When Harry Met Enid

by Dan H

In which Dan dismisses Harry Potter as a jolly hockey-sticks boarding school romp.
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My childhood was almost embarrassingly suburban. We lived in a semi-detached house with privet hedges. I spent my evenings doing my homework, watching Children's BBC or reading. To fully round out the picture of cosy BBC normalcy, I should add that my preferred reading material, as a child, was a mixture of Roald Dahl and Enid Blyton.

I always preferred Dahl. His stories were strange, macabre, often surreal. His worlds were familiar yet peculiar, whimsical and disturbing. They were nice places to visit, but you most certainly wouldn't want to live there. It is perhaps interesting to note that, Great Glass Elevator aside, Dahl never went back to his worlds once the book had finished. His stories were self contained, they began at the beginning, and stopped at the end.

Blyton, of course, created a very different world. Teams of children with solid dependable names like Dick and Anne had very proper adventures while drinking lashings and lashings of ginger beer. Unlike Dahl, Blyton did write long-running series, the St Clare's and Malory Towers books followed the same cast of characters through their stint at boarding school, and of course the Famous Five and Secret Seven had endless adventures. Unlike Dahl, Blyton's world was ultimately a safe place, and gender aside I would have been quite happy to spend a summer term at St Clare's. I was and still am guiltily fond of Enid Blyton's 1950s utopia: it's nice sometimes to forget about the troubles of the real world, and escape to one where hardened criminals get their comeuppance at the hands of a gang of plucky twelve year olds.

A lot of people (JK Rowling first amongst them) like to talk about how much more there is to Harry Potter than to other children's books. They talk about the real danger that Harry faces, about how terribly, terribly dark Rowling's world is, and about how it's all very serious and mature. One Times reviewer, comparing Potter to the Worst Witch series writes:
But though Mildred, the Worst Witch, like Harry Potter, gets into scrapes with bullies and teachers, there is never a twinge of real terror in Murphy's imaginary world. Harry Potter experiences not only the ordinary trials and triumphs of the boarding-school genre, but repeated attempts to murder him.

This critic, I think, misses two important points. Firstly, while I admit that my memory of The Worst Witch is a little hazy, I am fairly certain that there actually is a villain in TWW who actually does have a plan to kill everybody in the school. Secondly, the repeated attempts to "murder" Harry are carried out by the most ineffectual, bungling, non-threatening group of incompetents ever to grace the pages of a children's book. Harry Potter's encounters with the Death Eaters are no more frightening than the Secret Seven's frequent run-ins with thieves and smugglers, and they represent no greater physical danger.

Now, I don't think this is a weakness in itself. When Harry and Ron confront the troll in Philosopher's Stone it's a genuinely exciting scene. We understand that Harry and Ron are willing to risk their lives for their friend thereby displaying the cardinal virtues of Courage and Friendship and Pluckyness. This scene is in no way marred by the fact that I do not on a rational level actually expect Harry, Ron, or Hermione to be killed. However, I do not think that the troll-fighting scene involves any more danger or sacrifice, or has any greater merit than (for example) the bit in The Naughtiest Girl in the School where Elizabeth risks detention in order to buy a birthday present for her less wealthy best friend. Both sequences involve the protagonist choosing to place themselves in danger (either physical danger in the case of Harry, or social danger in the case of the Naughtiest Girl) in order to help a friend. It doesn't matter whether the risk is of death or of detention, the point is the decision that the character makes, and the consequences that follow from it.

Thinking about it, it's this fixation on the physical events of the series (Harry Gets Attacked, Harry Goes Into The Dark Forest, Harry Fights Death Eaters), rather than the narrative points behind those events, which is responsible for most of the utter tosh that gets written about Harry Potter. The fans say "Harry Potter is placed in real, physical danger, this means that the Harry Potter series is Dark and therefore Good" the detractors say "Harry Potter is not placed in real, physical danger, this means that the Harry Potter series is Not Really Dark and therefore Not Really Good." Both of these groups of people completely miss the point. Harry Potter is a children's series about the importance of friendship and courage. Whether it chooses to illustrate those points with midnight feasts and ginger beer or with trolls and dragons and the occasional deaths of significant characters is completely beside the point. It is what it is, a children's adventure story set in a boarding school, with some wizards in it.

And that should be the end of it, and it would have been had something peculiar not happened to the series around about book four.

Harry Potter books 1-3 are excellent children's books. They combine exciting adventure with boarding school cosiness to produce thoroughly engaging stories about wizards and magic and the importance of friendship and courage. Books four to six (and I strongly suspect book seven will follow suit) are sub-par fantasy about Wizards and Magic.

Normally, this wouldn't annoy me as much as it does. It'd be a shame, but I'd cope. However I actually think that the course taken by the Potter books has actually had a detrimental effect on Children's Fiction as a whole.

It is absolutely right and correct to say that books for children are in no way inferior to books for adults. It is absolutely true that children are capable of dealing with issues far more complicated than adults give them credit for. Unfortunately this leads some people to the conclusion that there should be literally no difference between children's books and books for adults or, worse, that the merits of a children's book should be weighed according to how similar it is to a book for adults.

So many of the things which the later Harry Potter books are praised for the richness of the world, the complexity of the overarching plot are attributes which belong to adult, not children's fiction. That is not to say that children's fiction cannot be complex, but that its complexities should lie in areas other than the intricacies of the backplot and the precise functioning of Horcruxes.

To put it another way: Snape in the first book is complex in precisely the right way for a children's book. We start out thinking that he is Bad, but it turns out that he is Good. This is a nice twist, and children are smart enough to appreciate the moral complexity of it. Snape is horrible, but he is a good person. Snape in the later books is "complex" in precisely the wrong way for a children's book. He is a tangle of conflicting motivations, which may or may not actually make very much sense. He's probably going to wind up having been in love with Lily Potter, and blame himself for her death and blah blah blah.

Now I'm not saying that children are incapable of understanding characters with complex motivations. I'm saying that children won't gain anything by being asked to understand characters with complex motivations (particularly when said motivations are spurious and rather cliched). When you hear children talk about the Potter books, they always talk about how much they love the wizards and the broomsticks, you hear remarkably few people saying "well I'm really interested in the formative childhood experiences of Severus Snape."

Just look at the great classics of children's literature (particularly fantastic children's literature). We aren't asked to analyse the motivations of the Mock Turtle, or wonder whether the Queen of Hearts is really as bad as she seems. Nobody expects us to be interested in the political climate of Oz (well ... Gregory Maguire does). Children's books shouldn't be preoccupied with the same petty minutiae which fill up so much adult literature (particularly fantasy literature). In pandering to the fans' desire to speculate about the inner workings of her magical world (guess what folks, it doesn't have any, it's completely nonsensical) Rowling is breeding a generation of "book lovers" accustomed to the worst excesses of the fantasy genre.

Dahl, Carroll, Baum and the others may not have had the "moral" heart of the Harry Potter books (at least, that's Miss Rowling's analysis), but they had an imagination which far exceeds the few simple ideas which JK spins out over the Potter series. They may not have had long running plots, or complex character arcs (like the "Lupin shacks up with Tonks" arc or the "Harry goes out with Ginny for all of five minutes" arc), but for pity's sake children get enough of that sort of thing watching Eastenders.

JK Rowling is raising a generation of children to value world above plot, plot above meaning, and volume of written material above everything.
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Comments (go to latest)
Rami at 14:07 on 2006-12-20
I don't read Harry Potter, but I agree with your points about Children's Fiction As A Whole - it *shouldn't* just be adult fiction with shorter words and more colorful packaging!
Wardog at 13:04 on 2007-01-01
And Harry Potter, of course, has its range of "adult" covers, as if to further distance itself from the rest of children's fiction. As I shall surely write in an article of my very own, JK seems to be no longer writing books for children, she's writing books for Harry Potter fans which is actually a completely different thing.
TheMerryMustelid at 17:59 on 2012-04-21
"Snape He's probably going to wind up having been in love with Lily Potter, and blame himself for her death and blah blah blah..."

Wow! You're a prophetic genius! How _do_ you do that? ;)

You hate JK Rowling as much as I hate Dan Brown. Let's get together and do coffee! :) Though I actually enjoyed the Potter series *ducks* I recognize it for the big magic soap opera it is. I have no illusions that it's great literature, but I think fellow fantasy writers like Terry Pratchett are just a _mite_ jealous that she captured the youth market before they did.

Whatever you may think of Rowling, you gotta give her credit for getting young kids around the world excited about reading. That's no small feat. Sorry if the visual image of a 5 year old hugging the latest Harry Potter tome to their elated breast gives you the vapors, but I find it inspiring. :P
Dan H at 22:32 on 2012-04-21
Whatever you may think of Rowling, you gotta give her credit for getting young kids around the world excited about reading.


Obviously getting kids to read is good, but I'm genuinely not convinced JKR actually increased the amount of books read by children - I strongly suspect that the sorts of kids who read Harry Potter are the sorts of kids who would have been reading anyway. I think the anecdotal evidence gets skewed here in the sense that for kids-who-read, there is likely to be a particular author who you remember as being the author who got you into reading (for me it was Dahl with a side order of Pratchett) and while I think there's a generation of kids for whom that author was Rowling, I don't think that's quite the same as Rowling getting kids to read. It's like the Yoko Factor in reverse, the kids got themselves to read, Rowling was just there at the time.
Arthur B at 00:31 on 2012-04-22
Plus: getting lots of kids to read is benign enough. Getting lots of kids to all read the same stuff brings me out in chills.

As a young person the most valuable books I read were the ones which were strictly speaking not actually intended for people my age.
Sister Magpie at 06:03 on 2012-04-22
I could swear I remember reading some actual research about this idea with HP. The basic result was, unsurprisingly, that while HP did certainly get kids interested in reading those books (just as Star Wars got kids interested in seeing Star Wars), the number of readers (meaning kids who read for pleasure) was basically the same.

So essentially the same idea--there are now a lot of adult readers whose first amazing books were HP, but the generation that were kids when HP came out don't have a higher percentage of readers as a result.
James D at 06:56 on 2012-04-22
Man, that's kind of depressing. There must also be kids out there whose 'first amazing books' were the Twilight series.
Yeah, some kids are just readers. They'll read whatever's in front of them, whether it's Harry Potter or the cereal box. Kids who don't like to read because reading is hard or boring will just wait to see the movies, as always.

I'm honestly impressed with Rowling for tapping exactly the right cultural vein at the right time. I mean, the woman literally wrote books that managed to appeal to *every kind of person everywhere*. Even people who hated the books enjoyed hating them, and often for very different reasons. She tried to give everyone everything and failed spectacularly, but she did manage to give everyone something. And she did it just by being herself and writing the kind of books she would want to read.
TheMerryMustelid at 16:22 on 2012-04-22
I'd like to see those statistics about how the number of kids reading Potter were "reading kids" anyway. I'm writing from the states and let me tell you, seeing American kids under 7 years old _pack_ bookstores (and I'm talking the big chains here) just to read a story was a new phenomena to me. Kids that young usually are not into reading as a rule.
Arthur B at 16:25 on 2012-04-22
I'd like to see those statistics about how the number of kids reading Potter were "reading kids" anyway. I'm writing from the states and let me tell you, seeing American kids under 7 years old _pack_ bookstores (and I'm talking the big chains here) just to read a story was a new phenomena to me. Kids that young usually are not into reading as a rule.

Were they packing the bookstores year-round or just around the Potter release dates? Because if it's the latter, that might just be a side effect of them all being keen to read the same books by the same author rather than being particularly more keen to read than their forebears.
TheMerryMustelid at 16:28 on 2012-04-22
James D:
Man, that's kind of depressing. There must also be kids out there whose 'first amazing books' were the Twilight series.


I see what you did there. :P

God, that would be even more depressing, wouldn't it?

Sister Magpie at 17:17 on 2012-04-22
Were they packing the bookstores year-round or just around the Potter release dates? Because if it's the latter, that might just be a side effect of them all being keen to read the same books by the same author rather than being particularly more keen to read than their forebears.



I don't have the actual statistics, but the upshot of what I read was the opposite. It wasn't that the books were read by kids who were readers anyway. They were also read by non-readers because they were a huge thing everyone wanted to read. But they didn't get kids interested in reading so much as interested in Harry Potter. So it didn't create readers, it created HP fans who read that.

Though in my experience having worked at a kids' bookstore there are plenty of kids who would pack a bookstore to hear a story. There just aren't huge events where a specific book coming out brings in the crowd all at once--which of course was true for adult readers with HP too.
I think if the goal was to get kids to start reading Harry Potter and then graduate them to actual good books, it didn't work. There are kids who read Harry Potter and nothing else, which doesn't quite make them "readers."
http://roisindubh211.livejournal.com/ at 20:09 on 2012-04-22
I have no illusions that it's great literature, but I think fellow fantasy writers like Terry Pratchett are just a _mite_ jealous that she captured the youth market before they did.


That was never the problem- Pratchett, at least, was annoyed at the way she was presented in the news as if she was the first person ever to put MAGIC in books for CHILDREN, etc, in pieces obviously written by people who do not read fantasy (and yet think they know what's what in the genre).
The main problem with Harry Potter isn't that the books stop being "children's books" halfway though. "These books are no longer for children" is a statement that implies something that is nor positive, nor negative.

The problem is that in the later books, "childlike" elements inherited from earlier ones uncomfortably mesh with the new "adult stuff". I'd argue that in HBP and DH this is particularly noticeable, though two previous books suffer from that as well. As a result, both the series and every particular post-PoA book taken in itself have a hard time realizing who the hell is their primary audience. That results in a lot of dissonant Mood Whiplashes, aborted storylines and themes as the narrative merrily goes from "childlike" to "adult" and back again, and inconsistent characterization.
TheMerryMustelid at 21:19 on 2012-04-22
TheMerryMustelid:
I have no illusions that it's great literature, but I think fellow fantasy writers like Terry Pratchett are just a _mite_ jealous that she captured the youth market before they did.

http://roisindubh211.livejournal.com/
That was never the problem- Pratchett, at least, was annoyed at the way she was presented in the news as if she was the first person ever to put MAGIC in books for CHILDREN, etc, in pieces obviously written by people who do not read fantasy (and yet think they know what's what in the genre).

Didn't Pratchett also take Rowling to task for effectively saying her books weren't fantasy? Like she was trying to distance her series from the "taint" of the genre or something. If she did say something as bone-headed as that, I don't blame him for jumping down her throat.

I love Pratchett and am happy to see him finally getting a wider audience in the States. For many years it seemed he was almost the American fantasy geek's best kept secret. I used to sneer at Terry Brooks readers while I clutched the latest then-hard-to-find Pratchett tome. But that was way back and Pratchett has had good american distribution for at least a decade now.

Ogg is my Co-pilot. :D

To get back on topic, if it's statistically true that Rowling didn't inspire more kids to read beyond her series, that is too bad, but is it necessarily her fault? One of my little pet theories is that fantasy in general has benefitted from the Harry Potter frenzy, because during the waits between Potter books & after the series ended, readers needed something to fill the void. So in effect, Rowling did help other fantasy writers by making fantasy more popular than ever before, even mainstream.
Sister Magpie at 00:04 on 2012-04-23
I don't think anybody would say it was her fault. It came up, I think, because there were a lot of people crediting her with single-handedly boosting literacy rates etc. That idea has gotten repeated a lot, so it just gets corrected. Blaming her for not performing that feat is like blaming her for not actually being able to fly a broomstick--I don't think anybody could do it!
Dan H at 09:37 on 2012-04-23
The main problem with Harry Potter isn't that the books stop being "children's
books" halfway though. "These books are no longer for children" is a statement
that implies something that is nor positive, nor negative.


I think I disagree, but only margainally. I think "these books are no longer for children" does in fact imply something negative, simply because it implies - well - all of the stuff you mention later.

The reason I would suggest that it was bad for a series of children's books to become a series of books for adults is simply that it is inevitable that the "for kids" stuff doesn't fit with the "for adults" stuff. Part of the problem here is that people seem to forget that you can have a dark, serious story in which bad things happen to people which is still fundamentally a children's story, or a lighthearted wacky romp which is still for grownups.

Rowling's error - essentially - was that she mistakenly believed that the only way to engage with the "serious" themes she wanted to engage with in her children's stories was for her to stop writing children's books.
I agree that JKR's OMGADULT!change was always going to have some problems, but I also think that she could've done more to alleviate the problem of thematic discordance. She didn't seem to be aware that she has a problem that needs fixing at all.

Frank at 17:04 on 2012-04-23
I, too, recall reading that HP did not increase readers. My understanding is that the series may have increased literacy within age groups. Increasing one's ability to read books does not necessarily make one a reader of books.
I agree that after about book three Rowling was no longer clear which market she was targeting, and it didn't matter because she was solidly hitting all of them. I can imagine her and her publishers having their minds blown by their success and wanting more of it, without really being sure what was working and shouldn't be changed and where they had room to let her go crazy and do what she liked. There may not have been a conscious choice to turn the books "adult," but an organic growth in that direction, which no editor ever bothered to sit down and take a good look at and realize just how fucked up it was.

Basically, I think Rowling was a decently talented newbie who was deeply injured by her early success, and it'll be interesting to see whether she ever recovers from it as a writer.
She didn't seem to be aware that she has a problem that needs fixing at all.

I think closer to the end, her only thought was "finish these fucking books so I can get the fuck on with my life." It's probably more that she simply didn't care what she wrote anymore as long as she got words on paper, and her editors cared even less.
http://scipiosmith.livejournal.com/ at 20:06 on 2012-04-23
She didn't seem to be aware that she has a problem that needs fixing at all.


Given that her next book seems to be a satire on the State of the Nation, I'd say she does at least realise that a work primarily for adults will allow her more room to engage with the ideas she wants to in the manner which she would like. As Dan and others have noted, the social commentary in HP was hampered by the fact that it was ultimately a story about the Chosen One defeating the Dark Lord.
I think that Scipio is correct here. To make her later books truly "grow" and be consistent at least in themselves (even if we disregard the earlier ones), JKR needed her books to change from "ultimately a story about the Chosen One defeating the Dark Lord". But while some fanfiction writers could do that (with varying degrees of success), Rowling, understandably, couldn't afford it.

That's why GoF and OotP weren't as bad as DH. In then, JKR could allow herself to deviate a little. HBP, IMO, is just plain badly written.

"I'd say she does at least realise that a work primarily for adults will allow her more room to engage with the ideas she wants to in the manner which she would like"

To be fair, sometimes fantasy can be a good vessel for real-world commentary. But then, see the previous points made on the thread.
http://scipiosmith.livejournal.com/ at 19:05 on 2012-04-24
To be fair, sometimes fantasy can be a good vessel for real-world commentary. But then, see the previous points made on the thread.


Oh, definitely. One of my favourite fantasies of the moment is Shadows of the Apt, which tries very hard to engage with race, privilege and the nature of prejudice and discrimination in general. I just think that a series for children is perhaps not the best medium for that sort of thing.
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