V i v i a n  S o n g
Freelance writer
Freelance writer
Potter considered a literary gem

Published in The Toronto Sun and Sun Media publications, July 2007.

Someone should have told Lord Voldemort he needn't have gone on murderous rampages and splintered his black soul to achieve immortality.

He and all the Harry Potter characters will live on in the halls of literary fame, alongside author J.K. Rowling -- who can bank on her works being studied, archived, dissected and enjoying critical acclaim long after she's gone.

As the arrival in bookstores Saturday of the seventh and final chronicle of Harry Potter's adventures, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, draws nearer, experts widely agree that Rowling leaves an indelible print on the landscape of both children's and adult literature.

Rowling has succeeded in blurring the line between the two genres, appealing to both audiences. Her tomes have sold 325 million copies worldwide, been translated into 65 languages, are being taught in university courses for their social commentary and literary devices, and are hotly debated among scholars.

Rowling now ranks comfortably alongside such literary giants as Jane Austen -- her favourite author -- C.S. Lewis, J.R.R Tolkien and Edith Nesbit.

At Kansas State University, students in Philip Nel's Harry Potter's Library class have discussed the political inferences the series raises. Nel and colleague Karin Westman are coming to Toronto next month for an academic symposium and fan conference on Harry Potter, titled Prophecy 2007: From Hero to Legend.

The war against evil waged in the wizarding world has been likened to the war on terror in the real world, specifically Guantanamo Bay, Nel said. Just as the Ministry of Magic in the Potter books makes scapegoats out of dozy, pimply bus drivers such as Stan Shunpike (arresting him on suspicion of being an evil-sided "Death Eater"), Guantanamo Bay is a failed experiment where most of the detainees have not been charged with being terrorists by the arresting Americans, Nel said.

"It's a clear reference to what governments tend to do in times of crises," said Nel, the creator of the course and author of J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter Novels: A Reader's Guide.

Though Rowling never confirmed Nel's theory, she has worked for Amnesty International investigating human rights abuses in Africa, he added.

The Dark Lord (Voldemort) has also been compared to Hitler. The Nazi leader despised his subjects who weren't 100% of Aryan descent, and Voldemort is only partially of wizard blood, yet he roused his supporters into detesting such half-bloods.

Other critics have called the series sexist, casting females into secondary and stereotypical roles: Harry's friend Hermione is merely the smart sidekick, and Mrs. Weasley (the mother of his other close friend, Ron) is a domestic Mrs. Beaver of sorts.

But as Westman points out, Hermione often saves Harry's hide, and Mrs. Weasley seems to wear the pants in her family.

Then there are Christian conservatives. They blast the series as promoting witchcraft and Satanism to children, a notion Christian writer Connie Neal has battled for years.

When Sun Media reached her at her Sacramento, Calif., home, a wary voice answered the phone, for just moments earlier an angry Christian had screamed at her, calling her an "instrument of the devil."

The author of The Gospel According to Harry Potter was one of the first to publicly defend the Potter series to angry Christians, pointing to the biblical parallels and the moral narrative of good versus evil.

Just as Jesus died for the world's sins, Potter's mom Lily also saved her son's life by sacrificing herself, Neal points out.

Many Potter themes are biblical in nature: the unlikely hero, redemption, resurrection, prophecy and love will conquer all.

"I don't think it's disguised to lead the world to Christianity, but Rowling relied on traditional folklore and very powerful imagery that hearkens back to the Christian tradition in the Western world," Neal said.

Just as Tolkien fans recreate complex genealogies from The Lord of the Rings epic, Potter fans have been mapping out the wizard world. Readers are undaunted by books 600-700 pages long, dispelling the myth that kid-lit has to be short and simple.

"It's a hallmark of Rowling's incredible imagery and attention to detail, and to the development of this world," Westman said.

But it's not just master storytelling that contributed to Rowling's success, Neal points out.

"It's the first great book since we've had the Internet," she said.

Indeed, that medium can be largely credited for the worldwide explosion of Pottermania.

But is all this just overanalysis that borders on academic pretension?

"It's a question of how seriously you take children's literature," Westman said. "It's one of the most important literatures we have. It's what our children read, and that strikes me as the type of literature we want to pay attention to."


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