Melanie Phillips

30 July 2007

Harry Potter and the Deathly Confession

Published in: Daily Mail

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Yes, I admit it. I am one of those embarrassed adults who have been furtively whipping out a copy of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows on bus and Tube journeys, desperate to discover what happens in the end. And here’s a further confession — I’ve read all six previous volumes, and I’ve even seen the films (which I don’t think are half as good, although I‘ve yet to see the new one).

As families start to disappear on their summer holidays, it’s a fair bet that more than a few copies of this final Harry Potter book —feverishly consumed by the children within a few hours of its release at midnight nine days ago — will find their way into the parents’ suitcases, along with the latest Ian McEwan and Richard Dawkins.

Nevertheless, despite JK Rowling’s achievement in having entered into the imaginations of millions and held them spellbound, there is no shortage of people who scoff and sneer at both the books themselves and even more so at the adults who so avidly read them.

A few days ago the fashionable novelist Will Self took to the airwaves to denounce the ‘kidults’ who have their heads deep in the final volume. In his view, they should not be concerning themselves with ‘language that is so banal and basic’.

Mr Self, a former heroin user who has said of the nihilistic character of his own fiction that he ‘consciously styled myself in that way as a destructive intellectual force’, doubtless has a fan club composed entirely of the finest minds and most exquisite sensibilities. But whereas Harry Potter and JK Rowling have become household names, few would recognise Mr Self let alone know the titles of his books.

So what is the appeal to adults of Harry Potter? Why are so many of us reading these books that they have been marketed with an alternative ‘adult’ dust-jacket? Have we all — as Mr Self implies — gone soft in the head?

The answer is simply that JK Rowling has created characters with whom I and millions of others can identify, and constructs around them a story which keeps one turning the pages. This is because she has created a fictional world which cunningly and wittily overlaps our own.

Readers are desperate for books which create convincing other worlds in which we can lose ourselves. This is the principal job of a good novel. And that is something which so many of our modern novelists, with their tricksy, post-modern and —I’m afraid to say — often tediously pretentious literary style tend to lack.

JK Rowling is simply a wonderful story teller. She has the ability to construct a narrative which makes one desperate to find out what happens next. Her characters have the ability to enter one’s mind and stay there.

And this is because we can so easily identify with them. They stand for things we know so well, and which touch us very deeply.

Of course this is not Great Literature; George Eliot or Tolstoy she isn’t, and her characters don’t have the depth that one finds in even averagely good adult fiction (although in the sheer exuberance of her inventiveness, Charles Dickens often comes to mind).

But to scorn the Harry Potter books as mere verbal cartoons is to look down a supercilious nose and fail to see what is beneath. Like Gulliver's Travels or Alice in Wonderland, the Harry Potter books can be read on many different levels. The books draw on a vast range of sources — European fables, folklore and myth — and are packed with jokey allusions to high culture, not least with the Hogwarts pupils casting their spells in Latin.

Displaying a huge imaginative power, Rowling conjures up an apparently limitless invention of fabulous creatures such as boggarts, grindylows, animagi and blast-ended skrewts.

More charming to the adult reader are the witty and satirical allusions to contemporary Britain, from Spellotape and the Knight bus to the Ministry of Magic, with its Department of Magical Law Enforcement and its dreary decrees restricting under-age wizardry slyly echoing the petty, meddling and byzantine bureaucracy of our own less than magical Whitehall.

Rowling creates a world that is entirely familiar and comforting to us. It is both ironic and instructive that Hogwarts is so closely modelled on the great public schools which we are told are so anachronistic and unrepresentative — but with whose traditions so many people still turn out to identify.

Indeed, for all her satire against the nightmarishly suburban Dursleys, Rowling idealises a Britain that we are constantly told has vanished. The pre-feminist Mrs Weasley, for example, provides essential solace through her maternal cooking, while the Weasleys’ close, happy and utterly conventional family life provides the refuge for Harry whose own life is blighted by parental loss.

The books are, indeed, supremely moral. Goodness is not sentimentalised. Heroes are shown as flawed. Bad characters are revealed to be capable of redemption. Everyone carries within them the capacity for both good and bad; indeed, Harry himself is troubled throughout by his own links to the arch-fiend Voldemort. The message is that life is all about the choices we make.

The real appeal of these books lies in the universal themes they encompass. Foremost amongst them is the central motif of death, grieving and loss. So much of this magical world is an elaborate and imaginative way of dealing with our desperate need to come to terms with the death of those we have loved.

Then there is the great theme of true friendship that withstands all adversity, and the inspiring yet poignant message that love conquers death. And at the very core is the central driver of the plot — the great battle between good and evil and the duty to choose good over bad.

As the books progress they grow ever darker and the final one is very dark indeed. The theme that runs through the series, the prejudice towards ‘mud-bloods’ or people of mixed race (albeit a mixture of wizard and human) develops in the final book into a nightmarish vision of a country under the jackboot of fascism, with Hogwarts occupied by enemy forces and Harry and his friends leaders of a resistance movement forced to keep moving to escape an enemy who inexorably closes in on them.

With our own free world under attack, the echoes are striking. Like Harry’s epic battle with Voldemort, we find ourselves struggling against an enemy without a clearly identifiable form, and which reveals itself only through acts of horrific violence that appear to come from nowhere.

The books are a celebration of courage and heroism against overwhelming odds. And in a further parallel with our own fight against a cosmic threat, the books show us that even our friends can betray us and that those we entrust to defend our safety are riddled with informers and defeatists, traitors and double agents.

Harry Potter gives magical weapons to those of valiant heart who battle against monstrous odds. In our own terrifying times, the message is one of inspiration and consolation. It is however a less than uplifting commentary on our times that we have to go to children’s fiction to find it.

About Melanie

Melanie Phillips is a British journalist and author. She is best known for her controversial column about political and social issues which currently appears in the Daily Mail. Awarded the Orwell Prize for journalism in 1996, she is the author of All Must Have Prizes, an acclaimed study of Britain's educational and moral crisis, which provoked the fury of educationists and the delight and relief of parents.

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Books

  • The World Turned Upside Down
  • Londonistan
  • The Ascent of Woman
  • America's Social Revolution

Contact Melanie

Melanie Phillips
Daily Mail
Northcliffe House
2 Derry Street
London W8 5TT

Contact Melanie