Trelawney’s Tea Leaves: Reading the Future of Harry Potter

Harry Potter. It hardly seems possible to imagine a time when the name could be read on a page without conjuring (no pun intended) associations of bygone hours of enraptured entertainment for every reader, or even the casual film-goer.  The franchise has been built by the marketing forces behind international publishing houses and movie studios into a monument within the zeitgeist. Not to mention that the books themselves work a special magic of their own.

But now that the novels have stopped hitting shelves and the films’ stars are trying to craft careers outside the restrictions of their Harry Potter roles, the franchise has left the immediate world of popular entertainment to which it was raised by commercial titans of entertainment industries and has receded into the cultural background, awaiting presumed canonization.

Presumably the franchise will still be popular for years to come and Swarthmore will fund a few more Yule Balls, but ultimately the intense hold the books had on fans, the one that lead them to midnight releases of books and films alike and spawned untold Halloween costumes whose maroon and gold scarves even invaded everyday wear, will relax and the books will become revered, but not idolized with same fervor of a generation of pre-teens.

The books will be read for at least several generations into this millennium, but — because of the nature of the books and their serial release — they’ll never be received by future readers in the same way.  New Potter fans will never have to wait for the saga’s next installment, and can breeze through the whole series as soon as they discover it.  While this seems like a godsend for new fans, one akin to retroactively discovering a great TV drama via Netflix, they will lose the opportunity to grow up with Harry, which is more important than it may seem.

Many have noticed that the series shifts in tone around the fourth volume, “The Goblet of Fire,” becoming a much darker series.  The films, too, took a thematically darker tone in the third film when family-friendly director Christopher Columbus was replaced by Alfonso Cuarón, whose gritty visual sensibilities would later lead him to an acclaimed direction of the acclaimed apocalyptic drama, Children of Men. Many readers see the shift in tone as a change in Rowling’s intention for the series, but Swarthmore Professor Melinda Finberg disagrees.

“We’re always reading the books through Harry’s eyes, so it makes sense that the books get darker, that things get more complicated,” Finberg said.  She examined the books closely with Swarthmore students in a first year seminar, “Battling Against Voldemort: Harry Potter and the Heroic Quest,” that paired the books with other fantastic epics like the Odyssey and the Lord of the Rings.

This is the problem for new readers consuming Rowling’s masterworks wholesale. The result of such an aging in narrative perspective is a series that may draw in a young reader, but become too dark by its end.

The inverse could hold true, too, and a reader who might enjoy the relative complexity of the latter volumes could be lukewarm about the simplistic fairy-tale nature of Harry’s first three years.

However, Finberg still thinks that this perspective progression was one of the novels’ great strengths.

“[Rowling] drew people in with books that were directed toward eleven or twelve year olds,” Finberg said.  “And as the series became more sophisticated, parents began to become interested, too.”

Finberg contrasts this appeal of Harry Potter with the reduced appeal of Philip Pullman’s Dark Materials Trilogy.

“From the very beginning, these are much darker books and they stay that way all the way through.  That limited its appeal because it was something teenagers read to themselves and was more isolated in that sense. At the least, it lacked the social aspect of parent’s reading the books to their children.”

The social community of Harry Potter readers has long been part of its broad appeal and this activity was only broadened by film adaptations that brought together Harry Potter fans and inductees alike via the social tradition of film-going.

“As with Lord of the Rings, the fact that Harry Potter now exists in two media, books and digital images, means that kids get the pleasure of comparing and contrasting the two and arguing over which ‘text’ is better and why — which means they’re getting introduced to the pleasure and value of interpretation itself,” said Swarthmore English Professor Peter Schmidt. “Immersing yourself in a virtual world is very much like dunking your head in a pensieve in Potter. It’s fun, scary, mind-expanding, and (as Rowlings’ pun suggests, it introduces you to the power of being pensive, i.e., thinking).”

This social aspect of the novels will surely exist for readers of subsequent generations who talk with their friends about their favorite books in the series and compare the films to the original texts, but some of it will certainly be lost.  No one will post a Facebook status about waiting in frustration for the next film to reach theaters and few will argue about who gets time with the family copy of the latest book. Readers will still exist within the imagined community that collects readers of any book, but gone will be the direct social interaction and media barrage, the veritable tornado of excitement that met each movie premiere and book release.

Yet this is not such a shame, since the lasting value of the books has always really been, well, the books.  And will they last?

“None of us can know this for certain,” Schmidt said.  “We know what needs to happen, though, for such immortality: one generation needs to say to the youngest one, “You have to read this; it’s great.”

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