Boy Wizards

I’ve been thinking a lot about why books like Harry Potter, Twilight, and yes, even Fifty Shades of Gray, are so popular. (I’ve read all the Harry Potter books, I made it through the first Twilight book, and I’m not going to read Fifty Shades of Gray for the same reason I don’t eat McDonald’s hamburgers. Which is that I’ve had real hamburgers, and I see no reason to try fake ones that are inevitably going to taste bad and leave me feeling sick. Meaning, just in case you didn’t get that metaphor, that I’ve read real books, and I have no desire to read fake ones.)

I was thinking about this specifically because in an interview, some time ago, Ursula Le Guin compared her Earthsea books to Harry Potter. I grew up on A Wizard of Earthsea, and the Earthsea books were among those that created my perception of fantasy, and of the world I lived in. I have enough invested in them that I was really, genuinely angry at Le Guin for writing Tehanu, which felt like a betrayal.

But the question I’m most interested in right now is, why are the Harry Potter books so much more popular? Le Guin is by far the better writer. She is a writer: for me, J.K. Rowling is someone who happens to have written a popular series, but someone who is not, at heart, a writer. I know that’s a controversial statement, and I don’t mean it in a negative way. But I would say the same about Stephenie Meyer. Le Guin has written novels, short stories, poems. She has written essays on writing, on her own writing practice and on genre. She is, in a deep and complete way, a professional writer.  I have no desire to read Rowling’s adult novel, which is supposed to come out soon.  Whereas I will seek out most of what Le Guin writes.

So what does Harry Potter have that her books don’t? What makes them so popular?

Honestly, I think it’s that they come directly from our deepest desires. We all want to be Harry: the boy selected for greatness, the boy who comes into his own without having to wonder whether or not he will ever be great. The boy who is immediately recognized for what he is. Ged is not Harry Potter. He is also a wizard by instinct, he also gets into a wizarding school, but his time there is so much more difficult. He has to earn his later fame through a series of trials, in which he realizes that his own worst enemy is himself. His own talent and ambition hold him back. He is tempted, as we are all tempted but as Harry is not truly tempted. Harry never wants to be Voldemort. The fact that they are doubles is always implicit, but Harry does not want to go over to the dark side. Ged discovers that the darkness is in himself.

The Earthsea books are so much more complex, so much less comfortable to read. In a sense, they are less entertaining. They are more work. They are about us.  (I would add that Ged’s suffering is internal, whereas Harry’s suffering is largely external.  He has to fight an external enemy, not his own impulses.)

I suppose I draw two lessons from this, which may not be what you expect. The first comes from having studied Victorian literature and knowing that what is popular, even wildly popular, in one era is often forgotten in the next. Who now reads Dickens’ The Old Curiosity Shop? So we should write what we are drawn to write, knowing that popularity at any given time means very little. But the second is that books like Harry Potter have something to teach us: they give us pleasure because they give us part of what we want. They fulfill our dreams and desires. And that can be an important technique for a writer: making a book entertaining is itself a technique we can use. Even if we want to do the more difficult stuff.

(I should add that the Earthsea books are of course entertaining, although in a different way. They give us wizards and dragons and Le Guin’s beautiful language. I read them for that, but I did rebel when the later books became less like that, and more about her philosophical message. Still, I have to read Tales from Earthsea, which I saw in the bookstore recently.)

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22 thoughts on “Boy Wizards

  1. I think the popularity of Harry Potter is largely due to the fact that people of a certain age literally grew up with the characters, and their taste in reading matured as the writing itself matured.

  2. I think you make some excellent points here Theodora. Over the years I’ve wondered why some of my favorite books (of which LeGuin’s A Wizard of Earthsea is most assuredly one) weren’t as popular as the examples you point out. Your idea that the Harry Potter books for instance reach most people’s deepest desires make a good deal of sense. I also like your point about popularity in one era not necessarily lasting. Who now reads James Farrell’s “Studs Lonigan” books nowadays? Yet they were very popular in their day.
    I’m actually going back and re-reading all the Earthsea books, and am reading “Tales from Earthsea” and “The Other Wind” for the first time. I actually thought a lot of “Tehanu” but your disappointment in that books seems fairly common among a lot of the reviews of Earthsea fans I’ve read. My own take, possibly because I read AWOE at age 13/14 and Tehanu around age 50) was that the book was an allegory in a sense about aging and change and passages from one generation to the next. Regardless, I think your post is very insightful, thanks for posting.

  3. Interesting points. I could always see the reasons why Harry Potter became so popular – which isn’t to say I’m claiming it has much inherent value, because actually I think the stories are badly told on many levels. No offence to JK, who obviously is a great success, but her plots are full of holes – the entire book Goblet of Fire is one big hole (why doesn’t the bad guy just hand Harry a portkey on the first day back and school, instead of going through all that competition?) – and they are the perfect example of how shoddy writing can be overcome by providing something the readers want. Often timing has a lot to do with it too. (It’s the same with 50 Shades. It caught the lip of a popularity wave at just exactly the time the public was ready to surf.) Which shows me there is more to writing than being a brilliant writer or telling an amazing story.

    I’d love for you to say more about why you felt Tehanu was a betrayal. That book also made me feel very unhappy, but I wonder if it was for the same reasons. By the way, I have Tales from Earthsea and some of the stories are beautiful and entrancing. I can never seem to get into it the way I do with her Earthsea novels, which I reread frequently, but it is nevertheless a book I treasure having on my shelf, even if only to honour exquisite mastery of the English language and imagination.

  4. Another victorian novel, Tom Brown’s School Days, would be a more appropriate comparison to J K Rowling’s books. Tom Brown is clearly the template for Harry Potter with Harry as Tom and Arnold as Dumbledore. Tom Brown was popular as it was a memoir of school days and, as such romanticised the experience greatly. There is little doubt that Tom Brown will waver from his Christian principals, nor disappoint Headmaster Arnold, nor not succeed. The book was wildy popular nontheless despite the many novels available at the time about young men at school.

    I suspect that the Harry Potter books became so popular for the same reasons: the story tells us what we secretly want to believe — that we are the chosen one and that there is no doubt, really, that we will succeed.

    Real life (and conversely, real literature) has no such assurances.

  5. I’ve thought on this as well, I think all artists have at some point or another. Although when I was thinking about it, I was thinking about other mediums than writing. I do often wonder how it can vary from one book to another with a writer as well. For example ‘Interview with the Vampire’ is literature and ‘The Vampire Lestat’ is merely a novel.

    In other mediums I like to look at Michael Bay’s masterpiece ‘Armageddon’ and compare it to other films. Yes, I think Armageddon is a masterpiece of summer blockbuster storytelling and that puts it in the Harry Potter camp for being what it is.

    Armageddon also made 550million dollars and has been seen by just about everybody at least once it seems. Compare that to another film that is dear to our hearts, at least most of us, and that is The Princess Bride. Also a masterpiece in storytelling but only made 30million… the movie has made in total, over all these years, less than Armageddon did in it’s first 2 weeks.

    What differentiates mere great storytelling from literature? I think that’s the question. Is literature great storytelling? Don’t know about you but I didn’t find Ulysses to be a page turner that kept me up all night against my better judgement to finish it as other authors have brutally done to me in the past to the detriment of my jobs.

    BTW: I’ve never read the Earthsea series

  6. No girls on Roke.

    When I read Earthsea as a kid, I was used to there being no girls and didn’t care. Nowadays, I’m a bit more spoiled. If Hogwarts was a boys’ school, I wouldn’t have been interested.

    Having said that, when I read “The Dispossessed,” my first grown-up LeGuin book, I was sucked in by the discovery that Odo, leader of an anarchist revolution, was a woman. I dreamed about Odo. I imagined what her life was like.

    • Thoraiya, what a beautiful name. Was it a real night dream? I also had one. I was on Odo’s anarchist world, on a committee, sitting on gray rocks in cold weather. I do not remember what we were debating about but I woke up feeling elated and thrilled.

      • Thanks, Phyllis. You were on a committee? I was in jail with her! Yes, it was a real night dream. And even though it was jail, I also woke up pretty excited :)

  7. P.S. I actually think Harry Potter is Gary Stu Fail. Who wants to pretend that their parents have been killed so long ago that we can’t remember them and that we live in a child abuse situation with a psychopath after us? Really? People want to be Harry Potter?

    I don’t think they want to be Harry at all. I think they want to go to Hogwarts as themselves.

    • That’s a brilliant point about wanting to go to Hogwarts as being people’s primary motivating factor. I think that’s absolutely true. However, much as I laughed at your clever description of Harry’s circumstances, I do think children especially want to fantasise about being Harry – free of parents (like so many characters in children’s literature) and terribly important, saving the world, etc. etc. Actually BE Harry – well, probably not when the chips were down. But that’s not why we read stories, is it?

      • Well, but being at Hogwarts frees you from your parents even when they’re not actually dead, right?

        You’re right about wanting to be the Chosen One and save the world, although I think Ged saving the world from the darkness within himself, and Harry saving the world from the darkness in the orphan boy that he could so easily have been if not for the love of his mother, is not as different as Dora makes out. In “Half Blood Prince” when we’re experiencing Voldemort’s childhood, that distinction is especially blurred, and it’s what makes that book my favourite.

      • Actually the adoptive parents being abusive is part of the wish-fulfillment equation. The fantasy of fleeing to Hogwarts is a fantasy of it being suddenly revealed that you are terribly important and going where everyone will know it. Part of that fantasy is that it will be revealed that the people who are taking care of you *now*, who don’t appreciate you enough and who ask things of you you find unfair, will be revealed as pathetic nasty buffoons incapable, not only of understanding you, but of understanding anything about how the world truly works. The more abusive they are, the more total your satisfaction at them being rendered irrelevant and contemptible.

      • Benjamin: That’s a fair point, and I get that it’s a sympathy-garnering device.

        Still, there’s a reason Hermione goes for Ron and not Harry; Harry is psychologically damaged, which we get reminded of with his dementor-weakness in Prisoner of Azkaban. You could call his failure to be tempted by the dark arts a failure of Rowling as a writer to explore the darkness within, or you could call it a powerful story of a broken boy seeking revenge, since he actually does use dark arts on Bellatrix after she kills Sirius.

        I guess I’m only speaking for myself, then, when I say I never wished my parents were dead, even as a kid!

  8. It’s always disappointed me that more people don’t realize that LeGuin was there first, and better. But hey, I’m glad kids read ANYTHING these days.

    Jeff P.

  9. I agree point for point with much of this. Personally, I think of Le Guin as a writer and Rowling as a storyteller — perhaps an unfair distinction, but one that allows me to acknowledge that I admire what Rowling did with HP and doubt I could do the same.

    As for Earthsea – Tombs of Atuan’s my favorite, though “Wizard” is a close second. For me, the moment that stands out is when Tenar realizes she’s accidentally killed the eunuch who loves her. (Or that’s how I remember it.) It’s a beautiful, horrifying plot point that serves as Tenar’s Ged-like realization of the harm she can do in the world. Pure brilliance.

  10. Very interesting topic. I’ll confess to not having read all the Harry Potter books, although I have sampled. I think you should also consider that the setting is a major differentiator between Ged and Harry Potter. Ged is automatically distanced from the reader by virtue of the fact that he’s living in a far away place. It’s a little more work to imagine yourself there, than it is to imagine yourself in Harry’s world before he gets the letter from Hogwarts. On the other hand, which of us wouldn’t want to have gotten a letter from Hogwarts as a child? And because the setting in which he receives it is so much like ours, it’s very easy to imagine that perhaps there really is a Hogwarts…

    I think a more interesting question might be to examine why Harry Potter is so much more commercially successful than Diane Duane’s Young Wizards books which preceded it. I see two major differences there – Duane’s viewpoint character is female, and the young wizards don’t go off to private school somewhere. They stay at home and learn to be wizards in the context of their families and every day lives. I’m inclined to think that staying at home is the major factor – Harry Potter appeals to the desire of most kids to get away from their current situation – maybe they hate school, they don’t think their parents, understand them, etc – plus a dollop of the notion that private school is something rich people do, so it must be wonderful.

  11. This is a great topic. I was so disappointed when I read the first Harry Potter book.
    I kept editing it in my mind. But I was not a child by then. LeGuin is thrilling, a
    magician herself. She makes the writing look so easy, revelation after revelation. I
    also wonder why Diana Wynne Jones wasn’t a millionaire. I did love the movie
    version of Howl’s Moving Castle, which I reread now and then just for the joy of it.
    So, I did read the last Harry Potter book and did get caught up with the whirlwind
    suspense. But like Theodora’s McDonald’s burger, for beauty and substance I go back to again and again to LeGuin.

  12. I think you nailed it, actually. I have much the same response to the Potterverse and to Rowling as you do – and, like you, I’ll seek out le Guin in whatever guise I find her. Rowling is just richly inventive in the sense that she just builds and builds and builds the world like a demented lego castle with more and more bricks – fake latin, spells, earwax candy, wands, house elves, Diagon Alley, Buckbeak, on and and on and on – and it’s fascinating and awesome that so many THINGS come spilling out of her mind – but at heart this is still a British Boarding School Story (just with a sprinkling of fairy dust). And honestly, if you’ve ever been to a real boarding school you’d know how much of a wish fulfillment fantasy this really is (letme give you a hint. You will NEVER get a meal that’s anything remotely like the Hogwarts feasts at a genuine real-life boarding school. TRUSTME ON THIS. I know.) Whereas Earthsea feels real. It feels like a foreign country rather than a dream, if you know what I mean.

  13. Dora, have we talked about Tehanu before? Ah yes — the Internet tells me we have ( http://theodoragoss.com/2011/11/23/anne-mccaffrey/ ). Well, again, I had the same reaction of horror and betrayal to Tehanu on the first read, and on the second read it became my favorite of the Earthsea books. Tales from Earthsea is also wonderful (and is totally motivated, Thorayia, by the no-girls-on-Roke problem). The Other Wind is the one I found far too ideological – where I thought Le Guin betrayed her own worldbuilding for her politics, in the handling of the Land of the Dead. I don’t have a particular preference for one Earthsean eschatology over another, really, but the way she did it took something numinous and mysterious and significant, and turned it safe and explicable as double-entry bookkeeping; for all the superficial protests to the contrary, I think the effect was to deny Shadow.

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