The world is divided between Harry Potter fans and those who consider bespectacled boy wizards a proper load of Hogwarts. This year marks the 20th anniversary of the first novel in JK Rowling’s 400-million selling series, and the fanfare has been predictably deafening. Yet among Potter agnostics the saga’s hallowed status is a source of ongoing bafflement.
And this thaumaturgic twerp with the dishwater personality is not even the most annoying of JK Rowling’s creations. Imagine being trapped on a slow train from Platform 9¾ with Hermione Granger and Ed Sheeran-prototype Ron Weasley? Twenty minutes in and you would be ready to swear fealty to Voldemort for life.
The difficulty is that, regardless of whether you ran screaming from Potter 20 years ago, upon becoming a parent you may find yourself grappling with Rowling all over again. As your children approach reading age the question becomes unavoidable.
Your own misgivings notwithstanding, should you usher your family into the Cult of Harry?
The received wisdom, after all, is that the Potter-verse is the ultimate addictive substance for smart, inquisitive kids and that introducing them to wand-waving ’Arry at a susceptible age will make them a reader for life.
But is Harry the sort of person you want hanging around with your offspring? There’s a case to be made that Potter embodies – and may have fostered – the worst stereotypes of the Millennial generation and that these are qualities no parent would wish to pass on to their sons and daughters (trigger warning: further Harry dissing to follow).
The best children’s adventures require the main character to earn their hero’s spurs. The protagonist starts off a striving nobody, ascending to greatness through toil and humility.
Potter, by contrast, is an anointed cherub, told he is special from the very outset. He has no winning attributes yet, having escaped the ghastly clutches of his working-class English family (a slur against the toiling masses for which middle-class Rowling has never endured any pushback), is fawned over endlessly.
Harry is thus the ultimate “Special One” – celebrated as an overachiever before he’s achieved anything.
The assertion that the Potter generation is self-absorbed, soggy at the edges, and reluctant to grapple with the mundane unpleasantness of everyday life is, admittedly, the worst sweeping generalisation. Today’s 20-somethings didn’t invent whining, shirking and narcissism – and privileged brats have been with us since the dawn humanity.
Yet Millennial culture is undoubtedly sensitive to the touch and arguably has a greater tendency to see the world in black and white. Who better embodies this outlook than our very special Harry?
He is, in both Rowling’s novels and the interminable movie adaptations, possessed by a sense of manifest destiny and, if there are many run-ins with monsters and evil-doers along the way, Harry’s eventual triumph is never in serious doubt.
Even the big bad of the piece, ghastly old Voldemort, is obsessed with Harry – which makes you wonder how seriously we are supposed to take a villain who chooses as his nemesis a weedy 12-year-old?
Still, the other week, I did what I would have once considered unthinkable. To my local bookshop I schlepped and purchased a copy of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone. It's a spiffy new edition with a bright red cover – appropriate as that was the colour I had turned by the time I finished the opening chapter in 1999 (the 20th anniversary of Potter means it's the 18th anniversary of my setting the first volume to one side in bafflement).
As I commenced reading Potter to my seven-year-old, it occurred to me that, at his age, I was starting to discover JRR Tolkien.
People who don't know much about genre fiction tend to lump The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter together. Wizards, black-caped nasties with rasping voices, unpronounceable names – what's the difference? Yet there are fundamental disparities, with the two works conveying jarringly different world views.
If The Lord of the Rings is a children's book (and you can argue the point) then it is many times grittier and more clear-eyed than Potter. The character with whom the reader is ultimately invited to identify is hardscrabble gardener Sam Gamgee – the antithesis of the Millennial Chosen One.
He’s a hard-working nobody who keeps his head down and whose dearest wish is to survive his unhappy stint as an adventurer and resume normal life. Sam returns to his wife and children in the novel’s final scene and, with relief, shuts the door on the wild realm outside.
This is as close to a happy ending as Tolkien is prepared to give us. The message is that nobody is destined for greatness. The world may seize us by the scruff, in which case it behoves us to muddle through as best we can. But we are not born special. That needs to be earned.
Rowling’s perspective is the precise opposite. In Potter, she encourages the underage reader to identify with a young man who is exceptional only because the author insists this to be the case. You’re extraordinary no matter what.
Is that an outlook I want to pass onto my kids? Or might we all be better off leaving Harry to his Quidditch and his self-absorption and instead furnish our children with books that prepare them for life as it really is, not how we wish it should be?