The aim of this blog is to serve as a meeting point to those who study or have studied English philology and, more broadly, to all those who love literature and language.

27 Nov 2008


After learning from this former post about the more specific terms for naming different kinds of bildungsroman and reading that the Harry Potter stories can be considered an example of Kunstleroman, I started searching the Internet for some articles or notes on the literary features and values of J.K.Rowling’s most famous work and see what people say.

I began with the Wikipedia entry and found it clear and informative enough to get a general idea of where to place this series of novels according to genre and what discrepancies have been manifested among critics and writers.

Regarding genre, both fantasy literature and bildungsroman are cited. Furthermore, it is also pointed out that it can also be framed inside the boarding school subgenre, together with other series of books addressed to children and teenagers, and thus be further related to Victorian and Edwardian novels of British public schools. Mystery adventures and similarities to Sherlock Holmes are also mentioned.

I must say that I’ve read the seven books: the first two in Spanish, accompanying and sharing my daughter’s reading, and the remaining five in English, on the one hand, to advance her what was coming up and comment and speculate on it in funny conversations and, on the other hand, because I found the stories engaging and entertaining. If I had to say what is in my opinion Harry Potter’s main peculiarity, I’d mention eclecticism. The length of the work allows to mix lots of elements from diverse sources: childhood, youth and adult life concerns; past and present iconography; big and petty worries; fantasy and everyday life; characters which recall other well known figures from previous works (Dumbledore and Gandalf? The Drusleys and Roal Dahl’s Matilda’s family?)… In fact, echoes from other stories can be perceived throughout the whole series. But I think that the blending is well made and the author succeeds in producing an original work.

The Wikipedia article goes on and comments on the cultural impact, commercial success, etc. and I read that “The word Muggle has spread beyond its Harry Potter origins, used by many groups to indicate those who are not aware or are lacking in some skill. In 2003, Muggle, entered the Oxford English Dictionary with that definition.

I look up and come across these three entries for muggle provided at

1. muggle: n. a marijuana cigarette. Etymology: 1920s. Usage: slang
2. muggle: n. a common person, esp. one who is ignorant or has no skills. E.g.: There are muggles in every computer class. Etymology: 1920s Usage: slang
3. muggle: n. a person without magical powers. Etymology: 1996; popularized by J. K. Rowling in "Harry Potter and the Philospher's Stone"

Finally, I reach the literary criticism section. Summarising it, I see that the strong points could be the following ones:

- Its classic story structure.
- It is imaginative.
- It is a richly textured novel.
- It is “Readable, saleable, everyday, useful prose"
- It presents funny and moving prose. “Dickensian ability to make us (…) weep (…) and (…) laugh…”
- The dynamism of its plot which evolves to suit the preferences of growing readers, “progressively darker tone of the books”

Negative criticism focuses on these weaknesses:

- Lack of originality. Harold Bloom: “Rowling's mind is so governed by clichés and dead metaphors that she has no other style of writing."
- Repetition of situations, as the use of the formulaic beginning of placing Harry in his uncle and aunt’s house before starting a new school year.
- The story appeals to an undemanding readership. A. S. Byatt: "secondary world, made up of patchworked derivative motifs from all sorts of children's literature ... written for 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". Anthony Holden: “the Potter saga was essentially patronising, conservative, highly derivative, dispiritingly nostalgic for a bygone Britain", "in a pedestrian, ungrammatical prose style".


  1. Well, the "virtues" that make it easy, predictable, simplistic, readable, clichéd, etc... are precisely the ones that ensure that it will sell. You wouldn't expect to see heaps and cubic meters of Joyce's ULYSSES being sold at the local bookstore, would you? Real excellence joined to difficulty is for the few. An "excellent" managing of commonplaces and already read expressions is value of another kind.

  2. Of course, it cannot be denied that Harry Potter reading is easy and its plot, too often predictable with lots of clichés.

    Regarding the first point, we can’t forget that it is aimed to children and teenagers in times of fast audiovisual ways of communication and information. If thick books with no pictures have been able to engage many young (and not so young, why not?) people and take their minds into a world where recognisable situations of loneliness, bullying, friendship, fears… are wrapped in fantastic imagery, fostering a more active involvement than other sources of entertainment, I see in that a virtue.

    With regards to the second issue, I’d say that, although the basis of the story relies on commonplaces and read expressions, particular details in their manifestations and the inclusion of current issues contribute in part to its originality and success. Furthermore, are commonplaces not necessary at the initial stages of readership? At least, to start building the grounds for further comparison.

    Certainly, I would not place these books in the literary canon, although in my opinion they are not too bad, because of different flaws related to structure, pace, predictability… but I wonder whether excellence is ‘real’ when it is ‘joined to difficulty’. I suppose it is real for those few who can devote time in its study and interpretation but I’d downgrade a literary work in the ranking of excellence when the effort required to understand it overwhelms the pleasure of reading it.