For Adults and Children? Narrative Complexity in Harry Potter and His Dark Materials

I originally wrote this essay in 2010 for a university course entitled Popular Narratives in response to the question: ‘Does the popularity of children’s stories with adult readers in the twenty-first century indicate only a ‘dumbing down’ in our culture?’

Both the Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling as His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman have found an eager audience of both children and adults. Each series has won a variety of awards and has received both positive as well as negative criticism. The first novels of the Potter series dominated The New York Times bestseller list for months,[1] which resulted in the creation of their Children’s Bestseller List in 2000.[2] Pullman won the 2002 Whitbread Prize for The Amber Spyglass, the third and final novel in the series, in both adult and juvenile categories.[3] This curious popularity with an audience consisting of both adults and children does not originate with these novels. As Sandra L. Beckett already explains in her introduction to Transcending Boundaries, authors have been crossing the boundaries between children and adult fiction since they were first drawn up in the mid-eighteenth century.[4] While some critics argue that the increasing amount of crossover literature is an indication of the ‘imminent death of children’s literature’[5], others argue that the popularity of children’s books with adults is an indication of ‘cultural infantilism’; meaning an ‘escapism from the travails of being an adult in contemporary society.’[6] The latter criticism, as Steven Barfield shows, is linked to the idea of a consumerist culture and the dependence on marketing forces.[7] The assumption is that contemporary culture is a ‘society where the triumph of the manufactured mass culture of soap operas, reality TV and so on, has led to the imaginative deprivation in both children and adults.’[8] In addition, the argument that for instance the Harry Potter ‘phenomenon’ has gained its massive popularity mainly through the success of its marketing is, as Barfield argues, ‘usually founded upon the assumption that lacking any intrinsic literary values, in either the literary quality of writing, or of thematic originality, then there can only be an externally manufactured reason for Rowling’s success.’[9] Additionally, the ‘cultural infantilism’ argument assumes that children’s literature is by necessity more simplistic than adult literature. Maria Nikolajeva names several examples of the supposed simplicity of children’s literature such as it having ‘a clear and unambivalent address’, it being shorter than adult novels, having a chronological narrative, and often having a ‘distinct narrative voice, often an omniscient, didactic (presumably adult) narrator.’[10] It follows logically that were children’s literature as complex as adult literature than its popularity with an adult audience would not be an indicator of this so-called ‘dumbing down’ in contemporary culture. Both the Harry Potter series and His Dark Materials are children’s novels which deal with increasing complexity in narration, character ambiguity, and setting. In addition, both series examine social issues: for example racism in Harry Potter, and dubious scientific experiments in His Dark Materials, whilst both series feature a rebellion against a totalitarian regime. Intertextuality is strongly present in His Dark Materials, whereas in the Harry Potter series there are more subtle, although no less interesting, references.

On the surface, the narration in the beginning of both series is deceptively simple, even if there is no omniscient narrator. In HP and the Philosopher’s Stone, Harry functions as the focalizer for the majority of the novel. The focalizer is ‘that character through whose eyes the reader sees the story’.[11] Similarly, in Northern Lights the narrator mostly focalizes Lyra. As Nikolajeva argues; because the child protagonist is focalized internally, the reader ‘perceive[s] the events and other characters exclusively through [the child’s] naïve, immature and often biased mind.’[12] The result is that the reader receives only limited and distorted information, but ‘a keen reader may make inferences beyond the protagonist’s ability’.[13] Only infrequently in Northern Lights does Lyra not function as the focalizer. An example is the conversation between the Master and the Librarian where the Librarian is the focalizer.[14] The importance of this episode is that the reader is given essential information about both Lyra’s world such as the totalitarian regime of the Church, ‘the Church’s power over every aspect of life [was] absolute’[15], and in addition, the reader is made privy to information that need necessarily be concealed from Lyra, for instance the fact that she will experience a great betrayal and most importantly: ‘she will be the betrayer, and the experience will be terrible.’[16] Thereby the narrator creates additional suspense for the reader. HP and the Philosopher’s Stone starts off with one of the few and obvious instances were Harry does not act as focalizer. Similar to the conversation between the Master and the Librarian in Northern Lights, this first chapter sets Harry up as being a special child who will have an important role to play in the upcoming story; a role that he is unaware of. This opening chapter allows for dramatic irony just a chapter later when Harry has dreamed about a flying motorbike and is told off by his Uncle in no uncertain terms that there is no such thing as a flying motorbike.[17] The reader is all too aware that Harry’s dream is not just a dream but a memory. A more interesting deviation from Harry as focalizer is pointed out by Ernelle Fife and occurs during the Quidditch match described in the novel. During this match, Harry is almost thrown off his broom because Quirrel, under the influence of the series’ antagonist Voldemort, is cursing him, as is revealed towards the end of the novel.[18] Hermione and Ron assume that it is Snape who is cursing Harry and Rowling cleverly misleads the reader through the shift in focalizer.[19] The focalizer shifts from Harry, to Ron watching Harry losing control of his broom, to Hermione on her way to Snape to Snape realising that his robes are on fire.[20] Through these focalizer shifts, the reader’s attention is distracted from Harry and the exact sequence of events is obscured so that the reader is encouraged to draw the wrong conclusions and is cleverly misled.[21]

In the second novel of His Dark Materials, The Subtle Knife, Pullman employs a second protagonist, Will, and the function of the focalizer alternates mostly between Lyra and Will. The Subtle Knife also marks a significant shift in setting and the novel alternates between Lyra’s world, our own world and Cittàgazze, the initial bridge world between the two. This has the interesting effect that whilst Lyra functions as focalizer, our own world is ‘described partially […] by means of estrangement, that is, by presenting familiar things as if they were unfamiliar.’[22] Incidentally, a very similar opposition is created in Harry Potter with regard to the relation between the Muggle and wizard world. Kate Behr argues that the wizard world in Harry Potter exists ‘only in relation to the “real” world’, she describes the wizard world as a ‘shadow world’ existing ‘largely in the gaps in Muggle perceptions’.[23] Because the wizard world echoes or mirrors ‘real’ customs and discourse, our own world is, like in The Subtle Knife, reflected back at the reader.[24] To come back to the focalization argument, increasingly throughout the series, Pullman uses polyfocalization.[25] He uses an increasing number of characters as focalizer thereby allowing the reader ‘to know and understand more than any of his several focalizing characters’ as well as increasing the complexity of the narrative since several storylines are told simultaneously. Polyfocalization is different from an omniscient and omnipresent narrator because in each episode, ‘only one character is focalized externally as well as internally.’[26] This puts the reader in a curious position, because it means that ‘the final picture of what is happening at the same time in different places and in the different characters’ minds can only be assembled by the reader’.[27]

In Harry Potter, Harry remains the principle focalizer throughout the series. Through the use of, for example, the Pensieve and its respective memories, the reader is exposed to a larger variety of viewpoints, yet the focalizer in these scenes remains Harry. Alternatively, Rowling uses extracts from several written sources in the novel: The Daily Prophet is used throughout the entire series, whereas The Life and Lies of Albus Dumbledore plays a significant role in the final novel. Noticeably, the extracts are part of the fiction and world of the series. These extracts give a different perspective on events and though the texts are often misleading and unreliable, they allow the reader to deduce information beyond Harry’s initial assumptions. In addition, in the latter novels there are slightly more occasions where other characters act as focalizer, noticeably the two opening chapters of HP and the Half-Blood Prince: ‘The Other Minister’ and ‘Spinner’s End’. However, overall, the focus remains on Harry. Instead of the polyfocalization that Pullman employs, Rowling complicates her narrative by directing it to what Fife calls ‘the hermeneutic narratee’.[28] She defines this hermeneutic narratee as ‘the person to whom the narrator tells the story, expecting that he or she will fill in the narratorial gaps, figure things out, solve the mysteries, or guess hidden symbolism.’[29] Another important term in relation to this concept is the ‘fabula’, meaning the ‘larger entirety of the story, the chronological series of events of the story, the untold events and nuances, and all the multiple levels of meaning to be found within the story.’[30]

Within the narrative, Hermione functions as the hermeneutic narratee and figures out the fabula for the novels, and as Fife argues, it is this character that ‘the reader should emulate.’[31] As Behr points out, Hermione is ‘presented as the know-it-all source of knowledge’ from the beginning of the series, and is established ‘as an authority’.[32] Behr argues that Hermione ‘consistently modifies the reader’s perceptions of people and things, acting as the rational, balanced voice opposing Harry’s anger, suggesting alternative understandings of people, relationships and facts.’[33] The reason she is able to do this, is because she less likely than Harry to jump to conclusions, is able to remember significant details and perceive the subtext, for instance deducing from Professor Umbridge’s speech at the beginning of HP and the Order of the Phoenix that the Ministery of Magic is interfering at Hogwarts.[34] Because of her perceptiveness and insight, Professor McGonagal instructs Harry to listen to Hermione, thereby setting her up as an authority again.[35] Since Hermione functions as the hermeneutic narratee, she functions as an example to the reader who should question Harry’s quick assumptions. Despite the limited and distorted information that the reader receives inherent to having Harry as the focalizer, the reader should, like Hermione, in the earlier quoted words by Nikolajeva, ‘make inferences beyond the protagonist’s ability’[36] An interesting aspect to the concept of the hermeneutic narratee is the importance and allure of re-reading. As Fife points out, Rowling has a ‘simple, direct narrative style’ which pulls readers ‘into her fictional construct’[37] and therefore tempts readers to read too superficially. Rowling plants clues but ‘simultaneously entrap[s] the careless reader into false assumptions and ignoring the clues’.[38] The reader is invited to reread the story again to discover these clues, and as the re-reader knows the fabula for that specific novel, the reader is re-reading as a hermeneutic reader.[39]

A different type of reader is presented symbolically in His Dark Materials through the alethiometer. The alethiometer is an instrument resembling a compass from which an alethiometrist can read truth. It has three short hands, one long needle and thirty-six symbols round the rim.[40] Each symbol has an almost ‘never ending series of meanings’ which are listed in the books of readings.[41] The alethiometrist can point each of the three short hands to a symbol and by holding the question and right level of meaning for each symbol in mind, the long needle will ‘swin[g] round and poin[t] to more symbols that give [the alethiometrist] the answer.’[42] Reading the alethiometer is slow and difficult as is exemplified by the reading of Fra Pavel in The Subtle Knife where he is gazing intently at the instrument, ‘stopping every minute or so to note down what he found’, open up one of the books and ‘search laboriously through the index, and look up a reference before writing that down too’ after which he would turn back to the instrument.[43] Additionally, one can only use the alethiometer after decades of diligent study.[44] In contrast, Lyra is able to read the alethiometer intuitively ‘by grace’[45]. As Shelley King explains, Lyra represents one category of reader, an intuitive reader who ‘instinctively possesses the necessary skills for understanding’.[46] The other category is represented by Fra Pavel’s reading and indicates ‘trained Scholars, who, with the aid of years of study supplemented by books of critical commentary produced by previous Scholars’ can come to a more conscious understanding of the alethiometer or text.[47] Lauren Shohet explains how the trilogy can be read on a multitude of levels: ‘the four levels of Renaissance allegory’: narrative, symbolic, moral and apocalyptic.[48] Shohet argues that the alethiometer may be seen as ‘a figure for the novels’ project of engaging Renaissance tradition’ demonstrating the multiple levels of reading within the text as well as the ‘sophisticated awareness of [the novels’] relation to past texts’.[49] The trilogy, like the symbols of the alethiometer, is multilayered and can be read in both Lyra’s intuitive sense as well as the scholar’s laborious approach. Interestingly, even though the text validates both approaches, at the end of The Amber Spyglass when Lyra loses her intuitive ability to read the alethiometer, she can regain it by work and her reading ‘will be even better then, after a lifetime of thought and effort, because it will come from conscious understanding.’[50]

In conclusion, both Harry Potter as well as His Dark Materials are children’s books with increasing narrative complexion. Even though Harry Potter continues to use Harry as the principle focalizer, Rowling creates a complex narrative to allow for a hermeneutic narratee and encourages the reader to engage in a re-reading of the narrative in order to see how seemingly small details take on a different and highly significant meaning once the reader is aware of the fabula. In comparison, Pullman increasingly uses polyfocalization which complicates his narrative because it allows for a multitude of perspectives and storylines. In addition, though the figure of the alethiometer, Pullman hints at the different levels of meaning within the text and indicates two different categories of readers, and thus also methods of reading, to approach the text. The complexity of the narratives as well as the different reading strategies indicated, allow for a highly sophisticated level of reading of the text and contradicts the seeming simplicity of the texts. Therefore, the assumption of the simplicity of children’s literature on which the argument that the increasing popularity of children’s literature with an adult audience indicates a ‘dumbing down’ in contemporary culture rests is unfounded.

Bibliography

Anaton, Giselle Liza, ‘Introduction’, in Reading Harry Potter: Critical Essays, ed. Giselle Liza Anatol, (Westport: Praeger, 2003), pp. ix-xxv

Barfield, Steven, ‘Of Young Magicians and Growing Up: J. K. Rowling, Her Critics and the ‘Cultural Infantilism Debate’, in Scholarly Studies in Harry Potter: Applying Academic Methods to a Popular Text, ed. Cynthia Whitney Hallet (New York: The Edwin Mellen Press, 2005), pp. 175-197

Beckett, Sandra L., ‘Introduction´, in Transcending Boundaries: Writing for a Dual Audience of Children and Adults, ed. Sandra L. Beckett, (New York: Garland Publishing, 1999), pp. xi-xx

Behr, Kate, ‘“Same-as-Difference”: Narrative Transformations and Intersecting Cultures in Harry Potter’, Journal of Narrative Theory, 35.1 (Winter 2005), pp. 112-132

Fife, Ernelle, ‘Reading J. K. Rowling Magically: Creating C. S. Lewis’s “Good Reader”’, in Scholarly Studies in Harry Potter: Applying Academic Methods to a Popular Text, ed. Cynthia Whitney Hallet (New York: The Edwin Mellen Press, 2005), pp. 137-158

King, Shelley, ‘“Without Lyra we would understand neither the New nor the Old Testament”: Exegesis, Allegory and Reading The Golden Compass’ in His Dark Materials Illuminated: Critical Essays on Philip Pullman’s Trilogy, ed. Millicent Lenz with Carole Scott (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2005), pp. 106-124

Lenz, Millicent, ‘Introduction: Awakening to the Twenty-first Century: The Evolution of Human Consciousness in Pullman’s His Dark Materials, in His Dark Materials Illuminated: Critical Essays on Philip Pullman’s Trilogy, ed. Millicent Lenz with Carole Scott (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2005), pp. 1-15

Maier, Sarah E., ‘Educating Harry Potter: A Muggle Perspective on Magic and Knowledge in the Wizard World of J. K. Rowling’, in Scholarly Studies in Harry Potter: Applying Academic Methods to a Popular Text, ed. Cynthia Whitney Hallet (New York: The Edwin Mellen Press, 2005), pp. 7-27

Nikolajeva, Maria, ‘Children’s, Adult, Human…?’ in Transcending Boundaries: Writing for a Dual Audience of Children and Adults, ed. Sandra L. Beckett, (New York: Garland Publishing, 1999), pp. 63-80

Pullman, Philip. His Dark Materials: Northern Lights, 1995 (London: Scholastic Children’s Books, 2007)

—, His Dark Materials: The Subtle Knife, 1997 (London: Scholastic Children’s Books, 2007)

—, His Dark Materials: The Amber Spyglass, 2000 (London: Scholarstic Children’s Books, 2007)

Rowling, J.K., Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, (London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 1997)

—, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, (London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2003)

—, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, (London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2005)

Shohet, Lauren, ‘Reading Dark Materials’, in His His Dark Materials Illuminated: Critical Essays on Philip Pullman’s Trilogy, ed. Millicent Lenz with Carole Scott (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2005), pp. 22-36

Endnotes


[1] Giselle Liza Anaton, ‘Introduction’, in Reading Harry Potter: Critical Essays, ed. Giselle Liza Anatol, (Westport: Praeger, 2003), pp. ix-xxv. (pp.ix-x).

[2]Sarah E.Maier, ‘Educating Harry Potter: A Muggle Perspective on Magic and Knowledge in the Wizard World of J. K. Rowling’, in Scholarly Studies in Harry Potter: Applying Academic Methods to a Popular Text, ed. Cynthia Whitney Hallet (New York: The Edwin Mellen Press, 2005), pp. 7-27. (p. 26).

[3] Millicent Lenz, ‘Introduction: Awakening to the Twenty-first Century: The Evolution of Human Consciousness in Pullman’s His Dark Materials, in His Dark Materials Illuminated: Critical Essays on Philip Pullman’s Trilogy, ed. Millicent Lenz with Carole Scott (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2005), pp. 1-15. (p. 1.)

[4] Sandra L. Beckett, ‘Introduction´, in Transcending Boundaries: Writing for a Dual Audience of Children and Adults, ed. Sandra L. Beckett, (New York: Garland Publishing, 1999), pp. xi-xx. (p. xii).

[5] Beckett, p. xiii.

[6] Steven Barfield, ‘Of Young Magicians and Growing Up: J. K. Rowling, Her Critics and the ‘Cultural Infantilism Debate’, in Scholarly Studies in Harry Potter, ed. Hallet, pp. 175-197. (p. 175).

[7] Barfield, p. 178.

[8] Barfield, p. 176.

[9] Barfield, p. 178.

[10] Maria Nikolajeva, ‘Children’s, Adult, Human…?’ in Transcending Boundaries ed. Beckett, pp. 63-80. (pp. 64, 73, 70.)

[11] Ernelle Fife, ‘Reading J. K. Rowling Magically: Creating C. S. Lewis’s “Good Reader”’, in Scholarly Studies in Harry Potter, ed. Hallet, pp. 137-158. (p. 149).

[12] Nikolajeva, p. 71.

[13] Nikolajeva, pp. 71-72.

[14] Philip Pullman. His Dark Materials: Northern Lights, 1995 (London: Scholastic Children’s Books, 2007), pp. 30-33.

[15] Pullman, Northern Lights, p. 31.

[16] Pullman, Northern Lights, p. 31.

[17] J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, (London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 1997), p. 24

[18] Rowling, Philosopher’s Stone, p. 209.

[19] Fife, p. 143; Rowling, Philosopher’s Stone, p. 140.

[20] Fife, p. 143; Rowling, Philosopher’s Stone, p. 140.

[21] Fife, p. 143.

[22] Nikolajeva, p. 71.

[23] Kate Behr, ‘“Same-as-Difference”: Narrative Transformations and Intersecting Cultures in Harry Potter’, Journal of Narrative Theory, 35.1 (Winter 2005), pp. 112-132. (pp. 122-123).

[24] Behr, p. 123.

[25] Nikolajeva, p. 71.

[26] Nikolajeva, p. 70.

[27] Nikolajeva, p. 70.

[28] Fife, p. 140.

[29] Fife, p. 140.

[30] Fife, p. 140.

[31] Fife, p. 141.

[32] Behr, p. 117.

[33] Behr, p. 118.

[34] J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, (London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2003), p. 193.

[35] Rowling, Order of the Phoenix, p. 225.

[36] Nikolajeva, pp. 71-72.

[37] Fife, p. 142.

[38] Fife, p. 145.

[39] Fife, p. 152.

[40] Pullman, Northern Lights, p.79.

[41] Pullman, Northern Lights, p. 127.

[42] Pullman, Northern Lights, p.127.

[43] Pullman, His Dark Materials: The Subtle Knife, 1997 (London: Scholastic Children’s Books, 2007), pp. 34-35.

[44] Pullmam, Subtle Knife, p. 36.

[45] Pullman, His Dark Materials: The Amber Spyglass, 2000 (London: Scholarstic Children’s Books, 2007), p.495

[46] Shelley King, ‘“Without Lyra we would understand neither the New nor the Old Testament”: Exegesis, Allegory and Reading The Golden Compass’, in His Dark Materials Illuminated, ed. Millicent Lenz, pp. 106-124. (p. 107).

[47] King, p. 107.

[48] Lauren Shohet, ‘Reading Dark Materials’, in His Dark Materials Illuminated, ed. Millicent Lenz, pp. 22-36.

[49] Shohet, p. 23.

[50] Pullman, Amber Spyglass, p.495.

 

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