Harry Potter


"Besotted With Potter"

a critical essay by William Safire ("The New York Times", January 27, 2000)

With the help of a tall blond model from Texas, the British have just upheld the side of adult culture in the English-speaking world.
They resisted the pressure to award a top literary prize to J. K. Rowling for her superselling series of Harry Potter books. Instead, the top honor again went to the Irish poet Seamus Heaney, this time for his translation of the Anglo-Saxon epic "Beowulf."

That was a relief. With the orphan wizard dominating best-seller lists, the Harry Potter phenomenon needs a little perspective.

These are children's books. Their glory is that their hero's magical charm has captivated a world of kids, inculcating the reading habit in pre-teens who otherwise would be seduced into interactive games of mayhem. Getting children to read is no small blessing, and Rowling has provided them with a key to literacy.

These are not, however, books for adults. Unlike "Huckleberry Finn" or "Alice in Wonderland," the Potter series is not written on two levels, entertaining one generation while instructing another. Rather, it is in the category of Tom Swift and Dr. Dolittle; I was hooked on reading by them, but have laid aside my electric rifle and no longer talk to horses.

The trouble is not that children are being lured into belief in witchcraft, as some tut-tutting clerics complain; Western civilization has survived Merlin's magic in the tales of King Arthur. Nor will poor children be corrupted by tales of life in upper-middle-class English boarding schools.

The trouble is that grown-ups are buying these books ostensibly to read to kids, but actually to read for themselves. As Philip Hensher warns in the Independent newspaper, this leads to "the infantilization of adult culture, the loss of a sense of what a classic really is."

Scholarly tomes will be written about the underlying motifs of the Potter series, justifying its adult readership. Steven Spielberg will slip a little social significance into his movie treatment, further furrowing academic brows. But this is not just dumbing down; it is growing down. The purpose of reading, once you get the hang of it, is not merely to follow the action of a plot, but to learn about characters, explore different ideas and enter other minds.

"Huckleberry Finn" is a classic because it used the device of a boy's coming of age to illuminate a nation's painful transformation. When Lewis Carroll took us through the looking glass, he dealt with madness and injustice in this world by mocking a parallel world. Critics delight in annotating the allusions in such books.

Not in "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone." That's the one I read, noting its nice deployment of the standard tricks. I also enjoy short films, featuring anthropomorphic porcine cartoon characters, that end with "Th-th-th-that's all, folks!" But prizeworthy culture it ain't; more than a little is a waste of adult time.

That's why my hat is off to Jerry Hall, the intelligent Texan and mother of four, divorced from Mick Jagger, who still sort of lives with her. She is reported to have cast the swing vote on the judging panel for Seamus Heaney. That Nobel laureate accepted the $35,000 prize with a line from "Beowulf," "Fate go ever, as fate must" (a somewhat fatalistic response). The Guardian headline: "Heaney pips Harry Potter."

It's about time Potter was pipped (narrowly defeated). His creator, Ms. Rowling, deserved the lesser award she received for best children's book. But let us not exalt Potter, either, as a cultural icon. Adults make a part of their lives only the works that have meaning.

Remember Dorothy in her transforming ruby slippers in "The Wizard of Oz"? Frank Baum's book, cemented into our culture by the 1939 Victor Fleming movie starring Judy Garland, was a children's fantasy, complete with a Wicked Witch of the West, but dealt deftly with heartlessness, mindlessness and cowardice.

Its symbols became part of our culture. Munchkins presume to advise candidates following the yellow brick road to power, and behind the curtain we discover that the fearsome wizard of bombast is only a frightened Frank Morgan. For adults, Harry Potter may reign over the best-seller lists, but he has yet to heave his philosopher's stone over the rainbow.


"The magic of Harry Potter, for All"

("The New York Times", January 27, 2000: Readers React to Safire's Essay)

To the Editor:

After my 8-year-old pored through the three Harry Potter books, I read them myself. In a world where life is filled with analyzing, testing, scores and figuring, it is wonderful to be reminded of another part of ourselves. Adults and children alike are hungry for magic, synchronicity, serendipity, appreciation for the unusual and creativity.

Yes, William Safire ("Besotted With Potter," column, Jan. 27) is correct that Harry Potter has yet to "heave his philosopher's stone over the rainbow," but equally important, he has reminded us that there is a rainbow and that it is up to us to appreciate and embrace it.

JANET RUDOLPH Woodmere, N.Y., Jan. 27, 2000

To the Editor:

I'm an aging boomer working my way through the third Harry Potter installment and loving it. Lest William Safire worry about my infantilization (column, Jan. 27), I should point out that over my book-loving lifetime I've also worked my way through "Winnie the Pooh," "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," "Alice in Wonderland," "The Wind in the Willows," "Vanity Fair," "Catch-22," "Ulysses" and even Seamus Heaney, whom I first became acquainted with almost 30 years ago while living in Ireland. He's a great poet, but I don't understand why his winning another award should be an occasion to belittle the accomplishments of J. K. Rowling or the pleasure her works bring to children and adults around the world.

MARY-ELLEN BANASHEK New York, Jan. 27, 2000

To the Editor:

It is regrettable that in discussing a British book competition, William Safire (column, Jan. 27) referred to the Harry Potter series as deserving "a lesser award" than an adult book. But children's literature is not in competition with adult literature, and its authors generally do not aim to produce cross-over books for all ages.

Children's literature is important. It is today's young readers who will become tomorrow's adult readers and thinkers. There is nothing "lesser" about children or the books they are inspired to read.

NANCY SMILER LEVINSON Beverly Hills, Calif., Jan. 27, 2000

To the Editor:

Thanks to William Safire (column, Jan. 27) for relegating the Harry Potter books to the realm of junk-food literature, where they belong. Readers who want more substance in character and plot of fantasy novels are advised to turn to the underrated novelist Diana Wynne Jones.