Friday, 2 March 2012


I'm half way through reading Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets with Isobel, an occasional bedtime read. (She has had something of a fixation with the first three films recently, and we read the first book over quite a while last year.) When the rumour circulated recently that Rowling's next book will be for an adult audience (perhaps a crime novel), the below-the-line comments were marked with the usual carping about Rowling's prose and how, when exposed to adult readers (as though the HP series were not), she would in some way be 'found out' as a purveyor of trash literature. Now, I've read all the Potter books before, and volumes 3-6 I read aloud to Isobel's older sister, Sophie. The prose is serviceable; it doesn't sing off the page like Phillip Pullman, nor have the clarity and zing of Roald Dahl, but for the first 4 books at least, it does a job. (I found the fifth book so execrable that I only finished the series out of dutiful completism, and even now cannot remember a thing about the last two.)

But criticisms of Rowling's prose style are beside the point, just as detailed analysis of the flaws of George Lucas's scripts or directorial style are beside the point. Not because both Harry Potter and Star Wars are enormously successful; that is important, but not crucial. Rather, it is what they share that makes them enormously successful. For this, I can find no other term but 'worldness'. There are probably better terms out there, but I don't mean a Barthesian 'reality effect', where narratively redundant detail is woven in to a text to demonstrate the materiality of the world described. Rather, I mean the sense of a concrete, fully imagined, intricately detailed world represented in a literary or filmic text that is present even when not visible or described: a quality that can be felt and inhabited. For this is what Harry Potter and Star Wars and Lord of the Rings and Star Trek (in fact, any popular text that generates a large fandom) have in common: 'worldness'.

For Star Wars, part of this is the 'look', the design of Tatooine, of the beaten-up Millennium Falcon, of the droids, of the Stormtroopers, of TIE fighters and X-Wings and Imperial Star Destroyers. This is Lucas's genius, I think; except in the very early days (as in the early Marvel comics that I wrote about a couple of years ago) Lucas has been able to gather around him designers, artists and visualisers who have created a self-consistent world, a strange commonality or genetic resemblance so that if one sees an obscure craft from a prequel movie, one knows it is from the Star Wars universe intuitively. This is no mean feat, considering the wealth of material now part of Star Wars official texts and merchandise.

Clearly Harry Potter's world is neither so broad, nor so deep; but in Platform 9 and three quarters, in Hogwarts school, in Diagon Alley, in Quidditch, in Gryffindor and Slytherin and all the rest, there is a worldness to believe in, a worldness to inhabit, in one's mind. Rather than being escapism, this capacity to enter imagined space is something central to our experience of narrative media, I think, from the novel, to film, to comics, to radio. It is something produced by the text but is somehow outside the text, produced by another but inhabited by our imaginations. How does this work? There's the real magic. But it's interesting being with Isobel as she responds to these texts, in noticing what draws her in, and what does not work at all.

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