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Charming the world with spells and spectacles

The Irresistible Rise of Harry Potter

By Andrew Blake

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Why has Harry Potter been so successful? One answer would be that his author has powers of humour and imagination so outstanding that they were bound to be widely recognised. Alice's question at the start of her adventures in Wonderland - "What is the use of a book without pictures or conversations?" - is resoundingly answered in JK Rowling's writing. She has no boring, descriptive passages to wade through before getting to lively dialogue because all the inanimate objects at Hogwarts school can be entertaining in their own right. As with video games, there is always the possibility of something extraordinary happening once a door is opened or a staircase is climbed.

In this short, stimulating study, Andrew Blake believes it is Harry's position as a "retrolutionary" that has helped make him so popular. This word was coined at the 1994 Paris Motor Show to describe Jaguar's XJ series of luxury cars, the traditional long, low-roofed shape and leather and wood interior of which concealed the latest technology. Harry also combines a comforting atmosphere of past certainties (house matches, begowned teachers and servile shopkeepers) with the easy, modern-minded acceptance of a school where class, colour and gender seem unimportant, however much certain unpleasant characters try to make them so. Like Heritage Britain, he celebrates the past within the present - a comfortable arrangement, combining nostalgia for former colourful sights, sounds and characters with the satisfactions of living in a modern state with up-to-date comforts.

This might seem a surprisingly positive endorsement from the publishing arm of New Left Books for such a successful example of modern capitalism, but there are some qualifications. Blake believes Hogwarts is basically a patriarchal establishment, with all the real power vested in a male headteacher. Even the few female villains are no match. Harry, nowhere as bright or hard-working as Hermione, still unfairly has the male hero's prerogative, from Beowulf to James Bond, of always knowing what to do in a crisis.

He is also an uncritical believer in retail therapy, shopping in Diagon Alley as devotedly as his readers are enjoined to do when it comes to buying the various Harry Potter artefacts now flooding the market. And although there is no support in these stories for members of ancient wizard families who condemn others tainted by more earthly blood, there is something uncomfortable about the way that the Muggle population living outside the wizard system is universally patronised or scorned. Yet this, too, might strike a chord with young readers eager themselves to enrol at an educational centre of excellence from which they can happily look down on former fellow pupils now attending establishments reputed to be "bog-standard".

There is more to Harry than his role in today's museum culture that extends from Britpop and Cool Britannia to pretentious housing estates not unlike Privet Drive, Surrey, home of the hated Dursley family. He also stands in a long tradition of romantic heroes plucked from obscurity whose battle for survival against evil also doubles as a search for the truth of their own lineage. Aided by someone older and wiser, such characters crop up in all world literature, both in male (King Arthur) and female (Cinderella) form.

Heroic endurance in defence of a vision of what is right has always appealed, but particularly so when the characters concerned are recognisable not just from the common fantasies they represent, but also from everyday realities. As Blake points out, Harry is very much a contemporary boy as well as a junior wizard. Unreligious, independent, fascinated by the latest gear, reasonably keen on girls and free of the prejudices with which he has been brought up, he has a lot going for him even without his wand, sword and cloak of invisibility. As modern heroes go, we could certainly do a great deal worse.

The film Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets is reviewed on page 30

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