Are the Harry Potter Books Children’s Literature?
In this post, I talked about the Golden Rule of Criticism: that we shouldn’t criticize something that we have no taste for or simply can’t stand. If I want to say something critical about Harry Potter, for instance, I have to turn to my palate before I turn to my subject. Do I have a taste for the genre that my object of examination is a part of? Or am I a blind man criticizing art?
In order to find that out, I first have to see what genre I am dealing with. What genre is Harry Potter? Some people might suggest “Children’s Books,” but I doubt that they are right. Certainly, the Harry Potter books appeal to many children. But is “Children’s Books” really a genre of literature—apart from pre-school picture books, that is?
C.S. Lewis pointed out that there are children’s encyclopedias, children’s detective stories, children’s handicraft books, children’s adventure stories and children’s fantasy books, just like there are encyclopedias, detective stories, handicraft books, adventure stories, and fantasy books for adults; and many are suitable for both age groups. But are the age groups the genres? Aren’t they only different levels within a genre?
Perhaps a detective story for children is not as complicated as one for adults, but it is still a detective story; and it is likely that the child who loves such stories will grow into an adult who loves the same, only on a higher level. Therefore I would not classify Harry Potter primarily as Children’s Books but as Fantasy Literature, perchance on a “lower” level than other works of its kind, but still part of the same genre.
The Encyclopedia Britannica defines Fantasy as “imaginative fiction dependent for effect on strangeness of setting (such as other worlds or times) and of characters (such as supernatural or unnatural beings).” This definition includes books which we usually call Science-Fiction, such as The Time Machine by H.G. Wells; traditional fairy-tales of Anderson and German Märchen preserved by the Brothers Grimm; fantastical poetry in the vein of The Faerie Queene; animal stories in the tradition of The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame and the books of Beatrix Potter; fantastical satires like Gulliver’s Travels and Animal Farm; allegories such as Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress; myths and legends in the league of King Arthur and the Round Table; of course books like The Lord of the Rings that are typically called Fantasy; and also Harry Potter. After all, the setting of the Harry Potter books is a rather strange school that is teeming with even stranger characters.
The question is whether I have a taste for Fantasy besides, or in spite of, Harry Potter. And the answer is, yes! I am a great believer in fairyland. This, in itself, does not make me a connoisseur on the topic. My judgment on Harry Potter might still be wrong. But at least it does not disqualify me from commenting on Harry. I have kept the critic’s Golden Rule.
This post was a slightly altered excerpt from the book Seven Years at Hogwarts: A Christian’s Conversion to Harry Potter.