Gearing up to lecture on Harry Potter tomorrow, and pondering the sheer scale of its popular success. Really, it's only the more astonishing now that it is starting to wane and we can look back upon the phenomenon with a more objective eye. What was it about these novels that made them so huge? 'Because they're relatable,' says my teenage daughter and she has a point: kids at school read stories about kids at a school (except, a better, more wonderful school where kids learn magic) and connect with them. But actually I wonder if there's something more particular going on here.
When I last pondered these novels, after re-reading the whole lot earlier this year, I thought there was an unresolved contradiction in Rowling's attitude to 'pure blood' as a value and source of power:
On the one hand, there's the sustained critique of those Voldermortians (Voldermorticians?) and Malfoyers who believe that being 'pure blood' makes a person superior to mudbloods and muggles. Rowling makes the point repeatedly that they're idiots for thinking this; and quite right too. Plus you have Dumbledore's commendable and repeated insistence that a person is defined not by their birth but their actions. A bloodline is not some magic passport to special-ness or power. On the other hand is the fact that Potter's early life has been protected from being Death Ate by, precisely, his blood; or more precisely his mother's blood. And his aunt's. And Voldemort is undone by the same magic substance. ‘He took your blood and rebuilt his living body with it!' explains Dead-Dumbledore; 'your blood in his veins, Harry, Lily’s protection inside both of you!’ [Deathly Hallows, 568]. So it turns out a bloodline is a magic passport to special-ness or power after all. It just has to be the right bloodline! Which, when we come to think of it, is precisely what the pure blood brigade have always claimed.I still think this is a problem, only now I think I'd frame it slightly differently. It's going to sound oblique (and in order to explain it I'm going to quote C K Chesterton at length, which may simply put you off), but bear with me. So: I think that, amongst other things, Rowling is trying to do a Dickensian something with her YA fantasy, not just formally but in terms of an agenda of social justice: girls are as clever as boys; racial purity is a noisome and destructive lie; fairness, decency, friendship and love are as important on the social as the personal level. I'd even be prepared to believe that Rowling is self-consciously 'doing' Dickens: big novels, bursting with characters and incident and so on. But actually I think that Rowling doesn't have the heart of Dickens. I think she has the heart of Scott. And to explain what I mean, here comes the long passage from Chesterton's 1906 Dickens book. It's one of my favourite pieces of critical prose, actually, with respect to Dickens but also, really, tout court; so I'm not going to apologise for the length.
Of all these nineteenth-century writers there is none, in the noblest sense, more democratic than Walter Scott. As this may be disputed, and as it is relevant, I will expand the remark. There are two rooted spiritual realities out of which grow all kinds of democratic conception or sentiment of human equality. There are two things in which all men are manifestly and unmistakably equal. They are not equally clever or equally muscular or equally fat, as the sages of the modern reaction (with piercing insight) perceive. But this is a spiritual certainty, that all men are tragic. And this, again, is an equally sublime spiritual certainty, that all men are comic. No special and private sorrow can be so dreadful as the fact of having to die. And no freak or deformity can be so funny as the mere fact of having two legs. Every man is important if he loses his life; and every man is funny if he loses his hat, and has to run after it. And the universal test everywhere of whether a thing is popular, of the people, is whether it employs vigorously these extremes of the tragic and the comic. Shelley, for instance, was an aristocrat, if ever there was one in this world. He was a Republican, but he was not a democrat: in his poetry there is every perfect quality except this pungent and popular stab. For the tragic and the comic you must go, say, to Burns, a poor man. And all over the world, the folk literature, the popular literature, is the same. It consists of very dignified sorrow and very undignified fun. Its sad tales are of broken hearts; its happy tales are of broken heads.The response the beggar gives Sir Arthur Wardour (from The Antiquary, of course) is so brilliant and powerful, Chesterton is absolutely right to pick it out. Sends chills up my spine. But the properly salient passage here is this one: 'Scott was fond of describing kings in disguise. But all his characters are kings in disguise. He was, with all his errors, profoundly possessed with the old religious conception, the only possible democratic basis, the idea that man himself is a king in disguise.'
These, I say, are two roots of democratic reality. But they have in more civilised literature, a more civilised embodiment of form. In literature such as that of the nineteenth century the two elements appear somewhat thus. Tragedy becomes a profound sense of human dignity. The other and jollier element becomes a delighted sense of human variety. The first supports equality by saying that all men are equally sublime. The second supports equality by observing that all men are equally interesting.
In this democratic aspect of the interest and variety of all men, there is, of course, no democrat so great as Dickens. But in the other matter, in the idea of the dignity of all men, I repeat that there is no democrat so great as Scott. This fact, which is the moral and enduring magnificence of Scott, has been astonishingly overlooked. His rich and dramatic effects are gained in almost every case by some grotesque or beggarly figure rising into a human pride and rhetoric. The common man, in the sense of the paltry man, becomes the common man in the sense of the universal man. He declares his humanity. For the meanest of all the modernities has been the notion that the heroic is an oddity or variation, and that the things that unite us are merely flat or foul. The common things are terrible and startling, death, for instance, and first love: the things that are common are the things that are not commonplace. Into such high and central passions the comic Scott character will suddenly rise. Remember the firm and almost stately answer of the preposterous Nicol Jarvie when Helen Macgregor seeks to browbeat him into condoning lawlessness and breaking his bourgeois decency. That speech is a great monument of the middle class. Molière made M. Jourdain talk prose; but Scott made him talk poetry. Think of the rising and rousing voice of the dull and gluttonous Athelstane when he answers and overwhelms De Bracy. Think of the proud appeal of the old beggar in the Antiquary when he rebukes the duellists. Scott was fond of describing kings in disguise. But all his characters are kings in disguise. He was, with all his errors, profoundly possessed with the old religious conception, the only possible democratic basis, the idea that man himself is a king in disguise.
In all this Scott, though a Royalist and a Tory, had in the strangest way, the heart of the Revolution. For instance, he regarded rhetoric, the art of the orator, as the immediate weapon of the oppressed. All his poor men make grand speeches, as they did in the Jacobin Club, which Scott would have so much detested. And it is odd to reflect that he was, as an author, giving free speech to fictitious rebels while he was, as a stupid politician, denying it to real ones. But the point for us here is this that all this popular sympathy of his rests on the graver basis, on the dark dignity of man. "Can you find no way?" asks Sir Arthur Wardour of the beggar when they are cut off by the tide. "I'll give you a farm . . . I'll make you rich." . . . "Our riches will soon be equal," says the beggar, and looks out across the advancing sea.
Now, I have dwelt on this strong point of Scott because it is the best illustration of the one weak point of Dickens. Dickens had little or none of this sense of the concealed sublimity of every separate man. Dickens's sense of democracy was entirely of the other kind; it rested on the other of the two supports of which I have spoken. It rested on the sense that all men were wildly interesting and wildly varied. When a Dickens character becomes excited he becomes more and more himself. He does not, like the Scott beggar, turn more and more into man. As he rises he grows more and more into a gargoyle or grotesque. He does not, like the fine speaker in Scott, grow more classical as he grows more passionate, more universal as he grows more intense.
This, I think, is the ground of the strange 'relatability' of these globally popular novels: not class, or race, or gender, or school experience or anything like that; and neither because of any quasi-Dickensian textual campaigning against social injustice, creditable though that aspect of the novel-series is. It's that Rowling says to her child readers, repeatedly and eloquently: you are kings in disguise. You possess magical validity and force. And her child-readers grok it, because kids understand the Scottian insight better than adults do. Maybe that's because they are closer to the time when all human beings share perfect, imperial elevation and power, when the whole of creation bends its efforts to placating and maintaining them -- when we are babies, of course. Or maybe it is a more Chestertonian 'old religious conception', the same numinous if unconscious awareness that Wordsworth ascribes to childhood in the Immortality Ode. At any rate, it goes some way to explaining (I think) why Harry has to be the central character, rather than Hermione. Hermione is too obviously special: too clever, too multi-talented and self-disciplined and grounded and so on. Potter is the chosen one not despite but because he is so ordinary; because (the novels are saying) mere common ordinariness, like yours, like mine, is the absolute ground of magical royalty. We are all kings in disguise.
And the stamps at the top of this post? They're there because I like them, and because each of the four of them insinuate an actual monarch into their top right hand corners. But they do bring out one related point: the equally popular, equally enduring Narnia books say the same things, for (where Lewis was concerned) equally Chestertonian reasons. Lewis's ordinary English children are kings and queens of Narnia, not because Lewis thought representative parliamentary democracy delinquent and wicked, but because his faith told him that we are all of us, the entire demos, kings and queens of Narnia.