However, the Potter series is marketed chiefly toward children, many of whom show up at book releases such as the one Acocella describes, wearing Harry’s trade-mark spectacles and sporting his distinctive lightning bolt scar as temporary tattoos. Acocella explains children’s, and particularly young boys’, fascination with the books. For one thing, they are rife with adolescent humor, including “toilet jokes, booger jokes,” and detailed discussion of Quidditch, a game “with four kinds of players (all flying on brooms) and three kinds of balls.” The children in the book indulge in treats that are sure to entertain young readers: “Ice Mice, Jelly Slugs, Fizzing Whizbees—and levitating sherbet balls.” But, according to this review, children and adolescents are attracted to the books for deeper reasons than its pure entertainment value. As Harry and his friends encounter typical childhood problems, young readers identify with their struggles with bad dreams, disappointing Christmas presents, sibling rivalry, uncooperative parents, and monsters under the bed. Harry must strike readers of his own age as particularly daring and realistic; he “lies to adults again and again . . . .[and] he hates certain people.” Acocella surmises that overall, it is the books’ “wised-upness, their lack of sentimentality that must appeal to Rowling’s audience.” Also, as she notes, there are seven total projected books in the series, and those promise to deal with the escalating problems of maturation, including love and sex.
Pottermania is such a widespread phenomenon that parents cannot avoid curiosity about it. Acocella directly addresses “those parents who have objected to the Potter series on the ground that it promotes unchristian values”; countering superficial understandings of the books’ attention to the occult she explains that they exhibit “philosophical seriousness” and model “excellent morals.” Harry is an orphan, hunted by an evil man, yet mysteriously endowed with magical powers. Rowling scaffolds a series of intriguing investigations into the nature of life on those facts. According to Acocella, Rowling “asks her preteen readers to face the hardest questions of life, and does not shy away from the possibility that the answers may be sad.” Wrestling with Miltonic notions, Harry and his friends will inevitably learn that “loss may be permanent, evil ever-present, good exhaustible.” Acocella predicts that in the three volumes yet to be written, “new griefs will surely come.” Most parents of “Pottermaniacs” will want to guide their children through such adult lessons, and this review informs those who mistake the Harry Potter stories for simple fairy tales that they may want to stay attuned to what their children are reading and thinking about—and they may enjoy reading along with their kids.
Acocella’s task in this essay is to review the fourth Harry Potter book, but she discusses the three previous stories as well, in part because book is the “central pillar of the projected series of seven,” and also to engage readers who are yet to pick up the first volume of Harry’s adventures. This review sketches Harry’s background, his being orphaned and nearly killed by Voldemort, his loathsome existence with the Dursleys, and his eventual acceptance to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft. Recounting in detail the gory scenes in which Rubeus Hagrid, the gamekeeper at Hogwarts “feeds a bucket of brandy mixed with chicken blood” to his pet baby dragon or the transformation of Voldemort from a grotesque baby into an adult villian by his immersion in “a potion made from Harry’s blood and someone else’s hacked-off hand and various other ingredients,” Acocella tries to capture the tone of the books for her readers. She also recounts the “heart-stopping scene” in which the orphaned Harry sees his parents mourning their separation from him in the Mirror of Erised, only to learn that he has not glimpsed another world, but only confronted his own desire. Rowling’s mixture of classical horror, mystery, and fantasy elements combines with Romantic elements to hold the attention of a wide audience.
This review may at first strike some readers as incongruous. Acocella is closely examining a children’s book, but holding it to literary and social standards that seem unreasonable for adolescent literature. She examines the books for classical literary influences and finds a plethora of those including “Gothic paraphernalia . . . purloined letters” and many twists on the timeless struggle of good and evil. When she says “Rowling’s books are chock-a-block with archetypes,” that their “denouements last for pages and pages,” that the ending of Goblet of Fire is fraught with “counterintuitive revelations,” or that “Voldemort is an avatar of Milton’s Lucifer” adult readers can see that these books stand up to scholarly scrutiny. The entire seriousness with which Acocella approaches her analysis of the Harry Potter series is enough to demonstrate that it may be worthy of the attention and anticipation it continues to attract. Or maybe Acocella is just trying to gain admission to Hogwarts School herself.
Harold Bloom, “Can 35 Million Book Buyers Be Wrong? Yes”
Recognizing that attacking the cult of Pottermania, is like “Hamlet taking arms against a sea of troubles” because the wave of popularity surrounding Harry Potter will not be stopped, Harold Bloom lambastes J. K. Rowling’s first volume and her entire series of Harry Potter books. Bloom acknowledges that most will think he is taking the “highbrow,” “snobbish,” and “nostalgic” position in a battle he is sure to lose. Rhetorically, Bloom seeks a pyrrhic victory by claiming that literary good taste belongs to the minority. He hopes that even those 35 million Harry Potter book buyers who will continue to adore Rowling’s work will agree with him on principle. Bloom goes on record as disdaining the Harry Potter series for its poor prose, lack of original imagination and authenticity. He says Rowling “makes no demands upon her readers.” In his usual curmudgeonly persona, Bloom throws in for good measure sideswipes at The New York Times, and the writing of John Grisham, Tom Clancy, Michael Crichton, Steven King, and J. R. R. Tolkien. He also predicts the eventual demise of what he terms “the Harry Potter epiphenomenon.” Ironically, Bloom belittles both the Harry Potter series and Tolkien’s Middle Earth books just before the blockbuster Lord of the Rings, the final installment in the hobbit trilogy of movies, was released. The popularity of that, too, however, only reinforces his thesis that the public has poor taste—at least in his way of thinking.
Our esteemed critic begins his frontal attack on Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by boldly stating, “the book is not well written.” However, he concedes that neither was the book upon which the movie The Wizard of Oz was based. A list of clichés from the randomly-chosen page four of The Sorcerer’s Stone illustrates one of his complaints against Rowling’s style. Although Bloom derides Rowling’s writing ability, his chief complaint against the Harry Potter series is its sheer popularity. It signals, for him, a public judgment “proclaimed by the ideological cheerleaders who have so destroyed humanistic study.” Bloom laments that there have always been “inadequate works” for adults and children in all ages and suggests that better literature is usually disregarded in favor of that which is sensationalized by the media. He does suggest some “superior fare” such as Thomas Hughes’ realistic 1857 novel, Tom Brown’s School Days, Kenneth Graham’s The Wind in the Willows, or Lewis Carroll’s “Alice” stories. Although he attacks the Harry Potter series specifically, he is really arguing for the public to exhibit better taste in literature in general.