For They Will Say Both Yes and No (a reply to A.S. Byatt’s critique of Harry Potter)

Much has been said about A.S. Byatt’s tirade (“Harry Potter and the Childish Adult,” NY Times) against not only Harry Potter, but the readers of Potter. When it comes to the importance Byatt places on carefully demarcating the boundaries of childhood and adulthood, I could quote CS Lewis’s defense of Tolkien’s “childish” books: “Critics who treat ‘adult’ as a term of approval instead of as a merely descriptive term, cannot be adults themselves. To be concerned about being grown up, to admire the grown up because it is grown up, to blush at the suspicion of being childish; these things are the marks of childhood and adolescence…When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty I read them openly. When I became a man, I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.

But it’s more interesting to me to focus on the demarcation she also insists on placing between “real” magic and “ersatz” magic. For Byatt is clearly a person who feels the need to separate categories out, lest the lesser infect the greater.

She refers to Potter readers as “people whose imaginative lives are confined to TV cartoons, and the exaggerated (more exciting, not threatening) mirror-worlds of soaps, reality TV and celebrity gossip.” And she says — among a great many other things — that the reality-TV-swilling masses are reading Harry Potter because they can’t tell the difference between true, “numinous” magic, and the cheap K-Mart knockoff brand. She implies that the Potter books are pasteurized-processed cheez-food, and that the adults reading them are too dim to tell the difference between them and the work of a four-star chef.

I’m going to stop a moment and talk about that word numinous, because I suspect I’m actually not that far apart from Byatt in my understanding of it. What sort of magic are we referencing with the word? She lists authors like LeGuin, Tolkien, Susan Cooper, Alan Garner.

C.S. Lewis said of The Lord Of The Rings, “Here are beauties which piece like swords or burn like cold iron.” That’s the sort of magic I think Byatt means when she draws that boundary between ersatz and true. And even that word “true,” while problematic — well, I understand where it comes from. Because it’s the same magic that Robert Graves said was found in true poems; you could know a true poem, he said, because it made a shiver go up your spine. (“Dover Beach” was therefore a true poem, despite technical nitpicks.)

Philip Pullman’s not Tolkien (well, who is?), though His Dark Materials whispers of the numinous. The very words and phrases are redolent of it; look at the simple sentence, “The night is full of angels.” Just saying it, I can feel that shiver, that sense that the universe has split open to reveal something massive.

“And Serafina Pekkala and her twenty-one companions and Queen Ruta Skadi of Latvia prepared to fly into the new world, where no witch had ever flown before.”

The armored bears, the northern lights, the mysterious beings called angels, even the magic summers of Lyra running with the dirty children over the streets and roofs of this other Oxford, all are shot through with the gleams of gold that come from the deeper mystery.

Or Alan Garner, The Moon Of Gomrath: “But as his head cleared, Colin heard another sound, so beautiful that he never found rest again; the sound of a horn, like the moon on snow, and another answered it from the limits of the sky, and he heard hoofs, and voices calling, ‘We ride! We ride!’ and the whole cloud was silver, so that he could not look.”

“So beautiful that he never found rest again.” That’s as good a description as any of the numinous. In the traditional world of the science fiction and fantasy genre, they called it the sense of wonder. It’s been a long time since I felt it hit me head-on; not since the first time I read LOTR, many years ago. I remember how the beauty and sadness of it were too big for my brain; how I carried it with me restlessly for days, till my spirit could stretch to accommodate it.

Now, a great many readers, justifiably angry at Byatt’s consignment of them to the tasteless dustbin of history, have responded that the Potter books are magic to them, thank you very much. And while that response is true enough in its way, I think it misses the point.

I feel no impulse to defend Harry Potter on the grounds that the books follow this sort of higher fantasy tradition — frankly, there isn’t much in the Potter books that strikes me as numinous. There’s nothing there to fill one with the sort of awe you feel in a great cathedral, or when reading of Arwen’s death, away from all family and kin, without another soul beside her, Aragorn and immortality both gone. But this seems utterly irrelevant to me. For some reason, Byatt (who ought to know better) completely ignores the “non-numinous tradition” (for lack of a better word) of magic books.

From Alice In Wonderland to James Thurber’s delightful fairy tales The Wonderful O and The 13 Clocks, to The Phantom Tollbooth, there is a heady and wonderful ancestry of magical books that Harry Potter fits as easily as a missing puzzle piece.

And then there are the in-betweeners — E.Nesbit, Edward Eager — on the border of the mysterious, but not quite breaking through, and no less splendid to read for that.

These books don’t make you fall to your knees — you’re having too much fun to do that. They may freak you out from time to time, and there will be monsters; but they will restore the world we know at the end. And the tradition of worldplay and clever games goes all through them. You can spot Harry Potter there as easily as you can tell a Weasley; the family resemblance is unmistakable. If anything, Rowling has deepened the tradition by allowing time to pass in each volume, adding the perils of growing up and the discoveries of moral ambiguity and loss to the mix.

In The Wonderful O, a pirate captain captures an island, and forbids the use of the letter O, “both upper and lower case.”

“A man named Otto Ott, when asked his name, could only stutter. Ophelia Oliver repeated hers, and vanished from the haunts of men.”

“We can’t tell shot from shoot or hot from hoot,” says one of the townspeople. “Oft becomes the same as foot, and odd the same as dodo. Something must be done at once or we shall never know what we are saying.” The islanders decide that there are four words with an O that must not be lost, and hope, love and valor are three of them.

From here to names like Dumbledore, Vol-de-mort, and Knockturn Alley cannot be far. And I do not think that Lewis Carroll, master of Jabberwocky, would have failed to see the point of these games.

It’s not high-church magic, but it’s good enough magic for everyday wear; not numinous, but full of high spirits, in every sense of the word. And therefore “ersatz” strikes me as a massively unfair word; it implies that something is passing for something else — that the Potter books are trying to be numinous fantasy and failing. And I don’t think they’re trying at all. They’re an entirely different species.

I’ve long been annoyed by those movie reviews where a film critic comes down hard on a film not because it was bad in itself, but because it wasn’t what he expected. I still remember how naively surprised I was the first time I ever saw this phenomenon — years ago, when the Frank Langella Dracula came out. I’d seen it on Broadway, where we were sent off to intermission after a scene so erotic, the matrons on line for the ladies’ room had red faces and kept bursting into embarrassed, delighted giggles. The movie finally appeared, and one male reviewer, missing the mile-high point, gave it a thumbs-down — not scary enough, he said, in a puzzled voice. “It’s like an erotic version of Dracula.” Not like, you idiot, I thought. Or Siskel and Ebert, talking about She-Devil (not the gorgeous — and numinous — British television version, unfortunately, but my point holds): “I thought it was going to be about a tug-of-war over this guy — catfights — something like ‘The Women.'” “So did I!”

Similarly, blaming Potter for not being Tolkien strikes me as about as meaningful as crying, “This cat! It is not a cheesecake!” Indeed it’s not, and perhaps you should sit down, Ms. Byatt, and have a nice glass of lemonade until you recover your senses.

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