Prof spells out themes of Potter series

Articles examine topics, controversial and otherwise, in books

Among Hogwarts, Muggles and Mudbloods, Giselle Anatol sees scholarly research potential.

And as J.K. Rowling prepares to publish the sixth book in her wildly popular Harry Potter series, Anatol is expecting the debate about the series' underlying meanings to be renewed.

"The controversy, I don't think that's hurt Rowling any," Anatol said. "Anytime you hear about something controversial, people are anxious to catch on and to read."

Anatol, an assistant professor of English at Kansas University, recently compiled a set of academic essays on the underlying themes of the series, which centers on the adventures of students at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.

Topics in the 14-article collection, titled "Reading Harry Potter," include:

¢ How legal topics are treated.

¢ Gender relations.

¢ Socioeconomic and class identity.

¢ How the series fits into the history of British boarding school novels.

¢ Comparison of the series with C.S. Lewis books, such as the "The Chronicles of Narnia," specifically why Lewis' books are embraced by the Christian community while Rowlings' are shunned by some.

Authors from around the world contributed articles for the book.

The main debates on the series are about the witchcraft.

But Anatol said she thought there were several positive messages in the series. One, she said, is that characters are friends with other characters with a variety of backgrounds.

"It seems to be, on the surface, a very powerful message about tolerance and embracing difference," Anatol said.

Another positive message, she said, is the rags-to-riches philosophy that people from disadvantaged backgrounds can be successful. It's a notion that also is exemplified by Rowlings' life, Anatol said. Rowling went from being a poor single mother to a billionaire.

Authors in the compilation are split on how the series treats socioeconomic issues. One author says the books are conservative in letting people stay within their classes; another says the book would push children into political action even if there are risks involved.

Since Anatol's book came out last year, several other academic compilations on Harry Potter have been published. Anatol's book also has been used as a text at several universities.

The sixth book in the series, "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince," is due out in July.

"I think people just aren't conditioned to think about children's literature in this way," Anatol said. "It's a worthwhile project to look at the series with this depth."

Joyce Steiner, youth services coordinator at the Lawrence Public Library, said she had been surprised with how wide an audience the Harry Potter series had drawn. Third-graders through adults read the novels, she said.

"It's kind of a one-of-a-kind series in that way," Steiner said.

She said half of the library's 28 copies of Rowlings' last book, "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix," were checked out as of Thursday. While she thought most people picked up the books for pure entertainment, she said there was social value in the series. For example, she said, some of the characters belittle other characters who are poor.

"That does happen in our society a lot," Steiner said. "Kids have to realize that. It's hard to say how much children can get from fictional things. They have to have an impact to some extent."


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