It's time to move on. Credit: NEIL HANNA/AFP via Getty Images

December 24, 2020   4 mins

Harry Potter is 40. The Boy Who Lived has, in his parallel universe, become the Middle-aged Man Who Kept On Living. That lightning scar is now, perhaps, peeping through an unruly salt-and-pepper fringe; or providing the reproachful point of punctuation below a widow’s peak. The glasses are now bifocals. He’s still skinny-limbed, no doubt, but has he acquired a paunch — the faintest hint of a butterbeer-belly? There’s a poignancy to him: there’s a poignancy to the hero of any story who outlives the central plot arc of his own life. Ask any middle-aged man.

One of the most brilliant of many brilliant things about J. K. Rowling’s books was the way in which they grew up alongside their readers. In the first novel, Harry turned 11, and he grew older with each one; an 11-year-old reader of that first book would have crested young adulthood at the same time Harry did. The stories grew darker, more complex, more challenging. The adventures spilled out from the classroom into the wider adult world. The dangers were greater, the reverses and losses more permanent and more grave.

But then, of course, they stopped and their readers carried on into the trackless wastes of maturity without him. That will have been a loss.

It’s worth taking this opportunity to say what artful books they are, and how thoroughly imagined was their world: Rowling seeded future developments and plot strands so early in the first book; she dropped her trail of breadcrumbs. She knew where she was going, and she went there at just the right pace, and (admirably) she stopped when she got there, her story told. The writing may not have been showy, but it did its work. She picked out evocative details — Ollivander’s moonlike eyes, say, or the light through the high windows striping the stone corridors of Hogwarts. She employed the whole sensorium to make her world immediate. And there was a warm gleam of humour on every page.

When they first came out, some early reviewers — including this one — groused a little that Rowling was a magpie. The novels seemed to be a collage of influences: this from T. H. White or Tolkien, that from Roald Dahl, this from The Worst Witch; that from any number of old-fashioned boarding-school stories; this – blimey — from Kafka. But of course, looking back, to indict her for a lack of originality was to miss the point. Rowling knew just what she was doing. She was in the business of building a myth. And all myths steal and repurpose previous stories: they draw their power from them. The Torah was a straight remix of Babylonian creation myths and all the better for it.

And if a myth does its job, it offers — however fantastical — a way of thinking about the world. Like many children’s books, the Harry Potter books set out to affirm a set of moral principles for the generation that grew up with them; and given the almost 100% saturation of the market it’s fair to assume they will have had an influence. These principles are, we can say, pretty uncontroversial. They affirm the value of courage, honesty, loyalty and the importance of friendship. They say that bullying is to be deplored, kindness valued; that might doesn’t make right and that love is stronger than hate.

They go in to bat, too, for some easy liberal values. Slavery is a bad thing. Eugenics and racial profiling are no-nos. Torture and random sadistic murder are definitely frowned on. Hey kids, these books say full-throatedly: don’t be a Nazi, ‘mkay?

In so doing, and in the very reasonable line of being children’s books, and bloody good ones — and exciting stories at that — they present the world as an all-or-nothing heroic struggle between unmitigated good and unfathomable evil. You have lovely, wise, kind and selfless Dumbledore in one corner and you have that utter rotten egg Voldemort in the other. Pick a team.

Institutions are to be trusted only inasmuch as they are run by goodies (the Ministry of Magic is eminently corruptible but Dumbledore’s Hogwarts is not, at least while the old man remains in charge), and rules are to be broken ad lib as long as it’s the goodies doing it. Normative authority is creepy old Filch, skulking the corridors with Mrs Norris in search of fun to spoil and miscreants to snitch on. The mainstream media is the prurient and unctuous scratching of Rita Skeeter. Suburban normies — incarnated in the Dursleys of Privet Drive — are the pits.

In their fine texture, the books are subtler than that — Snape’s story arc, for instance, has a level of real moral complexity; and the psychology of the protagonists’ day-to-day friendships is not simplistic — but the basic shape of the main story is goodies vs baddies to the death. And that is, as I say, quite proper. They’re children’s books.

Revolutions eat their children. Critics of the series have since argued that there are subtextual or framing issues: that they’re kind of heteronormative (Dumbledore was, Rowling told us later, gay — but there’s scant evidence for it in the text); or that they’re kind of white (Rowling welcomed the casting of a black Hermione in the stage show, and Reni Eddo-Lodge wrote interestingly about how a black Hermione would have enriched the story in Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race, but, again, the text tends not to support the idea).

You may agree with these criticisms or you may scoff at them — but it’s striking that an audience primed to take a binary goodies vs baddies worldview has turned with some decisiveness on the author of that worldview when it decided (most dramatically over her gender-critical comments on Twitter) that she’s on the other team.

Our cultural and political moment now looks very much like one with a sorting-hat view of the world: the hat peers deep into your soul, and after no more than a minute – though usually instantly – it assigns you an identity. If you’re Slytherin, that’s that.

That is to say: evil is held to reside ineradicably in the person so sorted. The extent to which this has become general is shown on the reaction to the now notorious Harper’s letter — signed, among many others, by J. K. Rowling — which offered some pretty unexceptionable bromides on free speech. The debate centred not on the arguments made in the letter but on the people who signed their names to it. The question not was it the right argument, but were they the right people? Was the Dark Mark upon them? One signatory who had freely endorsed the contents of the letter, presumably having at least skim-read them, immediately withdrew their support and apologised on the express grounds that they never would have signed had they known who else was signing. Wrong team. Expelliarmus.

These are, as I’ve said before, children’s books. Harry Potter, somewhere in the multiverse, grew up. So must his audience.

This article first appeared on 31 July, 2020

Sam Leith is literary editor of The Spectator and the author of Write To The Point: How To Be Clear, Correct and Persuasive on the Page