Everyone has something to say about Harry Potter. It is such a major phenomenon that people can’t keep themselves from talking about it, but in truth Harry Potter is dreadful and vulgar—and that is not a bad thing.
My first encounter with Harry Potter books began seven years ago because of the firestorm of controversy that surrounded the books, and its supposed dalliance with witchcraft. I found that my students were arguing about the merits of the series, and I had no idea whether or not they were right. To better understand what everyone was talking about I read Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. I devoured the book, and in the next few days read Chamber of Secrets and Prisoner of Azkaban. I had become a Potter admirer (of course, strictly for academic reasons).
Many who consider themselves academic are embarrassed to admit the guilty pleasure of popular literature, and in our public capacity believe it is our duty to point out that Harry Potter is not Dante’s Inferno. For some reason critics think that if people quit reading popular novels and spent more time immersed in the work of Homer or Spenser the world would be more ethical and beautiful place.
In the mid to late nineteenth century there was a new literary phenomenon called “dime store novels” or in England “penny dreadfuls.” These works of popular literature were usually focused on topics like the Wild West, detective stories or romance. The growth of the penny dreadful had to do with the technological advances in publishing, the ability to transport the books throughout the country, and the exploding growth in the literacy rate. They were sensational in quality, and formulaic in style. The bad guys were taking advantage of poor widows, and the good guys saved the poor widow woman and her ranch (usually ending the life of the bad guy in the process).
Many people at the time were decrying the proliferation of theses novels because of their sensationalist nature. It was claimed by some that the youth of the day were being encouraged to live an immoral life because of these books, and, therefore, these paperbacks should be removed from stores in favor of much more robust readings (Aeschylus?). This nineteenth century criticism has a familiar ring to it when you read some of the critique leveled at the Harry Potter series. Harry Potter is bad because it will lead children to practice witchcraft or become blatantly disobedience of adult authority. It was thought that children should be encouraged to read books that articulate a more overt ethical stance, and, of course, were of a much higher literary caliber.
In 1901 GK Chesterton wrote an article entitled, “In Defense of Penny Dreadfuls.” In it he states that we fail to realize the importance of popular literature.
One of the strangest examples of the degree to which ordinary life is undervalued is the example of popular literature, the vast mass of which we contentedly describe as vulgar. The boy’s novelette may be ignorant in a literary sense, which is only like saying that modern novel is ignorant in the chemical sense, or the economic sense, or the astronomical sense; but it is not vulgar intrinsically–it is the actual centre of a million flaming imaginations.
Chesterton believes that popular literature appeals to the common (vulgar) in all of us, and that they are a necessary part of our human existence. The fact that it is not of a high literary quality should not minimize its importance. He states:
It [penny dreadfuls] has no more claim to be good literature than the daily conversation of its readers to be fine oratory, or the lodging-houses and tenements they inhabit to be sublime architecture. But people must have conversation, they must have houses, and they must have stories. The simple need for some kind of ideal world in which fictitious persons play an unhampered part is infinitely deeper and older than the rules of good art, and much more important. . Every one of us in childhood has constructed such an invisible dramatis personae, but it never occurred to our nurses to correct the composition by careful comparison with Balzac [19th century French Novelist].
The life of the imagination is fortified by the foundations of the ideal. Works of imaginative fiction encourage human flourishing by pointing us to the ideal, and Chesterton himself states that, “Literature is a luxury; fiction is a necessity.” So we can live without brilliant writers, but we cannot live without fiction itself.
While it is true that popular literature does not come up to the same standards of literary classics—popular literature draws from the same moral foundations as do many of the classics. Chesterton asserts that many of penny dreadfuls of his day did precisely the same thing as Scott’s Ivanhoe, Scott’s Rob Roy, Scott’s Lady of the Lake, Byron’s Corsair, Wordsworth’s Rob Roy’s Grave, Stevenson’s Macaire, Mr. Max Pemberton’s Iron Pirate, and a thousand more works distributed systematically as prizes and Christmas presents.
What makes these works of both classic and popular literature of real worth is that they are grounded in a transcendent understanding of what is good.
So much of what is considered important and thought provoking in sophisticate literary circles is really just a veneer over truly despicable ideas. It is modern literature and its belief in its own sophistication and cutting edge ideas that has often truly gone astray.
In Chesterton’s time this is no different. He points out:
Yet they have far more right to do so than we; for they, with all their idiocy, are normal and we are abnormal. It is the modern literature of the educated, not of the uneducated, which is avowedly and aggressively criminal. Books recommending profligacy and pessimism, at which the high-souled errand-boy would shudder, lie upon all our drawing-room tables… And with a hypocrisy so ludicrous as to be almost unparalleled in history, we rate the gutter-boys for their immorality at the very time that we are discussing (with equivocal German professors) whether morality is valid at all.
The world of Harry Potter is grounded in transcendent truth. In J.K. Rowling’s magical world there is no doubt about the fact that there is good and evil. It may be difficult to determine who is good or evil (Snape), but whether or not good exists is never in question. Heroic acts are lauded by the good people, and pencil-pushing bureaucrats who are legalist for the sake of legalism are seen as not truly understanding the fight between good and evil. You learn that good is worth fighting for even when it puts you in mortal danger. It is because Rowling draws from the transcendent that we so resonate with her fiction.
It is good that Harry Potter is dreadful and vulgar. It appeals to those of humanity who, according to Chesterton, “have never doubted and never will doubt that courage is splendid, that fidelity is noble, that distressed ladies should be rescued, and vanquished enemies spared.” It fights against the destructive work of many in academic circles who question the foundational morality of humanity. It is popular works like Harry Potter that are, as Chesterton puts it, “blood and thunder literature, as simple as the thunder of heaven and the blood of men.”