with C.R. Wiley’s recent post about Harry Potter. If you’ve not read it, you should go over there now and do so. As you’d expect from him, it’s well-written, thoughtful, and mostly correct. Even better, he blasts the Harry Potter series not for silly pearl-clutching reasons like witchcraft, but for the very legitimate argument that children’s literature caters far too much to the idea that each one of us is a hero deep down. In his words, the ‘dark magic’ that makes Harry Potter problematic is:
“Essentially the dark magic is this: you’re so special.
A protagonist who discovers that all the people around him have missed his inner greatness is a very satisfying character to identify with.
And as the story unfolds and he learns the truth about his greatness, you can’t help vicariously feeling that it’s true for you, too! You’re unappreciated, just like Harry Potter, or Luke Skywalker. Just like them, you’re more than people realize. And boy, isn’t it great when they save the day? They even save the people who put them down, talk about gratifying.”
Now, I agree completely that much of the literature inspired by the Harry Potter series contains this theme. Likewise I agree that this is a serious problem in young adult literature that needs to be faced head-on. Where I disagree is with his contention that this applies to Harry Potter itself.
It would be too big of a project to engage all of the Harry Potter books in response to this challenge, but I think the fifth book is a good example of how the series stands apart from (and, in my opinion, above) the majority of subsequent YA fiction in specifically not doing what Wiley accuses it of.
What do I mean by that? Well, again, think back to the overarching plot and themes of the fifth book. The hero is going through the pains of adolescence with all the emotional and physical challenges that accompany that particular time. Additionally, he’s got a mental/emotional connection to an evil, deranged psychopath. (Perhaps those aren’t really two different things?)
Throughout the book, Harry is surrounded by teachers, friends, and even enemies who repeatedly encourage him to seek help, not to go it alone, to get advice from his elders and authority figures, etc. What’s more, in addition to all of his regular channels of support (i.e. friends and teachers) he is provided with an additional means of contact with his godfather who has provided him with advice in the past. In a standard YA book these days, this sort of solitude and intentional independence would be the source of the protagonist’s heroism. He really would be a special and unappreciated hero deep down. In book five of the Harry Potter series, the result is Harry’s (albeit temporary) possession by evil, severe damage being done to his friends, and the death of the closest person he has to a biological family member. All of these things are clearly and squarely Harry’s fault for failing to listen to advice and choosing instead to rely on his own ‘inner reserves of strength.’
“Can a hero exercise power in a way that costs him something? Can you tell a story about a truly ordinary person who acquires his gifts from someone else, but discovers the dark side of it the hard way?”
I think the answer is a pretty clear ‘yes.’
Beyond the fifth book (and again, I don’t know that there’s time or space here to go into too much detail), we see a picture of a ‘hero’ who is not exactly a hero in the traditional sense at all. He’s not exceptionally smart; he’s not exceptionally powerful; he’s not exceptionally good. In fact, he’s an average boy. Not average to the point of nondescript a’la Twilight, but… average. School is hard; he’s not that bright and not that hard working’ he likes to play games with his friends. etc etc etc. The places he does well–defense against the dark arts, quidditch, and teaching others defense against the dark arts–are pretty clearly exactly what Wiley wants in a hero–‘gifts from someone else’ with a ‘dark side’ discovered the hard way.
With all that said, I’ll throw out a problem that I have with the series (courtesy of the wife’s thoughtfulness). This is a problem which I’ve not yet had to face but which I know will be coming in the next few years: how on earth are we supposed to expose children to these books? The first book is clearly appropriate for younger children. The seventh book is clearly not. The problem is I don’t know how easy it will be to say to my kid ‘you can read the first three books, and the first half of the fourth book, but you’ve got to wait until you’re older to read the rest of them.’ That… seems like good parenting and mean parenting simultaneously. I’ve got some time to think about it before my kids are ready to start reading them at all, but it’s still an issue to be resolved eventually.
Anyway, on the off-chance that C.R. Wiley ever actually sees this (unlikely): please keep up the good work overall, and please likewise give Harry Potter a slightly different category from the rest of YA fiction.
Dr. Coyle Neal is co-host of the City of Man Podcast and an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, MO, where he lives as a muggle.