Harry Potter is the ur-libertarian who just might save civilization

By Dave Kopel

NRO Weekend, July 22-23, 2000, National Review Online. More by Kopel on Harry Potter.

J.K. Rowling, The Harry Potter Book Series (Scholastic)

I'm proud to be one of the "Muggles for Harry Potter." The folks who would censor or ban Harry Potter because it involves magic would, logically, have to outlaw C.S. Lewis's magic-filled Narnia series, which is the finest Christian allegory ever written for young readers. Not to mention the fairy-ridden Midsummer Night's Dream, and the ghostly Christmas Carol.

The folks who want to ban Harry Potter because he takes drugs (magic potions, including one based on  wormwood, which can be used to make a hallucinogen) need to run for Congress, so they can spend their time in one of the last remaining places on earth not to notice that the drug war is the stupidest policy disaster of the last two decades.

In the publishing business, there has never been a book like Harry Potter IV, The Goblet of Fire. The first weekend the book went on sale, three million copies were sold, out of a first printing of 3.8 million. The publisher, Scholastic, is going back to the printer to make three million more copies. The paperback edition of the first Harry Potter book, The Sorcerer's Stone, comes out August 15, with a print run of 3.2 million.

The Potter books have dominated the New York Times bestseller list for the past year — a multi-hit phenomenon last seen when the Beatles owned half the Top Ten songs. The New York Times ended up having to create a new category, to open up the four slots on the adult fiction top-ten list that the Harry Potter books had claimed as their birthright. (Simply on the strength of pre-publication sales, the fourth book had hit the best-seller list before it was even released.)

The pre-publication official tidbits about Harry Potter IV should, however, serve as a future caution against taking the pre-publication leaks about Harry Potter V, VI, and VII very seriously. In the months before Potter IV came out, Scholastic announced that in volume IV, Harry would develop an interest in girls. The girl is precisely who astute readers of volume III would have predicted, but Harry's feelings about her a pretty minor element of book IV.

We were also told that "a beloved character" would die in volume IV. Well somebody does get murdered near the end of the book, and the murder scene is chilling. But this character was never on anybody's top-ten "beloved" list. As one of my children remarked, "It's okay. I didn't like him that much anyway."

Literary critics have pointed out that author J.K. Rowling's writing style isn't as sophisticated as C.S. Lewis's in the Narnia series or J.R.R. Tolkien's in Lord of the Rings. True, although her writing is much better than Harold Bloom claimed in an anti-Potter essay in the Wall Street Journal. Her invented words are the best since Dr. Seuss's. More importantly, people aren't reading Harry Potter for artful language; they're reading it for the well-developed alternative world that she creates.

Before Rowling, the best-known alternate world was the Middle Earth invented by Tolkien. Before Tolkien, there has been novels depicting well-developed alternative worlds — Edgar Rice Burroughs's science-fantasy series John Carter of Mars, for example, and Howard Pyle's King Arthur and medieval children's stories.  But these earlier series were mainly for boys, effected no broader changes on popular consciousness, and did not endure beyond the generation of their creation. Before them was Lewis Carroll, and his Alice in Wonderland books remain classics. But Wonderland is so dark and unsettling, and most of its characters so loathsome, that few readers would want to remain in Wonderland once the book is over.

Tolkien was different. Especially because of the 1965 paperback publication of Lord of the Rings, the Tolkien books in the late 1960s and early 1970s became a signpost to a new reality, rekindling an awareness of the magical that had been lost in consumerist, scientistic culture. One can find Tolkien's direct influence in any bookstore, where "swords & sorcery" now have their own product category, or in any game store where Dungeons & Dragons is sold. On a broader level, if not for Tolkien, we might not be living in an era where interest in angels is greater than it has been for the previous 500 years.

It's too soon to tell if Harry Potter will change things as much as Lord of the Rings did, but words like "Muggles" and "Quidditch" are already part of popular vocabulary, and if you say that somebody reminds you of Percy Weasley, most people under 45 will know what you mean.

While Oxford don J.R.R. Tolkien stands as a direct predecessor to the divorced young mom from Bristol, J.K. Rowling, the man who did more than any other to pave the way for both of them came from Aberdeen, South Dakota. Exactly one hundred years ago, L. Frank Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was published.

Frank Baum's book brought fantasy into the modern era (as Harry Potter is also set in modern times). Baum was the first to create a distinctly American fantasy; the opening of the first book in the series superbly evokes the hard, dry life of the Kansas prairie.

The first Oz book is the best-known, in part because it was made into the famous American movie. There were 17 more books in the series, and Baum was the first fantasy writer whose books crossed over into the adult market. "My books are intended for all those whose hearts are young, no matter what their ages may be," he said.

Oz was banned from some libraries, on the grounds that it was not serious literature. A 1957 library convention found scores of librarians agreeing with the head of the Detroit libraries that Oz was "unwholesome."

Other adults saw Oz as a political allegory on populism and free silver. The Scarecrow was the farmers; the Tin Man, labor; and the Cowardly Lion, William Jennings Bryan. Journeying down the Yellow Brick Road (the Gold Standard), the heroes are at first beguiled by the money-colored Emerald City in the East, but they eventually uncover its leader (the Eastern banking interests) as an impotent fraud. The story ends as Dorothy discovers the true power of her silver/ruby slippers. Although Baum supported Bryan, Baum insisted that he never intended any political content. Today, critics see in Oz various aspects of Theosophy and feminism, both of which interested Baum. For example, Oz is full of strong female characters who act independently.

As with Harry Potter (and Star Trek), fans liked the Oz world so much that they wrote their own books and short stories to keep the action going. Today, interest in Oz is still strong, as attested by the 123 sites on the Oz Webring, and the apparently large number of people who not only know everything about Oz, but also about Baum's many other books, such as Life and Adventures of Santa Clause and Queen XiXi of IX.

For some adults who object to Baum, Tolkien, and Rowling, there is a sincere objection to the depiction of witchcraft. But more fundamentally, there will always be Almira Gulch types, for whom the real objection is not the magic spells themselves, but the stimulation of the imagination. A child without imagination is easily controlled. One anti-Potter critic complains: "In The Sorcerer's Stone, Harry disregards his teacher's order and is later honored for it!"

Imagination does allow one to escape adult control, but this can be a good thing. As Baum explained:

 "Imagination has given us the steam engine, the telephone, the talking-machine, and the automobile, for these things had to be dreamed of before they became realities. So I believe that dreams — day dreams…with your eyes wide open…are likely to lead to the betterment of the world. The imaginative child will become the imaginative man or woman most apt to create, to invent, and therefore to foster civilization. A prominent educator tells me that fairy tales are of untold value in developing imagination in the young. I believe it."

More by Kopel on Potter:

Severus Snape: The Unlikely Hero of Harry Potter book 7. July 19, 2005. The true meaning of book 6 analyzed, along with the implications for book 7, through examination of the most ambiguous character in the series.  

A Dementor Short. Mugglewear Casual mars Harry hat trick. Reason Online. June 4, 2004. Review of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban movie.

Deconstructing Rowling. National Review Online. June 20, 2003. Review of The Hidden Key to Harry Potter, which convincingly explicates the work as a series of Christian fiction, in the tradition of Tolkien and Lewis.

Rumors: Quash one, fuel one. While debunking Harry Potter author's Satanist 'quotes,' News promotes drug's 'role' in deaths. Rocky Mountain News/Denver Post. Dec. 2, 2001.

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