Magically Real explains the Harry Potter craze

Dear Magically Real:

Everyone including my sister in Kansas and my uncle in Dubai awaits the final movie installment of the Harry Potter series with hysterical anticipation, bordering on frenzy.  Frankly, I don’t get it.  Could you please clue me in as to what this JK Rowling phenom is about?

Very truly yours–

Committed to the Real

Dear Committed:

If you are a fan at all of Joseph’s Campbell’s Hero with a 1000 faces, you will recognize that the JK Rowling series contains all the features of the “Big Story”:  the quest-romance as both Joseph Campbell and Northrop Frye understand it.

But in our opinion, the fascination lies, not so much in the characters as in the magical space that is Hogwarts. Hogwarts incarnates a combination middle school, high school, and college for wizards and witches that the movies – with a greater or lesser degree of success – translate visually.

To our way of thinking, the use of school as a universal is not just smart – it’s genius.  We are all very different from each other, but most of us (although, sadly, not all) have had some encounter with the school.

And, Hogwarts fascinates because it boasts both the absolute, idyllic best and the extreme, horrifying worst that a school can be for us.

On one hand, Hogwarts encapsulates our fantasies of a school where, rather than being formed into boring adults we are changed into fascinating and creative people just bursting with agency.  Students learn how to transform themselves – literally – into other people, heal wounds, fix eyeglasses, and – most impressively – create a personal spirit protector that can blast away the biggest, scariest demonic energy-drainer.

Hogwarts, in short proposes the German philosophical idea of Bildung – the holistic education and transformation of the complete individual – a person ready to engage in civic matters, to take full part in the improvement of the world on every level.


On the very scary other hand, Hogwarts proves to be an exceedingly dangerous educational space, where students and faculty are increasingly terrorized, wounded, and killed.

Two specific spatial examples:

1.  The bathroom emerges as a treacherous locale where students kill themselves and/or attack each other.

2.  The classroom is depicted as the continual scene for power-struggles between teacher and student, and between students themselves, as the dissemination of useful knowledge becomes more and more rigorously repressed.

In short, Dear Committed – Hogwarts dramatizes in fantasmic form all the problems of poor beleaguered EDU – whether it is Professor Umbridge teaching to the test in a no-child-left-behind scenario, or the violent intent of students who want to kill the principal, as well as other students.  As he grows more secretive and agonized, Draco looks less and less like a cardboard school bully, and more like one of the shooters at Columbine.

Think about it:

The struggles throughout the series for control OVER Hogwarts, and the fact that is becomes the final battleground in the last book and final film, testify to its centrality to the proceedings.  And, if the DEATHLY HALLOWS 1 film felt flat to you (it did to us), the narrative’s lackluster may derive from the fact that the characters and the viewers are unmoored from the place that we all care about most – Hogwarts.

Some of us hated (or currently hate) school. Others of us loved (or continue to love) it.  But for most of us school is the frightening, wonderful, troubled, fascinating, and often very sad home-away-from-home that we indirectly recognize in the Harry Potter books and films.  This was where we meet the first adults who were not our parents, and where we developed our first extra-familial relationships with these intriguing (or boring) individuals.

At the school we found ourselves forced into roles that did not feel authentic, and we also –possibly glimpsed sides of ourselves that would prove liberating.

“It’s our choices that show what we truly are”, the late great Professor Dumbledore observes, and how wonderful that Rowling has the courage to make Hogwarts what the school must be in our time:  the embattled “scene of justice” as the late Bill Readings called it.

A place about something both larger and smaller than knowledge.

In our time of demolished universities and bankrupt schools, Hogwarts remains JK Rowling’s most poignant and interesting character.

Thanks for writing –

Very (un) truly yours –

Magically Real

5 thoughts on “Magically Real explains the Harry Potter craze

  1. This is spot on: the series’ social weight lies in its power to expose the forces of good as being ripe for fascistic fear-mongering in hard times, from the ministry to the sacred school itself. I particularly like how as the characters grow from kids into adults (while many in the audience do the same!), the series slowly reveals the crippling flaws in the school, until the tagline for movie 5 is “The only way is rebellion.” It’s chilling that the fims began one month after 9/11 and basically traced the loss of our freedoms. It’s like an ugly negative of the first decade of the 21st century.

    1. Fascinating point, Anthony — thanks so much for this. Your sense that HARRY POTTER represents an “unreal” take on post- 09/11 paranoia and catastrophe management as a means to downgrade civil liberties links it with another one of our favorite cultural narratives over here at Magically Real HQ — namely Battlestar Gallactica. It will be interesting to see audience responses to the “end” of the story. Thanks again!

      1. Thanks , and I’m glad you put the “end” in quotes. The lamest tagline in the series is the current one: “it all ends here.”. Posh–nothing ends.

  2. I read the whole thing and half-way through I was thinking “gosh, this sounds like something Stephanie Hammer would say” then when I finished, I realized who the author was. Silly me. I guess the question I have is, aside from being insanely formulaic to the point where it (for me anyway) seems almost plagiarized, would you consider Harry Potter to be both literature in the traditional sense and one of the greatest novels of the late 20th century? Could Rowling be considered canon in due time amongst the greats like Cervantes, Hugo, Shelley and the rest?

    Reposted from FB by request 🙂

    1. Owen — thanks so much for reposting so others can see!

      First off, the series is a powerful argument for how potent “the [hackneyed] formula” is when the world is working, and when the language is working. In the books, the world and the voices of the characters are often moving and exciting, despite the use of Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings, and just about every medieval European romance you can think of (and also a bunch of Westerns, and Lord only knows what sf stories and books).

      Let’s get to your other questions: is it literature and Is it “great”? We were arguing about greatness over at Magically Real HQ last night. One of us said that “greatness’ meant an art work had stood the test of time, and HARRY POTTER certainly hasn’t done that. But a couple of us wondered how important that notion of greatness was in the end. HAMLET is great in this sense, as is the poetry of the Metaphysical Poets, but I don’t think John Donne thought about that much, and I doubt Shakespeare did. Perhaps it only matters that the art do its job — to provoke, help us name things we can’t yet name (aka the Zizek concept of the “unknown known”), feel things we can’t yet feel openly, and so on.

      Anthony’s sense that this text is a post 09/11 parable of sorts — despite the fact that it’s British (coalition of the willing!) — may account for some of its power. But what’s clear is that HARRY POTTER works for people. Whether it will work for people in the future remains to be seen. And we seem to be in a moment, where the magical aka the unrealistic, the impossible, and the surreal give people something, make them feel something, in a way that standard or not so standard realism does not.

      Thanks again!

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