Why I hate Harry Potter

No, of course I don’t.  I’ve neither read the novels nor seen the films and have no right to a view.  What’s more, my older son belongs to the original Harry Potter generation and I loved the sight of a playground full of primary school kids clutching novels the size of War and Peace to their brave little chests.  My eight-year-old daughter has read and reread all the books, and tells me I’m talking nonsense, that I’m a terrible ‘muggle’, and no doubt she’s right.  And—before you point it out—I know that JK Rowling is an articulate and committed champion for many of the things I care about, and has been notably generous with her millions.   Harry Potter is surely a good thing.

So what’s all this about then? 

Well, the fact is I’ve never much liked fantasy fiction.  This may be because I’m cold hearted and literal minded, or possibly something much more sinister.  I don’t know.  But when I was a kid the Mad Hatter scared the life out of me, and Tolkien—with his mixture of medieval religiosity and paganism—gave me the creeps.  I never got Star Wars with its Death Stars and Droids, and have no desire to play the Game of Thrones.   I’m not wild about fantasy in classical literature either: I much prefer the blood and passion of the Iliad to the chimeras of the Odyssey; I can’t stomach the courtly incantations of magical consolation in late Shakespeare, and Ibsen definitely got a lot better when he ditched trolls and Norwegian nationalism and started to write his ‘dramas of everyday life’.   

I’m happy to live in a time when this stuff is no longer meaningful; I’m glad we don’t believe in monsters, in fairies, in knights in shining armour; that we have electric light and aren’t frightened of the dark; that we know that lightning isn’t an expression of divine displeasure and that disabled kids aren’t punishments from God.  And I’m thrilled that most of us don’t expect our leaders to be macho and engage in physical combat, or insist that women have to be fair and beautiful and chaste.  In other words, while I acknowledge the psychological power of the ancient myths, they offer little more to me than the most obscure books in the Old Testament.   ‘Happy the land that has no need of heroes’, cracks Brecht’s Galileo, and I agree with him.  I’m happy to be a modern and am, frankly, suspicious of all claims to cultural universality.

Please don’t misunderstand me: it’s not that I don’t like metaphor or the imagination.  It’s that I want it rooted in the everyday stuff of the world.  So I find As You Like It—which, of course, riffs subtly on various myths—mesmerising until the moment Hymen appears: at which point I want to know who the hell he actually is and what Shakespeare thinks he’s up to.  Yes, I know all the ‘characters’ are just ‘texts’ and, of course, the postmodernists are very clever, but give me Rosalind’s ‘men have died from time to time and worms have eaten them, but not for love’ over the desperate woodenness of this symbol of marital bliss any day.   I reckon Coleridge’s distinction between the active, creative Imagination on the one hand and Fancy’s mechanical recycling of received ideas on the other, is still useful.

But I’ve still not explained what all this has to do with poor old Harry Potter.

Well, it’s this.  Teaching a group of twelve clever students from a world class American university over the summer I was astonished to discover that the only book they’d all read was Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.   Not Hamlet, not Great Expectations, not even Of Mice and Men.  What’s more, they still loved it, and reread it often.  They were desperate to visit the Oxford college where it had been filmed, they wore Harry Potter t-shirts with pride and they loved platform 9¾ at King’s Cross Station.  They were amazed when I told them that I had no interest in the whole thing and the sense of outrage was palpable when I explained that in my time at university, liking fantasy fiction was regarded as the sign of an immature mind, with a dangerous proclivity towards mysticism and authoritarianism. 

And it’s this sense of a children’s book taking hold of the adult imagination that bugs me.  I’m not suggesting that Harry Potter is responsible for the twin curses of Brexit and Donald Trump, but in a time when ‘post-truth’ is the new normal, when speculation is instantly rendered real through the alchemy of social media, and when evidence-based policy and scientific expertise are routinely derided, I wonder whether a culture which celebrated the achievements and wonders of the tangible world, and turned its back on wizardry, monsters and fantastical versions of the English public school, wouldn’t make a more helpful contribution. 

I’m a terrible snob, I acknowledge, and I’m agnostic about whether Harry Potter is part of the problem or part of the solution.  But I’m sure we can all agree that it’ll take something more than magic wands to find a way out of this mess.