Harry Potter and the Leaky Genre

In my first article in this Harry Potter series, I took a serious look at the foundations of the idea of magic in general, and its manifestation in the Potter universe in particular. In this second part, I want to ferret out that elusive aspect of the Potter series that makes it a genre-transcending hit. What explains its broad appeal beyond the fantasy genre? My answer is that the Potter universe is fantasy, but it is not genuine escapist fantasy. That is why people who have never heard of Robert Jordan still read J. K. Rowling. In fact, to find even a remotely similar premise in a major narrative, we have to go all the way back to Lewis Carroll. Not to Alice in Wonderland, but to his lesser known masterpiece, Sylvie and Bruno.

The Broken Golden Rule

Let’s take as a starting point the argument that to break the genre boundary, Rowling must have also broken a major genre convention. Which one did she break?

An obvious candidate is what we might call the convention of non-collocation with the real world. This convention dictates that a work of fantasy must be set in a time, place or alternate reality different from, and causally unconnected to, contemporary reality. That’s a start, but not good enough. This is a pretty weak and frequently-violated convention within the genre itself. Though major works such as the The Lord of the Rings respect the convention, there are many that don’t. Vampire fiction has the same contemporary situation as the Potter Universe, as does the X-Men series from the closely related science-fiction genre. In children’s fiction, Enid Blyton’s Enchanted Wood and The Wishing Chair series are also situated in contemporary reality.

But we’re getting close: the key value of the collocation device is that it allows for a an interplay between the imagined realm and the real one. In the simplest case (as in the Enid Blyton examples), the collocation merely allows for a very close identification with the protagonist during the process of escape. While in Dune you have to do the work of forgetting reality if you want to identify with Paul Atreides, a collocated narrative like the Enchanted Wood helps you along: just follow the children, Jo, Bessie and Fanny, into the magical forest, and you escape with them into a better place.

Vampire fiction and the X-Men stories are more complex. Like in escape narratives, there is a motive for escape from reality — usually a social marginalization. But rather than actually escaping to a better world, you take a detour through one that changes you in some way, and return to reality, hoping to re-engage it from a position of power. You then have to beat up an unnecessary villain worthy of your newfound prowess before you realize you are still the same unpopular geek you were before. Tragic, yes, but fun. The X-Men series is probably the culmination of this hopeless line of development within the genre. Appreciate the full irony of your powers being mutations and being identified as the cause of your original alienation. There isn’t even room for temporary delusion that your powers might compensate for that acne that made you unpopular. Your power is the metaphoric acne. All you can do is tragically battle others like yourself and choose between staying marginalized with quiet dignity or trying to destroy the reality which alienated you. Enough said. The Potter Universe doesn’t play by these rules.

Here is the key. In the Potter universe, there is no escape motive — the real world with all its problems follows you right into the magical world via platform Nine and Three Quarters. Literally, not figuratively. Government bureaucracies, tiresome sports and their fans, boring school teachers and institutionalized oppression (think house-elves) come right with you. You even get smelly socks as a Christmas gift from your hated Uncle and Aunt, and a plot contrivance forces you to return to them every summer. No escape there.

That’s the key. The Potter universe involves a collocated, accessible, alternate reality that is neither better nor worse than regular reality. If you want to follow Harry there, you’ll need a better reason than feelings of marginalization and a yearning for redemption.

And that’s the Golden Rule that Rowling broke:

If thou collocateth, thou shalt use an escape motive from an oppressive reality and use the alternate reality to provide the means for a (preferably tragic and hopeless) reaching towards redemption.

The parallels between Harry Potter and classic English boarding school literature are not important, and neither are the parallels to The Lord of the Rings. The true parallel is to Lewis Carroll’s Sylvie and Bruno, the only other example I can think of where the protagonist switches between (or rather, drifts between) reality and a magical world for non-escapist reasons. An examination of the deeper parallels there is beyond the scope of this piece, but trust me, that’s where you want to look for a literary history.

But this conclusion begs the question, if there is no escapism, is this fantasy at all? And why are we following Harry to Platform Nine and Three Quarters anyway? Why don’t we just watch Erin Brokovich instead if we want to retain a sense of reality?

The True Fantasy in Harry’s World

Harry does not escape to Hogwarts. What the Dursleys do to him is not oppression, it is a sly parody of the oppression premises of other works in the genre. Harry (and you and I) are not going to Hogwarts to escape the Dursleys, bureaucracies or anything else.

That is not to say the Potter Universe isn’t fantasy. It just isn’t an escapist fantasy about overcoming evil forces that oppress us at an individual level due to who we are. But neither is it a whimsical, light-hearted sort of fantasy. Though the story contains humor, it is also not a comic fantasy. There is genuine darkness in Harry Potter (which, as I’ll argue in a future post, has nothing to do with the Dark Lord Voldemort, but has to do with the loss of innocence and trust in parental authority).

The central fantasy in the Potter series is this: that we can overcome the calamitous forces the universe throws at us, even when the forces are not evil. Voldemort is not evil — his apparent evil has been psychoanalyzed away and attributed to fairly mundane social forces (and you thought the Marvolo history in the Half-Blood Prince was unnecessary exposition!). True fantasy aficionados would probably love a detailed Sauron-versus-Voldemort comparison, but to understand the logic of Harry Potter, you only need to appreciate that Voldemort would not work as a villain if he’d remained an ineffable malfeasant force symbolized by a flaming eye on a tower. The story needed Voldemort, the evil person, explained away.

Voldermort the person being rendered peripheral, we can start to understand his real role: as a symbol and reductive manifestation of all societal dysfunction.

Here’s why. There is a lot that is systemically wrong and oppressive with the Potter magical society, but this wrongness and oppression lacks both a clear locus of origin and more importantly, lacks a clear evil intent to oppress on the part of a well-defined oppressor. Unlike Sauron in the Lord of the Rings, Voldemort is a product, rather than the cause, of a flawed world.

That is why Rowling necessarily had to maintain a close analogy between the social structures of the magical and the modern real world — if this systemic oppression is to be believable, it must necessarily be democratic and modern. The democratic Ministry of Magic is not merely an update to the quasi-medieval, monarchic social structure of the Lord of the Rings. It is a necessary element in an unpleasant world where there should be no real evil to blame (a medieval monarchy wouldn’t work because the evil Emperor would actually be evil).

And herein lies the true fantasy in Harry Potter: that systemic dysfunction can be destroyed because it has been artificially projected onto, and reduced to, one locus: the person of Voldemort. It is a fantasy because the real-world equivalent would be to pretend that poverty, AIDS, global warming and the rest of the usual lineup of the troubles of earth, could be eliminated by destroying one specific person. Even George Bush does not believe that about Bin Laden.

The Great Leakage

The adoration of regular fantasy fans of all ages does not need explaining. So the interesting question is, “why do non-fantasy fans read Harry Potter?” Why did the book leak out of its borders?

I should probably be classified a non-fan. I was mildly entertained and objectively impressed, but not enthralled, by Tolkien. I couldn’t make it past the turgid first book of Dune. Robert Jordan and the more hard-core writers lost me on page one. I read Terry Pratchett because a friend urged me to, but that didn’t stick either.

Potter though, engaged me instantly and kept me engrossed despite the fact that in terms of craft, discipline and mastery of language, Tolkien and many other genre writers are leagues ahead of Rowling.

What works to draw in outsiders like me (and people like my wife, who’ve not read any fantasy fiction besides Harry Potter, not even Tolkien) is the fact that it isn’t genuinely escapist. Because Rowling ports the problems of our world wholesale into her world, and injects the right sort of immersion-disrupting humor into the growing darkness, we never truly forget the real world as we engage hers (incidentally, based on the similar narrative development of Catch-22, I predict that The Deathly Hallow will be unremittingly dark and humorless, like the end of Catch-22).

Frankly, I’ve had a fairly privileged life, and have never felt the need to “escape” it as comprehensively as Middle Earth allows. But even the most privileged people in this world, from Bill Gates on down, must sometimes feel a sense of hopeless frustration about global problems ranging from AIDS and heart-wrenching poverty to global warming and metastasized terror. Because of that, we occasionally need a good-humored dose of fantasizing, that we can slay the hydra (or horcrux-headed monster) that threatens us all, with a simple Avada Kedavra. And then we return to the real world where all most of us can do is recycle.

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter

Comments

  1. What I’ve found intriguing about HP books is how Rowling incorporates the real “muggle” world we live into her books.

    Rita Skeeter – the annoying journalist who misinterprets everything — was introduced in Book 4. This was at the height of Harry Potter media frenzy! This has to be Rowlings way of getting back at them!

    With “Order of Phoenix”, I felt such a sense of life during “War on Terror” where basic rights are being taken away and the foreboding sense of Evil, raising fears of what happened in the past and the “ministry of magic” is caught in denial and deceit.

    So as much as it’s escapism into a fantastic world, we recognize it as our own.

  2. Hmm… I didn’t think quite that far into Rowling’s own motivations. A commentor on Part I thought I was reading too much into JKR’s intentions, but my claim is that any apparent structure/pattern/intelligence to the plot was surely not accidental? I think though, that a lot of it may have been a mix of subconscious working into the plot of past literary influences (which she denies, like in the case of LOTR, which is clearly there) and current events.

    Didn’t think though that Rita Skeeter might have been such an artifact. Good point.

    The War on Terror is a more obvious connection. I almost wanted to do a piece on that, but then decided that everyone from the Slate on down, has worked that angle of HP to death.

  3. Ok,
    just a quick question, but wouldn’t The lion, the witch and the wardrobe also fall into this category to?? Magical world…no real need to go there apart from the hiding place….
    ??

  4. I have to admit that I cringed while reading your characterizations of LOTR, though your definition of magic and analysis of the nature of fantasy in Harry Potter both resonate with me.

    Middle Earth does not exist disconnected from the real world. There is an ambiguous sense that the events we witness throughout the story have the present world as their consequence. The best analogy I can think of is One Hundred Years of Solitude, which brings me to my other point.

    The story of Lord of the Rings is not fundamentally escapist, at least in the sense that you portray. It is, at the most macro level, a tale of the passing of an age. At best, it is a somber but inspirational story; at worst, it is an utterly soul crushing narrative of the death of magic (using your definition) and mystery, and the triumph of the solely anthropocentric.

    As much as Sauron is presented as an evil force, that force is a consequence (not cause) of an illegible natural state of things, and is best understood when contrasted to the more human evil of Saruman. One of the central themes of LOTR is that by destroying the One Ring and Sauron, an entire chapter of existence is being closed.

    Sauron is not evil because he corrupts and destroys, he is evil because he made the ring. The drive to corrupt and destroy was essential to him, but by making that power something material, he broke the rules. He set off a chain of events that would lead to the inevitable rise of a vulgar race of man, which had long ago betrayed their own nobility, and created their own rules, outside of the natural order. Making Aragorn their king was a meek grasping at that ancient nobility, but ultimately even he accepts that there is a new order rising, and the best he can do is to try to tame its worst impulses.

  5. Wow, you are certainly digging up some REALLY old posts. This one is from July 2007, how did you even find it?

    My views of LOTR have since evolved a bit. I got started on the revised views with The Gollum Effect and hope to do a post on Sauron and the Ring soon. My revised views are more in alignment with yours.

    • I’m sure the how is not that mysterious. The why is because I found myself agreeing with you a little too much and thought that if I followed the evolution of some key ideas in the blog I would gain more nuanced understanding and opinions.

  6. John the Savage says:

    Great that someone else knows Sylvie and Bruno. Love that book! I’m still able to read it in adulthood, which has not happened with Alice in Wonderland.

  7. Nicolay77 says:

    You can start with Pratchett by reading Equal Rites, or Small Gods, those are good books with a very different tone to the first two books (I have no desire to read those Rincewind books ever again, while I would totally read these other two I mentioned several times).

    Equal Rites showcases the different kinds of magic men and women do. In the book, men like to thinker, draw geometric forms and perform all kinds of calculations before doing magic. Women do more social-related stuff, like seeing the world using the eyes of an animal or simply using reverse psychology to help their neighbors.

    In Small Gods there is one god about to die, because almost everyone has forgotten about him, except for a group of goat hoarders. The god then goes with the help of a prophet trying to survive.

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