The Popularity of Harry Potter

By: Ildiko Mohacsy, M.D.

Why is Harry Potter so popular among children? The very existence of the series is itself a kind of magic story. Harry Potter books are written by J.K. Rowling. She herself is in her 50s, Scottish, and a single mother. She did not expect to abruptly become one of the world’s most popular authors. Rowling began the first book on scraps of paper, sitting in a café.
Rowling writes fantasy. Harry Potter, an oppressed little boy, discovers he has great powers. The stories are, in a sense, collections of modernized and sophisticated fairy tales. The question is why today’s sophisticated children love Harry so. Bettelheim comments in The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales: “The fairy tale ...conforms to the way a child ...experiences the world…. He can gain ... better solace from a fairy tale than he can from ... comfort ... based on adult reasoning…. A child trusts what the fairy story tells ... its world view accords with his own.”

Children explore both pleasurable and frightening scenarios from the safety of fairy tales. Fraiberg concurs in The Magic Years: “... a magic world is an unstable world ... a spooky world…. As the child gropes his way toward reason ... he must wrestle with the dangerous creatures of his imagination and the real and imagined dangers of the outer world.”

Fairy tales involve more than magic. Familiar figures, from the outside world, guest star garbed in any number of guises. Characters, both villains and heroes, are rewarded or punished for their actions. Reward or punishment is often determined by how well or badly a character copes with the unexpected. As Freud wrote in “Creative Writers and Daydreaming” (1908, SE, Vol. 9, pp. 141-154), literature and fantasy are tangibly intertwined.

Children like reading Rowling just for this reason. She spins fantasies about coping. The Harry Potter series concerns dualistic feelings of being despised and being admired. Harry experiences the pain of being a despised minority among the Muggles - the ordinary people. And he experiences celebrity. In Rowling’s books, Muggles constitute the ordinary world.

A Muggle is a person who has no flare for the magic of life. He has neither curiosity, nor sense of surprise, nor of beauty in any sensory modality. Muggles never experience any sensations of serendipity or epiphany. They are boring, normal English people. Harry starts out experiencing terrible deprivation among the Muggles. The world he escapes to, though, is filled with wonder. There are wondrous animals, unicorns, dragons, griffins. Harry finds himself in a puckish world full of Pucks, as if dropping into Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It is a world, however, where Harry and his friends must learn to confront human evil, jealousy, envy, revenge.

Nothing in the wizard-world is ordinary. The wizards are the lucky few who possess inspiration, creativity. This gives them power. They find “miraculous solutions” to frightening problems - a common fantasy. The wizards turn bad situations into good. In school, Harry has to deal with a problem many children wish to have - without knowing the consequences - of being a celebrity. Harry has to bear the consequences of being admired, as well as being feared and despised.

A fascinating thing is how Rowling’s books are a combination of Grimm fairy tales and the Hauff fairy tales, in which violent and horrible things happen to children. Harry Potter’s struggle between evil and good, light and darkness, is also a reminder of Zoroastrian mythology, e.g. The Magic Flute, with the Queen of Night. Zoroastrian battles are always fought between forces of dark and light. Even in Harry’s wizard school there are two parties. There are good and evil forces. The evil want nothing more than to kill Harry. The good, in the personage of the giant Hagrid and the teacher Dumbledore, saves him.

Who is young Harry? He is the hero of all myth, legends, fairy tales. In the first volume, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, it is clear that he doesn’t know his parents. He is maltreated by strangers. The secret that he is of famous royal descent is kept from him. Harry’s self-discovery follows the pattern of Freud’s family romance. His self-discovery partly follows a mélange of folk legends: orphaned Oedipus, the Nibelungen Ring’s Siegfried, the Norwegian Edda cycle, the English King Arthur. Harry likewise resembles Moses, who is miraculously found floating down the Nile by a princess.

Harry has something else in common with figures from legend. After being struck on the forehead by a wizard, Harry is marked, like any number of stigmatized saints - notably Joan of Arc - immortals, the exiled Cain, and the Golem. The Golem, a creature from Jewish folk legend, actually bears a mark signifying truth, emes, on its forehead.

How else is Harry a figure from folk legend? Harry starts out by being enslaved and tortured by the Muggles. His sufferings may remind readers of themes of enslavement and torture, the labors of Hercules, of Jason searching for the Golden Fleece, or of biblical-scale victimization, Jacob working for Laban, Joseph the dreamer being victimized by his own Muggle brothers. Harry himself is modest, like any good hero. He doesn’t fight evil to gain fame, but because it’s the right thing to do. He seizes opportunities as they arise.

Harry has much in common with earlier heroes from children’s literature: the four siblings from C.S. Lewis’ Narnia chronicles, who have no clue they are kings and queens of Narnia, until they are transported via a wardrobe from a British country house, during World War II. Harry may remind readers of Mark Twain’s little boys in The Prince and the Pauper, who swap birthrights with disastrous consequences. He resembles Charles Dickens’ heroes David Copperfield, horribly exiled to a life of pasting labels on wine bottles among the proletariat, and Oliver Twist, surviving among the thieves though he has a rich grandfather. Harry resembles Frank Baum’s Dorothy, marooned in the Land of Oz - in Hebrew the word Oz means courage - coping with good and evil witches. Harry is like Kipling’s Mowgli from the Jungle Book, a parentless child who learns the language of animals.

Like its predecessors, Rowling’s books are parables about mental mechanisms for defense, adaptation and integration. I asked one little girl why she is fascinated with Harry Potter. She said, “Something unexpected happens all the time.” Rowling’s characters cope with happenings, whether expected or unexpected. Harry copes with being disliked by the Muggles, even with being disliked in the ideal world of the Hogwart wizard school by teachers like Snape or by his schoolmates Malfoy and Crabbe.

What else does Harry cope with? It is his tenacity, his endurance, his life instinct, his patience, his ingenuity, which so appeal to children. First, Harry confronts his state of being different. A child always feels different from grown-ups. Every child has to cope with his differences from the Muggle or grown-up world. Harry Potter shows us how to endure immense difficulties imposed on him by Muggles. He is cold and doesn’t get food. He is locked in the dark in a closet. Yet despite his fright at being closed in, Harry overcomes any number of claustrophobic situations, even his early fear of being annihilated. He deals with what Fraiberg calls “anticipatory anxiety.”

Secondly, Harry shows how one can overcome difficulties with wit and skill more than with strength. Harry is himself a weak boy. He is as innocent and helpless as a human being can be. Children often feel helpless, cheated, frustrated. Consigned to his little cubbyhole when there was a big party, Harry coped. Even when his own birthday went uncelebrated, Harry gathered enough self-solace to protect himself from pain.

These narratives appeal to girls as much as boys. Both male and female characters represent good and evil forces, virtues and vices, intellectual strength - particularly personified by the schoolgirl Hermione - of loyalty, friendship. Hermione represents brilliance, consistency, reliability. Harry’s female teacher McGonagall represents brightness and kindness; she is the closest thing in the books to a good mother.

Rowling’s avoidance of superficiality is equally appealing. The books contradict the clichéd, modern-Hollywood ideal that bright and beautiful go together. Harry’s fatherly Professor Dumbledore and ever-present Hagrid demonstrate how physical beauty and spiritual greatness can go separately. Harry himself is hardly described as a picture-perfect boy from TV commercials. He is thin, small, has untidy hair. He wears eyeglasses. He is described as an ungainly child. Only his shiny, green eyes are beautiful.

The popularity of the series also illustrates how much children prefer imaginative and fantasy reading to reality-based classics like Susie Goes to the Grocery Store or Fun With Dick and Jane. Writing in The Boston Sunday Globe (July 9, 2000), Susan Linn notes Winnicott’s belief “that children thrive in environments that have safe boundaries, but do not impinge on their ability to think and act spontaneously.” Fantasy stories are as important a formative influence as reality-oriented books. One interesting feature of the Harry Potter series is how wishes and fears, of the future and past, are reflected in a magical mirror called “Erised” - meaning desire. Every child who looks into Erised can see something. Harry’s wish to glimpse his parents is fulfilled; his mother cries as she waves to him. Some wicked characters look into Erised. It shows them how they can take revenge on Harry. Yet just because the mirror shows wishes, it doesn’t mean that it will grant them.

Here again, Rowling is using literary riches from the past. Mirrors have a long history in folk legends. They are dualistic objects of good and evil. The power of a reflection can be frightening. Gazing at themselves was fatal for both Narcissus, and unlucky men who looked at Medusa. The magic mirror in Snow White answered the stepmother’s question: “Mirror, Mirror, on the wall/who’s the fairest one of all?” It also incited the stepmother to attempt homicide. Mirrors, though, are sometimes saviors, as when Jason borrowed Athena the Goddess of Wisdom’s reflecting shield in order to slay Medusa.

Dualisms and monstrosities run rampant throughout Harry Potter books. Such fantasized wild things, as Bettelheim suggests, come from children themselves, from their desires, fears, and projected wishes. Wild things come from children’s realizations that the outside world is dangerous. Wild things thrive in many classics of children’s literature. Maurice Sendak’s classic story Where the Wild Things Are has its hero falling into a wild, dark world at night, clad in pajamas. In Doctor Seuss’s Horton Hears A Who, nasty adult animals run around threatening baby elephant Horton’s tiny, magic world, yelling, “Boil that dust-speck!” The Last of the Mohicans, Treasure Island, Kidnapped, Robinson Crusoe, The Swiss Family Robinson, even the satiric Gulliver’s Travels, all deal with the conquering of wild surroundings - with the conquering of the uncontrollable.

Harry himself copes not just with the wild, but with ultimate evil. His greatest, most terrifying enemy, Lord Voldemort - whose name we are warned, cannot be mentioned - of course reminds us of God, whose name cannot be mentioned either. The name Voldemort, too, as Joan Accocella points out in The New Yorker, may come from a combination of two languages, vol-ful, de-of, mort-death. So the God-like Voldemort also resembles the Angel of Death, or Lucifer.

Concealing himself, Voldemort may remind readers of any number of monsters, Batman’s foe Scarface, the scarred and masked Phantom of the Opera’s Phantom, the eye-patched Captain Hook in Peter Pan. Voldemort is like the boogie man, the wolf in Hansel and Grettel. He serves the same function as Hagen from the Nibelungen legend, who betrays Siegfried to his enemies. All these monsters appear in destructuralized form.

How does a small child cope with fear of the monstrous? Fraiberg gives an example in The Magic Years. A five-year-old says, “My Daddy is so strong. If there were two tigers in my room? My Daddy would kill them immediately.” What is this statement but the child’s omnipotent, magic, animistic belief in his adored father’s strength?

So in a child’s life, the good wizards are the good parents when they prove to be good. His parents are evil wizards when they prove to be bad, denying pleasure, when being punitive or unreliable. In such circumstances the parents’ names cannot be mentioned, any more than Voldemort’s. The child cannot call his parents insulting names, nor say the curses in his head.

Fraiberg even suggests that a child’s future mental health “depends upon ...[his] solution to the ogre problem.” She adds: “... Even the most loving and dedicated parents discover that in a child’s world a good fairy is easily transformed into a witch, the friendly lion turns into a ferocious beast, the benevolent king becomes a monster….” Denied his way, a child transmogrifies his parent into something horrid, a monster for the duration of his rage.

Other negative qualities are incorporated in certain animals or represented by certain human figures. Names hide foibles. In the first Harry Potter book there is Professor Snape - whose name could stand for snake - and the nasty schoolboy Malfoy - whose name could imply bad fable. Other nasty schoolboys, Crabbe and Goyle, remind one of crabs and gargoyles, the stone menagerie clinging to Notre Dame cathedral.

There are interesting twists. Sometimes Rowling’s wit is that the names characterize the opposite. There is a three-headed dog who acts ferocious, but whose name is Fluffy. Fluffy is the keeper of a secret place, like Cerebrus. In Rowling’s magic kingdom, a child’s inner helpless fears and frightening views of the “ordinary,” Muggle, grown-up world are mirrored.

Why do many grown-ups like Harry Potter? According to Freud, scratch a grown-up and find a child underneath. Ferenczi’s famous article, Child Analysis in the Grown Up discusses how ongoing prejudices, fears, hopes, all have their roots in human development. We know that any grown-up person can regress under internal or external stresses; the essence of post-traumatic stress disorder is well-known.

One thing that may especially appeal to adults is how miracles save Harry. He survives with unexpected help. Early in the first volume, the good, kind, giant Hagrid flies in on a motorcycle to rescue Harry after many years of suffering. Likewise, many adults believe in magic, in divine intervention. A patient of mine mentioned a great miracle. He survived after being knocked 200 meters, while on his own motorcycle, by a truck. He said this shows there is a god. He did not stop to ask, “Who sent the truck?”

Grown-ups frequently feel helpless as children. They want miracles to change unfortunate situations. Rowling’s books resonate with what may be termed a Cinderella complex - the ever-present inferiority complex most people suffer from.

At the mercy of the Muggles, Harry lives miserably. Harry slaves when guests come. He is left out. He doesn’t get any cake or goodies. He has to clean up like Cinderella and is starved like Cinderella. Many grown ups suspect that they, too, are living in Cinderella-type situations. Reading about Harry’s exclusion can kick off feelings of displacement, of not being accepted into a club. “Harry,” remarks author Stephen King in The New York Times (July 23, 1000), “is a male Cinderella, waiting for someone to invite him to the ball.”

Children, too, identify with Cinderella. A child’s inner resources in Harry Potter are externalized. Hagrid and Dumbledore are good, ever-present parents. The Muggles represent the mean, unreasonable parents, who in the child’s conception, are treating him like a slave. Often in a child’s imagination or experience, he feels he is being taken advantage of. A child may be angry when not being given coffee or alcohol, while grown-ups drink it, being sent to bed while grown-ups stay up. In response a child can perceive life as a series of unexpected rewards and punishments by his powerful parents.

Fraiberg explains the relationship between childish fantasy and primitive thought: “These are ‘magic’ years because the child in his early years is a magician - in the psychological sense.” Bettelheim concurs, describing children’s thinking as “animistic.” He agrees with Piaget’s suggestion that children think animistically until puberty. “To the eight year old ... the sun is alive because it gives light ... the stone is alive ... as it rolls down a hill ... it is believable that man can change into an animal….”

Bettelheim emphasizes the connection between fantasy and fairy tale. Children identify with characters in fairy tales in order to wrestle with their questions of identity: “‘Who am I? Where did I come from? How did the world come into being? Who created man and ... animals?’ ...Fairy tales provide answers.” Because parents guard children, children believe that some guardian angel will also “do so out in the world.” Bettelheim suggests, as well, that adolescents deprived prematurely in childhood of imaginings, may continue believing in magic for years.

Walter Kendrick notes in Writing the Unconscious, that Freud found correlation between the creation of “literature ...and ... the clinical experience of psychoanalysis.” Freud believed that some “imaginative writers ... anticipated the discoveries of psychoanalysis,” citing Hoffman’s tales as a particular example. According to Freud, Hoffman - author of “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King” - “intuited the importance of early-childhood experiences.” Freud concluded that “Literary artists ... already plumbed the mind’s depths long before….”

J.K. Rowling’s popularity invites a final question. Why are some people afraid of letting children read Harry Potter and The Goblet of Fire or Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets? Why fear these books? Not all grown-ups admire Harry, nor what he represents. Rowling’s writing is considered among the most controversial literature in the United States these days. According to Laurie Sydell of National Public Radio (“Weekend Edition,” November 14, 1999), some groups “advocate banning” Harry from schoolbook shelves - along with Winnie the Pooh and Little Women. Other groups are demanding for more parental screening of libraries. Do these people fear imaginary monsters? Mirrors named Erised? Strong female characters? Do they fear Lord Voldemort himself? Children engaging in fantasy? Perhaps their fears are to be expected. The Muggles never did like Harry Potter.

Ildiko Mohacsy, M.D., is Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychiatry, Department of Child Psychiatry, Mount Sinai Medical School and Adjunct Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychiatry, Cornell Medical Center

Correspondence to: Dr. Ildiko Mohacsy, 1065 Park Avenue, New York, NY 10128

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