"The Reality of the Fantasy in the Harry Potter Stories"
by RICHARD BERNSTEIN ("The New York Times", November 30, 1999)
It was a quarter of a century ago that Bruno Bettelheim, the child psychologist, accounted for what may be the most impressive and otherwise mysterious publishing phenomenon of the season: the fact that the Harry Potter mysteries by the previously unknown J. K. Rowling are turning out to be among the best-selling books in history.
In his classic study of children's literature, "The Uses of Enchantment," Bettelheim denigrated most children's books as mere entertainments, lacking in psychological meaning. The great exception to this rule was fairy tales, to which Bettelheim attributed something close to magical power. "More can be learned from them about the inner problems of human beings," he wrote, "and of the right solutions to their predicaments in any society than from any other type of story within a child's comprehension."
That was quite a statement at the time, applied as it was to a form of literature that depicted fantastical worlds, seemed unnecessarily scary, depended on unrealistically happy endings and had very little claim on high literary culture.
But Bettelheim's main idea was that children live with greater terrors than most adults can understand, and fairy tales both give uncanny expression to that terror and show a way to a better future. The same can be said of the Harry Potter books, and that could well be the reason why the three published so far occupy the first, second and third places on the New York Times hardcover fiction best-seller list, something that no other author in living memory has achieved before.
Ms. Rowling's books are not fairy tales in the conventional Grimm Brothers sense, and they are not as good either. They lack the primal, brutal terror of the Grimm stories, and it was the expression given to that terror that was at the heart of their emotional usefulness for Bettelheim. The Harry Potter stories are light, modern tales, Indiana Jones-like fantasies for children.
When I began to read them, having heard how great they were from my several addicted nephews, it was hard for me to understand what all the sensation was about. Conservative Christians have criticized the Harry Potter books, saying they lead their young readers in the direction of paganism. For me the problem was that Ms. Rowling's world of sorcerers, gravity-defying broomsticks, spells, potions, unicorns and centaurs, goblins, trolls, three-headed dogs and other monstrous and magical creations seemed so divorced from any reality as to kill off the narrative excitement.
But whereas adults see in Harry Potter a fairly conventional supernatural adventure story -- one not nearly as brilliant or literary as, say, "The Hobbit" or the "Alice in Wonderland" books -- something more fundamental evidently reverberates in the minds of children, something as powerful as the witch of "Hansel and Gretel." And read from this point of view, the Harry Potter books do indeed contain many of the elements that Bettelheim identified in the Grimm tales. Ms. Rowling's success in this sense may show the continued power of the form and the archetypes that those long-ago Germans perfected.
The key here is, not surprisingly, the hero, Harry himself, who is 10 years old in Ms. Rowling's first book. One of the first things we learn about him is that his parents died when he was an infant; he is being raised by an aunt and uncle who are dumb, stiff and uncomprehending and who treat him with stingy cruelty. Following Bettelheim's model, this would be very similar to the archetype of the evil stepmother as a representative of the "bad" parent who frighteningly and uncontrollably replaces the "good" parent. What children see at the outset in the Harry Potter books is a lonely boy being raised by evil people, and all parents seem evil to their children at least some of the time.
Unknown to Harry is that his real mother and father, who died when he was a baby, were important sorcerers who were killed by a certain Voldemort, the evil genius of this story, who has been trying to seize power for eons. Here Ms. Rowling's adventure takes on a primal quality that links it with many classic tales, from "Great Expectations" to "Star Wars": there are a family secret and a family struggle passed down from one generation to another, and a lot of meaning comes when the true nature of that struggle is revealed.
What is important in the fairy tale scheme is that Harry's situation contains many of the inchoate fears of childhood, not just the parental abandonment fear. Harry is skinny and weak and wears glasses patched together with tape, and in this sense he seems to stand in for the vulnerability, the powerlessness that children feel. He lives in a cupboard under the stairs, since his spoiled cousin has both of the children's bedrooms upstairs, so in a sense he is expelled, like Hansel and Gretel, even from the evil home he has.
Most conspicuously, Harry is picked on by his cousin, Dudley, the son of Harry's guardians, who treat Dudley with blatant favoritism. There could hardly be a stronger echo of another common fairy tale theme, exemplified by Cinderella's evil stepsisters.
To Bettelheim the conflict between Cinderella and her stepsisters represents the intense sibling rivalries that children feel and the fears that these rivalries give rise to. Fairy tales, with their eventual happy endings, point a way out for the child who otherwise, Bettelheim said, has no hope "that he will be rescued, that those who he is convinced despise him and have power over him will come to recognize his superiority."
In the early stages of Harry's story the disadvantages he feels are partly recapitulated outside his home. After he learns that he is somebody, the son of famous sorcerers, Harry goes off to Hogwart's School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. There he discovers that other students all seem to know more than he does, that they are insiders while he is the quintessential outsider.
One boy in particular is the head of a small gang that picks on him. A teacher seems intensely and for no reason to dislike him. But gradually Harry emerges as an independent figure whose talents and skills are widely recognized. The rest of Ms. Rowling's first volume shows Harry assuming his true identity, gaining the courage to overcome obstacles and winning a battle against the adversaries of his ancestors.
Harry's story, in other words, with its early images of alienation, rejection, loneliness and powerlessness leading to its classically fairy tale ending, contains the same basic message that Bettelheim described in "The Uses of Enchantment." It is "that a struggle against severe difficulties in life is unavoidable, is an intrinsic part of human existence -- but that if one does not shy away, but steadfastly meets unexpected and often unjust hardships, one masters all obstacles and at the end emerges victorious."
"Morality is not the issue in these tales," Bettelheim said, "but rather, assurance that one can succeed." Such assurance comes in ways that adults often do not understand, but Ms. Rowling's Harry Potter seems to provide it.