July 11, 2000


A Novel That Is a Midsummer Night's Dream

In publishing circles, the frenzy over "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire" has been compared to the reader excitement that once greeted Dickens, Tolstoy or "Gone With the Wind." It is an imperfect analogy, but one scene in the new novel struck me as reminiscent of Margaret Mitchell's classic. It takes place at the Yule Ball, a Christmas dance for which Harry, his friend Ron and some other boys have had a tough time finding dates.

Harry is now 14 years old, and his hormones are beginning to stir. At the Yule Ball his jaw drops when he sees that his archrival and possible ally of the evil Voldemort has come with, and is dancing with, his friend Hermione Granger. Hermione! The sidekick Harry and Ron have come to rely on for her brains and common sense has been transformed like magic into a lovely young woman.

Except that it is not the magic of spells and charms that has changed these characters, but the ordinary and perhaps equally puzzling magic of time and growing up. This particular scene reflects the achievement of J. K. Rowling's new book. It works on two levels. One is her invention of new characters, settings and enchanting objects with each new page, from the witch who lives in a toilet to the Pensieve, which stores memories for overstuffed brains. More seductive, however, is the author's vision of friendship, community and maturity. The context of the book is magic, but its subject is society.

Like Hermione, who Ms. Rowling has said in interviews is the character with whom she most identifies, the reader of these books is drawn to and frightened by evil. The enflamed descriptions of evil characters remind one of William Blake's famous comment that John Milton, in "Paradise Lost," was an ally of Satan without knowing it. The paradox yielded by this writing is that while good and evil are powerful forces destined to be in combat, the way they manifest themselves to mortals, even to wizards and witches, is ambiguous and confusing.

More than the previous books, "Goblet" is filled with dizzying reversals in which good characters are found to be evil and vice versa. As they mature, Harry and his friends must learn to be both trustful and distrustful of the world around them. The irony is that now that "Harry Potter" has been relegated to the children's book lists, its themes are increasingly adult in nature.

The Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry is an imaginatively conceived parallel universe -- with sadistic teachers, bullies, cramming for exams and acne that resists being removed by curse -- with which any schoolchild can identify. But it also bristles with grown-up satire. The Ministry of Magic is a bureaucracy run amok. With their sexual awakening, the young adults also experience a coming of age politically, as when Hermione tries to organize the house elves at Hogwarts to demand better working conditions -- and is outraged that all the histories of the school ignore the fact that it has long relied on "slave labor."

In a recent interview with The Times of London, Ms. Rowling talked not only about her life of poverty but also experience with psychological depression. She also acknowledged that she was thinking about her own mental despair when she created the evil Dementors, the hooded characters whose lethal kiss sucks all hope from their victims. Once you know that, you cannot think of the terror they present in these books in quite the same way.

As Ms. Rowling says at one point, the magical world she has created is one in which spells, letter-delivering owls and transformations take the place of radar, computers and electricity in the real world. For all its frenzy of publicity, this book has arrived like a midsummer night's dream. Enter it and you find a place where the enemies are obsessed with racial purity and the heroes are the ones who have to learn tolerance, community and reaching across boundaries of fear. If children learn and adults re-learn that lesson in this season of reading, they will find the book very rewarding indeed.

Copyright 2000 The New York Times Company