January 30th, 2004

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Who is the proper audience for the Harry Potter "fairy-story"?

Harry Potter is a Hobbit: Rowling, Tolkien, and The Question of Readership

J.K Rowling draws censure from cultural critics and laypersons alike: her works rank among the most challenged books of the last decade due to their supposedly mature content, and yet highly visible reviewers consistently poke fun at their allegedly juvenile nature. Libraries find themselves under siege for including her work in their holdings for youngsters, while at the same time mature readers buy nondescript “adult” editions of her books so they can read the series themselves without drawing public attention or ridicule.

A question emerges from these disparate but repeated lines of fire: if children cannot handle dark and serious issues such as death, and adults should not enjoy such childish and light pleasures as fantasy stories, who if anyone is the proper audience for the Harry Potter series? According to J.R.R. Tolkien, the solution to this dilemma lies not in discovering a new category of readers, but rather in dismissing the false assumptions about childhood, adulthood, and the nature of fantasy that undergird the question. Using the critical essays of C.S. Lewis as the bridge between Tolkien’s theory and Rowling’s practice, we may find a solution to Rowling’s problem of readership and a lasting answer to her critics.

This was originally published by CSL: The Bulletin of the New York C.S. Lewis Society. It is available below, thanks to HogwartsProfessor.com, in PDF format (so you need Adobe Acrobat to open this link).

For whom does the Hogwarts bell toll?