If you are a Harry Potter fan you probably celebrated last month, the twentieth anniversary of the first Harry Potter book Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. Millions of us did, all around the world, and for me it gave rise to reflecting upon the economic and imaginative impact possible through creative works. I also wondered about how such creative writing is supported through our curriculum programs as my son set out to write yet another ‘analysis of aesthetic elements and conventions’ essay on a novel for year 12 English. In 18 months of assessment in English he has not once been asked to complete a piece of creative writing.
The recent report from the Parliamentary Inquiry into Innovation and Creativity yet again reinforced the privileging of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) subjects as the key to prosperous economic futures. However while rare, it is clear that creative ‘inventions’ such as the Harry Potter series can have enormous economic impacts as well as social, creative and cultural.
The Harry Potter series is well and truly the biggest selling literary series of all time having sold over 500 millions copies. It is the second most popular film series as well (after The Marvel Cinematic Universe films). However this is a series that has also become part of the folk culture of a generation.
J.K Rowling didn’t just create a publishing phenomenon she created a cultural phenomenon. New readers then and now continue to connect with the familiarity of the characters, their trials and dilemmas but are also inspired by the fantasy and magic of the Harry Potter story world.
Powerful creative worlds where children are powerful
The creativity of the Harry Potter series has been both celebrated but also critiqued. Following in the league of such imaginative world creators as Tolkien with ‘Lord of the Rings’, George Lucas with ‘Star Wars’, Rowling drew upon ancient mythologies, character types and creatures with her creation. This highlights a key aspect of creative work and issues of using ‘originality’ as the mark of true creativity. We can see that in the Harry Potter books there is much that has been borrowed. There are familiar figures of warlocks, wizards and goblins but then there are the original creations. There are dementors – dark creatures that absorb the happiness of the creatures around them and the mysteries of the horcrux, hidden objects which contain the fragment of a split soul.
The series has borrowed, selected and combined many of the story tropes identified by those who’ve analysed the mythology of the eons, from Propp’s morphology of the folktale to Joseph Campbell analysis of the hero’s journey and Robert McKee’s principles of story in film. It’s a tale of good versus evil, the extraordinary existing within the ordinary, of jealousies, love and loss, of mythic searches and hard won triumphs.
Rowling’s gift was to combine all of this with her own inventiveness and creations to envision a new world of the imagination. This occurred at a time when young people were looking not for self identification in teen fiction that was just a reflection of their every day lives, but were ready for a new form of escape into the world of fantasy and magic. This is a world where a boy is bullied and confined to a bedroom under the stairs, but who is then able to defeat ‘Voldemort, the Lord of darkness’. The resonances for children and young people are not so hard to understand. This is a world where children are powerful, can take life and death risks and become masters of not only their own destiny but their entire universe.
Creative inventions such as Muggles and Quidditch are now part of our lexicon
What is always so amazing with these kinds of inventions is that they begin as works of the imagination, but become actual touchstones and reference points for people’s real life worlds and experiences. Muggles as a word has passed into the common lexicon, there are actual sporting teams that now play a game called ‘Quidditch’ and characters from the series have inspired scientific names of organisms, including the the crab Harryplax severus.
But beyond that the events, creatures, and characters become shortcuts, similes and metaphors in people’s lives. Harry Potter references can be the means to describe and give relevance and meaning, the mixed identity and sense of not belonging of the half-blood child, the threat of a Voldemort, the wisdom of a Dumbledore.
The phenomenon of the participatory communities
What is also significant about the Harry Potter series is its emergence and development during the age of the Internet and the rise of participatory cultures. In his work Henry Jenkins has described the phenomenon of the participatory communities that coalesce around certain book and movie series, such as Harry Potter and Star Wars. Creative agency and self-expression is realised by many within these communities as they draw on aspects of the invented narratives, characters and storylines but elaborate upon such to extend, write and rewrite their own. Reporting on the rise of a fan fiction community of children and young people, Jenkins shows how Rowling’s work enabled many entry points for creative imaginings, from imagining themselves as key characters such as Harry or Hermione to minor figures, distant relations or agents.
Fan fiction as an entry point for creativity
The sparks for new creations and creativity can begin through such character identification and involvement in creative fan fiction communities and narrative worlds. These can provide the pivots and imaginative and conceptual tools to help initiate children and young people’ creativity, using borrowed tales to imitate, but then extend upon to create new work.
Creativity in schools
That brings me back to thinking about how the opportunities for new and inventive creative writing might currently be cultivated in our schools, and the concern I have for my son (and thousands of other young people).
Academics such as Sawyer, and Frawley have researched the teaching of English in schools in Australia and have identified the difficulties many teachers now face in developing student creative writing and creativity. The rise of increasingly high-stakes assessment environments and ‘atomised’ approaches to teaching textual features, grammatical conventions, devices, structures and genres often leads to highly prescriptive writing curricula.
Concerns about such were highlighted to me when I interviewed students as part of my doctoral studies and asked them about the subjects where they could be creative in schools. I was somewhat surprised when many students said they did more creative work, and creative writing as well, in Drama rather than English. They also bemoaned the fact that English (for them) was always about analysing and deconstructing. I acknowledge this was by no means a broad sample and that, as Gannon argues, many schools and teachers continue to negotiate the mandates to engage in exemplary pedagogy to support student practice.
We need to ensure that the spaces for creative writing and creative learning are not squeezed out of formal education and that the inspiration of Harry Potter and friends can continue to provide the means for young (and not so young people) to become immersed in real/non-real, familiar/strange and magical worlds that can become the gateway to new forms of creating understanding, being and becoming.
Susan Davis is Deputy Dean Research for the School of Education & the Arts at CQ University, Australia. Her research has focused on drama, arts-education, engagement and digital technologies. She is one of the Co-Convenors of the Arts Education Research SIG of AARE and a Board member for Drama Australia and the Sunshine Coast Creative Alliance. Sue was previously a drama teacher and performing arts Head of Department and has created and managed many arts-based projects in collaboration with various education, arts industry and community groups. Susan was one of the convenors of a Creative Education Summit held at ACMI in 2016, with summit outcomes contributing to an Arts Education, Practice and Research group submission to the “The House of Representatives Standing Committee on Employment, Education and Training Inquiry into innovation and creativity: workforce for the new economy”. She was also invited to present further evidence at a roundtable for the inquiry.