Is Harry Potter immortal? That's in Rowling's hands

The magic of the newest juvenile blockbuster approaches the limit of an age of innocence.

Books: The Argument

July 09, 2000|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,Sun Staff

Alas, our children. How fast they grow up. Consider, for example, the rapid maturation of Harry Potter, the most popular boy in the English-speaking world. It seems like only last summer Harry was a mere lad of 10, an orphan suffering miserably in a closet beneath the stairs at the home of his awful relatives, the Dursleys.

Come to think of it, it was just last summer Harry was 10 -- in my house, at least -- that's when my son and daughter first began devouring the J.K. Rowling books that tell his story. But now, with the release yesterday of Rowling's fourth and newest volume, "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire," our hero is a confident adolescent wizard hovering (on his Quidditch broom, perhaps) on the verge of his 15th birthday, fresh from his first romance and yet another dark brush with death.

How much longer, then, can Rowling's evocative prose and imaginative plots maintain their pace and cleverness without racing too far ahead of her core audience -- readers between the ages of 9 and 13?

They're the ones who've raptly turned her books into sensations, marketing events that make the Pokemon craze seem as humdrum as the latest junk toy giveaway at McDonald's. And as Harry grows older with each successive book -- he'll be nearly 18 by the time the seventh and final volume comes due three years from now -- many who are currently 9-to-13 will simply lose interest, moving on to the same interests as the maturing Harry. Dating. Thinking about college. Grown-up stuff.

The next 9-to-13 crowd, in other words, will be the one counted on to line up in bookstores for volumes five through seven. Yet, they're the ones who Rowling risks leaving behind. Throw in the million or so younger children who demand to have their parents read the Potter books aloud at bedtime and you'll have another endangered group. Just as Harry's first set of fans will tend to outgrow him, Harry may well outgrow the newcomers.

The possibility has occured to Rowling. When a Newsweek interviewer asked her how concerned she was with the idea of Harry growing up in the books, she answered, "I do want him to grow up. I want them all to grow up, but not in a way that's unfaithful to the tone of the books, i.e., I feel it would be inappropriate -- in these books -- were Hermione to have an underage pregnancy or if one of them were to start taking drugs ... In book four, there is the most evidence so far that they're getting older, in that they start getting interested in boys and girls. Although there's been a hint of that in book three, this time it's out in the open."

Although her answer implies she thinks these maturing themes won't become a problem, no less an authority than Rowling admitted she was reluctant to read the first three books to her 6-year-old daughter.

"I had told her, 'Not until you're 7,' because I think a bright 6-year-old can definitely manage it in terms of language, but in terms of themes, things get increasingly scary and dark." She eventually bent the rule after her daughter kept being bombarded by playmates with questions about Quidditch and other details of the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, but her point was valid.

Consider, for example, this scene from last year's third book in the series, "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban." In it, two adults revered by Harry, Sirius Black and Professor Lupin, confront cowering villain Peter Pettigrew with their lethal magic wands, while Harry and classmate Hermione Granger watch fearfully:

Black and Lupin stood shoulder to shoulder, wands raised.

"You should have realized," said Lupin quietly, "if Voldemort didn't kill you, we would. Good-bye, Peter."

Hermione covered her face with her hands and turned to the wall.

"NO!" Harry yelled. He ran forward, placing himself in front of Pettigrew, facing the wands. "You can't kill him," he said breathlessly. "You can't."

Black and Lupin both looked staggered.

"Harry, this piece of vermin is the reason you have no parents," Black snarled. "This cringing bit of filth would have seen you die, too, without turning a hair. You heard him. His own stinking skin meant more to him than your whole family."

Go ahead, Peter, make my day.

Rowling has said this sort of stronger stuff will grow weightier as the series progresses. In the book that went on sale yesterday, literally at the stroke of midnight -- a touch of promotional wizardry worthy of Hogwarts -- she purportedly raised the emotional stakes yet another notch. We've been told for months that in this book, death will claim a character close to Harry.

I can't yet tell you whether this is true. As you read this, my 9-year-old daughter will likely have the book open on our downstairs couch, and I will only have read a single chapter aloud to my 7-year-old son at bedtime. But, who knows, perhaps volume four will contain the most traumatic death scene to the under-8 audience since Disney snuffed Bambi's mom in a forest fire.

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