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Harry Potter and the Return of the British Empire

It is often said that U.S. culture rules the roost. Does it?

January 13, 2002

It is often said that U.S. culture rules the roost. Does it?

The Brits are good sportsmen. They feel it’s important to concede defeat graciously. This is why contemporary discussions of British culture in the United Kingdom often lead to acknowledgment of how the Yanks dominate the world.

The British, for example, admit that the English language that is now sweeping the globe is closer to the language spoken in Brooklyn than at Oxford or Cambridge.

Indeed, U.S. movies are everywhere. And kids even in remote parts of the world are familiar with such essential U.S. expressions as “Big Mac” and “Los Angeles Lakers.”

But it would be a mistake to claim that the British Empire — which originally spread English from Singapore to Zimbabwe and from Papua New Guinea to Kalamazoo, Michigan — is dead and buried.

Far from it. Just look at world literature. It’s not surprising that the Brits invented some of the most popular literary genres of the past 150 years.

One such example is the detective novel — which sprung from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and his famous character “Sherlock Holmes,” as well as Dame Agatha Christie and her “Hercule Poirot” and “Miss Marple.”

Another example of British literary excellence can be found in children’s literature. Alice in Wonderland and Winnie the Pooh became truly global phenomena long before they were “Disney-fied” by cartoon movies made in Hollywood.

True, those creative achievements still date from the time when Great Britain was the dominant world power.

And yet, even though the empire has vanished, today’s British writers do more than hold their own — both in detective stories and kids’ literature.

In fact, two global series of blockbuster movies — Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings — have underscored the hold that even the post-World War II generation of British writers still has on kids around the world.

J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy-adventure trilogy — The Lord of the Rings — was written between 1937 and 1948. It has had a tremendous influence on U.S. culture in recent decades.

Star Wars, unquestionably one of the most lucrative Hollywood endeavors in memory, owes a huge debt to the Lord of the Rings series — as Star Wars’ creator George Lucas has readily acknowledged.

But even in those literary genres where you might think Americans should be superior, the Brits have managed to get ahead. For example, what about the spy novel?

After all, the United States was the main combatant in the Cold War with the Soviet Union — and bore the heaviest burden of fighting the “Evil Empire.”

American spy novels dealing with that era should be by far the most successful, right?

Wrong. The Cold War novel, in fact, was invented by the Brits. Ian Fleming and his suave character “James Bond” monopolized the popular end of the literary scale, while Graham Greene spoke to the more intellectual readers.

Later on, two other Brits — Frederick Forsythe and John Le Carré — became their successors.

The American writer Tom Clancy, while highly successful, is a Johnny Come Lately, with his initial batch of novels appearing only during the 1980s — at the tail-end of the Cold War.

Beginning in 1998, the phenomenally popular Harry Potter books have catapulted their young author J.K. Rowling (born in 1965) to global stardom.

In just a few years, she has made it from a penniless single mother to her present status as the second-richest woman in Britain — after only the Queen. Not surprisingly, she also fits into the same pattern of British literary superiority.

The Harry Potter books are highly cultured. They have echoes of Charles Dickens, who was famous for his satirical description of British boarding schools in his famous novel Nicholas Nickleby.

The Harry Potter books also have references to fairy tales and myths from all over the world and throughout history, such as the philosophers’ stone that Medieval alchemists were trying to discover.

There are also plenty of magical creatures, such as basilisks, dragons and hyppogryphs.

Meanwhile, youth culture around the world is catered to by huge multinational corporations. Enormous segments of the toy, music, movie and fast food industries both sponsor and utilize U.S. youth culture in particular to sell billions of dollars worth of goods and services.

And yet, the creative impulse for the latest global movie blockbusters did not spring from the United States. Instead, it hails all the way from Great Britain — and with its global reach has rekindled memories of the once world-spanning British Empire.