A young wiz nurtured by literary forebears

Times Staff Writer

THE Harry Potter books are usually viewed alongside the children’s and young adult world that they grew out of and radically reshaped.

When viewed in literary terms, though, J.K. Rowling’s novels stand up pretty well, book critics say, and in some ways go refreshingly against the grain of much of contemporary fiction.

And while they’ve been treated with condescension by some highbrow critics -- Potter has already produced reams of academic criticism and seems likely to generate vastly more -- the books provide things that have become harder to find in recent novels for adults, some say. The winking allusions to earlier books, from C.S. Lewis’ Narnia series to “The Wind in the Willows,” are not the only way these novels are grounded in literary history.


One of their most enthusiastic critical champions is Lee Siegel, who writes about books and culture for the New Republic and other magazines. Siegel calls the books throwbacks to a 19th century psychological realism. “For the most part, novelists have lost the ability to do that,” he said in a telephone interview. “They’ve lost the psychology of the realist novel.”

But the inner lives of Harry, Ron and Hermione are more convincing than those of many characters in contemporary literary novels, said the New York-based Siegel, whose most recent book is “Not Remotely Controlled: Notes on Television.” Rowling, he said, “sculpts her characters’ inner lives through their interactions. There’s an inevitability to what they do.”

Recent celebrated novels by the likes of Jonathan Safran Foer, Benjamin Kunkel and Nicole Krauss, he said, do not seem grounded in real experience. These books strike Siegel as “puerile,” in stark contrast to Rowling’s. “She’s childlike,” he said of Rowling, “but the ‘adult novel’ is becoming childish.”

Even more important, Siegel said, Rowling has been able to create what he calls “a recognizable social world” and moral structure better than many literary writers.

“In these worlds she’s created, the first principles are consistent through the story; they’re perceptible and transparent,” Siegel said. “And people are dying for first principles. When religion fell away as a framework for writers, they lost those first principles. They need these things to silence the noise and fragmentation of modern life.”

And while appearances in Rowling’s books sometime end up being deceptive, the world has a firm moral structure. “The poles -- Harry, Voldemort, his parents -- never change. It’s why Christianity worked for writers, what sexuality was for Lawrence, what myth was for Eliot. She’s the only writer today with a universal appeal who does this.”

Critic Ed Park, a former editor at the Voice Literary Supplement and a founder of the Believer magazine, sees Potter as the most effective recent example of the orphan novel, a tradition associated with Dickens.

The series’ premise -- the death of Potter’s parents, which drives much of his action -- is a motivating wound in the sense that Edmund Wilson used the term in his famous essay “The Wound and the Bow,” Park said.

Thus the series is both a hero story and a family romance. “His ‘good’ parents -- wizards -- were wiped out by a greater evil (thus he must avenge their deaths); he is special by birth, talented, a chosen one of sorts,” Park wrote in an e-mail. “Over the course of the series, Harry finds himself / flourishes, despite a miserable upbringing at the hands of bad ‘parents’ (uncle and aunt); we get an establishing initial scene of life at the Dursleys in every book, the awful humdrum life, soon erased by a trip to Hogwarts (where he is famous, his parents’ memories revered).”

So, Park, continued, we have the kind of fantasy people typically harbor: “I am special, I come from great, even legendary forebears, everyone is concerned with my well-being / life, and perhaps even secretly worships me.”

But people keep coming back to the books, he said, only because Rowling has kept this up across all the novels. “As we adults make our way through each book, we’re consumed by curiosity: How will this wound be healed? And in wondering this, we have the fantasy that our own pains will be eased, all wrongs reversed, etc. That is the fantasy, rather than spell-casting or riding on brooms.”

Laura Miller, a critic for Salon and other publications, said Rowling’s trick is to use some of the same narrative ideas that George Lucas plundered from Joseph Campbell, the mythologist author of “The Hero With a Thousand Faces.”

“It has those classic archetypal story elements,” she said by telephone of the Potter books, which use the basic structure that Campbell distilled from myths the world over: the call to adventure, the road of trials, the achievement of the goal and the return to the daily world, with its possibility of success or failure.

If you believe Campbell, these ideas are universal and appeal to readers in all cultures and all periods, and they connect with people no matter what their level of literary sophistication. “The thing that makes Harry Potter a phenomenon,” Miller said, “is that those books appeal to people who don’t normally read for pleasure.”

Part of their charm, she said, came from their reviving of an old popular literary device that’s fallen out of fashion recently -- despite popular novels by Curtis Sittenfeld and Taylor Antrim -- but was the basis for many bestsellers in the 19th century. “For me, the essence of Harry Potter,” she said, “is the boarding school narrative. You can take the magic out of it before you could take the boarding school out of it.

“A hundred and fifty years ago, boys were all reading ‘Tom Brown’s School Days,’ ” she said of the 1857 Thomas Hughes novel that sparked the British school-novel craze. “It’s a premise people find inherently fascinating,” and an example of the British knack for creating whimsical, self-enclosed worlds that Miller likens to model railroads.

Because Rowling’s books are essentially about a child’s experience away from home, it’s hard to replicate with adult characters and readers.

“It’s revolutionized the children’s book market,” Miller said of the Potter books. “But it doesn’t upscale to the adult level.”

Appropriately enough, when Tom Brown went to college, his following didn’t grow. “Tom Brown at Oxford,” which came out four years later, was a comparative failure.