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Harry Potter and the Extraordinariness of the Ordinary

From: The Lion and the Unicorn
Volume 25, Number 2, April 2001
pp. 310-327 | 10.1353/uni.2001.0024

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The Lion and the Unicorn 25.2 (2001) 310-327

I like the Harry Potter books because they are like real life but more interesting.

--Melissa Stevens, 14

Harry is like a real boy -- except that he's a wizard!

--Sarah McKenna, 10

Harry begins his journey at eleven years old, an age associated with coming into consciousness, particularly for boys, and particularly in England, when children begin their "serious" study to prepare them for adult life. What Harry discovers on his eleventh birthday is that he is a wizard, that he has powers he intuits but, as is true of most childhood knowledge, does not consciously recognize. He had noticed that strange things happened to him: his hair grew back overnight after his aunt sheared it off; the sweater she tried to force him to wear kept getting smaller when she tried to pull it over his head. A most hilarious scene occurs at the zoo where the caged boa winks at him, after sleeping through his cousin Dudley's command to "'Make it move,'" and, as it makes its escape amid "howls of horror," Harry "could have sworn a low hissing voice said, 'Brazil, here I come. . . . Thanksss, amigo'" (Sorcerer's Stone 28). He does not connect these events with his own power. Like most orphans, Harry has little sense of having any power at all.

Like most orphan heroes, he will need to be unusually sensitive, almost vigilant, particularly since he has been raised by hostile relatives against whom his sensibility absolutely grates. He has to make his own choices, as Rowling pointed out in a National Public Radio (NPR) interview, without the benefit of "access to adults," the "safety net of many children who have loving parents or guardians."

However extreme this situation, it only epitomizes what I believe at one time every child feels -- that she is on her own, unacknowledged, unappreciated, unseen, and unheard, up against an unfair parent, and by extension, an unfair world. Justice and the lack of it reign supreme in the literature of childhood, where our first sense of the world is often so astutely recorded. "But it's not fair" is a phrase that stands out from my childhood and continues to resonate for me even now. I am reminded of E. B. White's opening to the beloved classic, Charlotte's Web: "'Where's Poppa going with that axe?'" White's hero, Fern, protests against the adults' Darwinian treatment of animals, those creatures closest to her child-sensibility: "'But it's unfair! . . . The pig couldn't help being born small. . . . If I had been very small at birth,'" she accuses, "'would you have killed me?'" (3).

And what could be more unfair than losing your parents as a baby? The orphan archetype embodies the childhood task of learning to deal with an unfair world. I am also reminded of Jane Eyre at ten years old, thrashing around in her awareness of her unjust treatment at the hands of her aunt and cousins. Harry, like his great Victorian predecessors, is a kind of Everychild, vulnerable in his powerlessness, but as he discovers his strengths, he releases a new source of vitality into the world. He becomes the child-hero of his own story, like Dickens's "favorite child," the orphan hero of David Copperfield, whose story begins, "Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show" (1). The Harry Potter stories chronicle the process of the child's movement from the initial consciousness of himself as the central character in his story, a singular preoccupation with self, to a sense of his own power and responsibility to a larger community.

Harry Potter has been raised by the Dursleys, who pride themselves on being "perfectly normal" (Sorcerer's Stone 1)--a sign that this story will assert the unconventional, even the eccentric. Harry will provide a resistance to normality that, Rowling suggests, is necessary for inclusiveness, for the individual and the community to prosper. Mr. Dursley, director of Grunnings, which makes drills, is a brutal, "beefy man with hardly any neck" (1...

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