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Magic in the Machine Age
Before there was technology, there was magic. It was not so long ago, indeed, that the scientific and industrial revolutions pushed magic aside. For all the benefits undeniably conferred by those revolutions, something always gets lost in the move from one world to another. Change comes at a price; progress, it must be understood, always takes hostages.
We are by now all familiar with the Harry Potter phenomenon and the rags-to-riches story of author J. K. Rowling. Such perseverance can be seen as many things, but when it succeeds it is usually trumpeted as a testament to the human spirit--in this particular case to that spirit married to a bit of good luck and good timing.
Why children like these books is easy enough to understand. Young Harry, a wizard orphaned in a world of Muggles (us), spends his nights sleeping in a spider-filled cupboard under the stairs at the home of Vernon and Petunia Dursley, his uncle and aunt, and a pair of clods in anyone's book. During the day Harry is bullied by his overweight Tweedledum of a cousin, Dudley. This nightmare carries over into school, where Dudley and his chums further persecute Harry. All this changes on Harry's eleventh birthday, when he receives an invitation to attend the Hogwarts school for young wizards, where he will spend the next seven years learning the tricks of his trade. All children at one time or another see themselves as outsiders, possibly even as persecuted outsiders. Harry is someone children can understand: an outsider's outsider, compelled to live in a world where he is adrift and seen as a burden. Such a character is a staple of children's and young adult literature, and for good reason.
It is not so easy to understand why adults like these books. The writing is competent, but fails to rise to the level of art. The story itself is derivative, as are the characters that people it. Despite claims to the contrary, the Potter books do not belong on shelves alongside Robert Louis Stevenson, C. S. Lewis, Frances Hodgson Burnett, J. R. R. Tolkien, Lewis Carroll, and Madeleine L'Engle. The truth of the matter is that they stand to classic children's [End Page 862] literature as the Star Wars trilogy (soon to be sextet) stands to the films of Hollywood's golden age. And like the Star Wars films, the Potter phenomenon is just one more example of the invisible hand of the marketplace picking our pockets. Yet adults seem to be as transported by Harry and his adventures as their children. Why? And perhaps more important, why now?
The Potter books indeed have their charms. To give Rowling credit, she has created an alternative world that works, that has its own internal logic and value system. Harry is good; Lord Voldemort, his nemesis and the murderer of his parents, is not. The "war" between them provides the pivot around which events in the series revolve. But this is not the only conflict. There is a deliberate contrast between the world of technology, and the consumerism for which it is responsible, and the world at Hogwarts; in short, a conflict between technology and magic. Vernon Dursley, for example, is director of Grunnings, a firm that makes drills. His son, the insufferable Dudley, a materialistic and greedy lout, is given to counting his presents and howling when there aren't enough of them. On his birthday he receives a computer, a second television, a racing bike, video camera, remote control airplane, sixteen new computer games, a gold wristwatch, and a videocassette recorder among his thirty-seven gifts--the fruits of a technological society, so to speak. Harry, of course, gets nothing. Dudley also enjoys eating hamburgers, and going to adventure parks and movies. Harry is only allowed to tag along. When the giant Rubeus Hagrid brings Harry his invitation to Hogwarts, all this changes. Suddenly it is Harry who...