Jennifer James’ Essay: HARRY’S BACK, AGAIN!
Seattle-based Cultural Anthropologist, Jennifer James, describes the forces that make the Harry Potter character so popular with modern children


“Harry Potter and the order of the Phoenix,” is about to hit the bookstores (midnight June 21st). Millions of children worldwide will stand in line to buy the fifth book about the orphan wizard. Six and a half million books are being printed for the U.S. market alone. Why, what is it about Harry that has captured children’s imaginations? Why is there controversy over these books?

Stories, or myths, are one of the ways we teach children about how the world works and what kinds of people they should be. “Toot: The Little Tugboat” is about persistence, “Snow White” about character in the face of envy, “Beauty and the Beast” is about love overcoming appearance. “The Little Mermaid” is about giving up what you love to be loved, literally changing your form from fin to feet to gain the love of a human prince.

But, so much has changed in our world since these stories were written. Persistence, yes, I was raised when key words were “endurance” and “stability.” Now they are “adaptation” and “knowledge.” Doesn’t Little Toot need a high tech engine to go with his courage? Should Snow White get an MBA instead of housekeeping with seven men with strange personal habits? Men are tired of being told they are beasts after the weddingand very few women are interested in princes anymore after Diana’s experience. Price Charles turned into a toad.

Harry Potter represents the new world. He is the classic Oliver Twist orphan, small, alone, bullied, but plucky. The spirit and friends of his dead parents rescue him. He finds his way to the best school because knowledge workers dominate the future. The book is not about violence or black arts anymore than “David Copperfield,” “The Three Little Pigs,” or “Shrek.”

Harry loves his school; he studies hard, puts up with attacks from other students who think he is different and makes good friends. Hermione is an assertive, brilliant girl who thinks hard work and access to books are where you find answers. Ron is a sweet boy who believes in loyalty, family and courage. He has a sense of humor because he comes from a large but poor family. His secondhand magic wand keeps falling apart.

The three form a team, the new workforce model of a small, adaptive, empowered and diverse group that uses intelligence and intuition to solve problems. Their story is a primer for how to survive in our new workforce. The magic, the wizardry, is just a metaphor for the possibilities of computers and biotech. Harry is not about magic anymore than “Spiderman,” or “Toy Story.”

Two recent children’s stories were also wildly successful with children but controversial for some adults. Teen-age Mutant Ninja Turtles was about solving today’s problems with new skills. Their leader, Splinter, was a sewer rat and a Zen master. Splinter taught the turtle team higher forms of intelligence, communication, meditation, stress reduction and ethics. It was just the set of skills children needed for the new economy.

Mighty Morphin Power Rangers also had an underlying message of adaptability. The Rangers morphed between the skills of the past (domination by power in the form of dinosaurs) and the skills of the future (the best minds of science and engineering). When faced with an unsolvable problem the Rangers call a meeting and use strategic thinking to break through the impasse.

Compare this to the Lone Ranger, Superman or Spiderman, the idea that one person, with special powers, can do it alone and never have to explain it to anyone. “Who was that masked man?” That corporate model is falling out of favor. The more the public knows, the more available information becomes, the less anyone wants a secretive king. When the peasants learn to read (remember the American revolution) the king begins to look stupid or dishonest.

Harry Potter may offer the next generation a model for the future. If our children can work together, be smart, resourceful, study hard, understand that things are not always what they seem, be persistent, courageous, battle evil, take care of each other and always choose the moral high ground, even when it means breaking old rules, they can prevail.

When the seventh and last book comes out in a few years I would bet that this wonderful trio of children, Harry, Hermione and Ron, will have pushed evil back into the shadows. Through their love and commitment they will do what every new generation hopes to do. They will be able to save the lives of Harry’s parents, literally bringing them back to life. Harry will have the family and future he longs for.

Harry Potter is about character in the face of danger and how to work together. It is also about the best myths of the past, the willingness to risk everything for family, for love, for mom and dad. Ask your children what they think about Harry. Why do they want to read these stories?

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