What is the secret of the explosive and worldwide success of the Harry Potter books? Why do they satisfy children and — a much harder question — why do so many adults read them? I think part of the answer to the first question is that they are written from inside a child's-eye view, with a sure instinct for childish psychology. But then how do we answer the second question? Surely one precludes the other.
The easy question first. Freud described what he called the "family romance," in which a young child, dissatisfied with its ordinary home and parents, invents a fairy tale in which it is secretly of noble origin, and may even be marked out as a hero who is destined to save the world. In J. K. Rowling's books, Harry is the orphaned child of wizards who were murdered trying to save his life. He lives, for unconvincingly explained reasons, with his aunt and uncle, the truly dreadful Dursleys, who represent, I believe, his real "real" family, and are depicted with a relentless, gleeful, overdone venom. The Dursleys are his true enemy. When he arrives at wizarding school, he moves into a world where everyone, good and evil, recognizes his importance, and tries either to protect or destroy him.
The family romance is a latency-period fantasy, belonging to the drowsy years between 7 and adolescence. In "Order of the Phoenix," Harry, now 15, is meant to be adolescent. He spends a lot of the book becoming excessively angry with his protectors and tormentors alike. He discovers that his late (and "real") father was not a perfect magical role model, but someone who went in for fits of nasty playground bullying. He also discovers that his mind is linked to the evil Lord Voldemort, thereby making him responsible in some measure for acts of violence his nemesis commits.
In psychoanalytic terms, having projected his childish rage onto the caricature Dursleys, and retained his innocent goodness, Harry now experiences that rage as capable of spilling outward, imperiling his friends. But does this mean Harry is growing up? Not really. The perspective is still child's-eye. There are no insights that reflect someone on the verge of adulthood. Harry's first date with a female wizard is unbelievably limp, filled with an 8-year-old's conversational maneuvers.
Auden and Tolkien wrote about the skills of inventing "secondary worlds." Ms. Rowling's world is a secondary secondary world, made up of intelligently patchworked derivative motifs from all sorts of children's literature — from the jolly hockey-sticks school story to Roald Dahl, from
The important thing about this particular secondary world is that it is symbiotic with the real modern world. Magic, in myth and fairy tales, is about contacts with the inhuman — trees and creatures, unseen forces. Most fairy story writers hate and fear machines. Ms. Rowling's wizards shun them and use magic instead, but their world is a caricature of the real world and has trains, hospitals, newspapers and competitive sport. Much of the real evil in the later books is caused by newspaper gossip columnists who make Harry into a dubious celebrity, which is the modern word for the chosen hero. Most of the rest of the evil (apart from Voldemort) is caused by bureaucratic interference in educational affairs.
Ms. Rowling's magic world has no place for the numinous. It is written for people whose imaginative lives are confined to TV cartoons, and the exaggerated (more exciting, not threatening) mirror-worlds of soaps, reality TV and celebrity gossip. Its values, and everything in it, are, as Gatsby said of his own world when the light had gone out of his dream, "only personal." Nobody is trying to save or destroy anything beyond Harry Potter and his friends and family.
So, yes, the attraction for children can be explained by the powerful working of the fantasy of escape and empowerment, combined with the fact that the stories are comfortable, funny, just frightening enough.
They comfort against childhood fears as Georgette Heyer once comforted us against the truths of the relations between men and women, her detective stories domesticating and blanket-wrapping death. These are good books of their kind. But why would grown-up men and women become obsessed by jokey latency fantasies?
Comfort, I think, is part of the reason. Childhood reading remains potent for most of us. In a recent BBC survey of the top 100 "best reads," more than a quarter were children's books. We like to regress. I know that part of the reason I read Tolkien when I'm ill is that there is an almost total absence of sexuality in his world, which is restful.
But in the case of the great children's writers of the recent past, there was a compensating seriousness. There was — and is — a real sense of mystery, powerful forces, dangerous creatures in dark forests. Susan Cooper's teenage wizard discovers his magic powers and discovers simultaneously that he is in a cosmic battle between good and evil forces. Every bush and cloud glitters with secret significance. Alan Garner peoples real landscapes with malign, inhuman elvish beings that hunt humans.
Reading writers like these, we feel we are being put back in touch with earlier parts of our culture, when supernatural and inhuman creatures — from whom we thought we learned our sense of good and evil — inhabited a world we did not feel we controlled. If we regress, we regress to a lost sense of significance we mourn for. Ursula K. Le Guin's wizards inhabit an anthropologically coherent world where magic really does act as a force. Ms. Rowling's magic wood has nothing in common with these lost worlds. It is small, and on the school grounds, and dangerous only because she says it is.
In this regard, it is magic for our time. Ms. Rowling, I think, speaks to an adult generation that hasn't known, and doesn't care about, mystery. They are inhabitants of urban jungles, not of the real wild. They don't have the skills to tell ersatz magic from the real thing, for as children they daily invested the ersatz with what imagination they had.
Similarly, some of Ms. Rowling's adult readers are simply reverting to the child they were when they read the Billy Bunter books, or invested Enid Blyton's pasteboard kids with their own childish desires and hopes. A surprising number of people — including many students of literature — will tell you they haven't really lived in a book since they were children. Sadly, being taught literature often destroys the life of the books. But in the days before dumbing down and cultural studies no one reviewed Enid Blyton or Georgette Heyer — as they do not now review the great Terry Pratchett, whose wit is metaphysical, who creates an energetic and lively secondary world, who has a multifarious genius for strong parody as opposed to derivative manipulation of past motifs, who deals with death with startling originality. Who writes amazing sentences.It is the substitution of celebrity for heroism that has fed this phenomenon. And it is the leveling effect of cultural studies, which are as interested in hype and popularity as they are in literary merit, which they don't really believe exists. It's fine to compare the Brontës with bodice-rippers. It's become respectable to read and discuss what Roland Barthes called "consumable" books. There is nothing wrong with this, but it has little to do with the shiver of awe we feel looking through Keats's "magic casements, opening on the foam/Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn."
A.S. Byatt, 'Harry Potter and the Childish Adult', New York Times, 7 July 2003