“Harry Potter” and Genre

by Katherine Zito

When J.K. Rowling spoke to Lev Grossman in 2005, admitting that she “doesn’t even especially like fantasy novels” and that “it wasn’t until after Sorcerer’s Stone was published that it even occurred to her that she had written one,” Terry Pratchett was bemused.

I would have thought that the wizards, witches, trolls, unicorns, hidden worlds, jumping chocolate frogs, owl mail, magic food, ghosts, broomsticks and spells would have given her a clue?

Considering the unfortunately oft-derided status of fantasy fiction, I understand why Pratchett would have been irritated by Rowling’s seeming disavowal of the genre. Plenty of writers would probably be inclined to distance their work from fantasy based on snooty notions about speculative fiction. However, is Harry Potter best understood as a fantasy series? Trolls and flying broomsticks, yes, but there is another set of ingredients from which Rowling draws: the school story.

To begin with, where within the context of the fantasy genre would Harry Potter lie? Before the fantasy genre, as it is currently understood, existed, humans have told stories involving fantastical elements, and cultures the world over have incorporated what is now widely accepted as supernatural in their myths, legends, epics, dramas, and poems. The fantasy genre as we now know it was born out of the Romantic re-affection for the mystical after the Enlightenment. The difference was that, post-Enlightenment, these supernatural elements were not taken for fact, as was the case with supernatural stories before the Enlightenment – Shakespeare probably believed in fairies, unlike the writers of the first fantasy novels for adults written in the late 19th century. In Riveting Reads Plus Fantasy Fiction, Frances Sinclair explains that many popular fantasy subgenres fall under the umbrella of medievalist fantasy: fantasy drawing on medieval European motifs or set in an (often fictionalized) medieval Europe. This is consistent with my understanding that out of the Romantic period emerged our more romantic ideas about the European Middle Ages, which was a reversal of the Renaissance and Enlightenment conceptions of the period as a dark age.

When it comes to Harry Potter, many of the standard medievalist tropes make it recognizable as a fantasy series. In their 2003 paper, “The Harry Potter Stories and French Arthurian Romance,” academics Heather Arden and Kathryn Lorenz claim that Harry Potter specifically draws from the French Arthurian medieval tradition. That is, out of the broad umbrella of medievalism, Harry Potter’s world-building borrows most heavily from the French versions of the legend of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. From this source, we get bearded wizard mentors, enchanted forests and protected castles, and creatures including werewolves, dragons, and unicorns, as well as deer imagery. Arden and Lorenz draw compelling connections to Arthurian romance, but a striking difference is that in their schema, Harry best fits the trope of the knight (a mortal human, to my knowledge), whereas of course Harry and his friends are practitioners of magic too. Harry is a wizard in canon, but he does not fit the “wizard” trope – that role belongs to Dumbledore. I would argue that certain developments in 20th-century fantasy paved the way for the wizard and the knight/prince/king to find themselves wed within such an iconic character, but that may require its own post.

In John Sutherland’s How Literature Works: 50 Key Concepts (2003), he provides a broad overview of the fantasy genre and explains that it is common for fantasy, as a genre, to overlap with other genres. He uses Harry Potter to exemplify the crossover between the fantasy and the school story. The school story genre from which Rowling draws is based on the British boarding school system. Thus, she is not simply drawing on stories about school but specifically stories about upper-class Brits in gender-segregated settings. Classics of the genre include Tom Brown’s School Days, another story about a young boy with a common English name getting into mischief at school. The school story is not simply a story that is set at school but one in which the school itself is a key player in the story.

The Norton Anthology of Children’s Literature claims that a characteristic difference of early and more recent school stories is the change in the role of the school as an institution that can and will put characters on the right moral track to an institution that may as well be just as corrupt as any other character, an institution against which the characters may have to rightfully rebel as part of their coming of age. The Harry Potter series illustrates a similar shift within its own plotline. As the series progresses, Hogwarts becomes to Harry less and less of a safe haven (especially when compared with his abusive household with the Dursleys) as exemplified best by Dolores Umbridge’s role as Headmistress in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. While not a British school story, the comparison that comes most readily to mind to me is Revolutionary Girl Utena, where the institution of Ohtori Academy is just as important as any character. This is opposed to, say, Twilight, a modern fantasy about kids in school where the school serves more as a normal backdrop for supernatural goings-on (more analogous to the Dursley household in Harry Potter than to Hogwarts Castle) than a figure embroiled in supernatural goings-on.

It’s these school story elements that give the Harry Potter series a premise beyond generic medievalist children’s fantasy: if you were to describe the Harry Potter series to an alien, there’s a good chance you would say that it is about a boy who goes to a magical school. Harry Potter is, therefore, not only a descendant of The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia but also a descendant of Tom Brown’s School Days and cousin of Revolutionary Girl Utena. With a fuller understanding of Harry Potter‘s literary heritage, it can be better understood since attention can be paid to Rowling’s use of themes and motifs associated not only with fantasies but also with school stories.