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Karg, Ina, and Iris Mende. The Cultural Phenomenon of Harry Potter: Multiple-audience Directedness and Internationality of a National Literary and Cultural Event/Kulturphanomen Harry Potter. Multiaddressiertheit und Internationalitat eines nationalen Literatur- und Medienevents.

Karg, Ina, and Iris Mende. Kulturphanomen Harry Potter. Multiaddressiertheit und Internationalitat eines nationalen Literatur-und Medienevents [The Cultural Phenomenon of Harry Potter: Multiple-audience Directedness and Internationality of a National Literary and Cultural Event]. Gottingen: V & R Unipress, 2010. 258 pp. Hardback. ISBN 978-3-89971-574-3. 31,90 [euro] [$45.12].

Ina Karg and Iris Mende have put together a remarkably good book that, unfortunately, is unlikely to be read by many of the people in England or North America who would find it interesting; the intersection of the sets "Potter fans and scholars" and "People who can read academic German" is doubtless small. Its style and especially its format are typical of scholarly German; its five chapters are divided and subdivided into some fifty titled and numbered subsections, and section 2.1.2, for example, has twenty-two more titled but unnumbered subsections. The translation I made for myself of all the section titles and subtitles is over seven hundred words, and constitutes a fairly complete description of its content. In what follows, therefore, I shall include translations of the titles of the numbered sections, and a few of the unnumbered ones. (1)

The "Introduction: Panopticon of Enthusiasm" (7-11) consists mainly of bulleted phenomena exemplifying the septology's popularity, ranging from its international sales figures to its use as a marketing tool for other fantasy titles, along with three examples of negative reactions. The authors conclude that, while the book's analysis must take the text (both books and films) as its point of departure, it must also consider the "public discourse" about the series, an approach that is, "because of the manifold view[s] which the series makes necessary, also a revision of traditional literary-critical work" (11).

The title of the first section of chapter 2, "Facts, Numbers--and What Lies Behind Them" (13-46), could serve as the title of the whole chapter (actually "Harry Potter: National Impetus for an International Event"). The first subsection, "Publication of the Volumes, National and International" (14-31), looks at all details of the series' publication history, including graphics of the covers. The second, "Film Versions" (32-42), identifies and interprets all of the locations of the first six movies--something that the films' final credits don't do. It is interesting, for example, to learn that the King's Cross Station scenes were filmed both at the real King's Cross and at St. Pancras Station. More briefly, the authors consider the "Accompanying Marketing Programs" (43-46).

The most fascinating part of the second chapter is its second section, "Public Reception of the Books," which considers at length both "Harry Potter as 'Literature'" (47-58-raising questions that will be discussed more deeply in the fifth chapter) and "Exemplary Reactions of the Community of Fans" (58-66), especially the extensive body of online fan materials. I had been aware of Web sites, blogs, and other online fan-produced materials, but not of the extent of fan fiction based on the series. (2) The penultimate section of the chapter, "The Scholarly Treatment Thus Far," which considers both "What Interests Scholars" (nearly 1,500 books, articles, and Web site addresses counted in eleven categories, 66-67) and "Harry Potter in the Classroom" (interpreting a 2008 article, 67-70), anticipates questions that will be treated in greater depth later in the book, as does the final "Instead of a Summary" (70-71). Overall, the chapter deals more with "facts and numbers" than with "what lies behind them."

The third chapter, "Harry Potter: Literature as Cultural Commentary," begins with an unnumbered prologue discussing the theoretical relationships of literature and culture, concluding that the chapter will "present four areas [actually three] that can be placed both as intercultural and also specifically British" (76). The first section deals with "The World of Harry Potter: Connectible Internationally with Specific Components" in terms of four general realms: "The Educational Establishment of a School" (76-85), which compares the curriculum of Hogwarts to curricular developments in Britain--see also pages 134-48 below--and Europe; "Politics and Politicians" (85-92), on the parallels between the Ministry of Magic and the British parliamentary government; "Journalism: Boulevard Periodicals Everywhere" (92-99), on Rita Skeeter and German popular periodicals; and "Sport and Its Functions" (99-104), mostly on Quidditch.

The four subsections of "Harry Potter and the Problematics of Translation" are delightfully specific, and the first three subtitles begin with the same phrase: "Fortune and Misfortune of the Translator." The first analyzes in detail "Two Passages in Context" (107-13): the description of the Dursleys that opens the first book, and that of the Riddle House opening book 4. The second, "Language" (114-19), discusses three types of translation problems: true "errors" (e.g., translating "stale food" as "verdorbenes Essen" [spoiled food] in book 6; "language-specific properties" (for example, missing the pun in "Knight Bus" in book 3, translated as "Fahrender Ritter" [travelling knight]; and "inconsistencies in the process" (such as different translations in different volumes of the phrase "He who must not be named"). The third identifies the problems of "Transported Images" (119-23) such as cultural Britishisms like "stile" and "afternoon tea." The final, very interesting section compares the by no means equivalent semantic fields, in both German and English, of words "Concerning Witches, Wizards, witches and wizards [orig. in English]" (124-30).

The third section, "The Cultural Specifics of the Novelistic World," begins with a brief look at "Harry Potter and English Society in the Early 21st Century" (130-33), followed by an overlong and much subdivided subsection, "Harry Potter and the Nature of English Education" (134-48). Its unnumbered subdivisions compare the continental and British education systems. Very interesting and specific, however, is the final subdivision, "Dolores Jane Umbridge--Ascertaining Quality in Education?" (143-48), which includes "Presentation of the Figure and Narrative Connections," "The Speech of Dolores Jane Umbridge" (in book 5, summarized and analyzed), "Comment on the Speech by the Narrative Co-Actors," and "The Narrative Connection: Evaluation of the Speech." It is the first, but not the last, piece of solid literary analysis in the book; the second follows immediately--"Cultural Baggage, Even When It's Hidden" (148-61), which discusses the various presentations of English Christmas in all seven books, and the description of the Malfoy women's visit to Spinner's End (Snape's house) in book 6. The chapter as a whole is both more specifically related to the text of the Potter books, and much more interpretive in its approach to them

In the fourth chapter, we turn to "Paradigm and Syntagm [syntactic construction]: Narrating and Reading"--the only chapter with epigraphs, all on the figure of the phoenix. The first section is theoretical: "Readings and Objects of Knowledge" (163-76), with subsections on "Fundamental Thoughts about the Reading Process" (163-69) and "So-Called Intertextuality" (170-76). "Every text as text," the authors note, "evokes other texts with it and needs the knowledge of the reader about other texts, in order to be able to be read" (169)--to paraphrase Northrop Frye, "literature is made from other literature." But: "In literature for children and young people, intertextuality is subject to other conditions than in literary forms addressed to a public experienced in reading" (171). In other words, children, depending on age and experience, may or may not know the other texts evoked.

The second section, "Reading in the Paradigm: Calling Up and Processing of What's Found," discusses the ways in which the Potter books use traditional images, specifically "Human Figures" (176-78) and "Fantastic Beings" (178-84), considering "Loss of Body" (horcruxes), "Transformation of Body" (animagus, Lupin as werewolf, Patronus), and "Fantastic Actors and Co-Actors" (mostly on the unicorn). The third subsection looks at the novels in terms of "Genres" (178-89): high fantasy, heroic fantasy, sword & sorcery, the quest, Victorian fantasy, the British school story, and the novel of adolescence. The authors consider that while the series draws from all of these and is closest to high fantasy, "it lacks one characteristic of that genre--the great mythological created world, the claim to interpret that world" (187). The notion that high fantasy requires a "great mythological created world" is, I believe, rarely realized, perhaps fully only in Tolkien and in Frank Herbert's Dune books. Even rarer is a substantive "claim to interpret that world," perhaps only in Lewis's Narnia books. A final subsection looks briefly at the medieval "Ambience" (189-90) of the tale that, the authors claim, appears more graphically in the films than in the books.

In the third section, "Syntagma as Making Sense in a Narrated World," the most interesting segment lies in the first subsection, "Connectivity in the Narrated Text and Difficulty in Reading" (190-202): an unnumbered "Exemplary Reading: The Phoenix in Paradigm and Syntagma" (196-202) focuses on the problems of death and resurrection that run through the series. The final subsection, "Book and Film: Perceptible World as Visual World" (202-08), is brief, mostly on the films, and suggests that the authors are more experienced in interpreting literature than film.

As we have proceeded through the book, the authors' focus has gradually moved from the factual toward the theoretical and interpretive, and the final chapter, "Flight into the Magical World or Magical Learning?" is the culmination of this movement. The first section deals with "Harry Potter--Reading as Escapism" (209-13), concluding that the series might have "fallen between the lines of literary evaluation, precisely because of its successful career, . . . the empathic reading it makes possible, and the escapist approach to reading of many of its readers. Today, however, one must note that an escapist reading doesn't unconditionally suffer a bad reputation" (213). The second section summarizes critical views of "Harry Potter in Current Discourse about Reading" (213-19), and the questions "Reading vs. Literature? Literature vs. Reading?" (220-28) are answered tentatively in two subsections. The first, "Literary Treatments of the Reading of Literature" (220-28), presents three exemplary cases: the "Paolo and Francesca" episode in Dante's Divina Commedia is used to consider the thesis (as unnumbered subtitle) that "Reading Can Be Destructive"; Ernst Barlach's 1930 woodcarving "Reading Cloister Scholar" to exemplify "Reading Against Empathy" (also a subtitle); and Heinrich Mann's 1918 novel Der Untertan [The Loyal Subject] to discuss "Reading for Free Time--Potentials for Reconstruction of Discourse." The authors conclude that "The Harry Potter novels comment through their epic world on societal, political and cultural realities" by "attaching themselves to known models which they pick up and carry further" (228). The second subsection, "Didactic Treatments of Reading" (228-33), harks back to the overlong section on the nature of British education (see 134-48), this time discussing the thesis "readings must be directed" argued by two early nineteenth-century German pedagogues; after several readings of this section, I am still unclear as to the authors' degree of agreement with this thesis.

The final section of this chapter and of the book, "Professional Reading" (233-45), looks first at "What Is Literature--Valuable Literature?"(233-39) and "Effect, Evaluation, and Canonization" (240-44). Considering Rowling's non-innovative use of traditional models, they conclude (unconsciously paraphrasing Northrop Frye's Anatomy of Criticism) that "Even breaking with tradition reckons with the tradition.... No one has brought together such a variety of materials, of traditions and contents and connected them as a syntagma as Rowling in the many thousand pages of her epic world" (243). The final brief subsection, "Harry Potter--A Cultural Text? 'Resonance Space' Instead of 'Canon'" (244-45), claims, I believe rightly, that this book has demonstrated the irrelevance of questions as to its canonical status.
 The potential of the readability of [Rowling's] text lets literacy
 be achieved, but already has literacy as a precondition--a
 never-ending, dynamic process. The Harry Potter novels are
 genuinely English and have nonetheless not remained so, to the
 extent that an international community has accepted them. The Harry
 Potter novels are a cultural text in an intercultural function.

As I noted at the outset, this is a thoughtful and excellent book that merits a much wider audience than it will receive. An English translation would be welcomed not only by critics but by many enthusiastic readers of Rowling's epic series, and people with even a fair reading knowledge of German will not find it difficult. It is well written and edited (the only typos I found were in the quoted English texts), and has an extensive bibliography, especially of online sources. However, unfortunately, it lacks an index.


(1.) If anyone is interested in seeing that complete translation and notes, e-mail me at, and I will send it as an attachment.

(2.) What Karg and Mende describe here was, coincidentally, discussed recently by Lev Grossman ("The Boy Who Lived Forever," Time 18 July 2011: 44 + ), who notes that "On, the Harry Potter section alone contains 526,085 entries, many of them full-length novels" (46).
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Author:Beatie, Bruce A.
Publication:Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2012
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