J.K. Rowling Hogwarts And All

As the much awaited Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince arrives in stores, J.K. Rowling talks frankly to Lev Grossman about fantasy, fathers and how the magic is almost over

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Rowling certainly isn't afraid of sex, as Order of the Phoenix--which had Harry making out with the beautiful, grieving Cho Chang--ably demonstrated. Harry and his friends are now 16, and it would just be weird if Harry didn't have more on his mind than wands and snitches. "Because of the demands of the adventure that Harry is following, he has had less sexual experience than boys of his age might have had," Rowling allows. "But I really wanted my heroes to grow up. Ron's hormones get fuller play in book six." Cue the throaty alto laughter. "Basically it dawns on Ron that Hermione's had some action, Harry's had some action and he's never got close!"

It's precisely Rowling's lack of sentimentality, her earthy, salty realness, her refusal to buy into the basic clich├ęs of fantasy, that make her such a great fantasy writer. The genre tends to be deeply conservative--politically, culturally, psychologically. It looks backward to an idealized, romanticized, pseudofeudal world, where knights and ladies morris-dance to Greensleeves. Rowling's books aren't like that. They take place in the 1990s--not in some never-never Narnia but in modern-day Mugglish England, with cars, telephones and PlayStations. Rowling adapts an inherently conservative genre for her own progressive purposes. Her Hogwarts is secular and sexual and multicultural and multiracial and even sort of multimedia, with all those talking ghosts. If Lewis showed up there, let's face it, he'd probably wind up a Death Eater.

Granted, Rowling's books begin like invitations to garden-variety escapism: Ooh, Harry isn't really a poor orphan; he's actually a wealthy wizard who rides a secret train to a castle, and so on. But as they go on, you realize that while the fun stuff is pure cotton candy, the problems are very real--embarrassment, prejudice, depression, anger, poverty, death. "I was trying to subvert the genre," Rowling explains bluntly. "Harry goes off into this magical world, and is it any better than the world he's left? Only because he meets nicer people. Magic does not make his world better significantly. The relationships make his world better. Magic in many ways complicates his life."

And unlike Lewis, whose books are drenched in theology, Rowling refuses to view herself as a moral educator to the millions of children who read her books. "I don't think that it's at all healthy for the work for me to think in those terms. So I don't," she says. "I never think in terms of What am I going to teach them? Or, What would it be good for them to find out here?"

"Although," she adds, "undeniably, morals are drawn." But she doesn't make it easy. In Goblet, the good-hearted Cedric Diggory dies for no reason. In Phoenix, we learn that Harry's dad, whom he idealized, had been an arrogant bully. People aren't good and bad by nature; they change and transform and struggle. As Dumbledore tells Harry, "It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities." Granted, we know Harry will not succumb to anger and evil. But we never stop feeling that he could. (Interestingly, although Rowling is a member of the Church of Scotland, the books are free of references to God. On this point, Rowling is cagey. "Um. I don't think they're that secular," she says, choosing her words slowly. "But, obviously, Dumbledore is not Jesus.")

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