J.K. Rowling must be tired of being asked what the secret of her success is. In Delhi recently to conduct a workshop for writers of children’s literature at Max Muller Bhavan, her publisher Sarah Odedina emphatically denied that it could be put down to marketing: “That only goes so far—and to be honest, we didn’t really do much for the first three.”
Timely tale: (far left, top to bottom) Rupert Grint, Emma Watson and Daniel Radcliffe arrive for the world premiere of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince in London; Harry and Dumbledore in the film. Luke MacGregor / Reuters
None of the writers—fledgling and experienced—who attended the workshop was naïve enough to believe that there is some “secret formula” which, if replicated, would result in their books achieving similar global success. Odedina herself put it down to two factors: word-of-mouth, and the author’s uncanny ability to tackle “really deep down, fundamental issues”.
On 17 July, the sixth and semi-final instalment of the Potter saga will be released in India. I’m a fairly hard-core book fan, but I have quite happily sat through the films. The books are meaty and satisfying; the films are popcorn—but I’m a happy omnivore.
Much has been written on the archetypes that Harry Potter exemplifies: Analogies are drawn to myths and legends and popular stories, from the Arthurian legends to Star Wars. Cultural critics have spent happy hours gnashing their teeth that a form so apparently outdated—what with its boarding school setting, trolls and dragons and magical creatures, wands and broomsticks and fairy-tale paraphernalia—has struck such a chord with modern readers.
Christopher Booker’s mammoth tome, The Seven Plots, sets out to uncover and describe…well, the title says it all, but just in case you missed the point, there’s a helpful subtitle: “Why we tell stories.” All stories, contends the author, are derived from seven basic plots: Overcoming the Monster, Rags to Riches, The Quest, Voyage and Return, Comedy, Tragedy, and Rebirth. The seven books in the Harry Potter series are so thick with plot that it is easy enough for a determined reader to classify the story under six of these—with only one, tragedy, being a bit of a stretch (though there are, certainly, tragic moments).
Three’s company: (from left) Harry, Hermione and Ron.
It’s far more useful to look for specific elements that make up Harry Potter and try to understand how and why apparently dated constructs have struck such a resounding chord with so many readers of so many ages and so many nationalities.
One of the deepest and most fundamental issues that drives the plot over its 3,407 pages is that of racial purity—made explicit in the title of book 6, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. In it, Harry must discover the true identity of the mysterious “half-blood prince” whose doodles and scribbles he finds in an old textbook. This may not seem like a “deep and fundamental issue”—but it is.
Voldemort and his supporters, in terms of their ideology and their dress sense, are pure Nazi. Voldemort’s final solution is a world dominated by “purebloods”. In Hogwarts, there’s a happy mixture of students who have Muggle parents (non-magical folk), some come from mixed marriages (half-blood), some magical parents have non-magical children (squibs). The worst insult you can hurl at someone—as Draco Malfoy does to Hermione Granger in book 3—is “You Mudblood!”
The fundamental idea of “purity” and “impurity”, of “foreign contamination” and “keeping things in the family”, is a hugely contemporary issue in modern India. It’s easy enough to draw parallels between the Allies and the Order of the Phoenix on the good side and the Nazis and Voldemort’s Death Eaters on the other. But it doesn’t stretch the imagination too far to see among the latter those Indians who would ban inter-caste marriages and violently defend their religion’s purity from “contamination”.
The modern age is often described as an “age of fundamentalism”. One could also see it as the “age of Potter”. Two sides of the same coin? The more the barriers between people are seen as contingent, permeable, easily transcended, the more vigilantly and violently they must be policed. A recent article in Newsweek, under the title “The Age of Fundamentalism”, agrees with evangelical Christian Pat Robertson that “we are in the middle of a clash of cultures. But,” the reporter goes on, “it’s not between Islam and Christianity. It’s between fundamentalists and the rest of us.”
With one Bengali parent and one English one, a self-proclaimed Mudblood and proud of it, I know which side I’m on.
Anita Roy is commissioning editor for the Young Zubaan list of Zubaan books.
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince releases in theatres on 16 July.
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Hotting up for Harry No. 6
• Ralph Fienne’s nephew, Hero Fiennes-Tiffin, plays Tom Riddle at 11; he grows up to be Lord Voldemort. Apparently, he was chosen not because of his resemblance to his uncle (who plays the adult Voldemort), but because the director, David Yates, liked his “dark, haunted quality”.
• When J.K. Rowling read the film script, she found a line where Dumbledore talks about a girl he had a crush on when he was younger. She told the film-makers that Dumbledore is gay and that his only romantic infatuation was with the wizard Grindelwald. She publicly declared this information while promoting the seventh book, ‘Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows’.
• An attack on a Muggle bridge is mentioned briefly in the original opening of the sixth book. The film-makers expanded this and the result is the sequence where the Millennium bridge collapses.
• The other scene that does not appear in the book is the Death Eater attack at the Burrow. The book talks of various news reports abut attacks by Death Eaters on the wizard community. The film-makers thought showing Harry experiencing an attack, rather than just reading about it, would be more effective.