By Michael Gerson
LONDON – Arguably the most famous living Englishman is, technically, not alive. But Harry Potter now determines the American conception of Britishness as thoroughly as Sherlock Holmes ever did. The mythic geography of England – always as important as its actual hills and streets – has been reshaped by J.K. Rowling.
Young Potter is invariably taken either too seriously or not seriously enough.
Neither snobs nor fundamentalists have prevented the sale of 450 million Harry Potter books, which places the series in the best-selling company of “The Book of Mormon” and the “Quotations of Chairman Mao.”
The books, in fact, are gloriously derivative, providing an introduction not to magic but to mythology. It is as though Egyptian, Greek and Roman mythology, European folklore and Arthurian legend suddenly discovered the same playground.
In his essay “On Fairy-Stories,” J.R.R. Tolkien – who knew something of the subject – describes the highest achievement of the teller of stories as “sub-creation.” The sub-creator fashions “a Secondary World which your mind can enter. Inside it, what he relates is ‘true’: it accords with the laws of that world.” Tolkien calls this “a special skill, a kind of elvish craft.” The creator of Harry Potter practices this craft well – an achievement her detractors cannot understand or duplicate.
Tolkien describes the distinguishing climax of a fairy story as the “turn” – the moment when fantastic and terrible adventures are transformed by sudden grace, “giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.”
In the last of the series, “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows,” and in the current movie based upon it, Rowling reaches the turn. A boy who has played Quidditch, discovered girls, broken curfew and cheated death discovers that he was intended for death. Death, he finds, can only be defeated when it is embraced.
Harry’s walk toward the Forbidden Forest gains the reflected emotional power of the walk from Gethsemane to Golgotha. It is the recycling of the greatest myth – a myth that some also regard as true. And the final delivery from death is the culmination of all happy endings.
Rowling seems to anticipate the objections of those who dismiss myths as lies. Harry’s enemy, Voldemort, does the same. “That which Voldemort does not value,” she writes, “he takes no trouble to comprehend. Of house-elves and children’s tales, of love, loyalty and innocence, Voldemort knows and understands nothing. Nothing. That they all have a power beyond his own, a power beyond the reach of any magic, is a truth he has never grasped.”
Rowling’s children’s tale – like the best that came before it – has a sliver, a glimpse, of that power, beyond the reach of magic.
Michael Gerson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. He writes for The Washington Post Writers Group.