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Literature Strikes Back: Harry Potter and Portugal

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Christopher Rollason

Aug 30, 2000, 3:00:00 AM8/30/00
Literature Strikes Back: Harry Potter and Portugal

'There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,/Than are dreamt of in
your philosophy' (Shakespeare, Hamlet, I. v. 166)

PRELIMINARY NOTE: The reader is asked to bear in mind that _none_ of the
opinions expressed in this text are intended as hostile or antagonistic to
Portugal or Portuguese culture as such, in any way whatever. Far from it:
the author greatly
appreciates the fact that Portugal played a part in the genesis of the Harry
Potter saga.


The Year 2000 edition of the Writers' and Artists' Yearbook (London: A. & C.
Black), a well-known manual for would-be writers in the Anglophone world,
has a guest foreword dated June 1999 and signed by J.K. (Joanna) Rowling. In
a few brief words, Rowling explains how she first heard of this manual, and,
at the same time and almost incidentally, recalls an early moment in the
birth of the book which was to make her famous: 'The first time that I ever
heard about the Writers' and Artists' Yearbook was in a small and smoky café
in Oporto. I was employed as a teacher at the language institute three doors
along the road at the time, and this café was a kind of unofficial
staffroom. I had entered it with the intention of preparing a lesson for my
five o'clock class. Within a few minutes of sitting down, however, the lure
of the notebook in my bag had overcome my conscience, and I was immersed in
writing chapter three of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone; so
immersed, in fact, that I failed to notice when my friend and colleague Paul
joined me at the table .' (p. v).

Joanna's conversation with Paul does not have to concern us, but it is
interesting to note that the first of the phenomenally successful Harry
Potter books was, if not quite conceived, at least gestated in substantial
part in Portugal (that 'small and smoky café in Oporto'). Rowling dates the
genesis of her idea to a Manchester-London train journey in October 1990,
but she stayed a whole three years in Oporto, leaving Portugal in 1994 to
settle in Edinburgh with 'half a suitcase full of papers covered with
stories about Harry Potter' (Rowling, quoted in article 'J.K. Rowling',
2000, on the Gale Group website at: The Portuguese
connection is there beyond doubt, and I shall return below to this curious
geo-literary accident.

First and foremost, however, it needs to be declared - indeed shouted out
loud - that if Harry Potter, the schoolboy wizard, is no ordinary boy, the
book that introduced him to the world is, equally, no ordinary book. For
Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, first published in 1997, has
achieved what some believed no book could do - in the epoch of audiovisual
media and computer games, of skateboards and baseball caps, it has enticed
children the world over back to reading - back to the written word! And this
has been achieved by a book with no illustrations, and until now (though a
film - to be based on the first two volumes - is now on the way) no media
tie-ins. The Potter series now numbers four published books (they have
appeared at a steady rhythm of once a year, up to the fourth in mid-2000),
and will eventually run to seven. Harry's adventures have (as of August
2000) sold a total of over 35 million volumes across the planet, to both
children and adults, have reached 115 countries and have been translated
into 30 languages (as well as into American English; certain excessively
'British' phrases and references were, it seems, Americanised in the US
edition of the first volume, which was also retitled Harry Potter and the
Sorcerer's Stone); they have made their author (now aged 34) a
multimillionaire. In the US alone, the third volume sold 1.5 million copies
in its first month of existence, and on its publication the 'San Francisco
Chronicle' declared: 'The world's just wild about Harry. He's atop local,
national and international hardcover best-seller lists' (quoted on the Gale
site, cf. above).

This extraordinary success of what are ostensibly 'mere' children's tales
has impelled no less an intellectual heavyweight than the novelist Mario
Vargas Llosa to declare (at the Menéndez Pelayo International University in
Santander, Spain), of the furore that greeted the publication of the fourth
volume: 'The British press said that there'd been nothing like it since the
days of Dickens, rows of children queued up from the small hours on
publication day, kids pleaded with their parents to let them be among the
first to buy a copy . It is enormously stimulating to realise that not only
is literature not dead for the new generations, but the children of our time
too can be bewitched by those tales of the imagination which reach them
through the medium of words' (quoted in Susana Pérez de Pablos, 'Vargas
Llosa defiende en la UMIP el poder crítico de la literatura' ['Vargas Llosa
defends the critical power of literature at the UMIP'], 'El País', Madrid,
international edition, 12 July 2000, p. 40; my translation).


It was, certainly, the phenomenal success of the Potter books, coupled with
their very favourable reception by adult readers and critics as well as by
children, that impelled me to buy and read Harry Potter and the
Philosopher's Stone. I shall confine my comments to this, the one that
started it all. The adult reader who lays down Rowling's book after
seventeen chapters and 223 pages is likely to ask what the nature of the
Potter phenomenon is - just what is the magic of this book about magic that
has come to incarnate so surprising a fightback of the written word?

One of Rowling's triumphs is her unexpected combination of two very
different genres: the 'school story', a speciality of British children's
literature, and the fantasy or tale of magic. The 'school story' is in fact
usually a boarding school story, and this one is no exception: Rowling did
not herself go to a boarding school, but for the orphan Harry life changes
radically as soon as he is out of the clutches of his horrendously mediocre
and uncaring relatives the Dursleys and boards the train to the Hogwarts
School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. This is no ordinary school, however, for
the train itself leaves London's King's Cross station from Platform 9¾, a
location visible only to the initiated. At Hogwarts, Harry finds himself in
a world where owls deliver letters, classes are taught by a ghost, centaurs
inhabit the woods, dragon's eggs hatch, forbidden books shriek at dead of
night, and a magic mirror reveals the heart's desire. At the centre of the
intrigue lies the deadly struggle between the forces of beneficent magic,
represented by Dumbledore, the headmaster of Hogwarts, and the destructive
energies of the Dark Side, whose supreme figure, Voldemort, killed Harry's
own parents when he was a babe in arms. Harry Potter and the Philosopher's
Stone climaxes with the eleven-year old Harry worsting the machinations of
Voldemort in the cellars of Hogwarts; it is clear, though, that the evil
magician is not so easily beaten and will be back to combat Harry in the
succeeding volumes.

Rowling's fantasy bears clear resemblances to the imagined worlds of J.R.R.
Tolkien and C.S. Lewis (she cites the latter as a particular influence, and
indeed her plan for a seven-volume Potter saga parallels Lewis' Seven
Chronicles of Narnia). All three writers share a basic schema of 'good'
fighting 'evil' in a world peopled by magic beings: indeed, Rowling has
explicitly said that 'the theme running through the seven books is the
struggle between good and evil' (my source here is an interview, 'Entrevista
com a Escritora do Livro Harry Potter' ['Interview with the creator of Harry
Potter', 2000], on the Brazilian site O megasite de
educação, cultura e entretenimento -; my translation from
Portuguese). Those who dislike Tolkien and Lewis for their conservatism
might not think such similarities a recommendation, but Rowling's
world-picture comes over as less simplistic than theirs: there is no obvious
equivalent of Tolkien's nostalgic, sub-William Morris medieval ruralism or
Lewis' embarrassingly transparent Christian allegorising. It is true that in
Rowling's world the evil Voldemort plays a similar part to that of the 'Dark
Lord' Sauron in The Lord of the Rings or the White Witch Jadis in the Narnia
books. Nonetheless, more interesting analogies may also be suggested - in
Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast trilogy (Voldemort is abetted from inside
Hogwarts by Quirrell, a traitorous teacher whose role as would-be destroyer
from within in some ways recalls that of Steerpike in Peake's Titus Groan
and Gormenghast), or, indeed, in L. Frank Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz,
another children's classic which also speaks to adults, where magic forces
operate for both good and evil and, importantly, things are not always what
they seem. In Baum's novel, the Tin Woodman, the Scarecrow and the Cowardly
Lion believe they lack qualities which they actually have, while the
apparently impressive magic of Oz turns out to be a fraud; in Rowling's
fantasy, Harry only gradually becomes aware of his own remarkable powers and
his family's magical history, and he and his friends are actually wrong,
right up to the end, in suspecting the destructive agent in the school to be
the unsympathetic but honest teacher Snape, rather than the duplicitous

One might even go further and suggest that in some ways J.K. Rowling has
created a young person's variant on the contemporary fictional genre of
magic realism, as exemplified by Gabriel García Márquez in Cien años de
soledad (One Hundred Years of Solitude) or Salman Rushdie in Midnight's
Children. The 'school story' is a genre which, even if stylised, typically
obeys the usual conventions of realism, and to mingle such a tale with
magical events is an audacious imaginative remaking of the familiar world,
running counter to the commonsense assumptions of the 'ordinary' people whom
Rowling's magic folk call 'Muggles'. To quote the author herself, from an
interview with the online magazine 'Salon': 'The wizards represent all that
the true "muggle" most fears: they are plainly outcasts and comfortable with
being so. Nothing is more unnerving to the truly conventional than the
unashamed misfit!' ('Of magic and single motherhood', interview with
Rowling, 'Salon', 31 March 1999, That this
challenging of the 'truly conventional' through magic may indeed parallel
the processes operated on a larger canvas by García Márquez and Rushdie is
suggested by what look like two clear cases of magic-realist
intertextuality. Just before young Potter's release from the unspeakable
Dursleys, Hagrid, the emissary of Hogwarts, operates a bizarre
transformation on their son (and Harry's tormentor), the insufferable
Dudley: 'He brought down the umbrella swishing down through the air to point
at Dudley - there was a flash of violet light, a sound like a firecracker, a
sharp squeal, and next second, Dudley was . howling in pain. When he turned
his back on them, Harry saw a curly pig's tail poking through a hole in his
trousers' (p. 48). This immediately recalls the porcine-tailed child that
plays a central role in Cien años de soledad. Later, at Hogwarts one of
Harry's fellow pupils turns out to be called Parvati Patil (p. 110): this
character plays only a minor part, and at first I thought her presence was
simply a concession to political correctness in the form of a token Asian
character - until I remembered that, rather more interestingly, Midnight's
Children prominently features a young girl with magic powers by the name of
Parvati-the-Witch .

To read Harry Potter's adventures as a case of magic realism in miniature
may, perhaps, go some way towards explaining the fascination they have come
to exercise over both children and adults - causing some category confusion
on the way, as witness the reaction of certain US publishers who, according
to the Gale site, have 'questioned the placement of a children's book on the
adult best-seller list of the New York Times'. In the US too,
unsurprisingly, Rowling's imagination has aroused controversy in the
Christian-fundamentalist sector of the 'truly conventional': to quote the
Gale site again, 'one of the exceptions to the warm reception of the Potter
books has occurred among some parents (particularly in South Carolina,
Oregon, and Georgia) who oppose the subject of witchcraft and feel that the
Potter books are not within the Christian tradition', and it appears that
anti-Potter associations and websites have sprung up in the ever-tolerant
homeland of the Salem and McCarthy witch-trials .

The point is obviously not that reading about Harry Potter is likely to
incite either children or adults to go out and practise paganism (and even
if they did, that would be their free choice, arguably neither more or less
rational than practising evangelical Christianity). For the great majority
of readers, the attraction of the magic described in these books is, it may
be surmised, its force as a symbol of the transforming power of the
imagination. I do not mean this in a purely escapist sense: in Harry's
world, Hogwarts and its magic stand for the awareness of creative
difference - the sense that things are not what they seem, the feeling that
there are possibilities in the human and natural universe that the 'normal'
likes of the soulless Dursleys cannot accept or tolerate. So much is clear
from the very first sentence: 'Mr and Mrs Dursley, of number four, Privet
Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very
much' (p. 7). What Harry learns at Hogwarts, in contrast to that 'perfectly
normal' existence symbolised by the suburban address of Privet Drive,
involves creative problem-solving and the exercise of the intelligence;
crucial too here is the presence of his friend Hermione Granger, the book's
key female character. Hermione comes top of the class - even scoring 112% in
one exam - and has an extraordinary ability to remember magic lore; at the
same time, her vitality and vibrancy is such that, as Rowling's Salon
interviewer Margaret Weir puts it, 'Hermione makes erudition seem so juicy
and worthwhile'. Yet Hermione's book-learning only helps others when she
uses it in a context of living, unfolding and unpredictable experience (as
Harry says when she rescues them, thanks to both knowledge and presence of
mind, from the deadly tendrils of the Devil's Snare plant, '"Lucky you pay
attention in Herbology, Hermione"' - p. 202). There are no absolute, rigid
rules in the world of Hogwarts, even if there appear to be. The forest in
the grounds is officially out-of-bounds, yet the school actually sends Harry
there, ostensibly as a punishment; and, indeed, Harry's triumph over
Voldemort at the end would not have been possible had he and his companions
not broken the rules in the first place - even on pain of expulsion - by
entering the forbidden cellars.

Part of the appeal of Rowling's witchcraft theme may be that it offers adult
readers the image of a parallel society. Witches and wizards move around,
visibly or (mostly) invisibly, in the 'normal' world of the 'Muggles',
disturbing and reordering it. The motif of 'people meeting in secret all
over the country' (p. 18) suggests literary similarities with the parallel
universes invented by such writers as Jorge Luis Borges and Julio Cortázar,
or with Rushdie's 'Midnight's Children's Conference' of magically gifted
children; but perhaps more important is the possible analogy between
Rowling's alternative magic universe and the ever-expanding real-virtual
world of the Internet, with its cybercommunities and its power of
communication across physical barriers. Indeed, a mere fifteen years ago the
very notion of someone being able to read the day's newspapers from Chile,
India or Romania by clicking on a screen in their own home would surely have
sounded like witchcraft!

Harry's triumph, though, is also the triumph of literature (it is a common
misconception to suppose the Internet is somehow inimical to the written
word, when in fact it is a means of keeping text alive and dynamic for the
twenty-first century). In her very first chapter, Rowling prophetically has
a character declare: '"there will be books written about Harry - every child
in our world will know his name!"' (p. 15). Harry is thus linked from early
on to the world of books. In stark contrast, the dreadful Dudley Dursley is
pointedly described as an inveterate non-reader ('Dudley, who never read
anything' - p. 62). Harry is known in the magicians' world as 'The Boy Who
Lived' (this is even the title of the opening chapter), for he has
miraculously survived Voldemort's attempt to exterminate his family, the
dark act of terrorism in which his parents died. The subsequent fortunes of
Rowling's character in the external world suggest that The Boy Who Lived may
also be The Book (or The Word) That Lived: Harry's miraculous survival has
also proved a manifestation of the survival of literature.


At this point and before concluding, I shall permit myself to return briefly
to the curious story of Harry Potter's gestation in Portugal. A little
institutional history is in order here. In 1987, a few years before Joanna
Rowling arrived in Oporto, an educational 'reform' was decreed by the then
right-wing government, affecting the country's three principal Faculties of
Letters. This 'reform' was aimed at bringing the humanities courses offered
by the older, 'classical' universities into ideological line with those
taught at a number of newer universities. The latter courses had been quite
consciously designed to inculcate a technicist, instrumentalist and
vocationalist perspective on society and the world, rather than following
the older humanistic model of university study - this despite the fact that
since 1974, when the 'Revolution of the Carnations' put an end to 48 years
of authoritarian and obscurantist far-right dictatorship, the 'classical'
faculties had enjoyed (and their students had objectively benefited from) an
unprecedented flowering of free speech and the liberty to develop a dynamic
and critical vision of modernity, coupled with an enlightened model of
education as preparation for active citizenship. The changes introduced in
1987, effectively and for most purposes, subordinated all university courses
in the humanities in Portugal not only to a positivist and vocationalist
model of pedagogy, but, even more damagingly, to a specific variant of that
model organised around the ideological and institutional hegemony of
behaviourist psychology. In other words, the dominant discourse - if not
pensée unique - thenceforth considered suitable for Portugal's arts
faculties was that of an empiricist, quasi-utilitarian, self-proclaimedly
'scientific' view of the world, based on the primacy of allegedly
'objective', mechanistically applicable rules and techniques. This
'reform' - unfortunately still in place in the year 2000 - was denounced at
the time by Eduardo Prado Coelho, one of Portugal's leading intellectuals,
writing in a major national weekly, as 'from the cultural and scientific
viewpoint . a crime'; refuting the crude notion of one-size-fits-all
techniques as a universal pedagogic nostrum, that writer declared
trenchantly: 'When the notion is that the essential point is to train
teachers, it is highly probable that bad teachers will emerge. When the idea
is that the essential point is not to train teachers, it is highly likely
that good teachers will emerge' ('A invasão dos pedagogos' ['The invasion of
the pedagogues'], 'Expresso', Lisbon, 4 February 1987, pp. 29-30; my

Underlying the 'reform' was a historically specific, impoverished and
reified ideology of the 'modern', defined in terms of superficial,
empiricist notions of 'relevance' and immediate 'usefulness' (the modern as
whatever came out yesterday and must therefore be good). Far more
intellectually credible and politically fertile conceptions of modernity, as
developed by thinkers such as Walter Benjamin, existed and exist (the modern
as an experience of dynamic flux and unpredictable challenges).
Unfortunately, the voices raised in the 'classical' universities in favour
of the dynamic model of modernity were drowned out by the siren chorus of
'relevance'. In parallel, the critical vision of historical development as
inherently non-linear and problematic (as, again, found in Benjamin) was
sidelined in favour of a crude ideology of inevitable and unstoppable linear
'progress'. It should be obvious to any social or political analyst that
these ideological notions of 'relevance' and 'progress' have nothing
specifically Portuguese about them; rather, they emanate from the centres of
geopolitical power and mass-cultural hegemony (a point which, thirteen years
on, actually seems clearer in retrospect, following the collapse of the
Soviet bloc, a process which commenced two years after the Portuguese
'reform'). Given this global context, whether the 1987 'reform' was
objectively a purely national manifestation, and whether 'foreign' criticism
of it should have been deemed an intrusion, may appear, to say the least,

In the specific field of 'language and culture' studies (Portuguese studies
and courses in foreign languages and cultures), the ideological effect of
the 'reform' was, if not actually to abolish, certainly to marginalise,
downgrade and devalue the teaching of literature, while simultaneously
elevating the reified discourses of rule-governed pedagogics and
empirically-based psychology to privileged, near-unquestionable status. The
implicit view was that the study of literature was 'irrelevant' to the
concerns of a simplistically defined 'modern world' - this despite the
eloquent defence offered by the likes of Prado Coelho, who, in the text
cited above, declared that 'in the area of literature . what matters is not
merely to teach, but also to transmit, to communicate, to share'.

Despite this unfavourable ideological climate, the year 1998 saw literature
strike back, when the magic-realist novelist (and Communist Party militant)
José Saramago was awarded the Nobel. This award, the first-ever Literature
Nobel for Portugal (and for any Portuguese-speaking country), and only the
second Portuguese Nobel ever in any field, was greeted with extraordinary
scenes of national rejoicing and ringing tributes from all walks of
Portuguese society; it remains one of the greatest moments in that ancient
country's entire cultural history. With Saramago, literature suddenly
mattered in Portugal; and we may also note with interest that one of his
finest novels, Memorial do Convento (in English, Baltasar and Blimunda)
features a young woman with magic powers, a witch's daughter with the gift
of reading hearts and souls.


Indeed, this magic element in Saramago's work connects uncannily with the
boy hero Harry Potter and his antecedents in Portugal. It is a bizarre
historical irony that a country which had subordinated the teaching and
study of literature to a mechanistically 'scientific' pedagogy should have
played host to the gestation of the first Potter book - of a literary
phenomenon for the new century that not only affirms magic (creativity,
imagination, the unpredictable) against a sterile, rule-governed, empiricist
ideology, but does so in a narrative centred on an imaginary school and an
unfolding process of education. Joanna Rowling has promised that, when her
saga is finished, the seven books together will form the history of Harry's
education at Hogwarts - from his entry at age eleven in the first volume up
to his graduation at age seventeen in the last. The evolving tale of Harry
Potter's schooling in magic promises to become one of the key weapons in the
fightback of the written word and the imagination, in new and unexpected
forms with the power to face and overcome the unprecedented challenges of
the twenty-first century. Meanwhile, as the author herself declared to
'Salon', 'the books are now the story' .

The author of this text is not a Portuguese national, but does have
first-hand experience of Portugal's higher education system in the period
described. Anyone who believes that any of the views expressed in section
III are not grounded in historical fact or sustainable argument is invited
to communicate their viewpoint by email to the author, who undertakes,
subject to the necessary standards of proof, to publish any duly
substantiated corrections.

Christopher Rollason
Metz, France, 2000
_ _ _
'As for Progress, it was at one time quite a nuisance,
but it never progressed'
Edgar Allan Poe, 1845

Visit the Bob Dylan Critical Corner site at:


Aug 31, 2000, 12:44:56 AM8/31/00
"Christopher Rollason" <> writes:

> [...]on its publication the 'San Francisco

> Chronicle' declared: 'The world's just wild about Harry. He's atop
> local, national and international hardcover best-seller lists'
(quoted on the Gale site, cf. above).

Splendid. So which U.S. presidential candidate is Harry supporting?

I reprhrase that. Which presidential candidate is seeking Harry's


Sent via
Before you buy.


Aug 31, 2000, 7:13:20 AM8/31/00
>So which U.S. presidential candidate is Harry supporting?
>I reprhrase that. Which presidential candidate is seeking Harry's

Possibly "Owl Gore." :)


Aug 31, 2000, 9:55:56 AM8/31/00

> Splendid. So which U.S. presidential candidate is Harry supporting?
> I reprhrase that. Which presidential candidate is seeking Harry's
> endorsement?
> jimC

Considering that not one of our current US Presidential candidates (at
least the front-runners) is capable of independent thought or possesses
imagination, I doubt any of them know who Harry Potter is, much less
seek an endorsement.

- Dumbledore For President!



Aug 31, 2000, 2:01:22 PM8/31/00
>Considering that not one of our current US Presidential candidates (at
>least the front-runners) is capable of independent thought or possesses
>imagination, I doubt any of them know who Harry Potter is, much less
>seek an endorsement.

While I too am NOT impressed by either Gore or Bush's capabilities, I have to
disagree with the above, since it seems that a popular button handed out at the
Democratic National Convention consists of a picture of Gore and HP, with the
slogan "Put Wizardry Back in the White House" (I wonder if Scholastic Books
will sue the DNC?)

BTW, loved that "Owl Gore" pun!

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