Telegraph: ‘Why Harry Potter is a Literary Masterpiece that Belongs in the Canon’

Charlotte Runcie wrote an article last Saturday in The Telegraph (UK) titled, ‘Why Harry Potter is a Literary Masterpiece‘ with the subtitle, “JK Rowling is more than a lightning rod for controversy. She’s an author whose books belong in the canon of English literature.”

Her argument contra the Trans-manian Devils among the literati (and their cousins, the twitterati) who continue to slander Rowling as a “transphobe” and “murderer” (!) was short and to the point:

Beyond the legitimate literary criticism, Rowling has weathered several waves of unjustified attack, first from the harrumphing reviewers who somehow managed to read her books without reading them at all, and then a further wave of rage from those who disagree with her beyond the books, taking issue with her politics (she is pro-Labour but anti-Corbyn, and is a critic of Nicola Sturgeon) or her stance on women’s rights and the much-alleged transphobia. 

But if you go looking for anything transphobic that Rowling has said, you’re going to return empty-handed. In November last year, the journalist E J Rosetta was asked by an editor to write an article called “20 Transphobic JK Rowling Quotes We’re Done With”. After 12 weeks of research, she gave up, saying: “I’ve not found a single truly transphobic message.”
As refreshing as it is to read this plain truth stated in a mainline newspaper without equivocation or side-stepping, it’s not the best part of Runcie’s article. To answer the question posed in her title, she leans heavily on Beatrice Groves’ Literary Allusion in Harry Potter. Those of you familiar with that book will recognize almost every point that The Telegraph writer makes about the literary merits of the Hogwarts Saga as an insight taken straight from the source text named. Good for her for choosing such an excellent reference and citing it at least in passing; the article is worth reading just for the reminder of how good Literary Allusion really is.

I think, though, in making her case almost exclusively on the way Rowling “weaves together allusion and influence so naturally that it feels as though it’s grown organically out of the literature of these islands. Rowling takes what has come before her, and makes something new,” the reporter doesn’t make the argument she might have. Runcie mentions world creation, characters maturing in their story arcs, Rowling’s use of Latin and Greek, and the fun with names, but her case for Hogwarts meriting canon status is in essence intertextuality. That in the end is a relatively thin case.

I made a different and better one, I think, way back in 2011 on the occasion of the release of the final Harry Potter film. In an article for Christianity Today, ‘Harry Potter is Here to Stay,’ I argued that Rowling had written an epic of literary heft with the supporting reasons of her chiastic structures with respect to the individual books and series as a whole, her hermetic artistry with special mention of her use of alchemical symbols and sequences, and the soul triptych, what I now call psychomachia, of Harry, Ron, and Hermione.

The combination of these elements, at least as invisible to the average reader as the sophisticated literary allusion in Rowling’s writing, is intertextuality, too, in that Rowling took these tools from the canon of authors she had read closely. The difference, though, is that these three elements refer to transcendent realities rather than to the work of important authors; the game here is for the stakes of a soul’s contact with a world beyond itself via the imagination rather than just one of ‘Spot the Source,’ what Wendy Doniger called the game that readers who hunt for ur texts within a text as their goal are playing.

Still, it is an extraordinary thing that The Telegraph is putting into print an article by an intelligent reader who dismisses the transgender kerfuffle as so much slander against Rowling while lauding her as a literary ‘Great.’ I cannot think of a stronger sign that the success of the computer game and the announcement of the Max teevee ten year deal with Rowling and Bronte Studios has in essence reduced the Witch Hunt to a pub crawl for ideological nutters. It’s long overdue and a great relief.


  1. From my Twitter comment:
    Harry Potter takes its place among children’s classics like Peter Pan, Alice in Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz, the Narnia stories, and Lord of the Rings. Nearly all these stories are about children–usually little girls–who cross over from the mundane world into a magical land.