Best British export since the Beatles

July 09, 2000|By George F. Will

LONDON -- An old cartoon showed a father addressing a boy absorbed in a book. In the caption the father said: "Always reading. Ain't you got a mind of your own?" Bookishness is not a widespread problem of today's television-watching, video game-playing, Web-surfing youth, but here comes the most eagerly awaited British export since the Beatles -- a book.

The fourth in the projected series of seven Harry Potter novels, "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire," arrived last week and, propelled by young readers, will instantly top all fiction best-seller lists, perhaps staying there until publication of the fifth installment.

For her achievement, author J.K. Rowling recently was made an Officer of the British Empire, elevated to that glory by the Queen's birthday honors list. There is no longer a British empire, but Ms. Rowling, in fiction and in her life, knows something about creating alternative realities, a theme of many classics of children's literature (e.g., Peter Pan, and C.S. Lewis' Narnia chronicles).

Not long ago Ms. Rowling was a single mother living on welfare in an unheated Edinburgh flat. She would push a stroller through the streets until her young daughter fell asleep, then she would nurse a cup of coffee in a warm cafe while she wrote about a bespectacled 11-year-old orphan boy whose parents were wizards.

Nine British publishers rejected her first Harry Potter manuscript. A few years, later the first three Harry Potter novels occupied the top three positions on the New York Times hardback best-seller list, and the paperback editions of the first two were Nos. 1 and 2 among paperback best sellers.

Some authors and publishers get sniffy about including on that list books read primarily (although by no means exclusively) by children. But considering the rubbishy fiction that sells well, the list is elevated by Harry Potter novels. And note the unchildlike syntax -- slightly arch and foreshadowing irony -- of the first sentence of the first novel: "Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much."

Petunia and Vernon Dursley, Harry's aunt and uncle, and their obese, spoiled son Dudley (he has two rooms, one for his surplus toys) give normality a bad name.

Harry, a Harry Hotspur for the younger set, is decidedly not normal. He acquired a lightning bolt-shaped scar on his forehead in the clash with the evil Voldemort that killed his parents. Harry is consigned to live with the Dursleys, who force him to live in a spider-infested cupboard, until he boards the train (at Track Nine and Three-Quarters, King's Cross Station) for Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, where exams are exacting:

"Professor Flitwick called them one by one into his class to see if they could make a pineapple tap dance across a desk. Professor McGonnagall watched them turn a mouse into a snuffbox -- points were given for how pretty the snuffbox was, but taken away if it had whiskers."

C.S. Lewis, author of brilliant Christian apologetics, had a not-at-all-hidden agenda in the Narnia chronicles: He was asserting that a longing for the supernatural is natural. Ms. Rowling's aim, aside from robust fun, seems to be to show the complexity of children, and the ambiguities of childhood -- the delights and fears of separation and exploration. She accomplishes this by having Harry respond as a normal boy would to his own, and others', abnormal powers. And he is a boy's boy in his absorption with the game of Quidditch, which is played on flying brooms, with the Seeker (Harry's position) trying to catch the Golden Snitch, a winged ball.

Ms. Rowling has a Dickensian flair for names. The Hogwarts headmaster is Albus Dumbledore, the nasty student is Draco Malfoy (his sidekicks are Crabbe and Goyle). Harry's house at Hogwarts is Griffindor, Goyle's is Slytherin. Because these names are now household words, Ms. Rowling's American publisher, Scholastic Press, expects sales from the first four Harry Potter novels to reach $100 million. Warner Bros. says licensing deals -- for children's shampoo and invisibility cloaks and the like -- may generate 10 times as much. That's right, $1 billion.

But the grand fact is that all this fluff depends upon something solid, simple and supposedly old-fashioned: a book.

Harry, who is a year older in each volume, will be 17 when the projected series is completed. A wizard in puberty. Should be another page-turner.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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