"Wizard vs. Dragon: A Close Contest, but the Fire-Breather Wins"
by Sarah Lyall ("The New York Times", January 29, 2000: Another Look at the Whitbread Prize Harry Potter Controversy)
|LONDON, Jan. 28 - One is a majestic 1,000-year-old epic, translated from the Old English by a Nobel Prize-winning poet and suffused with history, heroism and the sheepish atavistic guilt attached to books you should have read but didn't. The other is a contemporary children's tale about a young wizard who fights the forces of evil while trying to finish his homework, and who seems single-handedly to have introduced the concept of recreational reading to a generation of computer-distracted boys.
When the judges of the Whitbread Prize, one of Britain's premier literary competitions, decided this week to award the book of the year title, worth £21,000, or $34,000, to Seamus Heaney's new translation of "Beowulf" instead of to J. K. Rowling's "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban," they touched off a debate that spilled from their smoke-filled room to the wider reaches of a Britain that enjoys nothing more than a good argument about the relative merits of high and low culture.
"I think the only reason this has caught people's imagination is that it does encapsulate this great debate about popularity versus excellence," said the best-selling writer Robert Harris, one of the Whitbread judges. He was not pleased with the 5-to-4 vote, having been a staunch supporter of "Harry Potter." "This exemplifies the gap between the arbiters of literary taste and the appetite of the public for books," he said.
The biographer Anthony Holden, another judge and the vociferous leader of the victorious Heaney faction, would disagree. " 'Potter' is charming, but I think it's derivative, traditional and not particularly well-written, and to compare it to Heaney is absurd," he said. "If 'Harry Potter' had won the Whitbread book of the year it would have been sending out a signal to the world that Britain is a country that just can't grow up." It is not a new debate, and it is not unique to Britain. But in a country with a proud tradition of high thinking and high art, it is a question that comes up every time people discuss culture here. Does popular art -- a crowd-pleasing sculpture of a shark in a tank by Damien Hirst, say, or an internationally successful movie like "Four Weddings and a Funeral" -- have as much inherent worth as a traditional painting or a dark, beautifully created film that few people will see and fewer still might bother to understand? To Mr. Harris, the dissonance between high and low art is at its worst when it comes to literature. "There's an English snobbishness that began in this country around the time of Virginia Woolf and that has infected the bloodstream like a poison," he said, noting that it was his understanding that the prize, set up 29 years ago by Whitbread & Company, the British beverage maker and pub chain, was supposed to go to the most enjoyable book of the year. "It says that if everyone can understand something it's no good and if only a select few can understand it, then it has literary merit." In recent years, there has been no escaping the phenomenon of Harry Potter, the boy with magical powers who goes off to Hogwarts, a wizards' boarding school where owls deliver the mail, people in paintings wander out of the frame to visit their friends in other paintings and everyone's favorite sport is played on broomsticks. Ms. Rowling's first three Harry Potter books have so enraptured children, and their parents, that they are now published in 33 countries, with worldwide sales of some 27.5 million copies. They hold the top three spots on the best-seller list of The New York Times.
"Beowulf" is hardly as popular, but it has more than held its own. The story of a warrior-prince who heroically slays a horrible monster, the monster's horrible mother and then a hideous dragon, it was written by an unknown poet between the middle of the 7th century and the end of the 10th. Seamus Heaney's lush, thrilling translation, commissioned by W. W. Norton for inclusion in the latest edition of the Norton Anthology of English Literature, became a surprise best seller in Britain. There are now 75,000 copies in print here, a staggering number for a poetry book.
When the book was published, reviewers showered it and its author, widely considered to be the greatest living English-speaking poet, with praise of the highest order. "Seamus Heaney, like the Nordic hero himself, was clearly 'in fighting mood, awake and on edge, spoiling for action' as he wrote for his new translation," said Rachel Campbell-Johnson in The Times of London, quoting from the poem. "He tears back the thickets of scholarship which have bound this cornerstone of English literary tradition and frees a living voice from the snares of pedantry." When it came time for the Whitbread Prize, then, it was almost inevitable that both Mr. Heaney and Ms. Rowling would make it to the short list. The Whitbread is a strange sort of prize, in which first-round winners of five different categories are pitted against one another in the final competition for book of the year, as terriers might compete against hounds for best of show in a dog show.
The judges' meeting was rancorous almost from the start, with Mr. Holden leading a Heaney contingent that also included the model Jerry Hall, and Mr. Harris and the humor writer Nigel Williams firmly in the Harry Potter camp.
Insults were freely traded -- at one point, Mr. Harris called Mr. Holden's attitude pompous and someone denounced "Beowulf" as "a boring book about dragons" -- as the discussion became more heated. Surprised by the sharp tone of what was meant to be a collegial meeting, the judges nervously lighted cigarettes and when the Champagne materialized began swigging from the bottle.
News of the dispute filtered out quickly, even though the judges had promised not to tell anyone what they said. Commenting on television (in Britain, top literary awards are televised and discussed by panels of celebrities, much the way sports might be televised and discussed by panels of athletes), David Baddiel, a comic writer, called Mr. Holden a "pompous prat." Meanwhile, London's literary editors were sharpening their pencils.
"Heaney's feat in turning 'Beowulf' into a compelling and poignant poem in our living language is certainly the equal of any supposedly original work," wrote David Sexton, the literary editor of The Evening Standard. "The best book won, fair and square." Erica Wagner, the literary editor of The Times of London, said in an interview that the point of the prize was to celebrate great literature, not record-breaking sales. "In my opinion, 'Beowulf' is a towering work of literature," she said.
For its part, the aggressively populist Daily Mail conducted a survey of well-known literary figures, asking whether they had ever read "Beowulf" and whether they knew how it ended. Many said they hadn't, and didn't.
"It always seemed very boring and not the sort of book I've ever had the desire to pull off the shelf," said Alain de Botton, the author of "How Proust Can Change Your Life," among other things.
Mr. Holden remains unbowed. "If I'm a pompous prat for saying that Seamus Heaney's 'Beowulf' is greater literature than Harry Potter," he said, "then I'm proud to be a pompous prat."