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Wednesday, April 25, 2007
June 19, 2003
The Phenomenology of Harry, or the Critique of Pure Potter
By PATRICIA COHEN
You knew, of course, that Harry Potter's desire for a gold cauldron instead of a pewter one is an obvious example of commodity consumption, and that snobbish centaurs and enslaved elves are indicative of a conservative worldview in which ''social hierarchies prevail among magical people and creatures.''
No? You have much to learn. You must have missed the panels on J. K. Rowling's oeuvre that have occasionally popped up at academic conferences over the past couple of years.
But now, with a new Harry Potter book and a new series of book-length studies on the way, the academy is starting to bring the scholar's full toolkit to bear on Potterville. Historians and philosophers, literary critics and sociologists, psychologists and lawyers are all taking a turn at deconstructing Harry.
In the soon-to-be-published ''Wisdom of Harry Potter,'' (Prometheus), for example, Edmund M. Kern, an associate professor of history at Lawrence University in Wisconsin, is preoccupied with the books' moral philosophy. Harry's wisdom is the Stoics', with their fatalism and their belief in endurance and perseverance, he argues: ''Fate shapes Harry's life, but his responses to it are not unlike what ancient philosophers such as Zeno, Marcus Aurelius, or Seneca would suggest.''
Why, seeing how Harry reacts to the evil Voldemort, one would almost think, Dr. Kern surmises, that he had read the 16th-century Dutch philosopher Justus Lipsius, who wrote the neo-Stoic classic ''The Book of Constancy,'' which counseled steadfastness during the ongoing political violence of that time.
Aside from Lipsius, Stoicism has influenced early Christian writers like St. Augustine, medievalists like Boethius, Renaissance masters like Erasmus, Spinoza and Kant, and contemporary thinkers like the University of Chicago philosopher Martha C. Nussbaum, Mr. Kern points out. The Harry Potter books, he writes, ''might just comprise the most visible contribution to Stoicism's re-emergence as a viable, practical philosophy offering comfort and guidance in these uncertain times.'' ...
November 30, 1999
The Reality of the Fantasy in the Harry Potter Stories
By Richard Bernstein
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....
July 31, 2005
'Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince': Her Dark Materials
By LIESL SCHILLINGER
LATE on an ink-black night in June in the Lebanese hill town of Zahle, a teenage boy sidled up to two travelers as they strolled along the bank of a river. In French-inflected English, he asked an urgent question: ''Have you seen the new Harry Potter book?'' Despite receiving a negative reply, he pressed on, ''Have you heard what happens in it?'' When the answer again was ''no,'' he sighed in vexation. He had read the five other Potter books many times, he explained - both in French and in English, which ''takes longer, but it's better, because it's her words.'' ''Her,'' even to a boy growing up in the Bekaa, meant She-Who-Must-Be-Read: J. K. Rowling, author of the cliffhanger chronicles of the young British wizard Harry Potter and his pals, Hermione Granger and Ron Weasley, from the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.
The boy's inquiry did not produce the results he'd hoped for, but it may have settled a larger question: is there a book-loving child on the planet who isn't obsessed with Harry Potter? Um (or ''er,'' as Harry would say), perhaps not. But, like other susceptible children (and grown-ups), who among them own 270 million copies of the first five books in the series, the Lebanese Potter fan had to wait until one minute past the witching hour of July 15, 2005, to satisfy his curiosity about what had befallen Harry since he battled the evil allies of Lord Voldemort (more prudently referred to as He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named) in ''Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.'' What this young reader - and everyone else - will discover is that Rowling has succeeded in delivering another spellbinding fantasy set in her consummately well-imagined alternate reality.
These newest 652 pages - far darker than those that preceded them - are leavened with humor, romance and snappy dialogue, and freighted with secrets, deepening bonds, betrayals and brutal lessons, many of them coming from the sinister, Harry-hating Severus Snape, master of the dark arts. Up to now, Harry, while overcoming any number of harrowing trials, has managed to retain a trusting nature; but at 16, worsening circumstances force him to realize that even though he regards himself as ''Dumbledore's man through and through,'' he must also be his own man. Dumbledore, headmaster of Hogwarts School and the only mature wizard who poses a real threat to the foul Lord Voldemort, cannot protect Harry forever - nor can Harry be sure that he can protect himself.
Because Rowling's gift is not so much for language as for characterization and plotting, to reveal much of what happens would wreck the experience for future readers. Suffice it to say that this new volume culminates in a finish so scorchingly distressing that the reader closes the book quaking, knowing that out of these ashes, somehow, the phoenix of Rowling's fiction will rise again - but worrying about how on earth Harry will cope until it does....
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July 16, 2005
Harry Potter Works His Magic Again in a Far Darker Tale
By MICHIKO KAKUTANI
In an earlier Harry Potter novel, Sibyll Trelawney, divination teacher, looks at Harry and declares that her inner eye sees past his "brave face to the troubled soul within."
"I regret to say that your worries are not baseless," she adds. "I see difficult times ahead for you, alas ... most difficult ... I fear the thing you dread will indeed come to pass ... and perhaps sooner than you think."
In "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince," that frightening prophecy does in fact come true - in a thoroughly harrowing denouement that sees the death of yet another important person in Harry's life, and that renders this, the sixth volume of the series, the darkest and most unsettling installment yet.
It is a novel that pulls together dozens of plot strands from previous volumes, underscoring how cleverly and carefully J. K. Rowling has assembled this giant jigsaw puzzle of an epic. It is also a novel that depicts Harry Potter, now 16, as more alone than ever - all too well aware of loss and death, and increasingly isolated by his growing reputation as "the Chosen One," picked from among all others to do battle with the Dark Lord, Voldemort.
As the novel opens, the wizarding world is at war: Lord Voldemort and his Death Eaters have grown so powerful that their evil deeds have spilled over into the Muggle world of nonmagic folks. The Muggles' prime minister has been alerted by the Ministry of Magic about the rise of Voldemort. And the terrible things that Ms. Rowling describes as being abroad in the green and pleasant land of England read like a grim echo of events in our own post-9/11, post-7/7 world and an uncanny reminder that the Hogwarts Express, which Harry and his friends all take to school, leaves from King's Cross station - the very station where the suspected London bombers gathered minutes before the explosions that rocked the city nine days ago....