By Crispin Sartwell
The idea of fantasy - as a literary genre and as an everyday activity - surely implies dissatisfaction with reality. And since reality itself is often vicious and annoying, and ourselves within it clumsy, stupid, and vulnerable to disaster, this dissatisfaction is inevitable. In a world to which our senses and imaginations are dulled by routine, we yearn for the moment of magic that will refresh us.
Rarely, however, have the hunger for fantasy and the profitability of satisfying it reached quite the hysterical heights associated with the Harry Potter phenomenon. We are about to be pinned again under millions of boulder-sized bound volumes.
As someone who, through no fault of my own, has read the first four books aloud several times and seen the first two movies on the first day of release, then bought the DVDs, I'm going to have a crack at explaining the "Harry Potter phenomenon."
It is surely not based on literary merit. J.K. Rowling - routinely referred to as "England's wealthiest woman" - is at best a workmanlike writer, at worst, labored and interminable. Though somewhere in the flood there always floats a pretty crisp plot with an exciting climax, we have to wade through hundreds of pages Quidditch matches and red herrings to get to the inevitable final showdown. The characters of little interest, with Harry himself an everykid in the Charlie Brown mode and the rest performing according to type.
One redeeming feature is a very clever sense of children's consumerism passed through the possibility of magic: Bertie Bott's Everyflavor Beans, for example, and a world of brooms with remarkable similarity to the world of skateboards with which, as a skater-punk's dad, I am familiar. This surely separates Rowling from classics such as Tolkien and Lewis, and marks her as a contemporary.
But one important difference between Hogwarts and the worlds of Middle Earth and Narnia is that Potter's reality is our own. In the Narnia books, children travel unexpectedly to a world more or less completely disjoint from this one, while Tolkien is not even concerned with the passage, inventing, in a truly singular act of imagination, a world, from its creation to its disenchantment tens of thousands of years later.
Like an atheist who looks at a tortilla and sees the unmistakable face of the Virgin Mary, Harry wakes one day from a miserable childhood to discover that his very home is infested with the miraculous, though he'd never noticed it before, and that he himself is a changeling, a wizard among Muggles. Before long, he's wand-shopping invisible alleys in the middle of London, catching a train invisible to mortals from a real station, and headed for secret wizarding school.
A feeling of displacement, and the intuition that something just beyond the sensible makes sense of that displacement, is surely common to many kids, and to many adults. The notion that our displacement could suddenly collapse as we find our true identity and our true home is the form itself of fantasy. The belief that there is enchantment available even in this fundamentally dull and unfortunate life is a way to express the hope of almost everyone.
The key to the Harry Potter effect is to hold the mundane and the enchanted world in solution: that, essentially, is where the compelling quality comes from. It is not altogether dissimilar to standing in the grocery line, reading in the Weekly World News of the latest travails of Batboy. But it is also the source of the real incoherence at the heart of Rowling's books, what makes them completely unbelievable.
Rowling gives no account of the source or possibility or limits of magic in the everyday world. Magic is continuously erupting into everyday people's everyday experiences and then being withdrawn by omnipotent dei ex machina: memory wipes and time reversals, for instance. The effect, finally, is to make it clear that the world Rowling creates out of our world is completely impossible and incoherent, as if you plunked Narnia down in East Texas and expected no one to notice.
And if you think magic cannot be explored in a sensible way, then I would direct you to the great fantasy novels of Patricia McKillip, in particular the "Riddle-Master" trilogy, in which the origin and scope of magic is rendered natural and profoundly comprehensible.
Even sheer fantasy takes on a compelling quality from its internal coherence, or the notion that there's some way to get from here to there. And precisely because Rowling's world is continuous with our own, and because she hasn't really tried to think through the implications of that fact, the fantasy has more in common with Batboy than with literary fantasy classics.
And that's why, though Potter may sell 9.5 million copies next week, the books are not going to take up a place with Lewis and Tolkien and McKillip. When I battle through to that last page, I intend to put away childish things.
Crispin Sartwell writes from Railroad, PA. His email address is email@example.com