"Potter and Hilton: At Times, Morality Comes With a Broomstick"
by Robert Lipsyte ("New York Times," August 6, 2000)
|The words that never fail to thrill me in a Harry Potter book are these: "Mount your brooms!" Ah, Quidditch. Faster than basketball, rougher than hockey and trickier than soccer, all of which it resembles, this aerial game also includes elements of baseball and polo. Each of J. K. Rowling's four best-sellers features at least one important contest, be it an intramural match or the International World Cup, and a great deal of skinny little Harry's acceptance at Hogwarts School for Witchcraft and Wizardry is based on his talent for the game. No wonder that Quidditch was "in Harry's opinion, the best sport in the world."
Despite the moralizing monologues of marketers and medievalists (Muggles all) arguing that the books are Christian, anti-Christian, Freudian, Jungian, traditional, New Age, their enormous success is obviously based (as is everything I discuss these days) on Jock Culture.
Jock Culture has charms and curses of its own. Struggling to make choices for his third-year course schedule, "the only thing Harry felt he was really good at was Quidditch." And Professor Snape, once a classmate of Harry's late father of whom he is still jealous, snarls: "A small amount of talent on the Quidditch field made him think he was a cut above the rest of us. Rules were for lesser mortals, not Quidditch Cup winners."
Even in that world, schoolboy sports memories never die. Not even magic can protect you from the resentments, shaming, violence of Jock Culture or promise you its heroism, cooperation and fair play. And Quidditch has all of it.
As most readers of a certain age now know, Quidditch is simple to understand and difficult to play. For starters, you need to fly a broomstick. The game is played way, way above the rim. There are seven to a side, girls and boys together. Each team has a keeper defending its three hoops on 50-foot poles. Three chasers on each team pass the red soccer-ball-sized quaffle back and forth until one puts it through an opposing hoop for 10 points. Meanwhile, the two beaters on each team are batting two lively black balls called bludgers away from their teammates and at their opponents.
The team star is the seeker, gliding and diving after the golden snitch, a tiny hummingbird of a winged ball. Once the snitch is in the seeker's grip, the team gets 150 points and the game is over. It is possible to capture the snitch and still lose, which provides the game's bit of strategy. Harry, of course, is a seeker, his natural talent discovered at 11 in an elementary broomstick class in the first book, "The Sorcerer's Stone."
Quidditch can be as corrupt and political as the Olympics. There are Quidditch hooligans and dirty play. (There are 700 ways of committing a foul, although the last time all 700 were called was in 1473; 'tis an old game.) Harry's arm was broken in "The Chamber of Secrets" by a doctored bludger. Top-of-the-line equipment is essential. Harry moved smartly up from a Cleansweep to a Nimbus 2000 to a Firebolt broomstick in "The Prisoner of Azkaban," and his game improved dramatically.
One might think that in the heart of every Harry Potter book is a Chip Hilton book trying to break out.
Chip Hilton, as readers of a certain age know, is the hero of 23 books written from 1948 to 1966 under the byline of a well-known coach of that era, Clair Bee. Grosset & Dunlap sold more than two million copies of the series before it went out of print, hardly Harry Potter numbers but respectable for books directed at teenage boys, notorious nonreaders.
Last year, Broadman & Holman, a Christian publishing house in Nashville, began reissuing the Hilton books. Bee's daughter and son-in-law, who are high school teachers, have updated some of the language. Valley Falls now has computers and diversity.
But the encapsulated world still exists. For sports-mad boys of 40 and 50 years ago, the Hilton books offered a world as magical as the Potter oeuvre, a world of special rules, languages, rituals, friendships, dangers, fears, in which children grow into adolescents and learn about becoming adults.
Like Harry, Chip is following in the footsteps of an athletic father who died heroically. Chip is being raised by a single mom, who loves him deeply; Harry is sustained, especially in confrontations with the evil You-Know-Who, by the love of his dead parents. And like Harry, who is supported by Ron and Hermione, Chip has devoted pals like Soapy and Biggie. Both boys are famous in their worlds, although Harry is also rich.
The all-wise Valley Falls coach, Henry (Rock) Rockwell, and the all-wise Hogwarts Headmaster, Albus Dumbledore, are both devoted to their students, frequently under attack by bad elements and more concerned with safety and growth than winning. Both would agree with Dumbledore's "It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities." (It should be noted that the new version of "Hoop Crazy" includes a foreword by Bob Knight, an avowed Hilton fan, who as a youngster found in the books "the most meaningful and priceless examples of what is right and fair about life.")
The Potter books are more realistic than the Hilton books regarding parental pressure, fear of failure, mean teachers, hazing and bullying, and suchchildhood hexes as acne, crooked teeth and shyness with the opposite sex. As delicious as the Quidditch scenes are in the Potter books (I dream of scrawny Viktor Krum performing the Wrongski Feint for Bulgaria against Ireland in the World Cup in "The Goblet of Fire"), one goes to the Hilton books for game action, often with diagrams. There is much to learn about athletic training and tactics in both series, but given the dearth of Quidditch fields in America, the Hilton books may be more practical. Then again, their Manichean take on Good and Evil is not always helpful these days.
And herein lies the basic difference, beyond wit, depth and style. The J. K. Rowling character that Chip Hilton most resembles is the handsome, hard-working, loyal and honest Cedric Diggory, a Quidditch star who is so sporting that he shares information with Harry though they are competitors. Cedric is universally loved at Hogwarts. He's the kind of boy who used to get his own series.