Harry Potter and the Test of Time

I was discussing with someone the other day about classic literature (yes, conversations with me are always this exciting) and what makes certain literary works ‘classic’ or not classic, as the case may be.

Of course, we looked at different factors which could be said to help determine what we all mean by ‘classic’ such as:

  • the writer’s technical ability through varying their use of form, language and structure so as to add meaning
  • the excitement and originality of a storyline so that a reader feels engaged
  • the development of characters in the work so that they are relatable,
  • and so on and so 4th.

But we came to no conclusion as to whether this was the only criteria needed to define ‘classic’. 

We continued down this line of thinkment for some while until another friend interjected with “maybe a book only becomes a classic when everyone has read it and everyone understands the references you make about it?”

Now, despite my ill-mannered ex-friend interrupting rudely into the conversation, they raise a good question.

Does a book entering into popular culture make it a classic?

In my opinion, it doesn’t. And a good example of that is the Fifty Shades series. In 2012 it was the ‘flavour of the month’ so to speak and everyone knew about the vague story line even if they hadn’t read it themselves (I fall into this category).
And yet, even if it has somehow sneakily slipped into society, I have yet to see it described as anything but an overnight sensation which seems to already be on the wane. I don’t think anyone could really say it is classic literature however much they enjoyed the stories.
So therefore we reasoned that there must also be at least one other element at play, when it comes to classifying classics.

Alas, the conversation began to collapse at this point like a half-baked soufflé in the oven and we didn’t manage to ascertain what this elusive ‘other factor’ was together. However, I pondered this further myself and came to my own conclusion.

Personally, I think that a literary work only becomes a true classic when with its technical ability and its cultural significance; it manages to stand the test of time. All the classics that we talk of today are at least 50 years old and many of them are much older than that.
The fact that we still talk about the works of Chaucer or Shelley or Dickens surely evidences the fact that they have produced timeless works which are still being enjoyed and analysed today. If we didn’t talk about them, then they can’t have stood the test of time, like so many books of the past.

Therefore the original criteria and the interjection of my newly redeemed friend were both valid but I would argue that both of them together only become important if they’re still being talked about many years after they were first published.  This will be the problem with Shifty Fades of Grey I fear.

“So what about the Harry Potter series?” I’m unlikely to hear you ask, but I am going to pretend you asked it anyway so as to segue into this section. “Will they one day be considered classics?”

The Harry Potter books have certainly passed into popular culture- so much so that you could say any famous quote from the series to any generation and they would probably be able to identify where it came from.
There’s also the argument that for what is often considered a children’s series, (but that’s a debate for perhaps another post) the books are relatively well written. There are multiple story arcs that carry on simultaneously and the writing is always clear so as to be appropriate for its audience.

Admittedly, it is not the most technically impressive set of stories to an adult and it can be argued that character development loses out greatly as a consequence of the large scale plot and ‘dumb-downed’ language, but it has undeniably become very popular and caused a whole generation of young people to be more interested in literature.

Will it one day be considered a classic? No-one can tell. (What a cop out!)

Personally, I think Harry Potter will stand the test of time because of the way it enthuses children and creates a world which is truly magical and you can lose yourself in. 

But without the help of Hermione’s time turner, nobody knows.

Only in one hundred years time from now will we see if Harry Potter really proves that he is the boy that lived.

Photo from: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Plateforme_9_3_4.jpg
Picture taken by Steff on the 21/01/2006 in King’s Cross Station, London, UK


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10 responses to “Harry Potter and the Test of Time”

  1. Jeyna Grace says :

    If its a test of time, then HP will definitely pass. It will be around for a long time.

    • criticaldan4th says :

      I agree. It has certainly found its way onto the reading lists of many, many children and I think the films can only help to continue the prominence of the stories in popular culture.

  2. aspenlinmer says :

    “Only in one hundred years time from now will we see if Harry Potter really proves that he is the boy that lived.”

    Very well written line! And, a very insightful post. Thanks for sharing.


  3. Clemaine says :

    To help you a bit with the making of a Classic, there are 6 basic criteria that HP definitely fits into.

    1. Technical Merit
    2. Originality
    3. Creativity
    4. It can withstand the test of time…
    5. While still being suitable for the time period it was written in
    6. Structure

    HP definitely fits into each category perfectly. I don’t think Harry Potter was at the top of it’s game “technical-wise” in the first few books, but the foreshadowing, character building, plot lines, and clues hidden throughout each book is simply fantastic, even with the first two books being a bit on the dull side.

    (Wow, I actually learned something at college 😀 )

    • criticaldan4th says :

      Sounds like a solid list to me! Being suitable for the period isn’t something I had considered but I would definitely think you’re right by adding it to the list. Certainly applicable for many classics that i can think of.

      Thanks for helping! 🙂

  4. LastWilllandTestament says :

    A truly awe-inspiring post.
    Do you think it significant that the large majority of ‘classics’ tend to be one-off novels or plays, rather than a series (like Harry Potter)? O.o

    • criticaldan4th says :

      Thanks a lot! 🙂

      And what a really interesting question! I think that one of the reasons for this could be that we like the notion of a ‘one-hit wonder’.

      In other words, if one book has fantastic technical ability, a great story and is really memorable it is considered ‘special’ enough to be a classic.

      But if this special mix is repeated again and again, the shine begins to wear off, so to speak. Unless the stories are notably different from book to book, I think they are regarded as too similar and so I would say it is harder for a series to get on the classics list.

      Would you agree?

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