Sun Jiangjiang

Speaking Time and Room No.: 2006-9-23 11:00-12:30 Room I

Speaker: Sun Jianjiang (China)


Reflection on the Phenomenon of Harry Potter

Sun Jianjiang

2006-9-23 11:00-12:30

The reading craze and best selling miracle created by Harry Potter is an unavoidable fact. However, the significance of Harry Potter would be dwarfed if Harry Potter is just deemed a best seller. As a cultural phenomenon, Harry Potter has given us much enlightenment. While I think we should pay special attention to the following aspects.

I. Enjoy Childhood and Safeguard Childhood

Harry Potter has demonstrated a quite remarkable reading effect—not only loved by children, but also by adults. I think one of the most important reasons is the childhood spirit demonstrated in Harry Potter from the beginning to end.

Harry Potter tells stories in two worlds—one in real life and one in fantasy. This is a metaphor itself.

In the real world that is Muggle world, Harry Potter is fostered by his uncle Vernon, and is discriminated and bullied by the whole family of his uncle. Harry Potter’s room is a small and dark cupboard at stairway entrance, and he is accompanied by spiders every day. In his memory, nobody remembers his birthday. His aunt and uncle always rebuke him, and their son always beats him. The enrollment letters sent to Harry Potter by the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry are detained by the uncle for many times. They just hope Harry would stay at their home to work for them and serve them. However, soon after Harry enters into the fantasy world, everything changes. On Harry’s 11th birthday, messenger owl brings a mystery letter to Harry and invites him to the Hogwarts School. After Harry enters into the School, he makes some friends, learns how to fly, how to ride the racing broom to play Quidditch ball, and gets an invisible gown. He finds out that in the School, everything is so magic from study to play, and from eating and sleeping…

There’re two implications.

First implication is the artistic demonstration of childhood spirit. Childhood is an important life stage. Children in this stage have a common character: play. We may observe this from two aspects. On the one hand, children in this stage possess instinctive impulse and excessive energy. They need to play. They may create various types of symbolic games by themselves. They may make tools speak, ride a bamboo pole as a horse, and change a child who learns to speak into a knowledgeable old man… In a word, in the games, as long as they want to, they can realize and get everything. The process of playing games is the process of satisfying their fantasy to a large extent. On the other hand, children in this stage are in the pressure of society, family, and school. In order to ease such pressure, they need to play. They’re not satisfied with the pre-set life content, and hope to integrate the external world into their own desire and need. In this way, play is closely linked to children’s spiritual demands. Harry Potter has created the artistic space for their play and their release.

The second implication is that to come back to childhood and safeguard childhood. “Come back” and “safeguard” are key words. In a sense, play is the only thing children care. But play is not the only thing for adults. For adults, play can be stopped, postponed, or interrupted at will. Play is not endowed with material needs and moral responsibilities. Play never becomes a formal task. It seems that play is unnecessary. However, adults do know that play has the release function. Every adult knows that the happy childhood world created in Harry Potter is a virtual world and does not exist in real life. But they don’t care, as they know that the happy childhood world itself may bring them happiness, ease their work pressure and spiritual pressure, and eliminate the loneliness in their heart. So, in this sense, play is not unnecessary for adults. An adult with more social attributes also needs play. The most valuable part in Harry Potter is that it makes adults review their childhood happiness, come back to their childhood, and then safeguard the childhood. This retrospective process decides the adult attributes of reading the book. That’s why Harry Potter is loved by children and welcomed by adults.

II. Unique Significance of Traditional Cultural Resources on Creation

Harry Potter leaves us with another important impression: rely on traditional cultural resources, or to be specific, rely on wizard cultural resources.

There’s one plot in the Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone: “Harry grabs his broom. ‘No!’ Hermione Granger shouts, ‘Madam Hooch asked us not to move—you would bring trouble to us.’ Harry ignores her. His eardrum echoes because of blood pressure. He rides the racing groom and steps on the ground, then he rises, and air is blowing through his hair and the gown is flying at his back. Suddenly he feels exultant, after realizing that he has mastered this craft by himself—so easy and fantastic. He raise up the racing groom a little bit so that it can fly higher” Such “flying picture” by riding a groom is a typical witch model in western culture. Not only Harry, but also the whole Hogwarts School, and even the Muggle world are closely linked with witch. Harry is brought up in the Muggle world. But his mother is a pure witch herself.

Anthropologist Fraser once divided the evolutionary process of human culture into three periods: “wizardry-religion-science”. As an important existence before western Christian culture, the witch image with far-reaching impact was once cultivated by wizard culture. But in the civilized Christian stage, wizardry and witch were oppressed and prosecuted relentlessly. Science civilization comes after Christian civilization. Of course the “science civilization” stage has its own problems. Although the evolution of human’s culture experiences three stages, as a western cultural tradition, the wizard culture has never faded, which can be clearly identified from literary works, such as Lord of the Rings of Tolkien and Witch of Dahl.

There’re many reasons why Rowling relies on wizard culture. First of all, Rowling herself has a special affection on wizard culture. She enjoys reading “side door books” like Introduction to Ancient Wizard Words. She is fascinated by the Lord of the Rings. When she travels, she would always take the Lord of Rings with her. Rowling lives in Edinburgh, the capital of Scotland. Edinburgh is a city renowned for the ancient castles in medieval times. Here, there’re so many gloom and dark castles with antique styles, which have provided a nearly real environment for the creation of the magic world. Thanks to the penetration influenced by what she constantly sees and hears and her innate aspiration for wizard culture, Rowling can enter into the imaginary magic world very easily. But these are not the main reasons. The most important reasons why Rowling relies on wizard culture in her creation include: First, the introduction of wizard culture can provide much convenience for the writer’s value judgment, as the magic world restricted by wizard culture and the Muggle world are totally different worlds. The creation of this world implies dissatisfaction with the other world (Muggle world). Even if the other world (Muggle world) cannot be directly changed by creating the magic world, even if the creation itself is an evasion in a sense, but we may feel the strong irony style of the book through such evasion. This point will be discussed exclusively later. Second, the introduction of wizard culture can provide much convenience for the reading of readers. As a work focusing on children readers, Rowling well knows the reading psychology of children. Because of their age, children seldom make a clear distinction between subjective body and objective body in real life. In Piaget’s opinion, children’s thought demonstrates “Animism” trait. Children’s cognitive structure repeats that of primitive men, and the basic trait is “self-centered”. This center cannot make a distinction between variations of one’s own behavior and object. They cannot define the boundary between the object perceived and that in imagination. They always mix reality with dream. The magic world created in Harry Potter adapts to such cognitive trait of children. Therefore, children readers and wizard culture with mystery as its basic trait have innate privities. They may easily enter into the magic world in Harry Potter, and enjoy all funs brought about by the magic world. So, the introduction of the magic world also means great reading pleasure to readers. If readers enjoy reading the book and love the book is very important to Rowling. This is the choice why Rowling gains a lot from the book.

Of course, besides wizard culture, Harry Potter also relies on many paganish cultures. For this, scholars like Ye Shuxian have conducted in-depth research.

However, wizard culture has unique and irreplaceable significance to Harry Potter. The significance of traditional cultural resources to creation is that tradition may be “past” or “present”. In this sense, Harry Potter cannot be created without wizard culture.

III. Conflict Between Magic World and Muggle World: Irony in Evasion

In the Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, when Harry refers to “Magic History” to write his essay, Rowling borrows Harry’s mouth and says: “In medieval time, people outside of the magic circle (or “Muggles” as a more common expression) were afraid of magic, but they were not good at identifying magic.” Rowling continues: “The Dursley family living at No.4 of Privet Road is the reason why Harry never has a good summer vacation. Uncle Vernon, Aunt Petunia, and their son Dudley are the only relatives Harry has in the world. They are all Muggles. That is, they don’t know any magic and their attitude towards magic still remains in medieval time.”

This description reveals the important information, that is, Muggle world and magic world are in conflict. Harry lost his parents when he was very little, and has lived in the family of his only relatives (Vernon Dursley) for 12 years. It’s reasonable to think that Harry has deep affection to the family. However, this is not true. Why? The basic reason is that they’re not from the same world. Harry and the “Muggle” family have different pursuits.

Rowling describes Uncle Vernon’s family like this: Uncle Vernon is “so fat that his neck is almost invisible”, and “has whisker on all his face”. “The length of Aunt Petunia’s neck almost doubles that of normal person, so that she can pry into her neighbors”. Their son Dudley “is so fat that the fat of his bottom is hanging from both sides of the chair”. If we could see some abnormal symptoms of the family from such description, the following description well presents such abnormal characters by describing their behaviors. “Harry’s parents already died, and they were wizard and witch when they were alive. But the Dursley family would never mention their names. For many years, Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon have believed that if they could bully Harry as much as possible, they might be able to extract witchcraft from Harry. To their indignation, they never succeed. Now they’re in fear every day because they’re afraid that someone might find out that Harry has spent most of his time in the past two years in the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Recently, the Dursley family has spent most of their time to lock up Harry’s incantation books, magic wand, pot, and racing broom, and doesn’t allow him to speak to neighbors.” Besides, the Dursley family is very gainful. In their eyes, such figures as orders of drilling machine and transaction volume presenting material gains are the most important. On Harry’s 12th birthday, Uncle Vernon said: “Today is an important day.” Harry thought his Uncle finally remembered his birthday. But the relentless truth once again shattered Harry’s dream. Actually, what the Uncle meant by “important day” is that he “might succeed in the largest deal ever his life on that day”. Jamson pointed out in the Cultural Logics of Capitalism in Later Period: “The actual situation of today western society: aesthetic production has been totally taken in during the general process of commercial production. That is, the rule of commercial society drives us keep producing new goods (from garment to jet plane, everything has to be renewed endlessly). We must earn back our production cost in the fastest possible speed, and keep making profit.” Aesthetic and harmonious social scenario is lost in the pursuit of maximum profit. In the meantime, people become dumb and apathetic about this world, and human nature is totally lost. This is the high cost of pursuing modernization by Muggle world. Harry Potter’s research expert Ye Shuxian said: “If drilling machine, a technical tool in capitalist production presents the lethal weapon of human being to rob our land, then the Uncle’s family indicates that the terrible capitalist life style is producing technical lethal weapons to kill nature, and also producing gainful beings in batches whose true human nature is lost. In the writer’s opinion, there’s a way to cure such social morbidity and restore primitive human nature. That is, come back to the wizardry/witchcraft concept and perception tradition of pre-industrial society or pre-capitalism, as those are the most primitive spiritual tradition rooted in human’s subsistence practice for millions of years.” In this way, the magic world is created in Harry Potter. Because in the writer’s eyes, in the magic world, only people like Harry Hotter can get joy, delight, and happiness. In the magic world, there’re golden egg, magic wand, magic eyes, giant dragon, incantation, meditation pot, big dog in three heads, willow that can beat human, hat that can talk, book that can fly, photo that can wink, key with wings, compound medical broth to create deformation, and Quidditch ball competition played in the sky by riding racing broom.

The magic world does bring happiness, delight, and happiness to Harry Potter. However, it cannot create a modern society. Uncle Vernon’s family enjoys the happiness in the Muggle world to their heart’s content (at least they think so), and they don’t have to change everything. They do hate the magic world. But quite on the contrary, Harry Potter afflicted by the Muggle World needs spiritual release. So, the mysterious messenger owl appears, and the magic Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry appears. We have every reason to ask this question: Since a modern society cannot be created by the magic world, what’s the criticizing power to the modernity in the Muggle world?

This is a paradox, with persistence on the one hand and evasion on the other. However, this may be the criticizing power to the modernity in the Muggle world: we have to evade since we cannot create. However, isn’t evasion a big irony? Or, is persistence necessarily reasonable?