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Childrens Books Are Thus Inevitably Didactic

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 2037 words Published: 1st May 2017

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Peter Hunt’s claim in his essay, Instruction and Delight, is that all children’s books are unavoidably didactic to some extent, since all authors have their own motives when writing a book. Hunt argues that children’s literature is a power struggle, between the adult writers and the child readers; and since most parents, teachers etc. will monitor what children are reading, it is ultimately the adults who are in control of what is available. Even though many authors claim that they write simply for their own enjoyment, or to delight their readers, they will still express their own ideology in their writing, “manipulatively or not”. (Hunt, 2009, p. 15) This ideology may be explicit, with the author actively supporting their own social, political or moral beliefs, or implicit, whereby the author is unconsciously advocating a particular opinion (Hollindale, 1988). Consequently, all children’s books are influenced by the author’s personal beliefs on some level; the extent to which their beliefs influence the child reader is dependent on the individual child and the attitudes that the child is exposed to. It is some of the attitudes to J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone that have prompted me to explore it in relation to Peter Hunt’s claim. According to the American Library Association, the Harry Potter series are the most banned books of the 21st century; the reason cited for these challenges is that it “promotes witchcraft”. (American Library Association, 2010) It is my opinion that the Harry Potter series promotes love, courage, and the right to choose, in an enjoyable and accessible way, without leaving the reader with the feeling of having been ‘preached at’; and it is with this in mind that I aim to prove that Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone supports Peter Hunt’s claim.

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In response to comments about the magical content of her book, Rowling said, “children have power and can use it, which may in itself be more threatening to some people than the idea that they would actually learn spells from my book”. (Rowling, Talking with… J. K. Rowling, 1998) This is a similar belief to that shown in Carpenter’s essay The First Golden Age, claiming that “children have a clear, even heightened, vision of the world”. (Carpenter, 2009) A child will undoubtedly perceive a piece of literature differently from an adult, different again from other children; a reader (adult or child) who is revisiting a book will see new things and react differently to the content on subsequent readings. When adults limit a child’s access to literature, are they not simply imposing their own moral values? Should a child, as illustrated in this novel, have the right to choose for themselves whether a book is suitable? An individual’s reaction to literature is exactly that, individual. The reputation of the Harry Potter series as the “most banned of the 21st century”, questions the suitability of the content; will the child reader understand everything in the book? Rowling’s answer is “‘so what if they don’t!” (Rowling, Talking with… J. K. Rowling, 1998) She explains that if a child enjoys a book, they will re-read it, and will understand a little more each time they do. This surely is the ultimate purpose of literature – to be read!

The basic concept in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, of a young orphan overcoming obstacles to become recognised as a respected individual, is reminiscent of many other works of children’s literature. The appeal to children is based on not just the content of the story, but also the style in which it is written. The central character, Harry Potter, is an average boy; friendly and loyal, but with an unhappy past and a difficult family life. He is a character that is easy to relate to, and that readers can engage with quickly. The tone of the novel is straightforward, with few literary embellishments, and simple language. The main theme of Good versus Evil is handled concisely, without moral judgement of any of the characters by the narrator. Despite such a dramatic theme, the narrative is relaxed and humorous from the very beginning; “Mrs Dursley…had nearly twice the usual amount of neck, which came in very useful as she spent so much time craning over garden fences, spying on the neighbours.” (Rowling, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, 1997, p. 1)

The themes apparent in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone continue throughout the whole of the Harry Potter series. One of the most important of these themes is the power of love. The reader learns early on that Voldemort was responsible for the death of Harry’s parents and had attempted to kill Harry, but was stopped, and nearly destroyed, in the process. Knowledge of this inspires within Harry a hatred of the Dark Arts and an intense determination to defeat Voldemort. The reader later learns that it is the love of Harry’s mother, Lily, which saved him from Voldemort’s killing curse. Dumbledore explains to Harry that since Voldemort is unable to comprehend such love as that between a mother and her child, he didn’t expect that such a thing could protect Harry from his curse; Lily’s sacrifice protected Harry in a way that no spell or potion could. Despite the loss of his parents, and his treatment at the hands of the Dursleys, Harry has a great capacity for love, and it is this that sets him apart from Voldemort and gives him such loyal friends. The importance of friendship is conveyed throughout the book. In fact, it is his friendship with Ron and Hermione that eventually saves Harry’s life and enables him to stop Voldemort from finding the Philosopher’s Stone. This unconditional love supports Harry, and enables him to face up to Voldemort at the climax of the story. Such a storyline should give readers confidence that with the love and support of friends and family they can overcome whatever obstacles they may have to face.

One of the most significant concepts in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone is that of free will and the right to choose. Throughout the novel, the reader is shown the similarities between Harry and Voldemort, so that it almost seems inevitable that Harry should follow Voldemort’s example and embrace the Dark Arts, but Harry makes a conscious decision to reject the Dark Arts and everything associated with it; as illustrated by his desire not to be sorted into Slytherin (Rowling, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, 1997, p. 133); and this is what distinguishes him from Voldemort. The responsibility of choice is an important lesson for children. In both Harry and Voldemort’s choices, Rowling is showing her readers, whether consciously or not, that it is an individual’s right to decide.

Dumbledore explains the purpose of the Mirror of Erised in chapter twelve. He explains to Harry that the mirror shows each person “the deepest, most desperate desire of our hearts” (Rowling, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, 1997, p. 231). Harry’s greatest wish is to be with his parents again, to be a part of a loving family, and this is what he sees. He becomes obsessed with the image, even going so far as to think that the Philosopher’s Stone was not important in comparison, and Dumbledore has to warn him of the dangers of desire. This chapter is the clearest portrayal of Harry’s grief over the loss of his parents, and another illustration of the individual’s right to choose; Harry could choose to live in the past, yearning for his lost family or he can move forwards, and choose not to live in the shadow of his parents’ murder.

Harry’s modesty also plays a key role in the events of the book. The reader is told in the first chapter that the reason Harry is left with his ‘muggle’ aunt and uncle, is to teach him humility; Dumbledore explains to Professor McGonagall, “It would be enough to turn anybody’s head…Can’t you see how much better off he’ll be, growing up away from all that until he’s ready to take it?” (Rowling, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, 1997, p. 20) It is his harsh upbringing with the Dursleys that teaches Harry that respect must be earned, so when he arrives at Hogwarts and is greeted by extra attention because of his background, he is uncomfortable and nervous; worried that he won’t compare to the expectations of him. Once again, this plays a key role in Harry’s triumph over Voldemort. Whereas Voldemort and Professor Quirrell were only interested in the Philosopher’s Stone for their own personal gain, Harry simply wants to prevent any further cruelty at the hands of Voldemort – this is why he is able to recover the stone from the Mirror of Erised; Harry’s intentions, unlike those of Voldemort, are good.

Whilst the death of Harry’s parents is obviously tragic, death is not expressed as something to be feared, rather it is seen as part of the natural order; “death is but the next great adventure”. (Rowling, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, 1997, p. 324) Voldemort’s own fear of death led him to attempt to gain immortality, which only succeeded in him becoming “shadow and vapour”. (Rowling, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, 1997, p. 315) Death, sad though it is, is a necessary part of life. Fearing it will not stop it, it will only stop a person from accepting it.

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Fear is another important aspect in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone; the Dursleys’ fear of magic, Voldemort’s fear of death, the wizarding world’s fear of Voldemort. Throughout the book, the only characters who call Voldemort by his name are Harry and Dumbledore. But as Dumbledore says, “fear of a name increases fear of the thing itself.” This is true not just of Voldemort, but of things in our own world, from disease to prejudice.

“What Harry is learning to do is to develop his full potential. Wizardry is just the analogy I use.” (Rowling, 1998) In my opinion, personal growth is the most fundamental theme in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone; Harry transforms himself from a lonely, young orphan living in a cupboard under the stairs, into a celebrated hero, respected by classmates and teachers. This represents every child’s dream – the idea that they are special. This idea grows throughout not only Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, but throughout the whole Harry Potter series and can help to instil in a child the confidence for them to be anything they want to be, which would give them a great preparation for life.

Some children’s literature aims to both teach and entertain, for example, George’s Secret Key to the Universe written in 2007 by Stephen and Lucy Hawking. It is a fiction book, and the writing style reflects this, but its intention is to explain the key aspects of the universe in an interesting and straightforward way. (Wikipedia contributors, 2010) Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone is not didactic in this way, in that it does not aim to educate the reader on academic concepts, rather, it concerned with emotional well-being and the realization of one’s potential. In this way, all literature contains some form of didacticism, whether it be academic, political, social or moral, and Peter Hunt’s claim that ‘children’s books are thus inevitably didactic’, is, in my opinion, quite true, for it is impossible not to convey your own ideology when writing; even if you write with a conscious resolution not to do so, the nature of the story is such that it will always be, in some way, didactic.

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