The first “Harry Pot­ter” was pub­lished in 1997. How old do you feel?

The Denver Post - - LIFE & CULTURE - By Alyssa Rosen­berg

Pop cul­ture an­niver­saries are thick on the ground these days, but one we marked this week stands out. “Harry Pot­ter and the Philoso­pher’s Stone” was pub­lished 20 years ago, which means that an en­tire gen­er­a­tion has come of age with J.K. Rowl­ing’s seven-part “Harry Pot­ter” series, the movie adap­ta­tions, a play and var­i­ous web it­er­a­tions as one of their dom­i­nant cul­tural ex­pe­ri­ences. And since that gen­er­a­tion also grew up at a time when tele­vi­sion pro­duc­tion was ramp­ing up and the internet was mak­ing pre­vi­ously in­ac­ces­si­ble cul­ture eas­ier to ac­cess, “Harry Pot­ter” plays a par­tic­u­larly out­size role as a gen­er­a­tional touch­stone.

I’ve read Rowl­ing’s nov­els re­peat­edly since their re­lease, in­clud­ing in a marathon reread­ing of all seven nov­els over one long win­ter week­end sev­eral years ago. There are a lot of things I ap­pre­ci­ate about the books, among them Rowl­ing’s Dick­en­sian ten­dency to­ward names that express an emo­tional ono­matopoeia, her mas­tery of board­ingschool dy­nam­ics and the char­ac­ter arcs of Hermione Granger, Neville Long­bot­tom and the col­lec­tive Weasleys.

As a critic, the thing I re­spect most about Rowl­ing’s work is the way her prose and ideas ma­ture as Harry Pot­ter’s mind does: Harry’s walk into the woods to face his in­evitable death in “Harry Pot­ter and the Deathly Hal­lows” makes me weep ev­ery time I read that pas­sage, no mat­ter how fa­mil­iar I am with the out­come.

But my ex­pe­ri­ence of “Harry Pot­ter” is no longer the purely pri­vate thing it was when I was 12, or even when I was 21 and picked up my pre-or­dered copy of “Harry Pot­ter and the Deathly Hal­lows” and stayed up all night to read it in one sit­ting. Cul­tural con­sump­tion is in­creas­ingly a pub­lic process, and now that I’m a pro­fes­sional critic, it’s my job.

The act of car­ing about the books, por­ing over them and find­ing mean­ing in them has be­come an in­di­ca­tor of a cer­tain set of ideas. And as much as I love “Harry Pot­ter,” and as much as I look for­ward to shar­ing Rowl­ing’s nov­els with an­other gen­er­a­tion of read­ers, I do feel am­biva­lent about the way the series has been turned into a po­lit­i­cal touch­stone.

I rec­og­nize that this use of the nov­els is prob­a­bly in­evitable: In an in­creas­ingly frag­mented me­dia en­vi­ron­ment, “Harry Pot­ter” is the in­creas­ingly rare cul­tural lan­guage that we can as­sume ev­ery­one will speak. And un­like, say, the un­fold­ing Marvel Cin­e­matic Uni­verse, which use po­lit­i­cal is­sues as a gloss, Rowl­ing’s books are gen­uinely con­cerned with po­lit­i­cal and civic con­cerns: How do you safe­guard the in­tegrity of your in­sti­tu­tions? What role does the press play in shap­ing pub­lic opin­ion? What is the bal­ance be­tween in­form­ing cit­i­zens about threats to na­tional se­cu­rity and pan­ick­ing them un­nec­es­sar­ily? How should highly ed­u­cated peo­ple treat the work­ers who make their lives com­fort­able? What obli­ga­tions do peo­ple with spe­cial abil­i­ties have to those with­out them?

These im­por­tant ques­tions are both in­te­gral to the plot of “Harry Pot­ter” and rel­e­vant to all of us even when we don’t un­der­stand our­selves and our val­ues to be un­der ex­is­ten­tial threat. Fans of the fran­chise have suc­cess­fully pushed to make sure that prod­ucts as­so­ci­ated with it live up to Rowl­ing’s stated val­ues. And de­vel­op­ments in Amer­ica, in­clud­ing at­tempts to dis­credit se­ri­ous jour­nal­ism, the degra­da­tion of our in­sti­tu­tions and the re­turn of ugly, racist rhetoric to the pub­lic sphere, cer­tainly make some of those con­cerns feel more sharply ur­gent.

But even as a pro­gres­sive “Harry Pot­ter” fan, I’ve felt a cer­tain queasi­ness over the po­lit­i­cal re­vi­sions and uses of the series in re­cent years.

My ob­jec­tion isn’t that the series is child­ish, which is an ar­gu­ment Rowl­ing her­self an­tic­i­pated: As Al­bus Dum­ble­dore tells Harry, “Of house­elves and chil­dren’s tales, of love, loy­alty, and in­no­cence, Volde­mort knows and un­der­stands noth­ing. … That they all have a power be­yond his own, a power be­yond the reach of any magic is a truth he has never grasped.” In­stead, it’s that “Harry Pot­ter” is an imperfect metaphor for our given mo­ment. And try­ing to make it a mere in­stru­ment of pol­i­tics has a way of re­duc­ing its power as lit­er­a­ture.

The process of turn­ing “Harry Pot­ter” into a po­lit­i­cal in­stru­ment is one that Rowl­ing her­self has played a hand in. Among the many world-build­ing tid­bits she has re­vealed since “Harry Pot­ter and the Deathly Hal­lows” was pub­lished, Rowl­ing has said that she thought of Dum­ble­dore as gay and that the brainy Hermione Granger could very well be black. These in­sights are of­ten greeted as proof of the series’ lib­eral val­ues, though I’ve al­ways found them a bit more de­press­ing than en­light­en­ing. Say­ing these things after the fact, rather than mak­ing them part of the text of her nov­els, is a way for Rowl­ing to ac­crue credit for choices she didn’t ac­tu­ally have the courage to make a part of her story.

More specif­i­cally, the use of “Harry Pot­ter” as a metaphor for the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion in the United States seems to spring from the same im­pulse that branded a resur­gence of civic en­gage­ment “the Re­sis­tance.” I’m not par­tic­u­larly par­tial to that for­mu­la­tion, which treats nor­mal acts, such as call­ing your rep­re­sen­ta­tives, march­ing in protest or do­nat­ing to can­di­dates or causes, as some­how rad­i­cal.

Be­yond the apt­ness of this par­tic­u­lar lit­er­ary metaphor to this spe­cific set of po­lit­i­cal cir­cum­stances, there’s some­thing grat­ing about our present ten­dency to take “Harry Pot­ter,” and many other works of fic­tion, and con­tort them to match our present cir­cum­stances as pre­cisely as pos­si­ble. I be­lieve that art is po­lit­i­cal but that its great­est po­lit­i­cal power comes not in the mo­ments when it’s sub­or­di­nated to an ex­ist­ing move­ment, can­di­date or agenda, but when it flies above the mo­ment and helps us see things from a dif­fer­ent per­spec­tive.

Great lit­er­a­ture helps us see our­selves and the world more clearly, rather than bathing us and it in a ro­man­tic, ob­fus­ca­tory glow. The best re­spect we can show for “Harry Pot­ter” on the series’ 20th an­niver­sary is to let the nov­els tran­scend the times, rather than shack­ling them to the present.

Seth Wenig, The As­so­ci­ated Press

Theo Galkin, 8, rereads a fa­vorite part of “Harry Pot­ter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” with his mother Chloe Galkin at their home in South Orange, N.J.

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