As director of the graduate program in children's literature at Hollins University, one would expect Amanda Cockrell to have a deep interest in the literary constructions of the Harry Potter series. But, she is equally as fascinated with Harry Potter, the phenomenon. In two recent essays, she takes a close look at why the popular series of children's books has generated some surprisingly negative reactions.
"Harry Potter has caused more disagreement both among parents and others who decide what children ought to be reading, and among the scholars I have talked to, than any other children's book in recent memory," Cockrell writes in her essay, "Harry Potter and the Secret Password: Finding Our Way in the Magical Genre," recently published in the collection, The Ivory Tower and Harry Potter.
"This may be because J.K. Rowling (author of the Harry Potter series) has done something new and bent a number of the 'rules' of the fantastic."
Cockrell says Rowling's shift from the imaginary into the real is a good example of her rule bending. "Rowling suggests the existence of witches and wizards in the world we inhabit here and now in a way that is disturbing to those who like their world to stay still....
"It is as if Rowling is saying to her reader from the start: Don't count on anything staying still. Don't count on things being what you're used to; or even what you might approve of."
In her paper "Harry Potter and the Witch Hunters: A Social Context for the Attacks on Harry Potter," presented at the Children's Literature Association Conference, Cockrell asserts that many religious fundamentalists are upset with Harry Potter not only because of the mix of imaginary and real, but also because "Harry's detractors are skillfully parodied in Harry's books."
Nowhere is this more apparent, Cockrell writes, than in Harry's aunt and uncle, the Dursleys.
"The Dursleys are parodies of thought-with-blinders-on, of the idea that there is one proper way to be and that they know what it is," she says. "The Dursleys consider magic a loathsome, degenerate practice, and their frothing rage on the subject takes on the same tone as that of the anti-Harry web pages."
Cockrell concludes, "Rowling suggests that those who are too convinced that they know evil when they see it, and know it only by its difference from themselves, unwittingly create a greater evil. That is not a comfortable notion for true believers of any stripe....
"Harry frightens only those who want the answers to be the same every time the question is asked. In Rowling's world the answer is not the same."
Cockrell states that this sense of mystery and uncertainty is what gives the Harry Potter books a depth and complexity that, despite their critics, will sustain the series until its completion.
"And Rowling has done something else unusual in children's fantasy," she says. "Her series is growing up with its initial audience." Indeed, the first novel, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, was, according to Cockrell, a story about an 11-year-old written for 11-year-olds. But in the fourth volume, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Harry is 14 and the story is longer, much darker, and told in a more adult manner.
"I think Rowling will keep her original audience by letting her writing and her storytelling voice grow with her," Cockrell says.