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Last Updated: Wednesday, 18 June, 2003, 07:27 GMT 08:27 UK
Potter's place in the literary canon
by Dr Marian Allsobrook
Researcher in children's literature

Harry Potter is a global literary phenomenon but where does JK Rowling's creation figure in the canon of children's literature?

Enid Blyton
Rowling has been compared to Enid Blyton
Rowling's unparalleled readership of millions of people worldwide and the critical activity around her books invite comparison with the works of classic children's writers Roald Dahl and Enid Blyton.

All three have inspired children across the globe to become substantial readers and deserve serious attention for this achievement alone.

Rowling's popular and commercial success identify her as culturally significant, but does that mean Harry has gained iconic status?

Has he already assumed a life beyond representation on page, tape or screen like Robinson Crusoe or Huckleberry Finn?

A literary icon develops the power of myth, generating meanings beyond the immediate narrative.

JK Rowling
Rowling's book have encouraged children to read
JRR Tolkien, author of The Lord of the Rings, invented his own mythology, language and landscape, through which his characters achieve an imaginative reality.

Rowling's peer, Philip Pullman, has also achieved this measure of literary creation - Iorek Byrnison, the armoured bear of the His Dark Materials series, shares this mythical strength, which lies far beyond mere inventiveness.

Rowling's fertile cleverness is of another breed from Pullman or Tolkien - we wait to see if Harry can haunt our imagination like the hobbits of Lord of the Rings or Iorek.

Rowling's fiction is characterised by narrative twists and turns, which have dazzling allure.

She also has shown legal and marketing genius.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone
Do the books have artistic merit?
But Harry has yet to become an icon of the imagination, though marketing has indisputably endowed him with cult status.

In her four Potter books so far, Rowling has used the formula of the boarding school story and stayed within its constraints.

The setting is not unique - authors like Diana Wynne Jones and Anthony Horowitz have also used it.

Wynne Jones has been publishing for more than 30 years, and young readers have noted parallels between her books and Rowling's creations.

The 1982 book Witch Week, part of Wynne Jones' celebrated Chrestomanci series, features an owlish young hero at a boarding school for children who have suffered from society's persecution of witches.

JRR Tolkien
Tolkien developed his own mythology and language
Wynne Jones told the Guardian newspaper the similarities between her series and Rowling's fiction was due to the filtering process of the reading experience.

Rowling shares with these writers a skilful use of illusion, delayed disclosure and moral certainty.

However, the boarding school formula creates unwieldy plots at the expense of poetic meaning.

Early, in the first book, Rowling draws upon the Nativity elements to encode her hero's significance - the three Magi, McGonagall, Dumbledore and Hagrid, recognise the infant Harry's importance.

But over-elaborate plotting takes over.

Philip Pullman
Pullman's work transcends narrative
Bulked up to divert and puzzle, her novels have nevertheless sustained the readers and accustomed them to the page-turning habit - a substantial achievement.

The lasting achievement of Harry Potter as hero lies in the author's matching of his special powers (that children long to share) with the needs that make him so human.

The real Potter mystery lies ahead - whether Potter books six or seven can achieve the level of transcendental narrative meaning to place Rowling within the inner circle of the literary canon.


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