No props to Propp on the popularity of Potter

The fifth section of the Ravenclaw Reader is a pair of essays attempting to explore the popularity of Harry Potter. The main essay, by Joel Hunter, is an attempt to explore the books in terms of Propp’s formalist analysis of folktales. The author, Dr Hunter, is a philosopher who’s moved out of traditional university into a community college. The response is written by Dr Gabrielle Ceraldi, who specialises in children’s literature at Western University, Canada.

I’m going to be brief here, since I’ve never been a fan of the way formalism (or structuralism for that matter) analyses texts. I think that while the noting of similarities can be mildly helpful, the really interesting analysis comes when you ask how this writer or that narrative complicates or works against common forms, functions, structures and oppositions.The danger of formalism is it puts the interest in the abstracted functions, and fails to read the complex particulars. I don’t think Hunter does that, but while I can abstractedly (see what I did there) admire his industry, I am not engaged enough to want to consult the 37 pages stretched across four appendices which accompany his paper.

He concludes, based on analysing both the stories, and readers’ responses to the stories as gathered through a simple questionnaire, that the “series of books cast (sic) its spell over readers by closely adhering to the formal organisation of folktale structure.” (p.111) According to his analysis, the books that do so most closely are those that are the most popular within the Potter canon as well.

This still leaves me with the question, is this simply noting features that tend to occur in popular stories, rather than explaining their popularity. After all, there are many other stories with similar structures which sell well, but have nowhere near the sales of Rowling’s creation. Perhaps one of the nearest comparisons (which as a reworking of classical myths will have, I suspect, just the same sort of archetypal forms and functions) is Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series, written slightly later but over a comparable time-span and aimed at a similar age and audience. The main books consist of two series of five each (plus various other supplements) so more than the Potter series. As of March this year, Riordan had sold somewhere in the region of 40 million books against Rowling’s sales, which were more than ten times that amount, being upwards of 450 million.

Nor, though Ceraldi’s response suggests it as one alternative (p.115), can the coincidence of Potter’s popularity simply be attributed to the possibilities of Web 2.0 arriving in time to generate the fan phenomenon (should we neologise fanomenon?). The popularity, however, rather predates the technology. Blogger, which in many ways is the first harbinger of Web 2.0, wasn’t launched until after the third book had been published, and the fanomenon (there I go) was beginning to roll before it attained any wide use.

In short, the question of their popularity will almost certainly need complex and polyvalent answers, and not a single explanation, and as Ceraldi says, it is the questions of exploring their meaning (I dislike her expression “made meaningful” p.119 – Rowling’s already done that) which matter rather more.