Topic, Issue 54 from the Washington & Jefferson College Review is available from college libraries or (for those of out of school) by mail order. Although the journal overall presumes the reader is familiar with Order of the Phoenix, it is not essential to enjoy the first half of the essays, and absolutely critical in understanding the second half. For this review, the essays have been divided accordingly to prevent maximum spoilers. Now, on to the reviews.
- Children’s Literature or Adult Classic? The Harry Potter Series and the British Novel Tradition (Paige Byam)
- Aesthetic Organization: The Structural Beauty of J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter Series (Kathleen McEvoy)
- Fantasy and the Interpretation of Fantasy in Harry Potter (Steven Barfield)
- Harry Potter’s Heritage: Tolkien as Rowling’s Patronus against the Critics (Miranda Maney Yaggi)
- Tolkien and Rowling: Reflections on Reception (DawnEllen Jacobs)
- Questioning Witchcraft and Wizardry as Obscenity: Harry Potter’s Potion for Regulation (Lee Ann Diffendal)
Comparisons to ‘classic British adult literature’ abound in this article, breaking down the classic British novel into six typical steps. King Arthur is brought up initially, however the article rapidly shifts to focus on a Jane Eyre/Great Expectations/Harry Potter comparison, and readers who have not read either of those books may find the comparisons well done, if entirely spoilerish. While a strong and conclusive case is brought forth for classifying the Harry Potter series as adult literature, ultimately the author sits on the fence, concluding they are ‘too popular’ to be classified as either. The topic would have been better renamed with Children’s Literature AND Adult Classic instead of putting an or there. Overall, a weak conclusion to an otherwise decent essay.
McEnvoy structures her case well, giving clear examples of how Rowling uses internal and external continuity through the use of plant and payoff. She explains the concept for readers who may not be familiar with it as well. McEvoy praises Rowling for an excellent attention to detail leaving “no gaping plot holes, no characters whose personalities change in inconceivable ways, no elements that just do not seem to fit.” McEvoy also demonstrates an excellent attention to detail in her comparisons both within and across books. There are very light Order of the Phoenix spoilers but they are nothing deep or anything that gives away the ending of the book. Despite the fact some may not agree with her conclusion the books are well written (and here we think of the “critics”), she makes a strong and compelling case for her position in a clear and enjoyable fashion.
Barfield investigates in a fair (but underwhelming and meandering) essay. Just as the essay manages to hit a certain stride, it ends with a fairly weak ending about how the books are too hard to categorize because the series is so popular. Any fan, scholar, or person with their head not under a rock knows these books are popular. In fact, that’s pretty hard to miss. It doesn’t add to the discussion to go through an essay where popularity is not made a factor, then to sum up with a statement of how the popularity is indicitive of how the books “strike a chord (while being very entertaining) with those dissatisfied with the contemporary world” without entirely proving how or why this is the case, or what that has to do with how the fantasy of Harry Potter gets categorized and interpreted. To the essay’s credit, it does manage to pin a label on the style of fantasy deployed within the books and defend it adequately.
Yaggi illustrates her case point by point based on the four fundamental values of fantasy literature: fantasy, recovery, escape, and consolation. By focusing a bulk of the essay on the fantasy element, by the time the other values are reached, they fall in neatly and quickly with the core of the essay – the fact that critics who uphold Tolkien but dismiss Rowling are by and large, contradicting themselves with regards to the reasons. Yaggi takes special consideration with the reader, by not tossing out references such as “Cauldron of Story” and references to Tolkien’s “On Fairy Stories” without taking a moment to explain them in concise fashion and how they relate. Overall, this is a well researched essay and filled with things to take away and learn from.
This timely essay addresses why and how the Harry Potter series has come under substantial criticism, while there has been nothing but praise of the renewal of interest in the Lord of the Rings series. Of particular note to Jacobs is the similarities in audiences for both series. Jacobs effectively accounts for the differences – the unique timing of Rowling’s work allow for greater exposure and commercialization. While reaction (and thus praise/critique) of Tolkein’s works too much longer to materialize, the instantanous nature of communications these days allow for articles to appear on the latest Rowling work within mere hours or days of a new publication. Although the article stops just short of suggesting that over time, Rowling’s books will be held in the same higher regard as Toklien’s works, the progression of the argument could probably be extended without too much trouble. The premise is well explained, and non-judgemental in its approach, making it a fine addition to the collection of articles.
Concluding that regulating and dismissing Harry Potter as “obscene” and “occult”-like also negates the valuable opportunity to expand upon the values that its critics try to uphold (namely hope, forgiveness, friendship, and trust), Diffendal mananges to come up with examples for each, and profoundly squash the notion that Harry Potter is “obscene” in a tightly-packed seven pages.
Conclusions, part one
With a few weak spots in the journal’s first half of essays, Yaggi, Jacobs, and McEvoy stand out as highlights of the collection so far. In the second half of this review, essays that focus specifically on issues raised in Order of the Phoenix take the spotlight.