Harry Potter to be Taught in British Schools, etc.

And to be part of the A-Level Exams, no less. Read about it here and here.

However appropriate or inappropriate this selection may be, it certainly challenges the assumption that there will be a significant time lag between Ms. Rowling’s popular success and her acceptance by the Academy. The Brits have made our favorite boy wizard hero no small part of their secondary school English curriculum.

Perhaps this means there will soon be an endowed chair in Hogwarts Studies at Eton for which I can apply…

In other news, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows has finally slipped from the New York Times Bestsellers lists. In case you’re keeping track, that would be more than nine and one half years after Sorcerer’s Stone first appeared on the list. Even discounting the facts that Ms. Rowling’s epic appeared in seven parts (Dickensian episodic writing…) and the Times created a separate list to diminish her dominance of the ‘adult books’ list, I think we can take “9 3/4” as the record for a single book-effort’s stay on this list (and an easy number to remember, no?).

Deathly Hallows has fallen to #48 on Amazon’s list but Harry still has his own page on their site. I’m pretty sure if all the chapters in the 4100 page story, its translations into languages-other-than-English, and ancillary titles were combined that the book would still be number #1, a place Deathly Hallows held for close to five months in 2007 before it was published.

Ms. Rowling’s work, however, remains #1 on the Collectible Book List established by Abe.com that is based on the number of books sold priced over $500. Note that individual first editions of Joyce’s Ulysses and The Hobbit far outstrip single copies of Ms. Rowling’s books, still. Even “mini-books” not by Beedle the Bard. Those kind of collectible treasures are sold at private auction, not online.

What do these numbers and test placement have to do with taking Harry seriously as literature? I think they are quantitative measures and cultural signs that confirm what was already obvious. No book or published series or movie or music in history has so gripped the global imagination as has Harry Potter. I would say that Ms. Rowling’s books are only rivaled in impact on culture by technological or stylistic innovations, an entirely different category (i.e., not ‘the Beatles’ but ‘recorded music’ or ‘rock ‘n roll’).

As always, I covet your comments and correction for this morning’s HogPro-hyperbole-to-spur-reflection.


  1. I’m not sure which hyperbole we’re asked to comment on: that HP has had an unprecedented effect on the global cultural awareness (in the realm of books, movies or music) or that HP has been accepted as literature?

    Allowing for advances in technology and increased access to books, I think that Charles Dickens might have given JKR a run for her money in the late 19th century, when men waited at the docks of New York city for the ship from England carrying the latest installment of The Old Curiousity Shop. They wanted to know if Little Nell lived or died. And I think Arthur Conan Doyle stirred quite a lot of interest with Sherlock Holmes. When he finally offed Holmes – one of the reasons being Holmes’ popularity at the expense of his other writings – he was hounded until he consented to resurrect his hero.

    We could also look at the top best selling books of all time. For single volumes, the Bible leads the way, followed closely by the works of Chairman Mao, the Quran, and the Book of Mormon. Dickens is up there though, with A Tale of Two Cities, and Tolkien (LOTR, closely followed by the Hobbit) and so is Christie (And then there were none). Deathly Hallows comes in at around #36. JKR does come in at the top of the book series list, which seems to consist mainly of books for children.

    I was kind of intrigued by the thought that HP would be in the A level curriculum. Surely that means that the educational community sees it as literature? Then I checked a website offering study packages to help people prepare for A levels in English Literature. The authors include the ones you’d expect (Shakespeare, Austen, Keats, Thackery, Dickens, Lawrence, Eliot, Yeats etc). But there quite a few brow-raisers: Mary Shelley, Bram Stoker, Truman Capote, Arthur Conan Doyle, Kurt Vonnegut, H.G. Wells. Nothing against these authors, whose works I enjoy, but I wouldn’t put them at the same level as Shakespeare or TS Eliot or Austen.

    One interesting observation was the almost complete lack of overlap between the list of best-sellers (books selling 10 million or more copies) and the A level curriculum: Dickens and JKR and JD Salinger are the only ones which make both.

    So is HP Literature? Is it on the A level list because of intrinsic merit, or because it has stormed the cultural ethos?

    Perhaps it’s a bit of both. If millions of people hadn’t read it, I would doubt that it would make the A level list. But I don’t think it would have cracked that list if it didn’t have some literary merit, however we define that.

    Another way of asking the same question is to compare oranges with oranges, is HP at the same level as A Tale of Two Cities and the Catcher in the Rye, the only two other books which make it on both lists?

    I haven’t read The Catcher in the Rye. For story telling I’d say Two Cities and Deathly Hallows are pretty even. For literary style, I’d say Dickens wins hands down. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. It’s a far, far better thing that I do than I have ever done before. That kind of thing.

  2. Curiously, TOTC and Harry Potter share more than this shared place on A Level Exams and bestseller lists. Both are fascinating genre melanges and each comes with heavy alchemical and resurrection images, even “love’s victory over death” themes. With Romeo & Juliet, Gulliver’s Travels, and Perelandra, TOTC is on the list I send to people of who ask of “books most reminiscent and resonant of Harry Potter.”

    It’s a big part of Harry Meets Hamlet and Scrooge,” about which, more soon.

  3. Speaking of books most reminiscent and resonant of Harry Potter, I’m tempted to suggest Victor Hugo’s Ninety-three. Cimourdain’s response to the dilemma of how to balance the demands of duty and responsibility with with those of his own heart is a touch more admirable than Dumbledore’s. And Gauvain, of course, is pure Harry.

  4. And with Victor Hugo there is another alchemical connection, as noted in the comments of the HogPro thread about Hugo Weasley.

    I haven’t read Ninety-Three, Reyhan. Any obvious alchemical symbolism that you recall in Hugo’s Quatrevingt-treize?

    Judging just from the Wikipedia plot summary, the evident concern about purification, transcendence of individual circumstances, and twins are alchemical shadows — but the political idealism and ideological triumphalism, however heroic superficially, seems contrary to anything spiritual or even edifying. I look forward to reading it to see for myself. Thanks for the reference!

  5. Ninety-three isn’t really at all about politics or ideals. It’s about men choosing their values and beliefs, and living according to those beliefs, and what happens when those beliefs go against what their hearts and consciences tell them. It’s a very romantic and heroic vision of mankind. And in fact, it’s the complete opposite of ideological triumphalsims: love trumps idealism at every face-off.

    Thus Lantenac, the leader of the Royalist Rebels, condemns the Republican mother to death because she’s the enemy (idealism), but risks his own life to save her children, because he can not let a child die (love). Gauvain is born an aristocrat but elects to fight on the Republican side because of his beliefs (idealism), but can not let Lantenac die because he admires his self-sacrifice (love). And Cimourdain, who is as fanatical as Javert (from Les Miserables), condemns Gauvain to death for saving Lantenac (idealism) but kills himself because of his love for Gauvain, who was his student.

    I see the parallel between Cimourdain and Gauvain, on the one hand, and Dumbledore and Harry on the other. Gauvain, like Harry, sacrifices himself out of a need to do the right thing, and out of love. Cimourdain, like Dumbledore, is conflicted between his love for his student and his need to do what’s best for the war (in his case, the Revolution). Like Dumbledore, CImourdain does what he must; unlike Dumbledore, he pays the price for sacrificing the young man whom he loves to his cause.

    Obviously there are a lot of dissimilarities. There is no villain in Ninety-three, unless it’s men’s tendency to adopt ideologies which are ultimately destructive and go againsy human nature. But that’s Hugo’s theme throughout his books. And there is no essential conflict between Dumbledore and Harry, as there is between Cimourdain and Gauvain.

    But it’s an intersting point you make about spirituality: Hugo has been described as being deeply spiritual, without being religious.

    And I don’t know enough about alchemical sympbolism to see the links. Certainly there is a point at which all three men undergo suffering and purification, a point at which they awake to what is real and important. And the last line indicates unification with God. But I don’t think it follows the formula.

  6. Gladius Terrae Novae says

    We ought to have a list of books most reminiscent of Harry Potter, an entire article devoted to it. I could see a whole lot of things come up pretty quickly. I’ve heard some vague references to Naria and HP, but its been a while since I’ve read both all the way through. Think it’s similiar?

  7. And the new English ‘Children’s Laureate’ complains that the Harry Potter books are simultaneously “boring,” “too complex and challenging,” and to much for younger children “to cope with.” He “feared that their success might stop the young from exploring the work of other authors.”

    Forgive me. I have a hard time respecting these opinions. He lost me when he said the books didn’t “grab him” and he wouldn’t read them to his children because he didn’t want to bore them.”

    Anyone who has read these books aloud to a child will tell you this is not a thoughtful conclusion based on experience. Is there a reason that can be offered in defense of these statements? I’m feeling uncharitable here. Poor guy probably made these comments as asides in a 90 minute interview; now they’ll be carved on his headstone.

  8. I Googled Michael Rosen to find out what age range he writes for and what age range he was talking about, and I came across this rebuttal.


    The article says:

    ‘A quick telephone call to the man himself reveals that it’s all “complete rubbish”. He doesn’t think they’re either boring, or unsuitable for children.

    “Personally, as an adult, I don’t read the Harry Potter books,” he said. “I’ve read two-and-a-half of the books and no more. But there’s nothing unusual or controversial about that. My child who is seven finds them difficult, but you’d expect that to be the case.”

    In fact, he added, “I’ve been passionately defending Harry Potter against the literati for the past seven years.”

    The article questions whther the original article was an instance of “churnalism”. A slow news-day, perhaps?

  9. Thank you, Reyhan, for finding these two instances of Skeeter-ist Churnalism: first, the Telegraph’s for running a story that will surely haunt the man for the two years he is Children Laureate and probably forever after, and, second, my own, for not assuming it was misrepresentation and checking it myself.

    After the past years of Potter stories we all have read and our experience of how few of them turn out to be anything like what they were first represented to be in the Press, I have no excuse. My apologies to Mr. Rosen and to HogPro readers.

    And thank you, Reyhan, as well, for not slamming me and letting me apologize in my time. You were much kinder to me than I was to Mr. Rosen!

  10. Arabella Figg says

    He seems sincere, but clueless as to what kids are really reading. He may have a point about very young readers, but I wouldn’t know where to draw the age line. I loved suspenseful chapter endings as a kid; I couldn’t wait to read/hear more. His fear that the book will stop kids from reading further has been completely disproven.

    Sometimes the only way to be “bigger” than something huge is to dismiss/minimize it. In a couple years he may be banging his head on a Potter book in regret.

    Another ether-dweller who doesn’t get it.

    The kitties always get it, they just don’t explain it to me…

  11. The gratitude is entirely unmerited, John. I had no idea that Mr. Rosen had been misquoted and I did not question the accuracy of the original article; I was only trying to understand where he was coming from when I chanced upon the explanatory article.

    I may have made this point before, if so, ignore it. I like to read newspaper editorials and opinion pieces. I have found it useful to learn a little bit about the writer, however, in order to put his/her opinion in context. Unfortunately, this habit hasn’t quite crossed over to the Internet. When I see an opinion piece, I am more likely to swallow it entire unless the bias is glaring. So no, I did not question the veracity of the Telegraph article until I accidentally came upon the correction in the Guardian.

  12. Arabella Figg says

    Oh, dear, I should have known better too. After testifying at a county hearing years ago, a reporter rushed over to get my name. I found myself on the nightly news speaking the *only* statement possibly deemed controversial, instead of the much more pertinent criticism not discussed before then. I was pretty unhappy about that.

    Churnalism…love it! My apologies to Mr. Rosen.

    Churnalism is what racing kitties cause in a room…

  13. The Official Statement from Mr. Rosen: “I fear I have been misrepresented.”

  14. ‘Facts on File’ is publishing a literary companion to Harry Potter. Is this a little bit like Cliff Notes? I suspect the A-Level announcement will make this a necessity. Check out the tattoos on the UWMC literature professor!

  15. I had several reactions.

    First off: Facts on File, how totally mainstream is that? Almost as mainstream as … tattoos?

    Secondly: Will Facts on File provide the commonly accepted critical interpretation of HP? I would love to see what that might be. I mean, has the academic community really had the chance to digest and discuss and achieve consensus on the books???

    And last and certainly least: It’s been a few years since I walked the halls of academia. Granted that my degrees were not in English Lit, but is that what academics look like nowadays?

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