Harry Potter: Last of the Breed
A Final Golden Age Work to Close the Door on High Empire Kid Lit
Troll statue in Scandinavian park
Credit: Wikimedia Commons
by Tom Durwood
Now that we have a bit of distance, we can place the seven-book Harry Potter
collection in its truest context, or at least have some fun trying to do so.
Brother to Peter Pan, cousin to The Hobbit, it is a work that both sums up and
closes the door on the Golden Age of Kid Lit.
I made that up. It sounds pretty good, I think. Now let’s see if it might be
Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was unleashed on readers a generation
ago, in June, 1997. Six subsequent novels and eight movies later, we can see
the literary property more clearly for what it is: a member of the Golden Age
family, along with The Wind in the Willows, Winnie the Pooh, Rudyard Kipling’s
The Jungle Book, The Tale of Peter Rabbit, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, The
Adventures of Pinocchio, Peter Pan and The Hobbit. These books were written in
what is often referred to as the Golden Age of Children’s Literature. Not
coincidentally, the authors were almost all British. The era also produced
The Secret Garden, Little Women (American), Treasure Island and Kidnapped, the
first pony book, Black Beauty, and many more.
The Harry Potter body of work is authentically High Empire, like its
brethren, and serves as a sort of compendium of British literary traditions.
We can also imagine that Harry Potter closes that particular door. It is the
last of its breed allowing the audience to transition to the present phase of
literature, Stage Four, or Falling Empire, a stage filled with equal parts
dystopia, celebration of a complex world, and counter-imperial or corrective
narratives. Harry Potter mirrors the end of empire, depicting as much in its
own storyline. Let us trace Harry’s lineage through Brit Lit and Brit Kid Lit
and see where he stands.
The Potterverse is Built on a Foundation of British folklore.
Like J.R.R. Tolkien, J. K. Rowling is an author steeped in tradition. She
studied classics at the University of Exeter, and her knowledge of
mythology and folklore shows through in her writing. The powerful yet
dim-witted mountain troll whom Hermione, Ron and Harry combat so
fiercely in the dungeons comes straight from the Brothers’ Grimm and
European folk tales, as do Rowling’s goblins, giants (Hagrid, of course),
elves, werewolves, and even the hippogryph, half -eagle, half-horse. The
Phoenix is a mythological beast which can reincarnate itself. Dumbledore’s
pet Phoenix, Fawkes, sheds tears with healing properties, from which Harry
benefits. Another Potter creature with ties to mythology (Greek, in this
case) is the multi-headed dog, Cerberus. He guards the entrance to the
Underworld in Greek myth, the entrance to the Chamber of Secrets in
Hogwarts. The centaurs who live in the Forbidden Forest and the merpeople, although seen only briefly, first appeared in myth. The list of such magical creatures with origins in folklore goes on and on.
Conclusion: This shoe fits, but it does not count for much, since the other
Golden Age works have little to do with fairy tales. Also, Rowling borrows
from a wide range of mythology and folklore, not just British.
“Harry Potter” both sums up and closes the door on the Golden
Age of Kid Lit. That sounds good; now let’s see if it is true.
Tom Brown’s School Days In his Victorian era adventure, “Tom
Brown’s Schooldays,” author Thomas Hughes laid down the contours of a
sub-genre of the Coming of Age story, the schooldays saga. In this, a lonely
boy from a broken family arrives at an imposing boarding school with
strange customs, meets a best friend, and overcomes an arrogant bully. With
his pluck, his good nature and sense of fair play, the hero (Tom Brown or
Harry Potter) shows up both his phony upperclassmen and his cruel
teachers, all the while embodying the true spirit of the school (which had
been falling into class corruption), saving it from itself. Think empire.
Conclusion: This shoe fits. Booyah.
J.R.R. Tolkien Rowling’s Dementors seem closely related to Tolkien’s
Dark Riders, or Nazgul, the same with Dumbledore and Gandalf (and
Merlin, perhaps the original wizard). But extended parallels between the
sagas of Hogwarts and Middle Earth don’t hold up. For one, Tolkien’s
interest in how magic works is almost incidental to his story, while it is at
the heart of Harry Potter, particularly in the character Hermione (who may
be, along with Snape, the overshadowed heroes of the series). For two,
Rowling’s keen interest in plot and plot twist and closed-door murder mystery-style scenarios has little in common with the long-striding accumulation of literary value in JRR’s epic quest.
Harry is a member of the British Gothic family.
The Gothic tradition first emerged in the 18th century with such authors as
Mary Shelley, Bram Stoker and Edgar Allan Poe (American). Characteristics
of the Gothic novel include: death and decay, haunted castles, family curses,
madness, melodrama and romance among gruesome terrors, and the regular
appearance of ghosts (and monsters like vampires). In a typical Gothic
story, an innocent young woman arrives at a remote mansion. Omens and
visions foreshadow bad things. A ghost or monster appears so everyone
knows a malevolent force is about to strike, usually as an act of revenge for
her ancestor’s twisted deeds. The clergy appears and is unable to stop it. In
an overly dramatic climax, evil and passion are somehow connected. Buried
secrets are finally revealed. Freed from her ancestral past, the heroine
escapes with her handsome young love interest.
Literature … does its best work in reminding us perpetually of
the whole round of truth and balancing other and older ideas
against the ideas to which we might for a moment be prone.
— GK Chesterton
Both dark and intensely romantic, Gothic literature involves decadence. It is
a little like imperial guilt – we have all this property and architecture and
abundance, yet it is somehow corrupted. We cannot be happy, due to our
ancestors’ sins (is this starting to sound familiar?). Uncanny events lead us
to the truth about our own tormented souls.
There are certainly Gothic elements in Harry Potter — the omens and visions,
for one. The irritating ghost Moaning Myrtle plays a pivotal role in Chamber
of Secrets, for another, and the community of ghosts trapped in wall paintings
serve as a chorus. The mysterious structure of Hogwarts itself is a semiGothic character, with its dungeon, secret chambers, and Escher staircases.
As in Gothic tales, death and the thin boundary between life and death is
very much present in Rowling’s text — Kipling’s Jungle Tales and, oddly
enough, Peter Pan being two other works which share this.
Conclusion: This shoe does not fit, despite the common elements of
foreshadowing, ghosts and the trademark gables of Hogwarts. At heart, the
Harry Potter story is not Gothic. Rather than madness and dark romance,
Rowling’s core values are teamwork, courage and devotion. Love wins. It is
the characters’ love for one another which uncovers true magic and defeats
all the monsters. The teen dating at this boarding school is naïve and strictly
young-adult, not the carnal, adult-bordering-on-obsessional that we find in
such core Gothic works as Dracula and Annabel Lee. There is a strong rah-rah
Quidditch component to Goblet of Fire and the other books that could never
make its way into “The Masque of the Red Death.”
Wuthering Heights As we learn his whole backstory, we see that Severus
Snape in the later Potter books comes to resemble Heathcliff, the brooding,
dark hero of Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights. This is a solitary, deeply
devoted yet jealous, almost abusive, suitor who tragically breaks with the
bright-eyed object of his love (Catherine Earnshaw, Lily Potter). These two
glowering, black-haired figures lend both books a Gothic feel. We can see
echoes of George Orwell and his opposite-talking (“War is Peace,”
“Freedom is Slavery”) in the Potterverse Ministry of Magic (“Magic is
Might”). Agatha Christie is a much more significant presence than Orwell
in the Potter books, each of which is at heart a mystery. Who is the Half-Blood
Prince? Who saved Harry in ‘The Prisoner of Azkaban’? Who opened the Chamber of
Secrets? Murderous doings in a civilized setting, with a closed cast of
suspects (each with a hidden motive), misleading facades, an accumulation
of clever clues — these are all components of an Agatha Christie detective
story. Like her literary aunt, Rowling loves narratives with secret
passageways and dramatic reveals.
Jane Austen J.K. Rowling has told interviewers that “Emma” is one of her
favorite books, and we can see why. While this ‘novel of manners’ aspect of
the Harry Potter books is the hardest to capture – for me, at least – it is
perhaps the most telling, in tying this work to its several Brit Lit influences.
In her September, 2019 Wall Street Journal article, “Jane Austen Knows that
Manners Make the Man,” Paula Marantz Cohen writes that Austen’s work
“is now popular because of its eloquent portrayal of how politeness is tied to
deeper morality.” This idea, I think, has real resonance with the Harry Potter
As much as J. K. Rowling is driven by the books’ intricate plotting
…it is her effortless presentation of the manners and conventions
of the Potter world that readers love.
books. As much as J. K. Rowling is driven by the story’s intricate plotting, the
movements of her giant cast of characters, and the many rules of magic, it is
her effortless presentation of the manners and conventions of the Potter
world that readers love. As in Emma, all of this correctness is tied to a deeper
morality. It affirms a world order, and a polite one, unlike the chaotic, harsh,
barely civilized world we live in today.
For example, when Dumbledore sets out to recruit retired Professor
Slughorn, he must go about it in a very particular and indirect way, never
letting on that he needs him. There are rules to the game, and if you abide by
them, you win. When Harry flirts with a waitress in the underground
station (in the movies, not the books), they both seem to know how this
dance goes. Voldemort does not simply kill Harry in the graveyard after
Cedric Diggory’s death — that would be bad form, and it would violate the
hidden rules of the Great Game. Instead, he follows convention with a
lengthy speech, thus allowing Harry and his ancestors time to regroup.
Another example can be found in the character Dobby, who shows how
lower-caste figures correctly (sacrificing their lives for the master) and
incorrectly (self-flagellation) handle themselves. Well played, Dobby. The final
example we have room to mention here is all the comedies of manners
surrounding the Yule Ball – Hermione with Victor Krum, Ron with
Lavender Brown, and Hagrid and his courtship of Madame Maxine.
Heartbreak, misunderstanding, jealousy, misery and in the end joy. All of
this could easily derive from the pages of a Jane Austen playbook.
Two Deliberate Omissions by Me
In my sad determination to prove my modest thesis, I am conveniently
ignoring such non-British influences on Harry Potter as Star Wars. This
despite lengthy evidence collated by clever readers like Scott Chitwood of
theforce.net, who finds strong parallels between Obi-Wan and Dumbledore,
The Force and Magic, owls and droids (both are messengers), magic wands
and light-sabres. He cites many other convincing similarities. I suspect that,
rather than borrowing from one another, these two sagas are similar because
they both cleave so tightly to the detailed coming-of-age matrix outlined by
such scholars as Otto Rank and Joseph Campbell.
I am also ignoring the influence of the German composer Richard Wagner
and his Ring Cycle, since I don’t really understand it.
Does Harry Potter belong in the Golden Age?
What qualities does Rowling share with Milne and Barrie and Grahame?
Four elements, I think:
1) deep friendships at the heart of each story — a family or
2) literacy: a love of language and wordplay
3) a fully-realized imaginary world. Meticulously imagined,
The fourth and possibly the most important ingredient is a High Empire
Britishness, an imperial sensibility. The tea that Badger serves Toad and
Mole was grown in India, the British colony, perhaps at one of the Chabua
plantations, in upper Assam, courtesy of the Raj; that spotless train running
from London to Hogwarts runs properly, without fail or falter, on-time,
with snack trays making the rounds. Invisible servers fill the Hogwarts
dining hall with an apparently endless supply of food; washer-women must
be hidden in the dungeons, doing the laundry. The Gryffindor commonroom carpets are Harshang Bidjars, from Persia, thank you very much. Life is
good at the top of the pyramid. Smudge-faced working-class children in
factories populate Dickens stories, not the hallways of Ravenclaw.
J.K. Rowling is a throwback, to British generations with an authentic highempire sensibility. Her writing shares with ‘The Wind in the Willows’ that
British Empire quality of self-knowledge, or self-confidence, a deep,
inclusive sense of where one stands in the landscape, so strong that it
borders on predestination. Americans are looking for their place (‘Little
House on the Prairie’); the British already know it; the French search for
meaning (‘The Little Prince’) among their places.
Rowling’s most powerful story isn’t the battle of good vs. evil.
It’s the long and lovely explanation of Voldemort’s weakness and
— Hank Green
Included under High British Empire is the celebration of food and fine
merchandise: Toad’s excellent motor-car; the Hawthorne, Acacia and cherry
wands of the Diagon Alley wand shop; Ratty’s picnic lunch:
‘What’s inside it?’ asked the Mole, wriggling with
‘There’s cold chicken inside it,’ replied the Rat briefly;
‘O stop, stop,’ cried the Mole in ecstacies: ‘This is too
‘Do you really think so?’ enquired the Rat seriously.
If the author had been Chinese, or Italian, or Hawaiian, would “Harry
Potter” be a different narrative? A hundred times ‘Yes.’
Sidebar: WWII motifs of spies, espionage, codebreaking
J.K. Rowling adds an extra vitamin of Britishness to her story by forging
strong connections to World War II, more specifically the British
experience of WWII. Such recurring motifs as the master spy (Snape), the
turncoat (Marietta Edgecombe), the tortured prisoner (Charity Burbage),
warring symmetrical hierarchies, codebreaking, hidden identities and love
in desperate hours among the bombed ruins – all of these evoke familiar
Churchillian scenarios, powerful images in the recent collective memory of
British readers. Such elements and characters do not emerge from Russia’s
experience of World War II, nor America’s, nor Japan’s.
Sidebar: Harry is Definitely Not an American Hero
Each national culture and each age within that culture fashions a particular
image of a hero. Sherlock Holmes belonged to the Age of Reason, breaking
with a tradition of heroes who were simply powerful and brave. American
schoolchildren learn about ‘Honest Abe’ Lincoln, Chinese textbooks might
tell of Mao Zedong swimming the Yangtze, British youth all know the noble
warrior King Arthur, while French fifth-graders can recite the story of
peasant and martyr Jeanne D’Arc.
What kind of hero is Harry? Certainly not American, writes Ken Eckert,
Associate Professor of English at Hanyang University:
What I always find peculiar about the Harry Potter world
is how Harry silently endures all the abuse he does, with a
stiff upper lip, without complaining or rebelling.
If ‘Harry Potter’ were set in the States, and somewhat also
this is true for Canada, he wouldn’t take all the crap he
does from teachers, parents, and others. Americans love
their heroes to be badasses who fight authority, and Harry
wouldn’t just grin when Snape cheats him on points, or
there’s some rule about what corridor he can walk down,
or Hermione tells him about some school rule about the
potion they need.
When Harry saves the school every time from Hogwarts and
still gets no thanks for it and gets yelled at by teachers, an
American teenager would yell “F— you, you ingrates!” to
Harry sneaks around rules, but he’s no Holden Caulfield.
Added proof that Harry is not an American-based figure: the absence of fistfighting, martial arts, gunplay and sword-fighting.
Our premise – that ‘Harry Potter’ is a legitimate member of the extended
Golden Age as well as its gravedigger – is flawed. The Potter cycle may have
more in common with adult Brit Lit – Emma, Who Killed Roger Ackroyd and
Dracula — than it does with Winnie the Pooh.
Madeleine L’Engle, author of A Wrinkle in Time, famously told a 2004
Newsweek interviewer that Harry Potter is “a nice story but there’s nothing
underneath it.” The full question and answer is here:
Have you read the Harry Potter books?
I read one of them. It’s a nice story but there’s nothing underneath it.
I don’t want to be bothered with stuff where there’s nothing
underneath. Some people say, “Why do you read the Bible?” I say,
“Because there’s a lot of stuff underneath.”
Firstly, comparing any contemporary work to the Bible is an awfully high
bar. Secondly, we can now refute what was perhaps an offhand comment by
Ms. L’Engle with a wealth of evidence: there is in fact a great deal of stuff
underneath the nice Harry Potter story.