Mailbag: A Harry Potter Interview with a Reporter named Rita (Seriously)

Hello, My name is Rita Cipriano and I work for a Portuguese newspaper called Observador. I am trying to reach Professor John Granger because of an article I am currently working. Can I send the questions to this email?
So what would you do if a reporter named ‘Rita’ wrote you a letter with questions about Harry Potter? And one from Portugal, the magical country where Ms Rowling lived while doing her detailed outlines of what became the Hogwarts Saga? Would you balk in prudent fear of the possibility that this ‘Rita’ might have been the inspiration for the remarkable purveyor of the poison pen depicted in the Harry’s adventures?


I decided to give it a whirl. Rita’s questions and my answers follow.


 1. How did you first become interested in Harry Potter?

I have seven children. When a friend gave Sorcerer’s Stone to my oldest daughter, then 11 years old, early in 2000, I decided to read it one night in order to explain to her why we don’t read trash like this. I was captivated and won over, needless to say, and bought the second and third books in print at that time and began reading them aloud to the other children. 
2. Why did you decide to start writing about Harry Potter?
Richard Abanes had written a book called Harry Potter and the Bible: The Menace Behind the Magick which condemned the series as a gateway to the occult. I gave a series of talks at the Port Townsend Carnegie Library called ‘Taking Harry Seriously’ that explained that Potter Mania was caused, not by their supposedly wicked content, but by their artistry and meaning, which ironically was overwhelmingly traditional and Christian in character. A friend urged me to write up those talks, his wife formatted the lectures into a book (Hidden Key to Harry Potter), and, when that book’s first printing sold out in a few months, Tyndale purchased the title and re-issued it asLooking for God in Harry Potter (now How Harry Cast His Spell).
3.  Which are the main themes and symbolism in Harry Potter?
I’ve written four books on this subject so I hope you’ll forgive me for balking at a two or three sentence summary! Let’s just say that Rowling has written a book that is simultaneously a Schoolboy novel, an Alchemical Drama, a Gothic Romance, an Orphan Bildungsroman, and a wonderful example of English High Fantasy a la Lewis’ Narniad and Tolkien’s Middle-Earth epic. Quite the achievement!
4. In your book Harry Potter’s Bookshelf you explore the literary landscape that influenced J.K. Rowling Novels. Which are the authors and the stories that inspired her?
Again, this is less a casual interview question than a dissertation topic. Though it goes against my habit to refer to the author rather than the text, in her many answers to like questions on this subject she has cited Jane Austen as her favorite writer and Emma as her favorite work and said that E. Nesbit, Nabokov, and Collete are also top influences. She has said very kind things about Lewis and Tolkien, though not recently, and she has noted more than once that Elizabeth Goudge’s Little White Horse was her favorite children’s book.
5. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone celebrates its 18th anniversary this month. What can you tell us about that specific book?
Three quick things that escape general notice: (1) the title points to the alchemical parameters and predominant symbolism throughout the series, which the author acknowledged as critical as early as 1998 and again last week on Pottermore, (2) the story is an almost perfect ring composition, whose 17 chapters with story turn in chapter 9 are a parallel structure to Lewis’ Lion, Witch, and the Wardrobe (each book in the series is a ring, believe it or not, and the seven novel series is as well), and (3) though the shortest by far of Harry’s adventures, it was turned down by multiple publishing houses because it was much too long to succeed as a children’s book.
5. What do you think is so fascinating about the books? Why do you think so many kids (and adults) become so interested in the Harry Potter world?
This is the most important question, no? The answer I’m happiest with after some twelve years of wrestling with the mystery of Potter mania is the ‘Eliade Thesis.’ Mircea Eliade wrote in The Sacred and the Profane that entertainments, especially story, serve a mythic or religious function in a secular culture, i.e., when the divine is removed to the periphery of the public square, man, whom Eliade calls “homo religiosus,”  will find an experience of the transcendent in the suspended disbelief and poetic faith of imaginative experience. My corollary to Eliade’s thesis is that those stories which provide that experience most profoundly, often with implicit spiritual content, meaning and artistry, are the tales we love best. Rowling’s Potter novels are all that. In brief, she provides readers exactly what they want and in large helpings.
6. What is the importance of Harry Potter regarding fantasy literature?
I don’t understand the question, alas. If nothing else, Rowling’s unprecedented success has made fantasy literature a respectable genre to every publishing house and to most every author. I’d go so far as to say that Harry has re-shaped the expectations of six reading generations; we’re living in the Age of Joanne Rowling, in terms of story, like it or not.
7. Although Harry Potter is a worldwide phenomenon, academics don’t seem to be much interested in J.K. Rowling novels. Some fantasy writers, such as Tolkien or C.S. Lewis, have been a part of the academic world for quite a while. Their work is taught and studied all over the world, but that doesn’t seem to happen with J.K. Rowling. Why? Do you think there is some prejudice regarding Harry Potter?
Harry Potter in only a few years is part of the curriculum in more than 150 American colleges and has achieved respectability much, much sooner than did Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Yale University, for example, was offering a course on the theology of the Potter books two years before the University of Chicago, my alma mater, offered a class on Tolkien. St Andrews University hosted an international conference in May, 2013, on Harry Potter as Literature, and, though the usual suspects scoffed at this as evidence of academic degeneration, the papers delivered were all top-drawer and challenging, believe me. James Thomas at Pepperdine, a notable Potter Pundit, told TIME magazine that Harry Potter will not be considered literary canon for at least a generation because of the three academic hallows, namely, the books are too recent, too popular, and too juvenile to be acknowledged for their worth. He said that in 2007; the eight years since seem to suggest he spoke too soon, if the gatekeepers will always look down their noses at what the great unwashed enjoy.
8. Do you think it is important to continue to study the Harry Potter phenomenon?
Only if we want to understand the best-selling books of our times, even all time! These stories, as I noted above, have changed the reading expectations of generations. Ignoring them is to miss out on one of the defining events of our historical period. 
I asked the journalist how difficult it was to enjoy the stories in which Rita Skeeter is featured because of her sharing both the profession and the name of that transparency of reporters-out-of-control. She responded:
Isn’t it ironical? Maybe all Ritas are meant to be journalists. (Although I like to believe I am nicer than Rita Skeeter). I love Harry Potter since I was a kid, but it is kind of sad that the only Rita in the book is so awful. 
That doesn’t sound like a Quick Quote Quill user. I’ll let you know how my answers turn out in the actual article!


  1. I have to admit, the first and only time I ever gave a thought about Rita Skeeter outside of the Potter books themselves was in connection with a Stephen King short-story called “The Night Flier”.

    The plot of the story, a wandering vampire with a private pilot’s license, was and still seems pretty good despite it’s simplicity. What struck me though (and ultimately reminded me of Rita) wasn’t the monster though, but rather the main character of a smarmy tabloid journalist. A seeming combination of outward false subservience and perhaps an inward rage, the character of the journalist just seemed to sum up a pretty good idea of Rita. In fact, I remember thinking, “gee, you could almost shuffle the parts around so that this story happens to Skeeter. Wouldn’t “that” be an interesting twist?” The idea gets even more interesting if you realize such a scenario would mean it would end with a citizen of the “Wizarding World” stranded in a small, Muggle airport and finding out the hard way the price of callousness.

    Of the character of the tabloid journalist, King had these very prescient words to say, words that seem to echo a lot of the problems Mrs. Rowling has complained about, I think, anyway:

    “I rarely “understand” my characters, any more than I understand the lives and hearts of the real people I meet every day, but I find that it’s sometimes possible to “plot” them, as a cartographer plots his or her maps. As I worked on “The Night Flier”, I began to glimpse a man of profound alienation, a man who seemed to somehow sum up some of the most terrible and confusing about our supposedly open society in the last quarter of the century. Dees (the journalist, sic) is the essential unbeliever, and his confrontation with the Night Flier at the end of the story recalls that George Seferis line I used in “Salem’s Lot” – the one about the column of truth having a hole in it. In these latter days of the twentieth century, that seems to be all too true, and “The Night Flier” is mostly about one man’s discovery of that hole (King, 880 – 881, current mass market paperback reprint ed.).”

    Some interesting bit of trivia:

    This blog post states that Rowling was studying up on Literary Alchemy as far back as “1988”. “Night Flier” was first published in a horror anthology “Prime Evil”, which was first published in June of 1988! However, I’m more cautious (going on skeptical) as to whether or not Mrs. R. had the idea of Rita in place from any possible book she may or may not have read way back when (one of the things scholars must continue to ask for is a list of her source material one of these days). It’s just one of those interesting coincidences.

    Curiously enough, in this same anthology we have two other short subjects that mention mythopoeic writers. One is Peter Straub’s “The Juniper Tree”, whose title is borrowed from I believe the Brothers Grimm. The other is M. John Harrison’s “The Great God Pan”, which named and framed after the novella of the same name by classic horror author Arthur Machen. We also have “Alice’s Last Adventure” by Thomas Ligotti.

    What’s interesting to note about the Harrison pastiche is that it put at least one reader in mind of “The Place of the Lion” by Inkling member Charles Williams (the relevant text is a few scrolls down, but it’s there for those who are patient):

  2. “1988” should be “1998.” My apologies…

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