Pottering Around

The end is near! Scott McLemee checks on the scholarly response to Harry Potter as devotees await the final chapter.

July 18, 2007

“I’m getting ready to work on Harry Potter for a month,” said Laurie Muchnick in late June. She edits the book section of Newsday, a newspaper based in Long Island. We’ve been friends for a decade now (as long as the Potter novels have been published, as coincidence has it) and the conversation was a completely casual one. So I half expected her to emit a sigh or a grumble, or to pause for a beat before adding, “Well, it’s going to feel like a month anyway.”

But no -- she meant it literally, and it didn’t sound like she minded. She’s been rereading the entire series. Since the start of July, Newsday has run one item on Pottermania per day, which is the sort of thing editors do only when firmly convinced that a significant share of the audience will want it. Not all of the paper’s cultural coverage has focused on Harry Potter, of course. But with the latest movie about the young wizard now in the theaters, and the seventh novel due out on July 21 -- and bookies no doubt offering odds on whether Harry lives or dies -- we are talking about a phenomenon now well beyond run-of-the-mill levels of public interest. According to the plan that J.K. Rowling drew up when she began the series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is supposed to be the very last volume, though skeptics wonder if the lure of a few millions dollars more won't inspire some new adventure down the line.

In the years since the author introduced her characters to the public, they have become beloved and meaningful; and not to children only. At present, the catalog of the Library of Congress records 21 volumes of criticism and interpretation on the novels, in six languages. A collection called Harry Potter and International Relations, for example, published by Rowman and Littlefield in 2006, analyzes the significance of Hogwarts, the academy of magical arts at which Harry trains, with respect to the nation-state and geopolitical realism. It also contains an essay (and I swear this is true) called “Quidditch, Imperialism and the Sport-War Intertext.” At least 17 doctoral dissertations and seven master’s theses had been devoted to the Harry Potter books, at least in part, as of last year. Chances are good that all these figures are on the low side.

A confession: I have never read any of the Harry Potter novels nor seen even one of the movies. Aficionados should not take this personally, for it has not been a matter of cultural snobbery or high principle, or even of deliberate policy. It is simply an effect of the scarcity of time -- of hesitation before a body of work that will, in due course, run to some 4,000 pages and (by my estimate) more than 17 hours of film.

On the other hand, I’ve long been intrigued by how certain works of fiction create such powerful force-fields that readers go beyond enthusiasm, developing relationships with characters and their world that prove exceptionally intense, even life-changing. Examples would include C.S. Lewis, Thomas Pynchon, Ayn Rand, and J.R.R. Tolkien. (They are listed in alphabetical order, so no angry letters on slights implied by the sequence, please.)

And one regular product of such fascination is the desire not only to study the fiction ever more closely, but to create works of analysis that, so to speak, map and chronicle the imaginary world. In effect, the fiction creates its own nonfiction supplement.

So it was interesting, though no means a surprise, to learn that there is an intensive course on Harry Potter at North Georgia College and State University this summer, taught by Brian Jay Corrigan, a professor of English whose more routine area of specialization is Renaissance literature. Students in the course are contributing to an encyclopedia that will cover -- as Corrigan puts it during an email interview -- “the geographic, historic, folkloric, mythic, and all other backgrounds informing the Harry Potter world.” He says an agent is shopping the project around to publishers in New York now.

One encyclopedia of Potteriana is already available. But with the appearance of the final novel, it will soon be out of date, and Corrigan’s effort will presumably have the advantages of closure and retrospective insight. It will also be enormous -- perhaps 250,000 words long, with hundreds of illustrations being prepared to go with the entries.

“After a year and a half in planning and five weeks of class,” Corrigan told me, “the ‘rough’ part of the project, collecting together all the grist, is about three quarters finished. We have already generated nearly 1,500 typed pages (650,000 words). There will be a polishing period that will whittle all of this into a usable format.” He expects that phase to last until the end of the fall semester.

After we discussed the work in progress a bit, I broached some reservations that kept crossing my mind about the whole idea of a course on Harry Potter. It’s not that it seems like a terrible idea. But mild ambivalence about it seemed hard to shake.

On the one hand, it’s hard to gainsay, let alone begrudge, the success of any work of fiction that made reading popular for a whole generation of kids. And it is not hard to appreciate the advantage of giving students a taste of literary scholarship through closer examination of work they already know. As someone admittedly ignorant of the primary materials in question, I picked up some sense of the case to be made for Harry Potter from an essay by Michael Bérubé in the latest issue of The Common Review, which conveys some appreciation for the structural intricacy of the books.

The tightly constructed plots and complex shadings of characterization in Rowling’s work has had a profoundly educational effect for Bérubé’s son Jaime, who has Down syndrome.

“Indeed,” writes Bérubé, “one of the complaints about Rowling’s creations [is] that they are too baroquely plotted, too ‘cloak and dagger and triple reversal with double axel’ ....But it’s astonishing to me that tens of millions of young readers are following Rowling through her five-, seven-, and even nine-hundred page elaborations on the themes of betrayal, bravery, and insupportable loss; it’s all the more astonishing that one of those tens of millions is my own ‘retarded’ child, who wasn’t expected to be capable of following a plot more complicated than that of Chicken Little. And here’s what’s really stunning: Jamie remembers plot details over thousands of pages even though I read the books to him at night, just before he goes to bed, six or seven pages at a time. Well, narrative has been a memory-enhancing device for some time now, ever since bards got paid to chant family genealogies and catalog the ships that laid siege to Troy. But this is just ridiculous.”

So yes, there is something to respect in what J.K. Rowling has achieved. At the same time, isn’t undergraduate education a potentially decisive moment when students ought to be introduced to a wider conception of culture -- something outside the familiar, the readily available, the comfortingly familiar?

Last week, reporters from CNN were on the North Georgia campus to film Corrigan’s students as they played a Quidditch match (that being a magical competition well-known to Potter afficianados). The segment will presumably air some time around the time the final volume of the series is released. It all sounds enjoyable for everyone involved. Yet as I think about it, the ghosts of Matthew Arnold and Theodore Adorno hover nearby. They look pained.

Now, Arnold was a Victorian sage; and Adorno, a relentless Marxian critic of mass culture; and I am guessing that neither of them is familiar with the particular educational challenges involved in teaching undergraduates at North Georgia College and State University during the era of high-speed wireless connectivity. They are out of touch. Still, it seems as Arnold and Adorno would prefer that kids learn to appreciate forms of cultural creation that will not in any way ever come to the attention of a cable television network.

Corrigan heard me out as the spirits channeled their complaints.

“I am a Shakespearean,” he said, “and one of my greatest regrets in my field is the damage done to our historical understanding of his works occasioned by his having been viewed as "base, common, and popular" in his own day. If only some farsighted intellectual had taken that theatre in Southwark seriously and done in Shakespeare's day what we are attempting today, we would all be richer for the experience....Who is to say what is ‘best’ until we first explore, evaluate, and ascertain? Why not allow the culture that is generating the thought also engage in that exploration and evaluation? Surely that is the aim of pedagogy, instilling curiosity while guiding intellect towards informed opinion.”

Corrigan also notes something that is often palpable when people discuss the impending publication of the final Potter novel. The phenomenon began with the appearance of the first volume during the summer of 1997. Millions of kids and their parents have grown up with the series. It has in some sense been a generation-defining experience, the meaning of which is, as yet, impossible fully to unpack. The intense involvement of readers has in part been a matter of the narrative’s open-endedness; but soon that will change.

“It might be said,” as Corrigan puts it, “ that we, as a class, are contributing to the scholarship of a future world. Undoubtedly ‘Potter-mania’ will cool, but the cultural phenomenon has been recorded and will be remembered. I am leading a group of people who are currently Harry's age (between 18 and 28 years old). Moreover, they are in Harry's age -- they grew up with Harry. We are creating a fly in amber. Never again will any scholar be able to approach Harry Potter from this perspective, not knowing how it will end.”

Next week, he says, “the story of Harry will have been published for the world to know, and no one will ever again be able to look at these books as we can today.... My students are doing far more than reading seven novels and writing essays on what they think. They are exploring backgrounds that inform this series and along the way are delving into many fields of study. As such, they are learning the interrelatedness of literature with the worlds of thought that inform the idea of a university.”

There is also the more prosaic sort of instruction that goes with preparing an encyclopedia. Corrigan says his class is acquiring “the practical skills of working to a real deadline, editing, and dealing with ‘real world’ situations such as slow contract negotiations and the minutiae of New York publishing houses. For a group of English students, many of whom interested in publishing, this is invaluable internship experience.”

The specters listen quietly, but they look skeptical. Matthew Arnold wants to point out that, after all, we do not continue to read Shakespeare because he was once popular in his day. Theodore Adorno is annoyed by the expression “invaluable internship experience” (evidently it sounds really bad in German) and starts to mutter about preserving the difference between the liberal arts and vocational training.

On Corrigan’s behalf, I argue in defense of his points. Aware that this can only mean I am talking to myself again, it seems like a good idea to check in with Laurie Muchnick at Newsday to find out how the “month of Potter” is going.

She mentions that she’s had a reporter looking into how bookstores have handled security, since nobody is supposed to have access to the books until midnight on July 21. “Nobody” includes reviewers. The publisher, Scholastic, doesn’t bother sending out the books, since kids don’t care what the critics think. So Muchnick expects to be at the store that night to pick up her reserved copy.

The newspaper has been publishing short pieces by readers on what they expect to happen in the final volume -- a matter, not of pure imagination, but of deduction from the previous six volumes. By next week, though, all mysteries will be resolved.

When I tell her about Corrigan’s course, Muchnick says she can see the possible pedagogical value, but wonders if the moment might not be passing soon.

“I’ve been rereading all of the books,” she says, “and it’s been really impressive to see how carefully Rowling has structured them. There are clues to things happening later that are embedded in the earlier volumes. I can see how they would merit a sort of close reading, the old New Critical approach of looking really closely at the text to see what is going on in it.”

That is, in effect, what fans have done with their time between books -- trying to figure out what comes next by reading between the available lines. Interpretation has been a way of continuing one’s involvement in the text while waiting for the next installment.

But the relationship between analysis and anticipation will soon change. “Will people still be as interested in hunting for clues once they know that the answers are actually available?” asks Muchnick. “I just don’t know. People will still enjoy the books, but probably not in the same way.”


Be the first to know.
Get our free daily newsletter.


Back to Top