Is Harry Potter a classic?


J K Rowling's Harry Potter novels have made her the most celebrated children's author in the world. Does she deserve her status? Two children's critics argue the case against and for</p><p>
No: Stephanie Nettell</p><p>
Hats off to Bloomsbury. Journalists, librarians, booksellers, award judges - the hype for J K Rowling and Harry Potter has worked a treat, turning a straightforward rollicking yarn into a literary phenomenon, and persuading sane critics that an old-style comic book is a classic of inventive genius. I doubt that J K Rowling herself ever had such aims. I imagine that she set out to write an entertaining story of magic and adventure for children of all ages. And she succeeded. The wand of transformation lies on Ros de la Hey's desk in Bloomsbury's publicity and marketing department.</p><p>
How was everyone bewitched? Journalists are easy, once hooked, they swallow anything in their anxiety to keep up. They know - and care - nothing about children's books, but when they eventually recognise a name, see it flagged everywhere, and question their own children, there is no stopping them. It used to be Dahl, now it is Rowling. And anything for a good angle. There is no mileage in a story about a writer who has done nothing but produce a good book (far less a good children's book), but one about an unknown single mum on her uppers, scribbling in a local caf&eacute; to keep warm, landing a major contract . . . well, now you're talking.</p><p>
You cannot blame booksellers for wanting to back the bestsellers. But is this what judges of awards such as the Carnegie, the Smarties and the Whitbread should be doing? Are they fearful of ignoring children's opinions? Of appearing elitist? Are they bullied by what the rest of the world is saying? Scared of being out of step?</p><p>
Consider the essential qualities of a children's literary prize-winner. Accessibility: yes, in that it can be appreciated by a young reader, but not in the sense of "children love it, so it must be good". Children devour Blyton, the Ark, R L Stine, Thomas the Tank Engine, Babysitters, Pok&eacute;mon; and good luck to them, everyone needs enjoyable tosh. But to allow accessibility and popularity to be overriding factors is to patronise and demean children's literature.</p><p>
Would the Booker or the Whitbread judges consider Rowling's fellow British top sellers Nick Hornby, Jeffrey Archer or Catherine Cookson? No: these prizes are meant to do more than reward high sales. They seek novels that widen horizons and fire imaginations, that offer new experiences, enliven our language, enrich and challenge readers. Nothing less should be good enough for young readers, too.</p><p>
So what do the Harry Potter books offer? Strong plots, neat twists, exciting moments, but little originality. Instead, they skilfully blend well-tried ingredients. Most fantasies are premised on a struggle between good and evil. Imposing everyday reality on a magic world is so common as to be the norm, Rowling, like many others, enjoys camping up her wizards. The appeal of the boarding school story is as perennial as it is mysterious, and we have long been used to tales of schools of sorcery from Ursula Le Guin and, especially, Jill Murphy.</p><p>
Families are regular absentees in junior adventures. It is a useful device for empowering the young protagonist/reader: most children dream of lost parents who must be better than those they are forced to live with. It is no longer a big deal to have a strong female character, and brainy but sidelined Hermione pales beside the heroines of, say, Tamora Pierce, Robin McKinley or Philip Pullman.</p><p>
There is some terrific action in the Potter novels. But there is also stock-horror melodrama, Dementors with eyeless non-faces in the shadow of their hoods, or such stuff as: "The very last rays of the setting sun were casting a bloody light over the long-shadowed grounds. Then, behind them, they heard a wild howling." The pastiche match commentaries are splendid, and there are nice comic touches, but the humour is hardly subtle (Harry's cartoon relatives; Waugh-like funny names), and there's little wit, some inside-joke references (but wasn't Lupin his name before he was bitten?). There's even a touch of the Trumptons (Potter, Bell, Johnson, Spinnet, Weasley, Weasley and Wood).</p><p>
The characters are cheerfully one-dimensional, despite the pseudo-psychological business of Harry's parents, and tend to rely on their broomsticks and wands to get them out of trouble. The supporting cast comes straight from old school stories, and to give that clumsy accent to Hagrid, the rough-diamond-with-a-heart-of-gold stereotype, is pure Boy's Own snobbery.</p><p>
Any life-enhancing messages? Only such banalities of the "There's nothing to fear but fear itself" kind, or that the dead we have loved never leave us.</p><p>
As in most bestsellers, Rowling's prose rolls smoothly on, undemanding and unsurprising. No startling images, no idiosyncrasies, no sparkle. There's lots of dialogue, but like all writers for whom the words come too easily, Rowling hopes to add life by attaching a knee-jerk adverb to every "said". A couple of random pages yield defiantly, weakly, softly, furiously, hurriedly, grimly, slowly, timidly, shrilly, coldly, pleasantly, quietly, tensely . . . while, in between, nascent "said"s become breathed, retorted, yelled, croaked, shrieked, muttered, squealed, growled, hissed, squeaked . . . Bloomsbury's editorial skills have not been as sharp as its marketing skills. Instead of rejoicing in the fact that children can read long novels, its editors could have suggested some improving cuts.</p><p>
Harry is fun, and deserves his jolly reviews. But acclaim for invention and originality? Did no one think of Jill Murphy, Diana Wynne Jones, Philip Pullman, Susan Cooper, Gillian Cross, Terry Pratchett, Joan Aiken, Margaret Mahy - of the Chalet School, Dennis Wheatley and three little musketeers? And the big prizes? Far from finally acknowledging its worth, to equate the achievements of Beowulf with those of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is to demand that children's literature be judged less rigorously than adults'. It betrays, at best, mischievous populism; at worst, plain ignorance and disdain.</p><p>

Stephanie Nettell is a writer and critic, and former children's books editor of the GUARDIAN.</p><p>
Yes: Nicolette Jones</p><p>

The popular definition of a classic book would probably be that it is one of exceptional, perhaps traditional, quality, and one that will last. Chambers Dictionary reveals that, colloquially, a classic is "something delightful of its kind, such as a good story"; so far, few would quibble with this description of Harry Potter. But formally a literary classic must be "of the highest class or rank" and "well established".</p><p>
It is too early to call Harry Potter well established, but we can consider whether it is likely to endure, and whether it is "of the highest class". On the whole, those who argue that it is not level two accusations against the series. One is that the books are derivative, Anthony Holden dismissed Harry Potter as "Tom Brown's Schooldays on broomsticks". But to denigrate a work of literature because it belongs to a tradition of other stories, even when it makes something entirely new out of them, seems misguided. We would not despise Narnia because we have had Wonderland.</p><p>
That the Harry Potter series recalls other school stories, and other tales of magic in the real world, is one of its strengths. In adult literature, we accept that a literary frame of reference adds depth. The clever echoes in Harry Potter, including J K Rowling's use of French, Latin and Greek sources for her neologisms, and her borrowings from ancient myth and legend in creating some of her fantastical creatures, the basilisk, the unicorn and the centaur, for instance, are not copying. They draw on a rich literature, and that is a virtue which surely adds depth to the stories.</p><p>
The other refrain of Harry Potter detractors is that the popularity and the accessibility of the books are a sign of mediocrity. In adult publishing we often associate the mass market with the unliterary, but in the case of a children's book, children's enthusiasm cannot be used as evidence for the prosecution. Popularity does not make something good; nor does it make something bad. J K Rowling's writing is humorous, well-paced, always in the right register for any character that speaks, and very clear. Clarity in any prose is valuable, and, like humour, tends to be underestimated as a skill.</p><p>
One of the qualities we often use to identify the classics of children's literature is that they also speak to adults. Sales show that Harry Potter does. The question here is whether the books operate on more than one level, whether they speak to adults in a way that they do not to children. Arguably, they do. Perhaps you have to be an adult to appreciate, for instance, the full horror of a Dementor (for which you need to understand despair), the masterly satire of the Dursleys with their suburban banality, and the resonances of the language. Like all the best children's books, the Harry Potters offer these pleasures to the grown-ups without losing the children.</p><p>
Some critics have also pointed to an occasional syntactical awkwardnesses. But then awkwardnesses appear in, say, Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden, which most people would call a classic, principally because it makes a place vivid in our imagination. We cannot now contemplate a walled garden without calling to mind that story. Similarly, Harry Potter has got into our consciousnesses. Anyone who has read the books will be able to envisage the airborn team sport quidditch. "Muggle" is likely to get into the language, even in other contexts. King's Cross Station will never be the same again: there will always be a space between platforms 9 and 10 that gives us a thrill. Hogwarts is a place we know, as we know Neverland and the 100-Acre Wood. In the overall scheme of things, a misplaced adverb seems neither here nor there. Besides, most of the time the books' comic construction is perfect, and plot development irresistible.</p><p>
Most of all, it is for the sheer, exuberant fertility of its inventiveness that the Harry Potter series deserves to be called a classic. From the Sorting Hat to the sweets that can be bought in Hogsmeade, from the rules of quidditch to Madam Pomfrey's remedies, the books are a cornucopia of new notions, full of surprises and delights.</p><p>
Woven into this we have universal themes, handled in such a way that we all respond to them, and children are drawn in to empathise and care. Moreover, the books have found a morality in an amoral time. (The witchhunters ought to accept this.) They offer more than simplistic computer-game representations of good and evil; even where the baddies are bad and the goodies are good, the stories explore and advocate personal responsibility, loyalty and tolerance. The books are very much of our time, partly because they are anti-racist, anti-sexist and egalitarian: consider Malfoy's hatred of "mudbloods", Hermione's cleverness, Ron's poverty. This should not stop them from enduring, after all, The Wind in the Willows and Winnie-the-Pooh are also very much of their times. They are therefore, as children's literature should be, a map to guide readers through our world as well as through a fantastical one.</p><p>
This is not to say that Rowling's are the only books written in our time that deserve the title "classic". They are simply the most successfully marketed. But it is hard to believe that new generations will not find the delight in Harry Potter that this one has done, and that our children will not want to read it to their children. Time will tell us, surely, that this was not only one more bestseller in the history of children's literature, but that it was exceptional. The worst the future might say of Harry Potter is that it is a classic in the sense that P G Wodehouse is a classic, rather than in the sense that Henry James is; but surely one day J K Rowling will qualify for a blue plaque.</p><p>
Nicolette Jones is a critic, journalist and the children's book reviewer of the SUNDAY TIMES; she was on the shortlisting panel for the last Whitbread Children's Book Award.</p><p>