Literary Qualities

Whether because they offer a natural metaphor for coming-of-age audiences transitioning into the adult world, or because-either in cause or effect-they are generally considered most appropriate for the developmental phases and developing psyche of the young adult, the canonized classics of British fantasy traditionally feature young adult protagonists. “The Sword in the Stone,” Book One of T. H. White’s aforementioned The Once and Future King (1958), searches back through history, legend, and the author’s own boyhood, to expand the Arthurian legend by contributing the story of Arthur’s young adulthood. Appropriately, White, a teacher of young adults, expands Arthurian legend by describing what the young Wart learned in his lessons with Merlin in order to explain the genius of Wart’s later kingship.

But T. H. White is simply one of the more recent authors to artfully and respectfully redefine the traditional parameters of the fantasy genre. He follows such great masters as Lewis Carroll and C. S. Lewis and such beloved characters as Alice Liddell and Lucy Prevensie. In Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1866) and Through the Looking-Glass (1872), Carroll describes a series of experiences that mature Alice both emotionally and intellectually in order to prepare her for life as a logical, reasoning, and kind-hearted woman. In the seven books that make up C. S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia (1950-1956), Lucy and the Pevensie children (as well as Polly Plumber, Digory Kirke, Eustace Scrubb, and Jill Pole) accomplish a series of moral tasks that underscore Lewis’s and the novels’ Christian sentiment and earn the characters a place in heaven.

In accordance with, and in honor of, this proud literary history, Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone begins the story of Harry Potter, age eleven, apprentice wizard and self-doubting hero-a novel that, and a protagonist who, has been inspired by the motifs of classic British fantasy. Clearly, Rowling aspires to further define, and to excel within, the genre of fantasy. In her general examination of the young hero’s mentor and his acquisition of wisdom, Rowling’s Harry Potter resembles White’s young Arthur. Though not privately tutored by Hogwarts headmaster Professor Dumbledore, Harry nevertheless is trained within his school and according to his pedagogic system. And it is at crucial times in the narrative of his training that Harry is given the opportunity to consult with Dumbledore: when he develops a dangerous preoccupation with the Mirror of Erised, when he must negotiate the prudent use of the invisibility cloak, and after he has successfully (and for the second time) defeated “He Who Shall Not Be Named.” Additionally, Dumbledore resembles Merlin both personally and physically; he is an avid lover of books and wisdom who wears flowing robes and a long, white beard. This resemblance suggests not only how much White’s master wizard has influenced-and continues to influence-audience expectation, but how that influence has determined Rowling’s use of classic fantasy motifs.

Rowling also credits Lewis Carroll and C. S. Lewis through her description, and use, of a reflective device and a train ride to achieve passage into a fantastic other-world. In a manner that suggests a parallel to the rites of passage of young adulthood, Harry Potter boards a train at platform nine and three-quarters at King’s Cross station. Harry’s trip will bring him to the wondrously magical and separate (though whimsically and pointedly parallel) world of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. After many railway trips, many happy adventures, and the conclusive suggestion that they might be outgrowing such adventures, the Pevensie children of Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia access the kingdom of heaven when they are killed in a train wreck. In Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass, Alice speeds through the countryside of her own parallel world, the reversed world of “nonsense” on the other side of a mirror, while she is engaged in a giant game of chess that she must win in order to return transformed and victorious to the “real,” that is adult, world. Harry passes the preparatory “test” of the Mirror of Erised (with a great deal of help and guidance from Professor Dumbledore), gaining the strength and confidence necessary to help him (along with Ron Weasley) face the challenge of the giant chess game towards the end of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Alice’s success in the chess game, involving the maturity required to eschew the paradoxes (bureaucracy) of the Red Queen and her supporters (political, governmental systems), informs Rowling’s description of Harry’s and Ron’s actions during the giant Chess game, as well as our perceptions of them. Chess, a game of logic requiring patience and experience, tests and proves both the capabilities of reason and fantasy, and Harry and his friends must further establish themselves as heroes by exercising both of these capabilities-much in the way the audience does in the act of reading, in the act of entering a reflective art form.

Thus, as a fellow reader and creating author, in book one of the “Harry Potter” series, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Rowling gives due credit to the precedents of her literary forebears and extends a hand to those writers who may hope to follow. And the readers and keepers of the tradition of classic, British fantasy, would do well to acknowledge agreement in Rowling’s debt as well as the reader’s debt to Rowling.

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