Confessions of a Rocket Scientist
Monday, August 15, 2005
  Spiderman, Captain Marvel, and Harry Potter

I finally broke down and started reading the Harry Potter books. I know, it's a kid's book and all that, but I really don't care. I love a lot of things that most adults will dismiss out-of-hand as “kid's stuff.” For instance, I love animated cartoons. I also like comic books. I also notice that a lot of adults dismiss Tolkien as children's literature. It must be for kids, no adult cares about elves or dwarves, right?
Well it took me a while, but I finally picked up the first book and I'm hooked. I'm reading the second one right now and it is delightful. I can't wait to read them all.
To tell you the truth, the reason I started reading the books is more than a little bit unusual. I was mildly curious at the whole Harry Potter phenomenon, but I generally avoid fads whenever possible. But then something happened. Somebody wrote a letter to the editor of our local newspaper condemning Harry Potter as satanic, perverting little minds into rejecting God and worshiping the devil. He wanted the books removed from out local library before they did any more damage to our children.
What a stunning endorsement! I knew I had to read it for myself.
It didn't take long to finish the first book. I read it on my lunch breaks and whenever I had a free moment. It was a pleasant read, entertaining, and it moved quickly. The devil never showed up (unless you consider either Draco Malfoy or Voldemort to be Satan.)
If you haven't read the book, here is a brief introduction with no spoilers. Harry Potter is a ten year old orphan boy living with some really cruel relatives. He is treated quite badly by his aunt, his uncle, and their obnoxious son. Then one day, Harry discovers something quite unusual. He is a wizard. His parents were very powerful wizards. (I will not reveal the circumstances behind Harry being an orphan so as not to spoil it. Read the book. It's good.) And Harry is being invited to study at a prestigious school for Witches and Wizards.
This, in a nutshell, is the appeal of Harry Potter to children. Harry, who feels very helpless and alone in the world, suddenly discovers that he is really very powerful.
Kids all feel gawky and out-of-place in the world. We adults have all of the power, and we run kid's lives. From their point of view, they are at the mercy of the grown-ups and the bigger kids.
Now compare this to some other characters in a very different genre. Think about comic books. Two of the most popular comic book characters ever created were Captain Marvel and Spiderman. Their popularity as comic book characters was phenomenal. (And, incidentally, got the same sort of nasty attention from the Religious Wrong as Harry Potter has garnered.) Why is this? Simply put, they have the same sort of background.
Captain Marvel is, in reality, Billy Batson, a pre-teen orphan boy who is forced by a cruel uncle to sell newspapers. When young Billy comes to the aid of a stranger, he is rewarded by the ancient wizard Shazam. Whenever Billy speaks the name of Shazam, he is transformed into the world's mightiest mortal, Captain Marvel. Captain Marvel possesses the wisdom of Solomon, the strength of Hercules, the stamina of Atlas, the power of Zeus, the invulnerability of Achilles, and the speed of Mercury. In other words, a young boy discovers that he is very powerful.
Peter Parker is also an orphan, and while the Aunt and Uncle who raise him are very loving, they are unfortunately limited in their means. Peter is not one of the popular kids. Because he is smart, he finds himself the butt of many cruel jokes. He is, like young Harry Potter, vulnerable and helpless. Then, in a strange turn of fate, Peter is bitten by a radioactive spider. He finds that he has somehow been given the proportionate strength of a spider as well as some very amazing abilities, such as the ability to cling to any surface and to spin a strong web like a spider. Another young boy finds that he is really very powerful.
These are by no means the only such examples. Think of young Jack Hawkins in Treasure Island, or Aladdin. Children can immediately relate to Harry Potter. Maybe they don't live with cruel relatives, but every kid feels helpless and vulnerable in an adult world. They would just love to find out that they are powerful.
Eventually, a child will become a self-assured adult and realize that he or she does have some measure of control over their own fate. But for now, they can imagine themselves to be a young wizard at Hogwart's, and vicariously become very powerful.

Really good observations, Bill. I like the stuff about the archetype of the helpless child gaining powers, and I do think that is part of the attraction for children.

I like them because J.K. Rowling has done a great job combining folklore and mythology to build the fascinating and absorbing fictional world in which she bases her stories. Emphasis on the "fictional" part.

I guess the types who object to Harry Potter as "satanic" or evil do so because they have difficulty grasping the concept of "fiction." When one's worldview is based upon superstition and fear, that sort of thing will happen. *meow* It doesn't help that JKR has a really good grasp on being a pre-teen and a teenager and what they go through. It puts a sheen of reality over the fantasy that is probably frightening to those with no imagination to call their own.

Also, they're darned funny. Jane Austen is JKR's favorite author, and it shows! (Mrs. Norris--Filch's cat--is named after a character in one of Jane's novels. Aptly so.)

Incidentally, Voldemort is not Satan. He is most human, as you will discover as you continue reading the series. A sociopath, perhaps, but human.
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Location: Quakertown, Pennsylvania, United States

Two time cancer survivor, happily married, LaSalle Alumnus

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