A.S. Byatt on Harry Potter

A.S. Byatt is one of my favorite writers. Initially I was disappointed to see an article in the New York Times entitled “Harry Potter and the Childish Adult” because I expected another of the long line of complaints about science fiction and fantasy taking us away from the concerns of the real world and denying us the pleasure of real fiction. Her critique skirts the territory that rejects fantasy but redeems itself by praising a few good fantasy writers such as Terry Pratchett and Ursula K. LeGuin.

But in the case of the great children’s writers of the recent past, there was a compensating seriousness. There was — and is — a real sense of mystery, powerful forces, dangerous creatures in dark forests. Susan Cooper’s teenage wizard discovers his magic powers and discovers simultaneously that he is in a cosmic battle between good and evil forces. Every bush and cloud glitters with secret significance. Alan Garner peoples real landscapes with malign, inhuman elvish beings that hunt humans.

Reading writers like these, we feel we are being put back in touch with earlier parts of our culture, when supernatural and inhuman creatures — from whom we thought we learned our sense of good and evil — inhabited a world we did not feel we controlled. If we regress, we regress to a lost sense of significance we mourn for. Ursula K. Le Guin’s wizards inhabit an anthropologically coherent world where magic really does act as a force. Ms. Rowling’s magic wood has nothing in common with these lost worlds. It is small, and on the school grounds, and dangerous only because she says it is.

In this regard, it is magic for our time. Ms. Rowling, I think, speaks to an adult generation that hasn’t known, and doesn’t care about, mystery. They are inhabitants of urban jungles, not of the real wild. They don’t have the skills to tell ersatz magic from the real thing, for as children they daily invested the ersatz with what imagination they had.

I’ve read the first two Harry Potter books and never found them to be very interesting. If I were eight, ten, or twelve my feelings might be very different.

Byatt makes a real point when she says that most adults have no connection to mystery or magic in today’s world. I can see this effect in contemporary politics where everyone screams loudly and refuses to admit that they could possibly be wrong, that there could be some mystery in the world which their solid convictions or philosophies do not admit. There is more in the world than is dreamed of in most all of our philosophy.

Byatt concludes:

It is the substitution of celebrity for heroism that has fed this phenomenon. And it is the leveling effect of cultural studies, which are as interested in hype and popularity as they are in literary merit, which they don’t really believe exists. It’s fine to compare the Brontës with bodice-rippers. It’s become respectable to read and discuss what Roland Barthes called “consumable” books. There is nothing wrong with this, but it has little to do with the shiver of awe we feel looking through Keats’s “magic casements, opening on the foam/Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn.”

The dig at cultural studies seems a little gratuitous. My reaction to reading cultural studies and postmodern literature is to continually call into question my own judgments about cultural value. It doesn’t prevent me from making cultural judgments. I can still say that The Matrix is a better science fiction film than Star Wars or that Wallace Stevens is the greatest poet of the twentieth century. I’ll have to argue for those positions some other time.

Todd Suomela
Associate Director for Digital Pedagogy & Scholarship Department

My interests include digital scholarship, citizen science, leadership, and communications.