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Harry Potter fans need to grow up The Boy Who Lived hit 40 this year, but the books' binary worldview hasn't aged well

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

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. His forthcoming book, The Haunted Wood: A History of Childhood Reading, is out in September.
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Peter Ian Staker
Peter Ian Staker
3 years ago

Not sure this is exclusive to Harry Potter. It seems most children’s books take a binary view of morality. This might be because children can learn what is wrong , before their rationing abilities have been developed. I think if you tried to teach children ethical complexities, before they can fully think for themselves, it could do more harm than good. And agree that adults need to learn the nuances; perhaps read some books made for adults?

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago

The vast majority – perhaps 95% – of adults are completely incapable of reading books for adults.

JR Stoker
JR Stoker
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

So many of our problems relate to the diminishing quality of our educational system.

Deryck Hall
Deryck Hall
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

You really are pompous. Your view seems to be that most people don’t read the books that you find interesting, informative or well-written. Some people like escapist fiction, some prefer romantic novels and some will read all Booker prize nominees. There may even be some who meet your exacting literary tastes. Don’t judge people on what they read. It says more about you than it does about them.

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago
Reply to  Deryck Hall

Actually, among my reading this yeas has been quite a lot of popular or escapist stuff: three of Lee Child’s Jack Reacher books; various football biographies and autobiographies; a Neil Gaiman collection; popular/romantic novels by Arto Paasilinua and Edna O’Brien. Hell, I even read ‘Toujours Provence’ by Peter Mayle. You can’t really sink much lower than that.

D Ward
D Ward
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

Oh believe me you can. Many books being awarded prizes these days because they are “Different” are absolute garbage. I’ll take Mayle over them any day.

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago
Reply to  D Ward

Whilst we are broadly on the subject, there is a great line from Robert (or is it Robin?) Aitken over at The Spectator today:

‘The BBC’s Christmas schedule is the abattoir of the human spirit.’

steve eaton
steve eaton
3 years ago
Reply to  Deryck Hall

More to the point I think is that so many really are incapable of reading something as complicated as a book for an adult audience. Not as you seem to infer that the question is what is to be considered as “adult”.

Judy Englander
Judy Englander
3 years ago

Well, C S Lewis achieved it in his final book in the Narnia series: The Last Battle. At the very end – the end of the Narnian world, literally – Aslan sorts those who will join him in his own country, and those who will not. A binary choice between the good and the evil drawing on Christian apocalyptic literature. However, when it comes to the young Calormene devoted to his demon-god Tash, Aslan does not relegate him to post-Narnian blackness but draws him into his own country (and forgive the long quote but I can do no better):

“Not because [Tash] and I are one, but because we are opposites, I take to me the services which thou has done to him. For I and he are of such different kinds that no service which is vile can be done to me, and none which is not vile can be done to him. Therefore if any man swear by Tash and keep his oath for the oath’s sake, it is by me that he has truly sworn, though he know it not, and it is I who reward him. And if any man do a cruelty in my name, then, though he says the name Aslan it is Tash who he serves and by Tash his deed is accepted.”

This little dissertation on the nuances of binaries is in a little Puffin children’s book with a largish type face.

Tim Knight
Tim Knight
3 years ago
Reply to  Judy Englander

You are right. I think The Last Battle and the Great Divorce represent at his best. One of my offspring started at Magdalene this year. The CU there, in non Covid times, still meet in his office.

Quentin Vole
Quentin Vole
3 years ago
Reply to  Tim Knight

Magdalen, please. Your offspring may not forgive you.

Richard Pinch
Richard Pinch
3 years ago
Reply to  Quentin Vole

Unless, of course, the reference is to the period 1954-1963 when Lewis was Professor of Mediaeval and Renaissance Literature and a fellow of Magdalene College.

Tim Knight
Tim Knight
3 years ago
Reply to  Quentin Vole

Gawd, don’t you start! The Pale Blue one has an e, the other place is lacking. I still pronounce it incorrectly 9 times out of 10 though and don’t I know it. Merry Christmas all.

Judy Englander
Judy Englander
3 years ago
Reply to  Tim Knight

May the spirit of CSL smile upon them!

Judy Englander
Judy Englander
3 years ago
Reply to  Tim Knight

PS: That Hideous Strength (unabridged) was also amazingly prophetic. It’s my favourite CSL novel for adults.

Tim Knight
Tim Knight
3 years ago
Reply to  Judy Englander

For some reason, despite ready pretty much everything else of his I’ve not tried That Hideous Strength.
I shall. Hope you have had a good day.

Judy Englander
Judy Englander
3 years ago
Reply to  Tim Knight

Same to you Tim, and blessings for 2021.

Adrian Maxwell
Adrian Maxwell
3 years ago
Reply to  Judy Englander

Did he achieve it? I remember reading such passages at school – the chronicles as set books – and I didnt have the foggiest what they meant. The books were about good over bad with a bit of mercy thrown in. As an adult I can easily identify the ‘nuances of bineries’ and now see the books for what they were. Lewis was an evangelical Christian absolutist, trying eg to explain and justify why his god required and, so, allowed pain in man (he found the justification of pain in animals a little more tricky). So naturally took to the platform of fiction for children as a vehicle to bring young readers to his god. To that extent the books held a binary morality good over bad. if any child could go further and follow his reasoning, so much the better.

Judy Englander
Judy Englander
3 years ago
Reply to  Adrian Maxwell

The Last Battle is the most difficult of the Narnia chronicles, not least because of the platonist philosophy. It was the platonism I didn’t understand as a child, but it haunted me well into adulthood and directed my reading until I did understand.

That’s the sign of a good children’s book – the ability to seed difficult ideas that can bloom in maturity. I missed many of the Christian allusions on first reading because my upbringing was Jewish. But in his essays CSL wrote about being ‘haunted’ by something more and Narnia has haunted me since I first picked up Prince Caspian at age ten. I can truly say – and I hope I’m not being cheesy – that CSL has accompanied me both philosophically and religously on my life’s journey,

Tim Knight
Tim Knight
3 years ago
Reply to  Judy Englander

I think his essay on the humanitarian theory of punishment still speaks loudly today.

Charles Rense
Charles Rense
3 years ago

I feel like Seuss took a nuanced approach to morality.

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago

Well, yes, and I’ve been saying this for some years. I was an already an adult when the first Harry Potter book was published so I have never read any of them. However, it has long seems to me that they are at least partly responsible for the misguided tyranny of the woke SJW movement.

Gary Greenbaum
Gary Greenbaum
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

And like many a revolutionary, Rowling has been stood up in front of that well-chipped wall by her former comrades and (I hope) refused a blindfold.

JR Stoker
JR Stoker
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

They are worth reading as an adult, derivative yes, but increasingly sophisticated in their presentation of some characters and the series thus just right for children approaching adulthood, and the later ones for adults who like interesting characters. And you need to whip through the early ones so as to see the merit of the later ones.

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago
Reply to  JR Stoker

I think I’ll stick to the likes of Anna Burns, Dostoevsky, Scruton and Robert Skidelsky if it’s alright with you.

K Sheedy
K Sheedy
3 years ago

Yes they should grow up.
But Slytherins are not evil per se. They are ambitious and inclined to a world view that “the end justifies the means”.
So they will join the attack on JK Rowling as a device to make the whole world trans. JK is just collateral damage..
ps. this is supposed to be lighthearted 🙂

Charles Rense
Charles Rense
3 years ago

40? How? According to Google the first book was published in 97. Maybe the character would be 40? Only if he was 17 in the first book.

Oh, I know: magic!

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago
Reply to  Charles Rense

Yes, I was somewhat perplexed by that. Whilst being no Potterologist, my understanding was that they were not first published until the mid-to-late 90s.

Pamela Watson-Bateman
Pamela Watson-Bateman
3 years ago
Reply to  Charles Rense

My 28 year old son read the first one when it was originally published, so I don’t get the 40 age for Harry either.

lester.hitch.1990
lester.hitch.1990
3 years ago
Reply to  Charles Rense

He was born in 1980 in the books. Hence being 40 now

Richard Pinch
Richard Pinch
3 years ago

The Torah was a straight remix of Babylonian creation myths and all the better for it.

Does this sideswipe at the Jewish and Christian religions add any particular value to the article?

Dave Weeden
Dave Weeden
3 years ago
Reply to  Richard Pinch

I notice that you’re not arguing with the truth of the statement here. But thank you for respecting my beliefs and airing your grievances. Did not Frank Costanza once said, “As I rained upon him, I realised there had to be another way!”

Richard Pinch
Richard Pinch
3 years ago
Reply to  Dave Weeden

I notice that you’re not arguing with the truth of the statement here.

No, I’m making no comment here on its truth value. The first part is believed to be both false and offensive, by many people, Jewish and Christian, and merely false by many more, such as the late Geoffrey Kirk, whose lectures on Myth: Its Meaning and Functions in Ancient and Other Cultures I had the pleasure and privilege of attending in the 1970s. The second part is a somewhat baffling opinion.

Do you have any light to shed on how this comment improves our understanding of the Harry Potter stories?

Peter KE
Peter KE
3 years ago

Rowling’ s should be supported in her stance for free speech the woke anti democratic thugs of the various facist blm, trans groups need condemnation directly and not any tolerance offered.

steve eaton
steve eaton
3 years ago
Reply to  Peter KE

I’d wager that Rowling would be right there with the gang if the object of the beat down was someone else. Maybe not doing the punching herself, but not standing for the victim either.