Harry who? And why?

22nd July 2005 at 01:00
Call him obstinate, but Simon Evans refuses to be pulled into the Potter bubble

It's not the wall-to-wall, ceiling-to-floor, media saturation that I mind, or the merchandising clean-up. It would be nice if some of the money sloshing around helped to support new or lesser known authors, though the recent Society of Authors survey of children's authors' earnings seems to suggest it doesn't. It's refreshing to see the high profile that writing for children is currently enjoying, and it's always great to see children reading.

So what is it about Harry Potter that depresses me? I used to think it was the dull, dreary, volume of the grey prose that, with the exception of some of the names of spells or sweets, is so lacking in verbal wit and dexterity. Or was it the aeons the story takes to get going in each volume, or perhaps the quidditch matches? Yes, it was when I reached the quidditch world cup final in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban that I realised my life was not going to be enriched by these books.

Another low point was the weight and brick-like form of the last book, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. This was not a modern novel: it was emulating the weighty tomes of the 19th century. It was the very completeness of the world, its capacity for absorbing and surrounding me, that I found difficult. It's not that I object to magic and fantasy. I loved The Lord of the Rings; I think His Dark Materials is magnificent and recommend it at every opportunity. But the Potter universe seems not mind-expanding, but hermetically sealed. This time there's no door through the back of the wardrobe.

Every September I ask my new A-level English students about their reading.

It tells me something about the people I'll be working with for the next year, and their word-of-mouth recommendations generate a few more school library loans. It bothers me that there's a good percentage who have read only from the Harry Potter canon. Those that read other books were reading them anyway, and most often the readers with their own agenda have only sampled from Harry Potter, rather than glutting out on the supersize Potter experience. Remember when one of the defences of children reading comics was, "Well, at least they're reading"? The idea was that the love of reading would develop and grow, so that one day The Beano or the Fantastic Four would be left behind and the higher plains of Jane Eyre and David Copperfield would beckon. The Harry Potter books do not seem to be having this effect. They don't lead readers anywhere.

I have a few problems, too, with the politics of the novels. Dumbledore, like any head, is running a benevolent dictatorship. In most traditional school stories, which the Potter series so clearly echoes in atmosphere and gothic architecture, and grudging admittance of girls into the story at all, the children or students oppose the established order. This has been true from the ancient days of Stalky and Co through Billy Bunter, Jennings, Just William, and countless others, even down to the School for Assassins in Terry Pratchett's Pyramids. What bothers me about Harry Potter is his lack of anarchy: his dearest wish is so clearly to belong.

Yes, he saves the day, but only to prop up the establishment, including the Malfoys and the values they stand for: racial superiority over Muggles, half-bloods, and house-elves. Yes, he frees Dobby the house-elf from servitude, but only by utilising the rituals of freedom that the world-order he's living in already sanction. There's no question of getting rid of the institution of slavery itself. Yes, he springs to Hermione's defence when her racial purity is questioned, but with no wider sense of injustice than that it's not nice to call names. How the wizard world works is never up for debate.

We are not likely to see progressive teaching methods at Hogwarts or computers introduced into either the wizard or the Muggle world. Nostalgia rules in these books - we're only ever an ink-blot or two away from midnight feasts in the dorm - but it's an anaesthetised nostalgia without any self-awareness: no wonder it seals all the exits. So I worry when I meet 16 and 17-year-olds who want to do A-level English and don't read anything else.

Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger, with more energy than Harry and less respect for the rules, are much more the hero and heroine we need. But Rowling's plots always disable them before they can get in the way and usurp Harry's muddling through. It's time Hermione read some Angela Carter to put her on the right path.

Meanwhile, is it too much to hope that when Potter grows up, he doesn't go off to do his Wizard's PGCE and return to Hogwarts, rising through the ranks to become Gryffindor housemaster and take over when Dumbledore retires? How much more thrilling it would be if Potter came back and simply razed the castle of perpetual iniquity to the ground, casting out the wizards and all their kind into the real world to scavenge and survive like the rest of us.

Simon Evans teaches English in a secondary school near London

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