Literary snobs beware: James W. Thomas, has a bone to pick with anyone claiming that J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter series is not "real" literature.
Literary snobs beware: James W. Thomas, has a bone to pick with anyone claiming that J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter series is not "real" literature. Since discovering the wizarding stories five years ago, the Seaver College professor of English has pioneered a class dedicated to exploring the books, and in January 2009, he published a guide for professors and fans alike, Repotting Harry Potter: A Professor's Book-by-Book Guide for the Serious Re-Reader.
“The books are very recent, but all classics were recent at one point,” he asserts. “I think the elitist assumption is that something popular cannot also be good. So much detail is encoded in these books.”
Thomas’ book appeals to those wanting to reread the series in search of details and foreshadowing they missed with the first read. It is not for the spoiler-shy (nor is this article). “I wanted to enrich a return to the book,” he says. “My book is about the rewards and joy of reading a text once you already know the outcome.”
The seven books of Rowling’s stories follow orphan Harry Potter as he discovers the magical destiny awaiting him at the enchanted boarding school Hogwarts, where he befriends Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger and learns the sacrificial truth behind the death of his parents. Thomas explores the humor and literary allusions prevalent throughout the books, while delving into the plot clues offered by Rowling as foreshadowing. Destiny is a huge theme throughout, with prophecies fulfilled and fates learned slowly—particularly Harry’s destiny, which is cruelly aligned with that of his enemy, the evil Lord Voldemort.
Thomas notes that even the names of certain characters reveal tremendous forethought from Rowling in crafting her saga. “A 10-year-old reader will just think Draco Malfoy is a funny name. But draco means dragon or beast in Latin, and Malfoy is French for ‘bad faith,’” Thomas explains about Harry’s nemesis at Hogwarts. “She has hundreds of names in the books, most of which have something going for them. Think of the incredible coincidence if she just stumbled on Draco Malfoy as a name and it had all that going for it.”
The Seaver professor’s academic approach to Harry Potter has already garnered him media attention. He was approached as a Potter expert by TIME magazine when Rowling was named the runner-up Person of the Year 2007 the year her seventh and final Potter book, The Deathly Hallows, was released. In the interview, he vents his frustration at literary elitism, playing off the title of the last book in citing the series’ three academic “deathly hallows”: “they’re too recent, they’re too popular, and they’re too juvenile.”
“Rowling wasn’t an Inkling,” he continues, referencing the famous 1950s British literary circle populated by authors J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis, whose iconic fantasy works are often compared thematically with the Potter series. “She did not attend Oxford or Cambridge, and she is a woman. I think a lot of the early criticisms were just veiled misogyny.”
Thomas’ scholarly interest in the Harry Potter series marks a detour from the rest of his academic career, which has been dominated by American literature. After earning his bachelor’s degree in English from Lipscomb University, and his master’s and PhD in English from the University of Tennessee, he now teaches Edgar Allen Poe, William Faulkner, contemporary American poetry, and American short stories. His own scholarly brand of Potter-mania, however, has led to NPR interviews and presentations at a number of conferences, including a Harry Potter conference in Dallas, Texas, in which he lectured about the literary legitimacy of the series.
Beyond intricate details and an engaging storyline, Thomas notes that what makes the stories so immensely popular and beloved is the vast array of finely tuned characters. He references Severus Snape, Harry’s least favorite teacher at Hogwarts who takes an immediate dislike to our young hero, as more than just a plot-facilitating character.
“Maybe more than anything else,” says Thomas, about the reason he became fascinated with the books in an academic sense, “is the creation of an incredible literary character like Snape, who we are so convinced— even sophisticated readers—is a one- or two-dimensional character. His life and story we don’t know until the final few pages, but the characterization of Snape is a magnificent accomplishment, and his death and subsequent memories are, for me, the most moving part of the entire series.”
Thomas is confident that Rowling’s stories will stand the test of time. “I think my grandchildren’s grandchildren will read these books,” he says. And when they reread them, they’ll know exactly where to turn for advice.
Who is Thomas’ Favorite Character?
Arthur Weasley, the eccentric father of Harry’s best friend Ron, for his fascination with “Muggles”—the wizarding term for regular humans who are not in, or aware of, the magic community. “It’s magical for Arthur to see our muggle ‘magic,’ such as electricity. I think the magical person who is as close- minded about the worth of muggles, is kind of like a person who refuses to read the Harry Potter books for closed-minded reasons.”