Harry Potter’s school life and mine »« A new way, same as the old way?

Harry Potter’s school life

(Due to the holidays, I will be taking a break from writing new posts. Instead, I will be re-posting some of my more light-hearted essays, starting with those about the Harry Potter books. It was announced recently that the title of the final book in the series is Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.

Original posts will begin again on Wednesday, January 3, 2007. Until then, season’s greetings and best wishes for 2007 to everyone.)

I just finished reading the latest episode of the Harry Potter saga. I cannot claim to be a rabid fan since I have read only book 2 (Chamber of Secrets) and book 6 (Half-Blood Prince), although I have seen all three film versions, but they have all been enjoyable.

Reading these books reminds me of my own school days and of much of the British schoolboy literature I read as a child, especially the Billy Bunter series and the Tom Merry series, both written by the same author Frank Richards. (These books were produced at such a prodigious rate that there were suspicions that ‘Frank Richards’ was the pseudonym of a whole stable of authors just churning out the stuff.)

There was a rigid formula to these books, the main features of which the Potter series largely adheres to. The schools were all boarding schools, and the stories started with students arriving at the beginning of the academic year and having various adventures that fortuitously ended just at the end of the school year. (There was a complementary series of children’s books by Enid Blyton which took place during the summer, with a group of friends arriving at their home town from various boarding schools, and having an adventure that ended just in time for them to go their separate ways the next academic year.)

The big difference between Harry Potter and the earlier Billy Bunter and Tom Merry series is that although the context of a British boarding school is the same, the Potter books are far better written, with complex plots and characters developed realistically, dealing with important issues of good and evil, and real human emotions. The books I read as a child had stereotypical characters (the smart student, the bully, the figure of fun, the lisping aristocrat, the athlete, the sarcastic one, etc.) who all behaved in highly predictable ways. Those characters were two-dimensional and never changed, never grew or matured. This was reassuring in some ways because you knew exactly what you were getting with the books, but you cannot enjoy them as an adult the way you can with Potter.
The earlier books and schools were also single sex and we young boys only read the books about boys’ schools, while girls only read equivalent books dealing with girls’ boarding schools. The only members of the opposite sex that appeared in the books were siblings who made cameo appearances. For all we knew, the books written for the boys may have been identical to those written for the girls with just the genders (and sports) of the characters switched, such was the rigid separation between what boys and girls read when we were growing up. There was no romance whatsoever in any of the story lines. Hogwarts, on the other hand, is co-ed, a major difference.

Another similarity between Potter and the earlier books is that the educational practices in all the schools are pretty conventional. The classes are run in an authoritarian way. As someone pointed out, Hogwarts seems a lot like a trade school, with students learning very specific skills involving potions, hexes, and the like, mostly by rote memory and repetitive practice, similar to the way the earlier books had students learning Latin and Greek. There does not really seem to be a theory of magic or even any interest in developing one. Some magic works, others don’t, with no serious attempts to discover why. There is little or no questioning of the teachers or class discussions, or inquiry-oriented teaching.

Rowling is mining a very rich vein of British school literature. As we will see in the next posting, the world she creates is probably very familiar to anyone (like me) who grew up in an English-language school anywhere in the British colonies. What she has done is added magic (and good writing) to a tried and true formula. But since that tradition of boarding school-based fiction is not present in the US, it is interesting that she has managed to strike such a chord in readers here as well.

POST SCRIPT: Holiday laughs

Comedian Eddie Izzard gives some background on the Christmas and Easter holidays.

Comments

  1. says

    You seriously think that the Harry Potter books were better written than those by Charles Hamilton (Frank Richards, Martin Clifford, etc, etc)? I presume you are just referring specifically to his post war books, in particular the Bunter book series, and not his huge output for the Amalgamated Press from the late nineteenth century to 1940? I absolutely disagree with the sweeping statement that Hamilton used stereotypical characters. How can you seriously state that complex characters like Harry Wharton, Vernon-Smith and even Bunter himself are like that? If you want far better stories proving this I direct you to the Howard Baker reprinted books of his best material. I suggest “The Rebellion of Harry Wharton”, “The Worst Boy at Greyfriars”, “Paul Dallas at Greyfriars” to name just a tiny few. If you still think the same after further reading then I’ll be stunned. You can buy the books here:
    http://www.abebooks.com/servlet/SearchResults?bx=off&sts=t&ds=50&bi=0&pn=howard+baker&an=frank+richards&y=5&x=24&sortby=7

    For the books you probably read as a boy, Hamilton had to adapt from writing a 30,000 a week tale to a small book format. He was also a far older man, starting the Bunter book series at the age of 71, and the last being published before his death at age 85. Considering those circumstances I think he did remarkably well. Two of his very best from that series are “Billy Bunter Butts In” and “Bunter Does His Best”. Read them and see. I have read all the Potter books and think them very good. However with each book they are becoming more bloated in size, and less interesting to read. Perhaps if Rowling followed the Hamilton path of writing continously, almost every week for nearly 5 decades she would be a better writer, rather then the several year gap she currently uses?

  2. says

    Michael,

    When I wrote that post, I wondered if there would be any reader who even knew about Billy Bunter and the rest! So it was gratifying to read your comments.

    You may well be right that the Bunter books came in the twilight of the writer’s career and do not reflect his true quality, but they were the ones I knew. I wish I had the time to read the books you recommend but I fear that time has past for me.

    There are many writers whom I enjoyed in my adolescence that I would not wish to read again. Alistair MacLean, Ian Fleming, Edgar Wallace, Leslie Charteris, Agatha Christie, and the like were writers I devoured at that age but cannot see myself reading anymore. P. G. Wodehouse and perhaps Richmal Crompton’s William series are some of the few exceptions to that rule. Wodehouse’s books in particular still retain their magic.

  3. Chris says

    I disagree completely with your assessment regarding the writings of Charles Hamilton. Michael has made the case clearly in his post. If you can read Richmal Compton’s work again, as good as it is, you really must read some of Charles Hamilton’s stories from The original Magnet and Gem Story Papers, published weely between 1908 and 1940. As Michael has alluded these are available in reprinted form (produced in the 1970s and 1980s) by the publisher Howard Baker. There are approximately 200 books containing this reprinted material. Also several web sites contain assessments and stories that can be downloaded and read.

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