I imagine. Not to mention the fact that it’s about That Big Important Manly Subject, Warfare. Massive amounts of violence are always an indication of Serious Art. We just kind of over look the bloated length, meandering plot, over-wrought prose, and data-dumps of arcane minutiae (and I’m a fan of the books).
Fairy tales are even further marginalized. Most people are only familiar with bowlderized Disney versions and the sexist appropriations by male writers like Charles Perrault and the Grimm brothers. The older versions more often resemble horror movies than Victorian morality lessons. And they’re traditionally the province of women, told and retold by illiterate poor and working class women maintaining an oral tradition. I first heard them that way; my parents never read to me as a child, that I can remember. My mother would send me to sleep by playing a cassette tape of a woman reading the classic stories. I don’t think she ever actually listened to that tape, because if she had she wouldn’t have let her nightmare-prone daughter near it. I fell asleep listening to the evil stepmother in Snow White dance herself to death in red-hot iron shoes, to the prince in Rapunzel having his eyes pierced with thorns, the step-sisters in Cinderella cutting off their toes and heels, Rumpelstiltskin tearing himself in two in a fit of rage. There’s a whole obscure field of modern writers who do wierd and wonderful things with fairy tales, exploring everything your A-List Boring Author of Serious Fiction writes about, but nobody really pays any attention.
Which is why I love the fact that everybody pays attention to Harry Potter, even those who hate or fear it (and what else is fundamentalist condemnation of the books but a display of pure fear). I love the media circus, the internet sub-culture of gossip and speculation and fan-fiction, and even, dare I say it, the merchandizing. Since when does the front page of a newspaper report on the publication of the next installment of a kid’s fantasy series? I love the communal feeling of reading the series. Reading is such an isolated, individual experience, most of the time. But here it’s a cultural day-dream that everybody can participate in, from kids too young for the books to elderly folks. The excitement and anticipation is infectious. It makes me think of Dickens serializing The Old Curiosity Shop. People would swarm the docks of New York City when they shipped in the British magazine with its monthly installment, desperate to find out if Little Nell dies in this issue. The nay-sayers are missing the point. My beloved A.S. Byatt wrote an op-ed a few years ago lamenting that everybody was reading J. K. Rowling instead of the arguably superior Diana Wynne Jones. But if J.K. Rowling isn’t a great writer (and I think she is), so what? The kids reading Harry Potter today will get to Diana Wynne Jones eventually. They’ll find their way to C.S. Lewis, and Lewis Carroll, and Lloyd Alexander, Roald Dahl and Patricia McKillip on their own, once Harry has hooked them on the addiction of reading. I spent most of my childhood and pre-pubescent days reading Marguerite Henry and The Baby-Sitters Club, and it didn’t melt my brain. Most people don’t start off reading Austen and Tolstoy; you got to find your way there on your own.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to get back to Harry and Co.