Harry Potter Phenomenon Provides Food for Scholarly Thought

Posted: September 4, 2007 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

By Colleen Kearney Rich

“Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows,” the much anticipated seventh and final book in the J.K. Rowling wizard series, went on sale last month in 88 countries and sold an estimated 8.3 million copies worldwide in the first 24 hours.

In addition to the final novel’s success, the film “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix,” based upon Rowling’s fifth book in the series, has grossed more than $280 million since opening this summer.

Harry Potter books
Photo by Creative Services

The huge success of the series has led many people to wonder just what it is about Potter that has everyone going to the bookstores and movie theaters in droves. Not only are media pondering Potter’s appeal, scholars, including some at Mason, have found several things to contemplate about Rowling and her series.

De-Disneying Storytelling

Doris Bitler, associate dean of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences and the College of Science, firmly believes that you “can apply scholarship to anything.” She and colleague Walter Rankin, deputy associate dean of academic affairs, have done just that.

For the last four years, the two have taught an honors course called Mystery, Madness, and Murder in which they take a multidisciplinary approach and use myth, literature and popular culture to look critically at such unconventional topics as voodoo, Egyptians’ spiritual beliefs and cannibalism. And, yes, they have touched on wizards.

Rankin can see parallels between the Potter series and the Brothers Grimm. Both teach moral lessons.

“You want good to triumph, but good doesn’t always do it in the ways we were hoping for,” says Rankin, whose latest book, “Grimm Pictures: Fairy Tale Archetypes in Eight Horror and Suspense Films” is due out in September.

As the Potter series has gone on, each book has gotten darker, much like the Grimm tales. “[Rowling] isn’t afraid to kill off characters,” he says. “And in classical drama, most tragedies end in death.”

Bitler believes the darkness of the books may be part of the appeal in that Rowling “de-Disneyed” a lot of things. “Take the mermaids, for example,” she says of the merpeople who appear in “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.” “Traditionally, mermaids have been horrible things. They lead people to their deaths.”

The merpeople depicted by Rowling are menacing creatures with beautiful voices. “That’s not Ariel,” says Rankin in reference to the character in Disney’s “Little Mermaid.”

“I think kids can relate more to that,” Bitler says.

Bitler also thinks that the time we live in has helped make the series popular. Children and teenagers are living vicariously through the characters Harry, Ron and Hermione.

“For children today, so much of their time is scheduled and controlled by adults,” and here are Harry and his friends living independently at Hogwarts, she says. “They are on their own, in charge of their lives, depending on themselves and their friends. The parents aren’t around, and that is empowering in a sense.”

Positive Images of Masculinity

Mason literacy expert and professor of education William Brozo has always been a strong advocate of the series.

“I believe Harry Potter has brought many boys, who might otherwise avoid books, into the reading club,” he says. “Research has shown that boys prefer books with male protagonists, and they also have narrow and less flexible preferences for reading material than girls.”

According to Brozo, who is the author of “To Be a Boy, to Be a Reader,” Harry Potter is perceived by many as an acceptable “boy-friendly” text for teens and preteen boys alike, and there just aren’t that many books, particularly a series, competing for their attention.

The other aspect leading to his popularity is that Harry and his friends offer adolescent males a positive characterization of boyhood and masculinity.

“Harry is a decent kid with supernatural powers and potential who is trying to thwart magical forces with untoward intentions,” he says. “In the research for my book, I found plenty of evidence to suggest that boys can increase their interest and skill in reading if exposed to texts that capture their unique male imaginations and present the various positive faces of masculinity.”

Harry Potter and the Law

A devoted reader of the series along with his two teenage daughters, Mercatus Center senior scholar Andrew P. Morriss has written a number of papers about Potter, which led him to being invited to sit on a panel discussing Harry Potter and the law at the 2005 Law and Literature Conference in Gloucester, England.

The response to the panel was so overwhelming that the 11 panelists combined abbreviated versions of their papers into one essay, “Harry Potter and the Law.”

In his section of the essay, “Making Legal Space for Moral Choice,” Morriss draws part of his analysis from the writings of Tyler Cowen, director of the Mercatus Center.

“In the Harry Potter novels, we have a good example of what Cowen terms a ‘calibration model,’” he says. “Rowling attempts to provide an internally consistent world in which magic works much as science ‘works’ in our world.”

For Morriss, who is also the H. Ross and Helen Workman Professor of Law at the University of Illinois, the questions introduced by the series have less to do with what we would do differently if magic worked than how we can apply this model to the world.

“What is interesting is using the idea of functioning magic to address the moral choices about our equivalent ‘magic,’ since we must make choices about how to use the enormous power technology grants us over the world,” he says.

The paper, which included sections from other panelists on house-elves and contract law and the role of punishment in the wizard world, was published by Texas Wesleyan Law Review and as a part of the Thomas Jefferson School of Law Legal Studies Research Paper Series.

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