J.K. Rowling: Harry Potter

February 28, 2013

Editors: Cynthia J. Hallett and Peggy J. Huey
Edition: First
Publisher: Palgrave Macmillan
Pages: 224
Price: £45.00 and £14.99
ISBN: 9780230008496 and 8502

As one of the most popular and profitable ventures in publishing history, the Harry Potter series of novels by J.K. Rowling has had a significant and well-publicised impact on the reading habits of millions of children. The influence of the “Potter phenomenon” is starting to be felt in undergraduate literature courses as these children, now young adults, work their way through university.

I wanted this collection to be accessible but stretching, engaging but rigorous and to offer multiple entry points leading to lots of ‘threads’ for students to pursue. It offers all this and more

While few undergraduate courses would have Rowling’s novels set for explicit study, many students want to focus on them when it comes time to choose final-year dissertation topics. Some academics may advise them to stay away from such a choice. I am more inclined to encourage students to revisit and critically examine their childhood reading, but only if it can be informed and supported by rigorous secondary material.

It was with enthusiasm, then, that I picked up this essay collection on Rowling, part of the long-established Palgrave Macmillan Casebooks and New Casebooks series. These volumes have been lifelines for undergraduates for nearly half a century, and it is a sign of the times that the latest tranche (the first for seven years) are all on authors of children’s literature, including Roald Dahl, C.S. Lewis and Robert Cormier.

Before embarking, I asked myself what I wanted from this collection. My answers were for it to be accessible but stretching, engaging but rigorous and to offer multiple entry points leading to lots of “threads” for students to pursue. This collection offers all this and more.

The variety of disciplines covered is simply extraordinary: it includes philosophy, religious studies, medicine and politics alongside the more obvious literary and cultural studies. Likewise the topics are pleasingly diverse, including as they do food, love, genetics and sexuality. The list of further reading and the references cited by the authors expose the vast and rich world of extant scholarly material on Rowling, including papers published in Nature and The Michigan Law Review.

The essays consider both the “inside” and the “outside” of the texts, including the film adaptations and extra-textual domains such as Pottermore.com. They also consider intertexts and ur-texts such as those of the Brothers Grimm and Enid Blyton.

While the essays are rigorously critical they are also affectionate, and have clearly been written by scholars who love Potter. Together they make a compelling argument: that Rowling’s books grow in sophistication across the series and offer a world that is complex, uncertain and nuanced and therefore deserving of serious critical attention.

What is remarkable about this collection is how consistent it is. Every essay, without exception, is exquisitely written. If nothing else, this book is useful as a model for students on how to structure a clear and compelling essay. Most importantly, collectively these essays inspire students to revisit the texts with new critical perspectives.

Who is it for?
Undergraduate students of literature and anyone wanting a critical perspective on J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series.

Presentation:
Impeccably clear, engaging, rigorous.

Would you recommend it?
Yes, without hesitation, as a first port of call for any student wanting to write a dissertation on Harry Potter.

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