Harry Potter is everywhere from in our ears to in our cooking and yet, popular as the Boy Who Lived is, I think he’s been having a bad influence on many millions of people.
More than 500 million Harry Potter books have been sold worldwide in the years since Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was first published in 1997. The audiobook, famously narrated by Stephen Fry, has been bought well over a million times. The eight films raised $7.7 billion at the box office.
Because generations of children have listened to Stephen Fry’s magnificent narrations, read the novels and seen Daniel Radcliffe strutting his stuff more times than they’ve written their own names, they’ve internalised the plot structures, the relationship maps and the whole worldview of J. K. Rowling’s creation.
This wouldn’t be a problem, except for the fact that Harry Potter is a terrible role model.
Harry has a temper, which he often can’t control. When, for instance, he blows his aunt Marge up at the start of the third book we’re invited to laugh at the silly muggles. We side with Harry as he storms off into the night, leaving Uncle Vernon on the doorstep. It’s all so unjust. The dreadful Dursleys just don’t understand how special he is.
We are exposed to this kind of considerable teenage angst and fiercely earnest overthinking throughout the novels’ many hundreds of pages.
What makes this nefarious is a unique formal feature of the Harry Potter books.
I have never read another novel where literally everything is seen through the eyes of the central character. We see what Harry sees, how he sees it. The eye of the third person narrator never strays from what Harry is in fact experiencing at that particular moment. There is not, at any point, a sense of a mediating consciousness between us and him, of dramatic irony or a narratorial suggestion that Harry’s decision-making processes might be inappropriate or totally flawed. We see, and come to understand, everything exactly as, when and in the same way as Harry does.
This is why the novels are so captivating. It is part of the magic of his discovery of the wizarding world. Harry, initially a Muggle just like us, discovers a multitude of wondrous new things, and his discovery is our discovery. The excitement of the novels hinges on this formal choice; for instance the mystery of the Chamber of Secrets (or of Gilderoy Lockhart as a complete fraud) is uncovered little by little, and then all at once.
However it also has a darker side.
Because Harry is a flawed character and we spend so much time with his thoughts, the form of the novels encourages us to shape our thoughts as he does; it entrenches less than admirable mental grooves, almost like we are reading Riddle’s Diary (from The Chamber of Secrets), but in a much more subtle (and admittedly less harmful) way.
The fact that Harry Potter is a coming-of-age story and many people of my generation literally grew up with him only increases the strong sense of identification we feel with his character. More than this, he is completely the hero of his own story, as every one of us (deep down at least) desires to be.
Now of course this is why it’s good fiction (and, despite any quibbles you might have about J. K. Rowling’s style, it is, by any popular metric, certainly good fiction). The novels have a clear narrative arc, imbalances which are eventually worked out and mysteries become clear. The Goodies are very Good and the Baddies very Bad (Roald Dahl would have approved). The world-building is fantastic.
All this is important and true; I can’t say I wasn’t a little disappointed on my eleventh birthday when a letter from Hogwarts didn’t plop through my letterbox.
However, I also strongly feel that on some subtle but significant level, how readers of Potter see the world through Harry’s eyes has come to frame the way they see the world, and make decisions, through their own. Because Harry spends the novels making questionable choice after bad decision after relationship blunder, the ‘Harry Potter generation’ have unknowingly internalised some of his imperfections.