Mugglers of the World, Unite!

RECENTLY I realized the fact that I have been a muggler all my life without being aware of it. Of course, I’ve been in good company. As far as I can see, Mao Zedong, Lenin, Stalin, Marx and Friedrich Engels were genuine mugglers.

It’s not contagious to be a muggler, even if I’ve noticed that the majority of my friends are affected by mugglerism too. It might even run in the family, because I realize that my parents must have been mugglers. I am very grateful to Ms Joanne K Rowling for having made me aware of our condition.

Who, may you ask, might Ms Rowling be?

J.K. Rowling’s life has the luster of a fairy tale. A graduate of Exeter University, a teacher, and then an unemployed single parent, living on public assistance in a tiny Edinburgh flat with her infant daughter. Some six-seven years ago Ms Rowling began writing a book during her daughter’s naps. First, the Scottish Arts Council gave her a grant to finish the book. After its sale to Bloomsbury (UK) and Scholastic Books, the accolades began to pile up. Her book won The British Book Awards Children’s Book of the Year, and the Smarties Prize, and rave reviews on both sides of the Atlantic. Book rights have been sold to 115 countries already back in 1998. The first book was followed by four so far. Last year the first movie on it was made. God willing, I shall not have to watch that one!

By now Ms Rowling is a very wealthy woman.

For the benefit of the cloistered few who have no idea what these books are about, their hero, Harry Potter is a fictional kid, orphaned and living with his abusive aunt, uncle, and his fat, mean and ugly stepbrother, who finds out at the age of 10 that, in contrast to them he is not a muggler – that is an ordinary sceptic man with no supernatural talents or occult ambitions – but a natural-born wizard. Harry is whisked away from his unhappy surroundings to live at Hogwarth School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. There, when he finds the time between harrowing adventures, Harry learns to cast spells, concoct potions and ride a broomstick in preparation for a career in the magical arts. Along the way he befriends or battles with witches, ghosts, pixies, trolls and other familiar beings from fairy tales and legends of times past.

Not only is Harry a wizard – he is a real wizard at it. He is a very diligent aviator, once mounted on his Nimbus 2000 Broomstick. His spells are most effective, and he is a leading player of Quidditch – a ball-game reminding both of American Football and Cricket played up in the air by two broomstick-mounted teams formed by the various houses of the Hogwarth School. This, by the way, very much resembles the British public Schools so prodigiously depicted in innumerable previous British books and movies during the years.

Says Ms Rowling:

“The idea that we could have a child who escapes from the confines of the adult world and goes somewhere where he has power, both literally and metaphorically, really appealed to me.”

According to the author, that’s the idea behind her hero, first presented in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (1997) – Master Harry Potter. (No, her hero was not baptised after the present heir of the British Crown who recently was caught smoking “pot”, quite the opposite way around.) To me it does not seem to be an idea, the sheer originality of which would warrant such enormous attention or success. There must be additional grounds for it.

So, why this smashing success of Harry Potter? Well, of course there are elements appealing to children in it – one of those might be the one proposed above by the author. The desire of children – and not only of those – to take its rescue to another world instead of the real one, to magic instead of logic and laws of nature would be quite understandable, especially if all ordinary muggler families were as dull and wicked as the Dursley’s – Harry Potter’s adoptive parents. However, there might be another one, less flattering both to Ms Rowling and her young readers.

One would think a prodigious natural wizard like Harry would be able to manage by relying on his talent alone. Quite the opposite. What strikes you most in these books is the enormous wealth of paraphernalia a wizard or a witch must have access to in order to exercise his/her talents: broomsticks, owls, toads, hats, protective gloves of dragon-skin, cloaks, mantles for summer/winter use, magic wands, telescopes, kettles, brass scales etc. It seems like the world of wizards – where Hogwarth is situated – very much resembles a well-equipped toy store.

So when an enthusiastic literary reviewer wrote “Within this book is criticism of the profit motive: the desire to own things rather than see their wonder” this is a point obviously missed – or just ignored – both by the young readers and the profit makers themselves.

Nowadays the success of a children’s book or a children’s movie very much depends on its potential to stimulate the marketing of manufactured goods associated to it. The Potter books arrived at the very time when the Pokémon boom on the toy market was about to fade. With the entertainment capital circulating faster every day, the way from ear to loaf has been extremely fast in the case of Harry Potter: Warner Bros bought the trademark in 1998 already – you have to be as careful to use the image of Harry Potter these days as you have to be in the case of Ronald McDonald or Mickey Mouse – unless of course, like Australian drug dealers, you choose to put it on your newest Ecstasy capsule.

So, if you plan to market a new Harry Potter T-shirt, coffee jug, card play, computer game, or a Harry Potter cloak, hat, wand or broom-stick, or if you want to add a new Harry Potter homepage on the Internet beside the existing several thousands – you should probably first pay a nice fee to the Warners in order not to have their lawyers on your door-step one day or another.

Let’s face it: there is no magic about the Harry Potter books. In a world, governed by markets and marketing the fact that these books, or any piece of art, have approached a 100 million copies sold does not testify to an inherent quality more than the quality of horse shit is guaranteed by the fact that it seems attractive to billions of flies. Their main theme is neither new, nor original. They consist of an endless discourse of loosely connected events where problems are solved, not by analysing the events and organizing forces to meet them but by introducing new magic props. Or by a liberal use of good old violence.

The moral and psychological set-up of the work is that of an eleven-year old person – it is the eternal struggle between good and evil, a New Age-inspired junior version of The Lord of The Rings. If you embrace, or at least accept, the notion that Good vs. Evil is a valid discourse for a children’s book you may find considerably more penetrating specimens in the works of e.g. Astrid Lindgren or CS Lewis.

Sure, the introduction of magic elements in a work may be used as a means of working out ideas otherwise difficult to espouse in a literary form. As far as I can see, however, there are no such ideas worth working out in Ms Rowling’s books.

Still, if the interest Harry Potter has attracted in toy merchants and children is in a way understandable, the phenomenon of adults proclaiming themselves as avid readers of that stuff remains a mystery to me.

After having read the first volume I feel more than ever like a muggler.

– Hans Isaksson