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Much ado about what?

Potter series combines folklore, fantasy, more: No wonder kids are wild

From Michelle H. Martin, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor of English,
Children's literature specialist
Clemson University

July 6, 2000
Web posted at: 6:18 p.m. EDT (2218 GMT)

(CNN) -- What is it that kids love about the first three Harry Potter books?

I've asked many youngsters this question, and here's what they've said: the magic, the compelling characters, the Quidditch, the suspense.

But with the exception of Quidditch (a rollicking wizard game), good children's literature has always given them these things. A large part of Potter author J.K. Rowling's success comes from the fact that she has effectively combined three well-established genres of children's literature that have been around since the 19th century and before: folklore, the school story and fantasy.

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    Folklore, which wasn't originally intended specifically for child audiences, brings together one-dimensional characters; unlikely, sometimes-magical events; familiar, recurring motifs; and satisfying resolutions to create stories recognizable to cultural groups all over the world. For instance, folklorists have uncovered more than 300 versions of the "Cinderella" story throughout the world. If the story of a disinherited child who lives with unsavory relatives who make the child do all of the nastiest housework and keep the child from enjoying festivities outside the home sounds familiar, it should. Harry Potter is yet another incarnation of Cinderella.

    Thomas Hughes's 1857 novel "Tom Brown's School Days" ushered in the second genre of which Rowling makes good use: the school story. Like Harry Potter, Tom Brown learns socialization through academic pursuits, school sports and dormitory politics.

    Classes are the reason for Tom's being at boarding school, but academics play a relatively small part in his socialization. The events that take place outside the classroom interest readers much more than his lessons in mathematics or history. Louisa May Alcott offers a more feminist version of the boarding-school story in "Little Men" and "Jo's Boys," sequels to "Little Women."

    Yet perhaps the greatest appeal of Rowling's series is the fantasy elements which enable a small, orphaned boy who is despised by his only living relatives to become an unlikely hero in a world to which ordinary people can gain no access. Small and physically weak like the biblical shepherd David, Harry must rely on powers greater than those of which he is aware to defeat human antagonists like Draco Malfoy and immortal foes like Voldemort. Just as King Arthur is the only one capable of pulling the sword out of the stone, Harry is the lone defense against "He Who Must Not Be Named." Harry and Arthur are chosen heroes.

    The world of Hogwarts that Rowling has crafted is not unlike the land that Lloyd Alexander creates in his "Prydain Chronicles," the five-novel series that includes "The High King" and "The Black Cauldron." Assistant pigkeeper Taran must meander through Prydain in search of a fortune-telling pig that alone can save the known world from destruction by the Dark Lord.

    And though Harry's world is something of a mix between the past and the future, the isolated universe of Hogwarts resembles earlier fictitious venues. For example, consider the intergalactic battleship which Ender Wiggin inhabits in Orson Scott Card's 1985 novel "Ender's Game": It's a place where adults push him far beyond the abilities of any normal child. Sound familiar?

    Readers delight in the fact that Harry Potter is not just "any normal child." He's what many of us -- children and adults -- would love to be: gifted from birth; small, but mighty in the face of evil; befriended and embraced by people he doesn't even know; mentored by a giant who raises dragons for fun; suddenly rich beyond his wildest dreams; and descended from a line of wizards who fight for good and the betterment of mankind -- wizardkind, too.

    So why are kids of all ages devouring the first three of Rowling's books and anxiously awaiting the fourth?

    Because the author knows intimately the tradition in which she writes. She has extracted the best elements that children's literature, folklore and fantasy have to offer, plus added touches all her own -- Botts' Many Flavored Beans, photographs that move and talk back, cars that fly. That we keep coming back for more Harry is hardly magic.

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