A Rollicking Good Tale

As previously stated, Harry Potter is a very entertaining story and that answers the first question I had--why are these books so popular? Reading some criticism of Harry Potter you might get the idea that the books are popular because they deal in witchcraft and magic. Now that I see how entertaining the story is, I can put that idea aside as too simplistic. The books are fun to read, period. In fact, Harry Potter could have been written as a straight fiction story, with no magic at all, and be almost as entertaining. However, using magic in a story gives the author the opportunity to be inventive and to create solutions to plot problems that might be very difficult or mundane otherwise. Although the use of magic does serve a purpose in Harry Potter, it is not the main reason the books are entertaining. I will discuss the magic of Harry Potter in subsequent essays, but I want to start with some ideas on why it is such an entertaining story.

You may never have given much thought to what makes a story interesting to read. Of course, you don't really need to know why in order to enjoy the story. If the author keeps you turning pages to find out what happens next then you can say that it's a good story even if you don't know how the author got you to keep reading. However, it's useful and interesting to understand why any story is entertaining. If we can find out what elements of the story are capturing the reader's interest we can eliminate a lot of false and shallow ideas about the books. More importantly, understanding the structure of the books can help us understand how the moral themes and characters are developed as the plot proceeds.

To keep out interest, a storyteller has to get us to care about what happens to the characters in the story. If we don't care what is going to happen to Harry and his friends we aren't going to read very far into the book. The characters must be believable so that when they encounter situations in the story where they have to make choices of how to act, their actions will relate in some way to what we experience in life. In so doing, the concerns of the characters can become our concerns as well. In a fantasy story that includes magical things that we don't encounter in our lives, the similarities with our lives are in the form of moral questions and personal relationships. In other words, we don't have to worry what spell to cast with our wand, but we do need to choose between harming and helping others. Believable characters also make mistakes in judgment, stumble around in ignorance from time to time, and do other things that are typical of real people. When the characters have to confront the common issues of human life that we face, we are more likely to be interested in what happens to them.

One way to understand the characters in a work of literature is to look at the use of archetypes. An archetype is an idealized character that serves as the basis for characters in a story. We respond to archetypes because they express universal ideas, situations, experiences, and personality traits that are familiar to us. In the Harry Potter books Rowling incorporates a wide variety of archetypes into the character of Harry. All of these archetypes together make Harry a character that we can and will identify with, even though we are not wizards in training.

As we learn right away in the first book, Harry Potter is an orphan. This is a very powerful archetype that creates a sense of concern for him. It is instinctive to want to protect children and when we read about an orphan there is a deep, possibly unconscious, emotional response in us. Harry is no ordinary orphan either. As we discover, his parents have been murdered and Harry narrowly escaped being killed as well. He has suffered a grave injustice that has left him an orphan, literally and symbolically scarred for life. We instinctively want the orphan to be cared for, but we find out that Harry is forced to grow up in an environment where he is not loved and cared for but is instead treated as a nuisance and embarrassment. The poor treatment of Harry by his aunt and uncle adds to the sense of injustice that we feel and that further adds to the necessary concern for the main character that is essential to a good story. How Harry can overcome the injustice done to him becomes an important question as the story develops.

Harry is also an archetypical "chosen one" who has a secret destiny he must fulfill, similar to the legendary figure of King Arthur. Some of the interest in the story derives from the process of discovery the hero must go through as he learns about his destiny, what it means for him, and what options are available to him that might change or fulfill his destiny. By following the character's process of discovery we vicariously live that same destiny. By walking in the shoes of the hero, we are exposed to the problem and possible solutions of life's greater questions. Who am I? Why am I here?

The hero archetype generally incorporates a second archetype, "the quest." A typical quest begins with the realization that there is some evil in the land. The quest involves a journey of discovery, through a perilous land or to a perilous place, to determine the source of the evil and the means of defeating that evil. A hero on his quest must show courage, inventiveness, determination, adaptation, and above all develop the moral virtues necessary to overcome evil. Each of the Harry Potter books involves a quest and the series as a whole can be seen as one large quest to resolve the conflict between good and evil and to conquer death. This archetype is a metaphor for our own journey through life. Realizing that the world is not perfect, and that we are not perfect either, we must find the source of that imperfection and overcome it in our own life's journey. We must come to understand who we are, why we are here, and what we must do to live a good life despite traveling across a land of peril.

The books also incorporate a typical "coming of age" story. Each successive book covers a year at school and we see Harry and friends go through various stages of adolescence. They must learn what it means to be friends and how to resolve conflicts between both friends and enemies. We see the first stumbling attempts at romance, the failures and successes as each character learns what it means to care about another person. The students must also learn to balance studies with entertainment, when they must follow the rules laid down by adults and when they can or should act on their own initiative. All of these (and much more in the story) are events that we must go through during the transition from childhood to adulthood. For young readers, the events in the story parallel what is happening in their lives while for adults there is a sense of nostalgia for past events in our lives. In both cases, the characters can represent, and even teach, what it means to grow up.

Realizing that the story is one of "coming of age" is vitally important to understanding the moral choices made by the characters. We should expect to see a lot of false starts, mistakes, and changes in attitudes as the story progresses. By the end of the story, the characters should be better able to choose between right and wrong than in the beginning of the story.

A good story needs a conflict between good and evil that creates tension and an expectation of resolution. In part, we will keep reading because we want to see if and how the good guys win and the bad guys lose. Harry Potter is filled up to the brim with conflicts of this type. There are conflicts between Harry and his arrogant foster parents, Harry and the bully Draco Malfoy, Harry and some of his teachers, and Harry and the Ministry of Magic to name just a few. The main conflict concerns the threat to Harry from the evil wizard Voldemort. This conflict continues throughout the whole series of books. In each book we gain additional information that explains who Voldemort is, why he is seeking to kill Harry, and why Harry, and only Harry, can stand against the evil wizard.

Voldemort is such an evil villain that we cannot help but cheer for Harry and his companions. The villain is another powerful archetype that provides interest and keeps us reading out of our desire to know how such an evil person could exist and what can be done to stop him. As the story progresses, we learn more and more of what motivates Voldemort towards evil and where his strengths and weaknesses lie. As the evil of Voldemort is explained, and a means of overcoming that evil is shown to be possible, we have a desire to see whether that evil will be conquered. Until the evil is understood, and the battle for good is won, the story remains interesting.

Along the same lines, a good story needs a mystery or riddle to be solved. As we read along in the story, we gather clues that allow us to solve the riddle. That stimulates the imagination, forces us to use our reason, and keeps us reading so that we get more clues. In Harry Potter we follow along with Harry, gathering clues and trying to understand how they fit together. A great deal of the story is spent investigating the riddle of Voldemort and his attack on Harry. As each story progresses, we learn more and more of the backstory on Voldemort. Each clue, however, opens up more questions and the story often grows in mystery as you move along.

Rowling makes excellent use of misdirection in the story as well. Just when is seems the mystery is solved, some previously insignificant piece of information comes into focus and we have to reevaluate the solution to the mystery. These unexpected twists along the road to solving the mystery are another key ingredient in any good story.

It also helps if the story is set in some exotic location. We often have a desire to visit interesting places, explore different cultures, or just get away from the ordinary for a while. A good story creates a venue that is someplace we might like to go, but may not be able to get to except in books. A "magical kingdom" is certainly a place like that and is a typical feature of fantasy stories. The author can create a location that is a place we can never otherwise visit, but by using our imagination we can experience that strange and unusual place.

Most fantasy stories take place in a world that is completely different from our own. However, in Harry Potter we encounter a world that is a blend of realism and invention. That little twist adds an element of surprise within familiarity. We read about the typical things of our world, such as cars and trains and buses, but then, in the middle of that normality, fantastical elements emerge. Additional tension and interest in the story comes as a result of the wizards having to hide their existence from the Muggles who live side by side with them. By creating a world that contains this mixture, Rowling has the opportunity to directly satirize and comment on our world while simultaneously treating the world we live in as a mystical place with secret locations and unseen mysteries hidden just out of view. She has turned our own world into a magical kingdom, and done it so well there is a temptation to start looking for the hidden passageway into Diagon Alley.

Humor is another element that can make a story interesting to read. The occasional joke, pun or awkward situation that makes us laugh adds another dimension to a story. Harry Potter is sprinkled liberally with various levels of humor. Some of it is very juvenile, entertaining to children but typically leaving adults groaning. Who would ever want to risk eating a vomit flavored jelly bean? Yuck. But we can also chuckle at the typical teenage behavior displayed in such scenes as the young boys drooling over the newest flying broom in the store window, or Harry's purchase of every item on the candy cart.

Many of the place and character names provide comic relief as well. In some cases the humor is subtle and you have to read the words out loud to get the joke. It took me some time to realize that Diagon Alley is a word play on diagonally, a clever reference to the hidden nature of the wizard's private spaces. Likewise, figuring out the Latin terms in the charms and spells, and the veiled references in the names of many of the characters, adds humor and interest to the story.

Mixed in with the silly humor and puns are many satirical and sarcastic comments on elements of everyday life. The Dursley's middle class obsession with social appearances, the bumbling, interfering politicians at the Ministry of Magic, the incompetent divination teacher and boring history professor at Hogwarts, and the journalists that print rumor and slander in place of true fact, all cause us to nod the head and laugh in recognition of the often tragic yet comic failings of human nature.

Finally, a good story will cause us to reflect on the issues of life that we all have questions and opinions about. Seeing a character face a moral choice, make a decision and have to accept the consequences of that decision, leads us to compare our views and decisions with those of the characters. It is not necessary or even desirable for the characters to be perfect models of behavior. The same moral questions arise, and we must consider the possible choices, whether or not the characters in the story make the right choice. Thinking about the choices the characters made, we can consider what we might have done in the same situation, and whether or not we think the author's choice for the characters is the right one. We may not agree with the author's perspective, but it is often interesting to read the story in order to get a different opinion that we might not otherwise have considered.

Taking all of these elements into consideration, it is easy to see why the Harry Potter books are so popular and entertaining. Harry is an orphan who has suffered an injustice and thus we can easily be concerned about him. There is a conflict between good and evil and a mystery to be solved as well. As Harry matures during subsequent years at Hogwarts, he faces the typical problems of adolescence while constantly fighting against the evil directed at him. He must continually face moral decisions that could affect not only his own wellbeing, but also the wellbeing of his friends, fellow students and teachers. As we read Harry's story we can think about how we might have responded to those same challenges. All of these elements together make for a very complex, yet entertaining and compelling story.


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