This essay, “Harry Potter and the Mystery of Ordinary Life” was written in the autumn of 1999 and published in 2001 in Mystery in Children’s Literature (Palgrave 2001), a book of essays I edited with Adrienne Gavin. At the time it was written only three Harry Potter novels had been published so the essay deals only with them; readers will have to decide whether the essay’s conclusions are borne out in the later novels. As far as I know this essay was the first academic article on Harry Potter to be published in a book. The version published here will differ slightly from the book version so if you are going to cite it, use the citation method noted below. This version is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 license, March 2007.
For citation: Routledge, Christopher. “Harry Potter and the Mystery of Ordinary Life.” In Gavin, Adrienne and Christopher Routledge (eds.) Mystery in Children’s Literature: From the Rational to the Supernatural. Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2001. pp. 202-209.
Harry Potter and the Mystery of Ordinary Life
by Christopher Routledge
“Depend upon it there is nothing so unnatural as the commonplace” Sherlock Holmes. (Doyle 30)
The premise of J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series is that there are two types of people, those who are magic like Harry, and those who are non-magic, known as “Muggles.” Harry Potter, the series hero is a young wizard who reaches the age of eleven before he realises he has magic powers. Made an orphan in mysterious circumstances, he is brought up by his aunt and uncle, who mistreat him because they do not want him to grow up to be like his parents. But Harry Potter’s development as a young wizard is presented as perhaps the least mysterious element of the series. It is shown to be a normal part of his growing up since he has been born with magical powers, and the natural course of things is mysterious only in the broadest sense. There is a hint here of Virginia Woolf’s suggestion in “Modern Fiction” that although it might seem dull and uninteresting, ordinary life is the “proper stuff” of fiction (194-5). Extrapolating from Woolf’s theory, it could be argued that Rowling’s work implies that magic and mystery are the “proper stuff” of real living; that every day things are themselves magical and mysterious. I will argue here that while magic, witchcraft and the supernatural are all central to the Harry Potter novels, it is the detective story elements that provide the main form of mystery in the series.
The first of the novels, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (1997) – published as Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone in the US – opens mysteriously enough. The Dursleys, Harry’s adopted family, are described as “perfectly normal, thank you very much” (7). Much to his surprise Mr Dursley wakes up one morning to find owls flying during the day, a cat reading a map on a street corner, and groups of people in strange clothes talking excitedly about “Harry Potter.” These events, which herald the arrival of Harry in the Dursley household, are presented as unusual, but as we later learn, perfectly natural. They seem mysterious and strange to Mr Dursley only because he and his family, and the “Muggle” community in general, refuse to acknowledge them as a part of life.
Perhaps by way of emphasizing this point, Rowling avoids depicting Hogwarts, the school for witchcraft and wizardry, with its trainee wizards as mysterious in any deeper way than that it is unknown to Harry. The endless corridors, wandering ghosts, and moving paintings, for example, are described in realistic terms; their oddity is not dramatized as such, but rather juxtaposed with the arrival of the pupils at the school:
[Harry] was too sleepy even to be surprised that the people in the portraits along the corridors whispered and pointed as they passed. Harry was just wondering how much further they had to go when they came to a sudden halt.
A bundle of walking sticks was floating in mid-air ahead of them and as Percy took a step towards them they started throwing themselves at him.
“Peeves,” Percy whispered to the first-years. “A poltergeist.” (Philosopher’s Stone 96)
However strange and unusual Hogwarts may seem, its peculiarities are accepted by the children, much as they might become used to any new situation. Harry and his friends have a full timetable of lessons, fixed mealtimes, and regulated bedtimes. The lessons are in such fascinating subjects as “Muggle Studies,” “Defence Against the Dark Arts,” and “Divinations,” and the building is patrolled by enchanted cats and “nearly headless” ghosts, but above all, Hogwarts is a school. An extreme example of how normal all this seems to them is the children’s opinion of History of Magic: “[e]asily the most boring lesson” and “the only class taught by a ghost” (Philosopher’s Stone 99). The novel goes to great lengths to show that the children find nothing particularly mysterious or even unusual in their lessons. Harry and his friends are like ordinary children; it is almost incidental that they have extraordinary powers.
Each of the books concludes with a return to normal school life; to exam results, and the train home: “[t]he rest of the summer term passed in a haze of brilliant sunshine. Hogwarts was back to normal, with only a few, small differences: Defence Against the Dark Arts classes were cancelled” (Chamber of Secrets 250). Young witches and wizards have similar concerns to their Muggle counterparts; they discuss the relative merits of consumer items (in their case wands and broomsticks rather than games consoles and mountain bikes), worry about their exams, and avoid doing their homework. In the world occupied by Harry Potter, witchcraft and wizardry are as real as electricity and the telephone, and a good deal more useful. Bearing in mind the controversy the Harry Potter series has aroused in South Carolina and elsewhere over its apparent promotion of Satanism, it is worth pointing out that the stories have a strong, even rather conservative, moral structure. The distinction between evil Lord Voldemort and good Harry Potter could not be clearer, and while individual mysteries may be solved in each novel, the plots are open-ended enough to suggest a continuing struggle between good and evil which Harry must accommodate if he is to become a responsible adult.
Pico Iyer emphasizes the realism in Rowling’s depiction of life at a British boarding school, confirming the lack of mystery in the series. Iyer argues that the Harry Potter series does for British boarding schools what magical realist writers such as Salman Rushdie and Gabriel Garcia Marquez have done for Bombay and Colombia respectively. While to outsiders Hogwarts seems a “strange and wonderful” place, to initiates it is grounded in reality:
For those who passed through these eccentric [English boarding school] playgrounds, though, much in the Harry Potter universe [is] familiar the cryptic list of instructions that would appear through the mail, describing what we must – and mustn’t – bring to school, the trip to dusty old shops with creaky family names – New & Lingwood or Alden & Blackwell – where aged men would fit us out with the approved uniform and equipment, the special school train that would be waiting in a London station to transport us to our cells. (39)
There is much that is real then, in the Harry Potter novels, despite the veneer of wizardry and fantasy, and this combination of normality and adventure is perhaps what makes the novels so appealing.
Although magic and the supernatural are everywhere in the novels, they are presented as a normal part of life for the children at Hogwarts; they are not mysterious as such. Instead, the real source of mystery at the centre of each of the Harry Potter novels is a detective mystery. Harry and his friends, Ron and Hermione, solve mysteries of mistaken identity and uncover the perpetrators of evil deeds. A recurrent motif in the stories is wrongful accusation, and much of the detective work undertaken by the trio is to do with establishing the innocence of their friends. Although they do so with the aid of magic, their underlying method is one of gathering clues and forming theories about “whodunit?”
The detective mystery in each of the books is connected in some way with the murder of Harry’s parents at the beginning of the first book in the series, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. Harry Potter’s struggle with Lord Voldemort and his supporters even has similarities with Sherlock Holmes’s ongoing battle with the evil genius, Professor Moriarty. Each of the novels sees Harry and friends investigate a new attempt by supporters of the “Dark Lord” to restore him to power. In the first novel, for example, they work out who has been trying to steal the Philosopher’s Stone – the key to immortality – on Voldemort’s behalf, while in the second, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (1998), Harry manages to thwart an attempt to take over Hogwarts. In the third, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (1999), he learns a little more about his parents and the betrayal that led to their murder.
It is finding justice for the wrongly accused, however, that is the main aim of detection in the novels. The stories depend at all levels on the tension deriving from false accusations. For example, Harry is treated unfairly by the Dursleys who think he is not to be trusted, while Dumbledore’s suspension as headmaster in Chamber of Secrets rests on a false accusation of incompetence. Most of these injustices stem from the conflict between members of a conservative elite and others by whom they are threatened. This is perhaps most explicitly stated at the beginning of Philosopher’s Stone, when the Dursleys express their distrust of Harry’s parents by refusing to acknowledge their existence. While Mr Dursley represents conservative Muggle middle-class values to which Harry poses a challenge, in a more general sense the conflict between establishment figures and rebellious characters like Harry is built in to the structure of the narratives.
The most obvious example of such conflict is the fact that the Wizard community keeps itself secret from the Muggles; whenever the two communities come into contact, a forgetfulness charm ensures the Muggles know nothing about it. Harry has a tendency to break the rules that keep magic secret; in Chamber of Secrets he receives a warning from the Improper Use of Magic Office for having performed a hover charm at the Dursley’s house. Within the school itself there are divisions between some children from long established wizarding families, such as the Malfoys, and “Muggle born” children like Hermione, neither of whose parents are “magic.” Like a child who is at a private school on a scholarship, rather than being paid for by her family, Hermione works extra hard because she feels she has something to prove. Despite being “Muggle born,” in The Prisoner of Azkaban, one of the courses the conscientious Hermione takes is Muggle Studies. By contrast, Draco Malfoy, through his powerful father, can influence what goes on at the school. When Malfoy is injured by Buckbeak, one of the magical creatures the children are studying, Hagrid the gamekeeper worries for his job:
“You haven’t been sacked, Hagrid!” gasped Hermione.
“Not yet,” said Hagrid miserably, taking a huge gulp of whatever was in the tankard. “But s’only a matter o’ time I’n’t it, after Malfoy” (Prisoner 92)
It is within the Wizard community itself, rather then between Muggles and wizards, that the conflict between conservatives and modernizers is drawn in most detail, however. The books may be read as a critique of British society in the 1990s, during which an old aristocratic hierarchy gave way, theoretically at least, to a more meritocratic social structure. For example, in Britain a debate is currently raging over what proportion of the population should be allowed to have access to a university education, and over the quality of state-funded education in general. In the Harry Potter series, the “dark forces” of conservatism hope to remove all Muggle influences from Hogwarts, thus reviving one of the aims of a founder of the school, Salazar Slytherin, described here in Chamber of Secrets:
Slytherin wished to be more selective about the students admitted to Hogwarts. He believed that magical learning should be kept within all-magic families. He disliked taking students of Muggle parentage, believing them to be untrustworthy. (114)
Harry’s revulsion at Slytherin’s elitist aims finds resonance in overdue reforms to the UK’s governmental system, which are reducing the influence of the unelected House of Lords, many members of which have access to government by right of birth alone. Bearing this in mind, it is perhaps significant that the villain behind the mysteries investigated by Harry and friends is known as Lord Voldemort. An example of the diminishing influence of “aristocratic” wizard families occurs at the end of Chamber of Secrets when Lucius Malfoy realises that his influence has been reduced by the growing power of bureaucratic, and more accountable government. Having had the school’s charismatic headmaster Albus Dumbledore temporarily suspended from his duties, Malfoy is threatened at the end by the reinstated head with being reported to Arthur Weasley of the Ministry of Magic.
If detective mystery is the principal form of mystery in the novels, the effect of that detection on the society in which it takes place differs significantly from more archetypal detective fiction. At least part of the appeal of detective heroes such as Sherlock Holmes lies in their ability to restore order where crime has brought chaos. The “country house” type of detective fiction, in which the quiet life of a peaceful village is disrupted by a murder is probably the most obvious example of this but, as John Carey points out in The Intellectuals and the Masses, Holmes’s analytical skills can bring reassurance of a different kind. Confronting the demoralising effects of large-scale urbanization that took place in the nineteenth century, Sherlock Holmes is able to reassure a mass audience of their value as individuals by examining an individual’s clothing to ascertain her or his habits, occupation, and tastes (8). In doing so, Carey suggests, Holmes shows that the person concerned is a unique individual. While Holmes’s ability to reassure us that we are all unique individuals may be comforting, it also depends on a rigid social structure, and a relatively stable system of signifying identity. Sherlock Holmes is able to see through disguises simply because they are just that; real identities cannot be concealed.
While many of the mysteries in the Harry Potter series depend on discovering the real identity of certain characters – Professor Lupin’s identity as a werewolf, in Prisoner of Azkaban, for example, or Tom Riddle’s as Lord Voldemort in Chamber of Secrets – Rowling’s message is rather less comforting than Conan Doyle’s. Harry Potter’s role as a detective is not to restore order to a long established and hierarchical social structure, but to make sure such a structure is prevented from reasserting itself. Indeed, the hierarchical structure represented by Lucius Malfoy and the other followers of Voldemort, is presented as something evil and dangerous. In The Chamber of Secrets, for example, Harry discovers he is a “parselmouth,” able to talk to snakes. This explains how he was able to release the snake from the zoo in book one, and in this respect he is like the evil Salazar Slytherin:
“It matters,” said Hermione, speaking at last in a hushed voice, “because being able to talk to snakes was what Salazar Slytherin was famous for. That’s why the symbol of Slytherin house is a serpent.”
Harry’s mouth fell open.
“Exactly,” said Ron. “And now the whole school’s going to think you’re his great-great-great-great-grandson or something.” (147)
Even if Harry does turn out in later books to be related to Slytherin, the series as it exists so far emphasizes the extent to which identity is determined more by personal choices than by heredity. In Rowling’s novels, individuals are responsible for their actions and their identities. For example, in The Prisoner of Azkaban, Lupin explains how Sirius Black, Peter Pettigrew, and Harry’s father, James, chose to become Animagus (able to change into animals) so they could help their werewolf friend. Similarly, even though he is a werewolf, predisposed to killing and violence, Lupin tries to avoid harming people. In Chamber of Secrets Harry reflects on the possibility that he might be descended from Slytherin, and that he is destined to become associated with “dark magic,” but by the end of the novel he realises that it is up to him to choose. This is an important lesson; Harry learns in Chamber of Secrets to be proud of his parents, his family, and background, but not limited by them.
Most of the “good” characters in the book tend not to do what is expected of them; characters such as Hagrid try to do what they think is right, rather than being bound to longstanding conventions. By righting injustices against “ordinary” characters such as Hagrid, and by remaining loyal to the eccentric but brilliant headmaster Dumbledore in Chamber of Secrets, Harry and his friends champion those whose idiosyncrasies make them appear dangerous to the conservative forces of evil. The search for solutions is not therefore a search for a stable truth, or a single answer, but a search for alternative, individual responses to the world.
The Harry Potter series describes a society in which witches and wizards, magical creatures and strange potions, are far from mysterious. Harry Potter is a normal boy who just happens to have magical powers, and the real mystery in the novels is a detective mystery. Where detective fiction as a literary form has tended to defend a conservative view of society as a hierarchical construct in which status is bestowed rather than necessarily earned, the Harry Potter novels describe a society with a long history which is nevertheless in a state of flux. Where classical detective fiction stories usually conclude with the restoration of order to social groups disrupted by crime, it is the “evil” characters in the Harry Potter books who tend to be those whose social status has been undermined or diminished. Lord Voldemort himself is the principal example of this, the pure blood of his distant ancestor Salazar Slytherin diluted in his view by the Wizard-Muggle intermarrying of his parents.
The final mystery in Rowling’s books, then, would seem to be the mystery of social class; in particular the mystery of what gives one group of people the right to dominate another. Harry’s celebrity, based as it is on achievement, rather than inherited social position suggests for the moment that Rowling is making of him a liberal hero. His decision not to join the Slytherin house at school underlines an existential message that identity and social position can be a matter of choice. It remains to be seen whether the later novels in the series contradict this by making Harry’s infant defeat of Voldemort a consequence of his being the “rightful heir” to an ancient wizarding family.
Carey, John. The Intellectuals and the Masses: Pride and Prejudice Among the Literary Intelligentsia, 1880-1939. London: Faber and Faber, 1992.
Doyle, Arthur Conan. “A Case of Identity.” The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. 1892 Ed. Richard Lancelyn Green. The World’s Classics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994. 30-48.
Iyer, Pico. “The Playing Fields of Hogwarts.” The New York Times Book Review (10 October, 1999): 39.
Rowling, J. K. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. London: Bloomsbury, 1998.
—. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. London: Bloomsbury, 1997.
—. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. London: Bloomsbury, 1999.
Woolf, Virginia. “Modern Fiction.” The Common Reader. London: Hogarth Press, 1925. 184-95.