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Harry Potter and the Hallowed Halls

• July 17, 2009 • 12:00 PM

Fans aren’t the only ones under the spell of the seven-tome series. Academics at non-Hogwarts institutions find a great deal to study as well.

Did you hear that noise? That was the sound of box office records being shattered for the midnight opening of the sixth installment of the juggernaut franchise that is Harry Potter. Harry Potter and Half-Blood Prince, the movie adaptation J.K. Rowling’s book about a boy wizard, raked in a gasp-worthy $22.2 million on its first night.

But the Potter series isn’t just a pop-culture phenomenon. The academic world is under its spell, too, and now that the seventh book, 2007’s Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows has been released in paperback, scholars have had some time to study it in its entirety from a variety of disciplines. Courses are being taught, papers are being written, studies are being done and books about the books are being written.

“I can report that the academic study of Harry Potter — both as the series and as a cultural phenomenon — is thriving and not likely to disappear any time soon,” said Karin Westman, department head and associate professor in the department of English at Kansas State University.

But … it is a classic?

“Thanks to Rowling’s fans, the series has established itself as a classic,” Westman said. “It is a seven-volume novel that has already exerted an influence on its successors, a seven-volume novel that new readers discover and to which past readers return.”

Even before the series was complete, scholars jumped in with both feet. Westman, along with KSU English professor Philip Nel,  began teaching a literature course in Harry Potter in 2005. (Nel quilled JK Rowling’s Harry Potter Novels A Reader’s Guide way back in 2001.) In 2007, before the final book was released, Rebekah Richert, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside, delved into the relationship between children and how they process the content of fantasy novels and the worlds those books create.

More recently, a paper by professors John Erni and Anthony Fung, “Class, Consumption, and Reading Formations of Harry Potter in Urban China,” focused on critical reception of the books by Chinese children, and the social and cultural impact of “Pottermania” in urban cities like Hong Kong and Shanghai. It was presented at the annual meeting of the International Communication Association.

Westman and Nel teach the “Harry Potter’s Library” course. The objective, according to their syllabus is to “examine the Harry Potter phenomenon by reading the novels themselves and the works of Rowling’s antecedents, influences, and contemporaries.” When they started teaching the class, the series was still being written. So, how has the class changed now that the Potter saga is complete?

Westman says that when she began teaching the course, when the books were still being written, “… each time I was constantly introducing new material into our experience of the series, especially new cultural references,” Westman said. And the series’ influence on pop culture has, in turn, influenced the coursework. “This past spring, for instance, we were looking at media reports about Barack Obama reading Harry Potter with daughter Malia and First Lady Michelle Obama sitting next to author J.K. Rowling during a state visit to London.”

Indeed, Lana Whited, author of The Ivory Tower and Harry Potter originally went to press before Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire came out. “Several of the contributors and I incorporated the fourth book in the series into revisions, and my book finally appeared in print in November 2002,” Whited recalled. She’s also added new material and written a new afterword since publication of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. She and her editor are considering incorporating a second volume of essays now that the series is complete, but in the meantime, she is working on a book-length manuscript on the theme of race and persecution in the series.

“I got the idea for the book about race during the time that I was working on the manuscript of my first [Potter] book and did feel that I would need to wait until the series was complete, in order to see how the theme of race played out,” Whited said. “I think any work of criticism that focuses on the theme of a series of literary works is only possible (and advisable) when the series is complete.”

Rowling’s books are unique in literary terms not just because of their popularity, but also because movies of the books were being made in real time as the books were being written. Westman says this does have an impact on scholarly study of the series for both teacher and student. “When enrolling now for the class, students are likely to have seen all the films even if they haven’t read all of the books. As a result, they report that their experience in class enriches their view of Rowling’s fictional world: They often discover so much more going on in the novels than the films can accommodate.”

Westman is completing a book-length study titled “J.K. Rowling’s Library: Harry Potter in Context” that will put the series in the context of Rowling’s stated preferences in British literature. Other literary analyses are also under way, the book Reading Harry Potter: Critical Essays appeared in 2005, while a plethora of articles have already appeared in academic and popular journals. The journal of children’s literature The Lion and the Unicorn has made a sort of cottage industry out of Harry, publishing papers like “McGonagall’s Prophecy Fulfilled: The Harry Potter Critical Library,” “The Liberty Tree and the Whomping Willow: Political Justice, Magical Science, and Harry Potter,” and “Harry Potter and the Extraordinariness of the Ordinary,” to name just some.

Fans of Harry Potter have been known to absorb the book with more than just a casual fancy. They possess an eye for detail and recall that a crime scene investigator would envy — moreso than, say, a fan of Geoffrey Chaucer or Mark Twain or Jack Kerouak. Westman says a few of those students have taken her class, and she’s glad they’re there. “There are always a few hardcore fans who enroll for the class … but there are also a couple of students who enroll, as they put it, ‘to find out what all the fuss is about.’

“In between are students who know the series in varying degrees. The result is a great balance of viewpoints for the semester’s discussions. Personally, I always appreciate having a few fans in the room — they’re the ones who will be able to remember exactly where a certain scene or character appears within a particular volume, or the name of a particular spell or charm. They are invaluable close readers to have on hand!”

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Sharon Kaplan
Copy editor Sharon Kaplan grew up in the San Fernando Valley - a true Valley Girl. She attended California State University, Northridge where she earned her degree in journalism. She has worked as a copy editor for the Ventura County Star, as a senior design editor for the Los Angeles Daily News, and is a freelance copy editor for Malibu Magazine.

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