Potter in the past

The success of Harry Potter owes something to their roots in the old, somewhat reactionary, boarding school genre
October 19, 2000

Image: alvarezperea

Just in case you don't know: Harry Potter is an orphan who lives with his aunt and uncle in a boring suburb. On his 11th birthday he discovers that he is really a wizard, the child of a magical family. Leaving King's Cross station from the magical platform nine-and-three-quarters, he is transported to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, where he has various adventures, comic and serious. There are plenty of japes and jokes, but ultimately Harry is engaged in a struggle with a supernatural force of evil, in the person of the Lord Voldemort. In 1997 JK Rowling published Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, to be succeeded by Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Three more books are promised. In terms of advance publicity and immediate sales, Goblet of Fire must be the most successful novel of all time.

The scheme of the child passing from real life into an alternative or fantasy world (and usually returning to reality again) originates, of course, with Lewis Carroll. It has been borrowed time and again since: it is the basis of Peter Pan, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, CS Lewis's Narnia books and Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are. But Rowling gives an odd twist to this theme. We expect the real world to be prosaic, and the otherworld to be untrammelled by the laws of ordinary nature, but she comes close to reversing this pattern. The Dursleys, Harry's guardian family, are very nasty-fairytale nasty. They are Cinderella's wicked step-parents, keeping Harry in a cupboard under the stairs. Their son Dudley keeps bullying Harry; grotesquely fat and preposterously spoilt, he plays the role of the Ugly Sisters. Harry even has a strange scar on his forehead, like the birthmark which identifies the prince or princess in many a romance. So the real world is made exotically horrible, while by contrast, the running joke about the magical world is that it is as humdrum, bureaucratic and businesslike as anywhere else. It is controlled by a Ministry of Magic; the Minister wears a green bowler hat and pinstripe robes. Hogwarts sends out a list of the kit which new boys need to bring with them, just like any other boarding school, although other schools may not ask for a cauldron and a pointed hat. A wizard's arts are acquired not supernaturally but by years of study: the more you swot, the more magic you will be able to do.

This turns upside down the common habit of science fiction. In the hands of a master like HG Wells, the pseudo-science is ingeniously worked out and given a kind of plausibility, but in much second-rate fantasy, from Dracula to Superman, what is presented as science is really magic: though Van Helsing is supposed to be a scientific investigator, only magic can make Dracula turn into a bat, and despite some nonsense about kryptonite and so on, only magic can make a person in human form speed effortlessly through the air or put on underpants in a nanosecond. In the Harry Potter stories, by contrast, what is declared to be magic seems more like an alternative science, an otherworld set of physical laws to be learnt in the classroom. The paradoxical upshot is that these books have rather little magical atmosphere. Rowling's subversive jokiness makes the flying broomsticks and metamorphosing sweets into a series of conjuring tricks or comic turns. The magic does not need to be glamorous, for the glamour lies elsewhere: in escaping the Dursleys, Harry escapes from the start of a fairy story not into reality exactly, but at least into a genre of fiction which purports to be naturalistic-the public school story.

The school story is a peculiarly English genre. The originating work is Thomas Hughes's Tom Brown's Schooldays (1857), in which several elements of the genre are already present: the wise, worshipped headmaster (in Tom Brown, Dr Arnold; in the Harry Potter books, Professor Albus Dumbledore) and the bully (in Tom Brown, Flashman; in Harry Potter, Draco Malfoy). By the end of the 19th century the school story was an established form, with writers such as Talbot Baines Reed, author of The Fifth Form at St Dominic's, turning out a succession of such works. Particularly influential were two men who were not writers for boys: FW Farrar and Rudyard Kipling.

Farrar, who became Dean of Canterbury, was a master at Harrow when he published Eric, or Little by Little, in 1858. St Winifred's followed in 1862. Only a writer of genuine talent could have produced works as deeply bad as these. Their fetid atmosphere of moral panic and clammy religiosity may seem hardly credible to those who have not read them. The boys are stalked by fearful spiritual perils, signalled in language so impenetrable that the best-brought-up child must have had trouble understanding it.

These books are pervaded by a half-erotic morbidity. In the middle of Eric, the most pious boy in the school dies, apparently of terminal priggishness. Later on, Eric's little brother perishes (falling over a cliff) and, lastly, Eric himself. St Winifred's, we are told early on in the later book, is a good school; only one boy dies from overwork in the hero's first term. Boys continue to fall over cliffs, but this time the story has a happy ending (though we learn in an epilogue that the hero's pretty little brother grows up to be a missionary and is clubbed to death by howling savages on a Pacific shore). What is most extraordinary about these stories to the modern reader is the blatant exhibition of Farrar's pederastic and sadistic impulses (of which this high-minded man must presumably have been entirely unaware). In Eric, one of the masters, the wise and saintly Mr Rose-all too obviously Farrar's idealised vision of himself-publicly beats a miscreant, who writhes, blubbers and begs unavailingly for mercy-while his schoolfellows look on, cheering. (Mr Rose then rushes away to fall on his knees in grateful prayer.) Eric himself, after running away from school, is so savagely flogged by sailors that he dies of his injuries (there is some juicy description of the rope lashing into the boy's naked back and the blood dribbling from his white and tender skin). It is bizarre to think that the young had this stuff pressed on them by their elders.

Like the schools in Farrar's books, Hogwarts is the field for a struggle between supernatural forces of good and evil. That may seem to be mere coincidence, but it is not so entirely, for Farrar's importance is in establishing the public school as a site for dramatic conflict; this tradition, at several removes, has been inherited by Rowling. Kipling's originality, on the other hand, lay in bringing the spirit of antinomianism to the school story. The tales that make up Stalky & Co (1899) are not free from Kipling's peculiar nastiness. One of them describes how Stalky and his chums plant a dead cat in the rafters of a rival boys' house so that the stench of its decomposing body will mock their reputation for hygiene. But Kipling's virtue is to recognise that the schoolboy world is its own place, its values independent of adults. Kipling also establishes the much imitated idea of a small gang of cronies (one of whom is often the "intellectual" of the party). Stalky's sidekicks are M'Turk and the bookish Beetle, modelled on Kipling himself. Whether by chance or not, this pattern is replicated in the Potter books, in which the gang consists of Harry and his best friends Ron and the bookish Hermione (who Rowling has said, similarly, contains a good deal of herself).

Stalky has had more effect on the 20th century than is realised. He was an important influence on the young PG Wodehouse, who began as a writer of school stories, and on Frank Richards, who took on a good deal of Kipling's invented schoolboy argot wholesale. "Frank Richards" was actually Charles Hamilton, who almost single-handed for 30 years up to the time of the second world war wrote a weekly story about Greyfriars School in the Magnet comic, and St Jim's in the Gem (in the latter magazine under the name Martin Clifford). As George Orwell observed in his classic essay, "Boys' Weeklies," these magazines were widely read by lower-middle and working-class children, and spread the school story deeply into the popular consciousness. Greyfriars and St Jim's are in many ways reborn in Hogwarts, and indeed some of Rowling's nomenclature has the Frank Richards flavour. At Greyfriars the nasty master is Quelch, who squelches people; at Hogwarts he is Snape, who snaps at them (and is like a snake: the serpent is the emblem of the house in his charge). In the Gem and Magnet the principal boy villains are Loder, Racke and Crooke; in the Potter books, Malfoy, Crabbe and Goyle.

Richards's Billy Bunter, the Fat Owl of the Remove, brought an element of farce into the school story, but there is a more immediate influence on Rowling's comedy: Nigel Molesworth. The four Molesworth books, written by Geoffrey Willans and brilliantly illustrated by Ronald Searle, came out in the 1950s. These are the misspelled lucubrations of a prep-school boy; there is no narrative as such, but a free flow of satire, parody and fantasy (they are not much like anything else, although the jokes about the syllabus bear some resemblance to 1066 and All That). I loved them when I was Molesworth's age, and 40 years on they still seem to me very funny. Childish in a way, they are also highly perceptive: like Osbert Lancaster's last masterpiece, The Littlehampton Bequest, this is comedy which says more about the sociology of the English upper or upper-middle class than a dozen academic volumes.

Molesworth is not be found in The Oxford Companion to English Literature (which finds room for Farrar and Frank Richards) or in The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, although I suspect that some of his phrases are among the most quoted from, among books of the last half century. Like Stalky, Molesworth has affected them more than most people know. He is, after The Diary of a Nobody, the principal influence on Sue Townsend's The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole aged 13 and three quarters, a debt acknowledged in her title. And Rowling is evidently another admirer. Nomenclature is again a clue. Molesworth's school is called St Custard's, and there is mention of a public school called Grunts; the influence of both names may be subliminally present in Rowling's Hogwarts. But in fact the borrowing is more direct: in How to be Topp there is a cod Latin play, "The Hogwarts," by Marcus Plautus Molesworthus, and Hoggwart is also the name given to the headmaster of Porridge Court, a rival academy. (As far as I know, no one has yet noticed this-a Prospect scoop?) Even Harry Potter's appearance, with his round glasses and perpetually untidy hair, seems to be modelled on Molesworth as drawn by Searle. What this Quellenforschung indicates is that a wacky, farcical humour is at the heart of Rowling's original conception; it is the later books which increasingly subordinate it to a graver kind of adventure.

Though Rowling is a comedian, she is hardly at all a satirist, and perhaps the most surprising feature of these books is their lusty immersion in the ethos of public-school fiction. We can contrast Hogwarts with another school which is currently under attack from supernatural evil: Sunnydale High. But whereas in Buffy the Vampire Slayer the demons have somehow got into a perfectly ordinary Californian high school (well, ordinary except for the presence of a drippy Limey and the absence of drink, drugs and acne), the point of Hogwarts is that it is grand and special. The school is a thousand years old (which makes Winchester seem arriviste). If you have enough school spirit, you can read about it in Hogwarts: A History. Swotty Hermione's devotion to this volume is presented as faintly absurd but also admirable. The school is housed in a medieval castle, first glimpsed across a stretch of water (like the view of Windsor from Eton, perhaps?). Some of the pupils are from families which have gone to Hogwarts for generations. Even the devil is an old boy, more or less: rather as Captain Hook turned to piracy after failing to get elected to Pop at Eton, so the Lord Voldemort was a pupil at Hogwarts who went off the rails and had to take up cosmic evil instead. At Hogwarts you wear a special uniform-robes. There is a special school sport, called Quidditch (the Eton wall game?). You change into different robes to play this, each house having its own colours (house spirit is very strong at Hogwarts). There is lots of feasting, and plenty of banter in the house common room.

Unusually among school stories, the Potter books genuinely admire academic values, but in a very traditional form. The teachers, who are all called Professor, eat together on a high table at the end of the great hall-a touch of Oxbridge here, or even of Tractarian Oxford: none of the teachers appears to be married. This is a school with compulsory Latin (in effect): the spells, which have to be learnt in class, are all in a kind of garbled Latin (in the latest volume, one is even in real Latin). Even the teachers have Latin names: Albus, Severus, Minerva. Hogwarts, it would appear, is archaic on principle-not only the sole school in Britain without a computer, but a place where you write on rolls of parchment with quill pens. (The love of traditional inefficiency seems to be endemic in the magical world: the unit of currency is the Galleon, with 17 silver Sickles to the Galleon, and 29 Knuts to the Sickle. This is the old £sd system made even more inconvenient, quixotically resistant to the Voldemorts of Brussels.) You travel to Hogwarts not just by railway but by steam train; because wizards can move from place to place in no time at all by using magic, this mode of transport seems quite unnecessary, but it is much more fun.

By contrast, the dreadful Dursleys, outside the magical world, are modern. Mr Dursley works in industry: he is a director of a firm that makes drills, called Grunnings (overtones of "grungy," "grinding"). Dudley Dursley is devoted to computer games. In contrast to them stands the magical Weasley family. Mr Weasley is a gentleman (his family have gone to Hogwarts for generations) and he does a gentleman's job (as a civil servant); and although he works in London, at the Ministry of Magic, the Weasleys live in the style of upper-class bohemianism in the country, in a rambling old house of picturesque charm. Harry's escape from the Dursleys to Hogwarts is a fairy-tale deliverance, but his visit to the Weasleys-one of the most strongly felt episodes in any of the four books-is presented in the terms of a Bildungsroman: here he discovers the enchantments that breathe from inherited culture and ease of manner. This is where he can feel at home: the associations of his own name, after all, are traditional, rural, arts-and-crafts: pottery, Beatrix Potter, pottering around. (He shares his christian name, of course, with young royalty.) Aunt Petunia, who is herself called after a suburban flower and lives in Privet Drive, called after a suburban shrub, observes that Harry is a nasty, common name-where has she been?

The social set-up at Hogwarts is also remarkably old-fashioned; it feels less like the 1990s than the 1950s-the Molesworth period. Deference is back. Hogsmeade, the nearest settlement, is a sort of estate village, servicing the posh boys and girls up at the school: we are shown it as a Dickensian Christmas card, with thatched cottages and shops, covered in snow, glimpsed from a cosy interior through the mullioned windows (all credit to Rowling for risking the word "mullioned," though not for the banality of the picture). Hagrid, the faithful retainer at the gates, was once a pupil at Hogwarts, expelled for an offence which for a while is nameless (it turns out that he took the rap for another boy who was actually guilty-a favourite ploy in school fiction). But in leaving the school he has become literally declasse: whereas everyone else at Hogwarts talks in RP, Hagrid is the one person in the saga who is given a lower-class accent (estuarine? rustic?-it is hard to make out quite what it is meant to be). As a Hogwarts boy or girl you can enjoy sneering at the non-magical multitude as Muggles (oiks)-though this feature of magical life seems to have embarrassed Rowling, who makes some adjustments in her second volume. It is now implied that Muggle is a neutral term, and it is nasty Malfoy who uses the new rude word, "mudblood" and snobbishly boasts about his family's distinction. He derides nice Mr Weasley as a "Muggle-lover." But this does not change things much: liberal tolerance is one of the luxuries of good birth, and Mr Weasley remains unassailably one of the gentry.

In some respects Hogwarts has moved with the times: there is no fagging or beating, and the school is coeducational. In Philosopher's Stone it is mentioned that one pupil has dreadlocks, and another is called Parvati Patil; in later installments the ethnic quota at the school is self-consciously increased. But it is hard not to feel that these kids have got in on assisted places. Despite the co-education, it is also striking how much these books remain boys' stories. There is plenty of the Frank Richards spirit, but not a trace of Angela Brazil or Enid Blyton; if readers did not know that Rowling was female, few would have guessed it.

All the girl characters except one are ciphers. Hermione, introduced as a comic swot, is soon allowed to be one of Harry's best friends, but at the cost of being a schoolboy's idea of a schoolgirl. Molesworth has her number: "gurls," he explains, are "intent, eager, keen ect. in class, and stick their hands up excitedly when the teacher asks a question"-just like Rowling's Hermione. (And since no real child has been christened Hermione in the last 20 years, it may be worth noticing that this is one of the few female names to drop from Molesworth's blotchy pen.) In Goblet of Fire Hermione is given sexual stirrings, and angrily protests to the boys that it has taken them four years to notice that she is a girl, but one may feel that it is really Rowling who has only just realised it. In Chamber of Secrets it is hilariously soppy for a boy to be keen on a girl-a blush-making secret to be kept well hidden. Rowling changes this in Goblet of Fire, but in a half-hearted and pretty unconvincing way.

The enthusiasm of the young, and indeed many of their parents, for this apparently traditionalist stuff may make the neophilia of early-period Blairism seem a little sad. But are the world's children, from Stuttgart to Sydney, being unwittingly seduced by a reactionary fantasy? I don't think so. It is no more surprising to learn that Rowling has no personal experience of the boarding-school world about which she writes than it is to recognise that PG Wodehouse did not spend his best years shinning down drainpipes with the younger sons of earls. And few people, I think, believe that reading about Bertie Wooster and Lord Emsworth is an indulgence in snob-fantasy (as reading Barbara Cartland is). To enter Wodehouse's world, or Rowling's, is to enter an imaginary structure which does not take itself too seriously. What the popularity of Hogwarts does suggest is that people like a lively modernity to coexist with pleasure in tradition, and that a healthy fondness for the past is one in which genuine affection need not exclude a touch of wry irony. That is not such a bad lesson to learn.

But we may still ask: why has Rowling been so staggeringly successful? In part, the Potter phenomenon can be seen as one of those children's crazes which come and go, like My Little Pony or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or Pokemon. But although there is a touch of truth in this-some children adore Harry Potter because they know they are meant to-there are big differences between the Potter cult and these other crazes. One is that the other crazes were manufactured by marketing men, whereas Harry's fame spread spontaneously, by word of mouth. Another difference is that Harry demands some effort from his devotees, and gets it: lots of children are reading these books, with genuine enjoyment. Essentially, Rowling owes her success to her own talent. Parents amazed to find their children-teenagers included-actually wanting to read a book, can agree that she has earned every one of her millions.

Rowling has that gift, so hard to analyse, of natural story-telling; her narrative is both gripping and amusing. The plots are well-made and ingenious. Actually, there is really only one plot: a whodunnit in which one of the goodies turns out to be a baddy and one of the baddies proves to be a goody after all-all four books pretty much fit this pattern, with minor variations. (When I read Philosopher's Stone, I was not expecting the whodunnit element, and the twist in the tale took me by surprise, but by the time I reached Prisoner of Azkaban I was able to guess the main plot twist early on.) But if the basic pattern does not vary much, the plots are cleverly worked out, with some entertaining red herrings. Rowling's dialogue is excellent: her adults sound like adults and her children like children, addressing one another robustly, without sentimentality. Above all, she is completely without condescension: she makes you feel not that she is consciously writing for children but that she is telling the kind of story that comes to her naturally. She is not afraid to use words that her readers may not know-but children like to be stretched. Many children's books appeal separately to two audiences: the children hear one thing, the grown-ups another. Children are not meant to pick up the Freudian resonances in Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are or the allusions to the great god Pan in The Wind in the Willows. But when adults started reading Harry Potter, they found themselves enjoying the same things that their children enjoyed.

Rowling's weakness is in creating character. Harry himself is fine, as his are the eyes through which we see the stories; and he does not need to be a self-standing figure, seen from the outside. Hermione is the best character. Hagrid, the gruff giant who is a big softy at heart, started as a sentimental cliche and has become a crashing bore. Most of the caricature figures are crudely overdone. Those minor characters who are not comic cuts-especially Harry's schoolfellows-hardly deserve to be called characters. The much trailed death, in Goblet of Fire, of a character whom "we care about" turned out to be an anticlimax, because we did not care about him. Rowling's lack of talent for creating new characters may be one reason why she now appears to be having difficulty in opening out her story. An entertaining newcomer in Goblet of Fire, however, is the yellow journalist Rita Skeeter, schlock reporter for the Daily Prophet.

The reviews that I have read reckon Goblet of Fire to be at least as good as its three predecessors, but it seems to me a decided falling-off. Quidditch was always one of Rowling's less happy inventions: as a game it makes no sense. It was also a misjudgement to make Harry a sporting hero, dazzlingly good at Quidditch: his proper role is as the untidy little chap in giglamps who somehow saves the day. A hundred pages of the latest book are dominated by the Quidditch world cup; it is quite the feeblest thing Rowling has written. (She seems to have got fed up with the game herself: back at Hogwarts all Quidditch is stopped for a year, on the flimsiest of pretexts.)

The transformation of Quidditch from a Hogwarts game to a world-wide sport is a symptom of a ponderousness which weighs down the new book. The heart of the story, attractively enough, is a quest in which Harry has to pass through a series of ordeals, like Pamina and Tamino in The Magic Flute; but it is presented as part of an inter-school competition, with marks awarded by judges. It all seems so earthbound and laborious. Hogwarts is no longer unique: there are similar schools in other countries. Given Rowling's ethnic sensitivity, it is surprising that these are depicted in such hackneyed terms: the French are elegant and feminine, while the half-German, half-Slavic lot are the sinister Reds or Nazis of movie cliche.

The narrative of Goblet of Fire includes, startlingly, the news that a female agent of the Ministry of Magic has been tortured to death. Some reviewers have remarked that Rowling's imagination is getting darker, but it may be more that as her comic invention starts to falter she is feeling the need to look for ever more spectacular effects. Voldemort has become much more openly sadistic, but this has the paradoxical effect of making him less devilish. Whereas at the outset, his purpose seemed to be the corruption of the individual soul, his aim is now the acquisition of universal power. He is becoming less like a cosmic force of evil, more like a James Bond world-domination baddie. On the comic level, the new magical showpieces-Portkeys, Blast-Ended Skrewts, and the rest-may also remind us of the later Bond films, in which Q wearily has to come up with ever more elaborate gadgetry.

It is significant that the ontological status of Hogwarts has changed in Goblet of Fire. In the earlier books, when you found platform nine-and-three-quarters at King's Cross you entered an alternative universe: it was like Alice passing through the looking-glass, or the wardrobe which leads into Narnia. But now Hogwarts seems to be somewhere in the north of England: we are told that it exists in the space we inhabit-only a bit of magic makes Muggles unable to see it. This is symptomatic of a shift from fairytale to (more conventional) adventure story: the action of the first Potter books took place in wonderland, but it has now been transferred to our own world.

Where will Rowling go next? Over in California, Buffy and her friends have moved on from Sunnydale High to a college with an affirmative action policy on werewolves; and back here, Harry, too, is growing up. The Hogwarts setting is beginning to look like an impediment. One thing which now needs adjustment is the skewed balance between the forces of good and evil. The denouement of Philosopher's Stone is brilliant: Harry's escape from Voldemort proves, unexpectedly, to have been achieved through his own virtue and his dead mother's past self-sacrifice (readers will know why). This is the one moment in the saga when it comes close to the spiritual allegory of Narnia. In the later books, Voldemort and his cronies have enlarged their stature, while the good forces have dwindled into slightly sour comedy: the Ministry of Magic is bureaucratic and partly corrupt, the Council of Magical Law is pusillanimous. Increasingly, Dumbledore is being called on to play the part almost of God: there seems to be nothing beyond or behind him. But although headmasters may be admired, they should not be treated as divine. Like Harry Potter, Rowling has been inventive and resourceful but is now caught by the powers of evil in a trap from which there seems to be no easy escape. It is time for a bit of magic.