In the year 2003, the judging panel for one of the most prestigious British prizes for literature – the Whitbread Prize - was divided five to four between two of the most recognised tales in the fantasy genre. The first of these was Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf, the legend of a dragon slaying, monster conquering hero. The second was the beloved and immensely popular Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by well known children’s author J.K.Rowling. As this essay is being produced for a website dedicated to the fandom of Harry Potter, I am sure the discerning reader can guess who won. It was Beowulf.
A reporter for the Observer; Robert McCrum stated that:
It is simply incredible that nine “intelligent, educated people should have any trouble at all in deciding between a critically acclaimed version of a 3,000-line Old English masterpiece and a popularly venerated contemporary fairy tale for articulate ten-year-olds”. No one would deny that J.K. Rowling is a “gifted storyteller”, but she isn’t in the same league as Heaney. The Nobel prize-winner is “a towering figure in the English-speaking world, an incomparable poet” [. . .] and ambassador for our globalised Anglo-Celtic literary culture... He is our Yeats, our Raleigh, our Spenser, a majestic, gracious lyric voyager.” Of course his poem is superior to Harry Potter - just as Shakespeare is better than Friends and Beethoven more important than The Beatles. To suggest otherwise is relativism gone mad: a rejection of “memory, history, the Western intellectual tradition and creative continuity.1
But is this the case? In this essay I will be looking at Harry Potter from a post-modern point-of-view and examining whether Harry Potter as a piece of literature is in any way less valuable than what most people would consider a piece of “high culture” writing.
First, we must define what exactly post-modernism is and how it relates to Harry Potter. To understand post-modernism we have to understand the liberal humanist tradition that it sets itself against. Liberal humanist thought was particularly dominant through the 19th Century. One of its beliefs was that of an ‘essential self’. With the emergence of psychology people were starting to learn how the mind works and decided that you could discover a central self to any person. This was incorporated into many literary works of the time. If a person was considered evil in a novel, they were essentially evil and could not reform. If a person was good they were essentially good, and could not have faults or self doubts. Thus were created many unrealistic fictional characters, both heroes and villains.
Post-modernist thought since the mid 20th century has been suspicious of the ideas of liberal humanism. While post-modernism includes many ideas, the two most relevant ones for this study are:
•That it is impossible to understand the central self. Humans continuously alter and change perspective throughout their lives. This leads to character who could change and function on different emotional levels.
•That there is no distinction between what is considered “high culture” and “low culture.”
This second point is the most important. It refers to how all literature is equal in status and none is more important or distinguished than another.
In this regard it also pays to take note that the works now considered “high culture” were most likely made to appeal to their contemporary audiences. In Shakespeare’s day, his plays were considered low brow and his bid for immortality was in his sonnets. Jane Austen states in Northanger Abbey that novels (in particular the types of novels she wrote) were often dismissed as unimportant and uncultured. Now, in the 21st century, these authors are seen as two of the great writers of British history. Interestingly, it is possible to be in both the category of high culture and popular culture, such as Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet (though this could be attributed to Leonardo DiCaprio’s large female fan base rather than the cultural significance of Shakespeare’s work).
If it is possible for a work to be considered a part of both popular culture and high culture, does Rowling’s work fit into this category? Let’s compare her central character, Harry Potter, to the character who beat him for the Whitbread Prize, Beowulf. Fortunately by going to the study guide website SparkNotes I was able to get a detailed character analysis for both characters from the same unbiased source.
Beowulf’s character analysis states:
Beowulf exemplifies the traits of the perfect hero… In his youth, Beowulf is a great warrior, characterized predominantly by his feats of strength and courage, including his fabled swimming match against Breca. He also perfectly embodies the manners and values dictated by the Germanic heroic code, including loyalty, courtesy, and pride. His defeat of Grendel and Grendel’s mother validates his reputation for bravery and establishes him fully as a hero…2
Beowulf isn’t a very complex guy. He’s “the perfect hero”, but this makes him unrealistic. Let’s face it; no one is always brave, strong, loyal, courteous, and full of pride because they’ve never done anything to regret. Making Beowulf perfect has also made him two-dimensional and completely out of touch with a flawed, human audience. One could argue that Beowulf has flaws. He is constantly boasting about his exploits and kills Grendel’s mother, who mealy took revenge for him killing her child. But because these weren’t perceived as faults in the original text, these characteristics only make him even less a figure an audience can personally relate to.
Now for Harry, in the analysis of The Half-Blood Prince
…Although Harry has never shied away from his destiny, bravely and repeatedly attempting to thwart Voldemort, he is nonetheless frustrated by his inability to have a normal school life. Harry is not a perfect wizard and certainly not the strongest student at Hogwarts. Often, Hermione has to help both Ron and Harry with their class assignments, and neither casts perfect spells. Instead, Harry’s strength lies in his conviction, his loyalty, and his ability to ask for help… As strong as Harry may be, he still suffers greatly from the unspeakable horrors of his past…Consequently, Harry is frightened by the thought of becoming close to anyone or anything else.3
Unlike the “perfect hero”, Beowulf, “Harry is not a perfect wizard.…” While there are things that he is obviously good at, such as Quidditch, he’s also “not the strongest student at Hogwarts.” While he may have characteristics that the audience dislikes – for I know many people who have been angered by Harry’s actions – the fact that “Harry’s strength lies in his conviction, his loyalty, and his ability to ask for help” makes up for it. What is key here is that Harry is human. He is someone whom the audience can relate to and just possibly learn from.
Look at the list of characteristics given in the above analysis:
• a person of conviction
Haven’t we all felt most of these things at one time or another?
Harry being a product of a post-modern era is a character with a complex, three-dimensional personality. He has flaws, he has self doubts, he has embarrassing moments, and he loses heart. Beowulf on the other hand is always brave and always killing the latest monstrosity on the scene. Which is more intellectually superior?
So I apologise Mr McCrum. Post-modernism claims that Shakespeare is just as valid as Friends. The Beatles and Beethoven are on an equal playing field, and that Harry Potter might be seen as just as deserving of the Whitbread Prize as Beowulf. I personally think it’s strange that the Whitbread Prize was awarded to Seamus Heaney for a translation of an existing text, rather than to Rowling’s completely original work.
Still, as I have pointed out, all of these works were popular for the time they were written. Maybe one day in 500 years, children will be struggling and complaining in classrooms as they paw over Rowling’s work, and wonder who would ever want to read this stuff.
1. British Council. “Beowulf triumphs over Harry Potter.” British Studies web page: Heritage. 2003. The United Kingdom’s international organisation for educational opportunities and cultural relations. 29 March 2006. http://elt.britcoun.org.pl/elt/r_beow.htm.
2. Phillips, Brian and Santos, Matilda. “Beowulf.” SparkNote. 2006. SparkNote, LLC. 28 March 2006. http://www.sparknotes.com/lit/beowulf/.
3. Petrusich, Amanda. “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.” SparkNote. 2006. SparkNote, LLC. 28 March 2006. http://www.sparknotes.com/lit/potter6.
SparkNote. “Today’s Most Popular Study Guide From Barns & Noble.” 2006. SparkNote, LLC. 28 March 2006. http://www.sparknotes.com/.
Answers.com. “Postmodern.” Dictionary. 2006. Answers Corporation. 30 March 2006. http://www.answers.com/topic/postmodernism.
Tamil Nation and Beyond. “Modernism and Postmodernism.” One World. 2006. Tamilnation.org. 30 March 2006. http://www.tamilnation.org/oneworld/postmodernism.htm.
Klages, Mary. “Postmodern.” English 2010: Modern Critical Thought. University of Colorado at Boulder. 30 March 2006. http://www.colorado.edu/English/ENGL2012Klages/pomo.html. 21 April 2003.