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From the archive: 11 September 2002

“Sugar Candy Mountain: A Comparison of His Dark Materials and Harry Potter”

by Kyrillion

As a genre, fantasy has never been particularly respected. When people call it escapism, they mean it is pure entertainment, with as much to tell us about reality as Sonic the Hedgehog: how can a story about entirely implausible events and characters that seem to take a second place to special effects tell us anything about our own world when, half the time, it’s not even set there? Harry Potter is one of the cases where the facts justify this opinion. But in contrast, I am sure most readers would object at labelling His Dark Materials as that sort of fantasy, and it seems the literary world agrees (see The Whitbread Award for fiction). Both are fantasy. So why is one escapism and one not? I intend to explore why, in my opinion, Harry Potter is everything fantasy should avoid being – and His Dark Materials is everything it should.

There is little to suggest anything but escapism in Harry Potter. Taking children as her target audience, J.K. Rowling has either removed every trial that life has, or morphed it into something much more desirable. School, of course, features heavily in childhood, and it features heavily in Harry as well. But in Harry’s world, Lessons that seem boring, irrelevant and pointless are replaced with constantly exciting lessons where real magic is taught. Not only are they more interesting, but more exciting: “The moment the lid was removed (the pixies) started jabbering and rocketing around, rattling the bars and pulling bizarre faces at the people nearest them.” (p.79, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets)

It isn’t only lessons that are improved: teachers, particularly those seen most in the books, are eccentric or exciting. The school is that most exciting of buildings, a castle. Exams are things skimmed over and only important to the more neurotic. Friends are the best of friends; the hero wins not only popularity but fame.

True, Harry starts out worse off than his readers are likely to be, but when the escapism kicks in, it kicks in with a vengeance, until it becomes clear his previous life exists only to throw into sharp relief his new improved life. For instance, the family he lacks at the beginning is replaced with surrogates (Professor Dumbledore, Hagrid, the Weasleys, Sirius Black). And of course Harry’s lack of parents itself is escapism. Few children would wish their parents dead, but most would wish for more freedom.

The list of improvements on a child’s real life goes on: in the real world children might like sweets and animals and Christmas. In Harry’s world they are upgraded in ways any child would wish for. It seems evidence that at least large part of the reader’s enjoyment is escaping to a better world.

How does His Dark Materials differ? Things, it can be said, are better in that world too. Most His Dark Materials fans would love to have their own personal daemon – myself included. And there are other wonders we might wish for in our own world: like in Harry’s world, magic that really works, and another mysterious force which powers strange visions and stranger instruments. But, taking the daemon idea as an example, we can see clear differences to J. K. Rowling’s approach. One of the most important things when creating daemons according to Philip Pullman, was that they weren’t just ‘decorative’ – which is a word which describes what I talked about above in relation to Harry. In Talking Books, Philip Pullman says he wouldn’t have included daemons, however picturesque they were, unless he was able to say something important with them. Instead of the fun, but pointless version we might receive if this had been Harry, we get an exploration of the relationship between body and soul, innocence and experience, God and man. What is more, Pullman is not afraid to depict daemons as partly negative: they can be an inconvenience; a worry; they can cause a great deal of pain; and their existence and link to someone is not eternally guaranteed. It might, for instance, be more appealing to imagine that daemons remain with a person after death, and in an escapist’s hands this might have been the case. But not in Philip Pullman’s books. As opposed to J.K. Rowling, their meaning is far more important than their appeal.

To take another example, a conceit both series’ use I magic (in His Dark Materials, both as the fairly traditional magic that witches and shamans use, and in the mutated form of Dust). In Rowling’s world, magic is an almost universal solution. If it has barriers, they are few and never clearly defined (other than the rule that dead people cannot be brought back to life – and this is bent, if not actually broken, at times). By contrast, Pullman’s magic can be futile, complicated, bloody, violent, and out of the reach of those we may like to see gain it.

Related to magic are mythical or semi-mythical races. These might be fascinating and appealing in His Dark Materials but never presented without negative sides, or uncomfortable sides. Armoured bears have no warmth, and witches aren’t always infallible judges – often they side with the enemy. Rowling’s are entirely more comfortable. The centaurs’ cold wisdom is relieved by a kind individual, the viciousness of dragons is relieved with humour, and so on.

If Harry Potter is mostly a glorification of a child’s life, then cannot His Dark Materials be seen as the same? After all, Lyra doesn’t go to school. But her lessons aren’t made any easier for her than for a real child – in fact they are often visibly harder – and she is not safe from school, and idea which horrifies her: “Not school. I’m not going to school.” (p.71, Northern Lights). Her education is patchy at best – first in the hands of longwinded scholars, then in Mrs. Coulter’s, then Farder Coram’s. It is never presented as a fun alternative to real school. To compare Harry’s biggest talent (Quidditch) to Lyra’s (reading the alethiometer) we can see that although they both get a deep satisfaction from practising these abilities, Harry has an innate talent which hardly seems to need training (and what child hasn’t dreamed of being the star of the football pitch the first time they kick a ball, or of the ballet the first time they put on ballet shoes, or something of the sort?) while Lyra’s needs hard work which we hear about – the alethiometer frustrates her and even scares her sometimes, and it is many months before she develops a near-full understanding. While it is understood that Harry is learning gradually, the actual process of his learning is not something we hear about much. It is quite clear from much of the second half of part one, Northern Lights, that Lyra works and works hard.

Another element of children’s lives both authors look at: parents. As I have said, there is escapism in Harry’s freedom from his parents (while the method of their removal adds pathos), and at the beginning of Northern Lights it seems Lyra is similar in this. Later, when we discover she is not an orphan, but the illegitimate daughter of Lord Asriel and Mrs. Coulter, things look different. Treated differently, this might seem like the fairy-tale ending to the story of an orphan. Indeed, Lyra looks on Lord Asriel as an ideal father for much of the book. His massive betrayal of her at the end of the book, and her mother’s constant, calculating pursuit and plans show Lyra’s parents not to be the sort child readers would wish for at all. True, it is hardly realistic to think that a reader’s father might murder her best friend while her mother runs the cruellest torture chamber imaginable – but it is more realistic in that it presents parents as real people, fallible ones. Harry has surrogate parents; the people who stand in for Lyra’s are a housekeeper who has little time for her, and who Lyra seems to bear little affection, and a group of ancient scholars, who while they are affectionate, don’t appear so very much until the very end of The Amber Spyglass, and in any case could hardly be called surrogate family. Lyra’s lack of close adults is demonstrated in, “…(the scholars) were all she had for a family. They might even have felt like a family if she knew what a family was, though if she did, she’d have been more likely to feel that about the College servants.” (p19, Northern Lights).

An objection of the labelling of J. K. Rowling’s work as escapism may be that negative events take place, regularly. This is only an argument until we realise that this in itself can be seen as partly escapism. A longing for adventure is a fact of childhood, and its consequences in the imagination are the same as the consequences in the book: heroism and attention. The other half of the counter-argument is that the wonderfulness of Harry’s new life needs contrasts to remain a novelty in the reader’s eyes. These are provided in small ways by Malfoy’s enmity, and Harry’s forced return to the Dursleys each summer, but the greatest contrast is, of course, Lord Voldermort’s attacks. they are extremely good for making the reader value the otherwise carefree world Harry lives in.

In comparison to His Dark Materials, differences again emerge. Lyra isn’t a hero in many people’s eyes after her trials. Unlike for Harry, there is no feast recognising her bravery. When she tells her father of her achievements, the person whose opinion she has come to desire most, he ignores them. the trials Lyra goes through truly test her, and truly hurt her. They are not a means to the end of making her a hero.

On a related note, it is interesting that both series’ have been unusually successful in the adult market, both being published under ‘adult covers’. This could be seen as a link, something the books share that adults enjoy. I do not agree. I think the authors appeal to different sides of adult nature, in a way which sums up the entire above argument about the differences between them.

Harry Potter appeals to that half of an adult who misses childhood, i.e.; nostalgia. Nostalgia is notorious for improving memories, and Harry Potter fits this wish perfectly in being an idealised state of childhood. In fact, in longing for a state that never was and never can be, it is incredibly close to escapism.

His Dark Materials appeals to that half of an adult who is excited by ideas and philosophies and thinking about the world. This way of thinking is no where near escapism. It is the direct opposite.

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