Even ten years The article was originally written in 2007 and updated in 2018. after the first book’s publication, seeing people on the subway reading Harry Potter books and lining up for tickets to the follow-up play, I keep asking myself the same questions. What kind of charm does this story have for children and adults? What kind of spell did J.K. Rowling put on all of us? Why are these books so attractive for such different people? All the kids I know are deeply in love with these books. Many adults I know are still discussing them over the dinner table. Even my husband, a professor of philosophy, read two of them in one stretch.
J.K. Rowling reads "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone"
What kind of illusion draws us into the world of J.K. Rowling’s books? First of all, it belongs to a particular type of children’s books that provides the reader with a complete world system. Among such books are J.R.R. Tolkien’s famous trilogy, C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia, Michael Ende’s The Neverending Story, Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, and a number of science-fiction and fantasy novels and series. They are full of countless details; some of them are very important to the plot, and some of them are there to provide a sense of the alternative reality. They have maps and a full description of that very different world. The reader can live in these books like in a parallel universe, absolutely real with its own inner logic. This parallel universe provides the psychological comfort that we all need so much. The mechanism is the following: this imaginary universe becomes more familiar and inhabitable than the real one; it is also easier to navigate it. We can learn this universe; we can easily master it. We are able to know everything about it, as one little girl I know put it, “from the colander in the kitchen to the heater in the bedroom.” In this case, everything really means literally everything. In our imagination, we are able to do whatever we want to do here. We are free to be whomever we wish to be in such a universe.
J.K. Rowling skillfully created her parallel universe, the Hogwarts School and the Magic World. There is everything that we need for living here: detailed descriptions of the place, day by day events, a schedule of the classes, and food, including a few great feasts during each year. In fact, food is one of the key features that gives reality to a literary universe. That is why we always see a very detailed description of food in children’s books. When we read about the Hogwarts’ Halloween feast, our mouths water, and we enjoy the great taste of the imaginary food as we sink even deeper into the reality of J.K. Rowling’s books.
The Potter books create an irresistibly attractive illusion. I believe that the secret is hidden in the important psychological mechanisms of identification and projection. Of course, any good book uses the mechanisms of identification and projection. Reading a book, we identify ourselves with some of its characters. Normally, some people identify themselves with one type of character, other people prefer another type. The book’s protagonist should be either similar to the reader or to the reader’s ideal and the desirable ego. This mechanism is present both in books for adults and in children’s literature. In fact, for children’s books, it is even more important. Simplifying this quite a bit, we may say that girls more often identify themselves with girl characters, and the boys might prefer books about boys. It is not likely that many boys will spend hours reading endless volumes of Anne of Green Gables. Similarly, not too many girls will be deeply lost in the Tarzan series. Of course, it is not usually that simple. Nevertheless, the identification with this or that particular character very much depends on the readers’ psychological qualities.
However, there are some books that are more universal and work for almost everyone. These books catch some universal characteristics to which we all may relate. Indeed, Harry Potter is one of these cases, and it provides us with a near universal identification. Everyone can recognize herself or himself in the main character. A little orphan, Harry Potter, turns out to be a perfect projection of something that is deeply hidden in each of us. He is this vulnerable child who exists in each of us. We very easily identify ourselves with this image of the orphan. On a deep psychological level, an orphan is somebody who is extremely unprotected and absolutely vulnerable. Parents are natural protectors for the child. “No parents” means no shell within which to hide. “No parents” means that you are completely exposed to the elements. According to psychologist Eric Berne’s theory of transactional analysis, our inner self has three components: Parent, Adult, and Child. The inner child part of us is often a vulnerable child which easily identifies itself with an orphan. That is why books about orphans are so popular through the centuries: David Copperfield, Oliver Twist, Jane Eyre, The Secret Garden, Anne of Green Gables, Daddy Long-Legs, Pollyanna, and many others in the English literary tradition going as far back in time as the story of King Arthur and his orphan childhood.
What is the orphan’s greatest desire? She wants to find her parents—either real ones, or some new, substitute parents. The vulnerable child inside us psychologically feels like an orphan and wants to find new parents. It does not matter who we are, prosperous adults or little kids, boys or girls, men or women. Successful businessmen in America and bored housewives in Russia equally carry this vulnerable child within them through their lives. As a result, they are all magically hooked by Harry Potter, an orphan offering us a most psychologically attractive image for this universal projection. If you cannot see this little child immediately in your adult life, look back into your childhood. Remember how you dreamed that your parents, such ordinary people, were not really your parents. Of course, they are Muggles who know nothing about magic. That is why they could not understand you. “Maybe they just adopted me,” you dreamed, “and one day I will discover my real parents who are cool, interesting, and rich.”
However, being an orphan does not only mean being unprotected. The orphan is also special. In a children’s book, she is often a lost or stolen child of the King, Tsar, rich parent, etc. She has a special place somewhere. She eventually will be able to find this place. This is our vulnerable child who desires to be found by a protective parent and brought to their proper place which may be reached by some magical intervention and by some special person, a wizard, a fairy, or a magic helper. In more realistically oriented children’s literature this translates into a chance either to find real parents or at least to be adopted by a proper substitute, such as a childless and rich uncle or a kind elderly lady. Our inner, psychological reality transforms this desire into a dream of finding new, more protective parents.
We keep this little vulnerable child deep within us till the end of our lives. All the fears of our childhood (and adulthood) which we try to push down as deep as possible are concentrated in this child. We all know about childhood fears, and we have all had them—fear of darkness (I am alone with no parents around), fear of parents’ divorce (I will be alone with no parents around), fear that parents will die (and again, disappear from the child’s life). And the worst one is the fear of death because the parents are too busy with something else. Therefore, there is nobody to protect the child, and the child will die. These fears, and many others, form this vulnerable child inside us.
In the course of our normal, adult life, we try not to think about this child inside us. This child might sleep for years and wake up at the most unsuitable moment. No matter what, it is always there, waiting for a proper time to emerge. And one day, the book about the wizards’ son raised by the dull and nasty aunt and uncle came out. Suddenly, there was almost universal identification. All girls and boys as well as many women and men look at Harry Potter and see themselves in the mirror. We recognize ourselves and like this image.
Why do we like this image so much? This vulnerable child is not just a weak and unhappy creature. Through the pages of the books, Harry develops the ability to fight back and protect himself. He protects others. He, who needs to be protected, is now able to be a protector for others. What a transformation for a vulnerable child, what a perfect way to deal with his own vulnerability! He is able to resist evil (the Evil One whom others are even afraid to name). He who never got any justice in his life and was treated so unfairly, suddenly is able to become a fighter for justice. He even becomes famous. He discovers who his parents were. Isn’t that what you were dreaming about all your life?
J.K. Rowling was able to grab this very important psychological feature which made her books irresistible not only for kids who love any kind of adventure literature but for their parents. She was able to guess our secret desire and our hidden dream. Of course, she is not actually the first to do so. She often uses the same formula which was used before by J.R.R. Tolkien in his Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Little hobbits, peaceful little creatures, enter into the world battle between Eternal Good and Eternal Evil. It turns out that this battle could not be won without them, small and powerless. They are essential for victory. In the same way, Harry Potter is also a key person fighting Voldemort, the Evil One. Together with Harry Potter, through the mechanism of identification, each of us, so vulnerable and weak in this world, becomes a winner in this battle.
In the above-mentioned theory of transactional analysis, Eric Berne develops the idea of life scripts. Berne believes that every person has her or his favorite fairy tale or literary story which later corresponds with the development of the person’s life script. We pick up our own favorite story in our childhood. When we are still children, we ask to have it read and reread, told and retold again and again. Later on, this story becomes an important basis for our life script. According to Berne’s theory, fairy tales are extremely significant psychologically because they frame our adult life. Harry Potter returns us to the beloved fairy tales of our childhood and transforms our lives into the most beautiful script of the universal winner. It gives us one more chance to change ourselves and our life script, at least in our imagination.
Let us see how J.K. Rowling does it. She is very skillful in using the whole world of folklore and literary tales. The reader immediately senses the Cinderella connection. Harry/Cinderella lives in the small cupboard under the stairs. He/she is hated and mistreated by the aunt/stepmother and the cousin/half sisters. He/she is an orphan (or half orphan) who is, by the laws of fairy tales, destined to become a hero/princess. The Harry Potter story gains a lot of strength from the connections with this and other famous stories which all of us have read in our childhood.
Another obvious connection is the Ugly Duckling story. The little duckling has a miserable childhood. He is mistreated by almost everyone. But one day he becomes a beautiful swan among other beautiful swans. J.K. Rowling uses the same formula to show a transformation of the main character from a poor oppressed creature to a brilliant student and the best Quidditch player. What is most important is that the Ugly Duckling/Harry almost does not notice this transformation. He stays simple and humble (at least, in the few first books). Harry’s moral qualities are a part of what is so attractive in him and makes him a very desirable object for our projection.
With all their differences, the Cinderella and Ugly Duckling stories have the same basic theme—an orphan (our vulnerable child) and her/his magic transformation. In fact, according to the Aarne-Thompson classification system of folktales, both “Cinderella” and “The Ugly Duckling” are the same story. These tales have one essential motif in common: the main character is a small oppressed creature who is most wonderfully rewarded and lives happily ever after. Obviously, Harry Potter would occupy the same place in the Aarne-Thompson classification.
The environment where Harry is able to thrive is very important. As magical and self-contained as it is, the Hogwarts world is quite realistic. We see typical school relationships that each of us experienced in our lives. J.K. Rowling feeds the illusion providing us with a set of teachers, friends, enemies, and frenemies, as well as some occupations for each and every day. Everything is here, the teacher whom you like and the teacher whom you hate, pleasant and unpleasant cliques among kids, and, of course, teachers’ favoritism. That all looks very familiar. Paradoxically, it is these realistic details which help to create an alternative universe. On the one hand, this universe is just like ours. At the same time, it is full of incredible magic and charm. J.K. Rowling gives us everything we need with the culmination in the battle between Good and Evil.
Nothing new, of course. Good and Evil fiercely combat each other on the pages of many children’s books. And what is most important, Good always defeats Evil. That is a very clear moral message of the Harry Potter books. One more reason why they attract so many people is because they convey very clear moral values which are so easy for kids (and adults) to digest. A child, the smallest, most powerless being is suddenly able to control the forces of Good and Evil. A pawn becomes the most powerful piece on the chess board. The pawn that suddenly becomes a Queen of the chess party receives a sense of empowerment in the face of powerful forces. These forces are normally way beyond a pawn’s control. Our vulnerable child is not vulnerable any more. He is strong and well protected. That is such a desirable position for all of us. That is like all our wishful thinking coming true. It is like a dream without limits. These books are like a magic mirror which Harry encountered in the labyrinth of Hogwarts. We see in these books whatever we want to project onto them, either our secret desire of fame and success or our wish to be loved and protected.
We want to fulfill all of these desires by magic, immediately, right away, as soon as possible. Indeed, J.K. Rowling provides us with the full scale of the magic accessories for reaching these goals. But witchcraft and magic are not the ends in themselves for her. Friendship and love are more powerful than magic. Harry’s mother protects him from Voldemort not by magic but by the strength of a mother’s love. Reason and knowledge also help. Hermione uses all her knowledge to help Harry win. Ron plays magic chess by the power of friendship, not by the power of magic only. So, J.K. Rowling teaches us a perfect moral lesson delicately hidden inside a very complicated magic shell.
In addition, J.K. Rowling skillfully puts some little lures for adults in her text. There are enough jokes and allusions which are not really for children but for grownups. Platform 9¾ makes us laugh. The bureaucrats from the Ministry of Magic are all too familiar. The theme of Muggle-born wizards whom some wizards from the long-standing wizard families do not want to treat like equals raises the issues of racial and ethnic inequalities. Similarly, J.K. Rowling quite realistically portrays the relationships between rich kids and poor kids addressing the issues of social inequality.
As a result of this happy combination of a brilliant use of powerful psychological forces and the ability to bring into her books the themes of her predecessors, J.K. Rowling and her books are destined for success without any need for extra magic. Adults, as well as kids, obediently and with pleasure go into her prepared trap—the illusory reality of a better world.
Read more on the topic in Olga Bukhina's book Gadkij Utenok, Garry Potter i drugie: Putevoditel’ po detskim knigam o sirotach (The Ugly Duckling, Harry Potter, and Others: A Guide to Children’s Books About Orphans) (Moscow: KompasGuide, 2016).
Follow us on Facebook.