PERSPECTIVES

by Andrew Fedynsky


Magicians, muggles and good summer reading

It was 85 degrees with blue skies and the sun at its brightest. A perfect afternoon for jumping into the pool to cool off and indeed, a group of "novaky," (Plast cub scouts) at the Pysanyi Kamin (Painted Rock) Camp near Cleveland was doing just that - with the notable exception, that is, of a half-dozen or so who were sitting in the shade of a nearby grove reading, oblivious to the shouts and splashes just a few steps away. That was three years ago and one of the boys with his nose in a book was my son, Mykhas, almost 10 years old then.

Since when do pre-adolescent boys prefer the company of a book to the pleasures of a cold pool on a hot summer day? Since Harry Potter. Two days earlier, on a Saturday morning we were leaving for camp, Mykhas insisted that we first stop at the bookstore to make sure he got his copy of the long-anticipated fourth book in the series, "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire," which was being released to much hoopla and long lines at 7 a.m.

And so, even though the counselors at Pysanyi Kamin were supposed to enforce a Ukrainian-only rule for reading material, what could they do? This was Harry Potter, and for this particular group of die-hard fans, there was no waiting - hot weather, a nearby pool and a mandatory devotion to the Ukrainian language notwithstanding.

Just in case you've been in Antarctica or the dark side of the moon for the last five years, let me briefly outline the premise of the Harry Potter series. In its bare bones, the story is simple: a lonely orphan with abusive stepparents discovers he has magical powers that mystify his oppressors and open the door for him to an exclusive school where he hones his skills while battling evil. Now into its fifth book, the series by J.K. Rowling has been tracking Harry as he grows up. In the latest, "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix," he's an adolescent with all the challenges of that age.

With huge numbers of books sold - 5 million copies on the first day for "The Order of the Phoenix" - Harry Potter is not only a literary phenomenon, but a cultural one, as well. Besides the books, there have been two movies, various residuals, Halloween costumes and a plethora of articles analyzing Harry Potter's appeal, starting with the focus on magic.

People, of course, have always been interested in the supernatural and the occult. The Harry Potter series with its wizards and witches, muggles and monsters clearly taps into that age-old fascination. But there's more. Personally, I'm struck by the theme of the virtuous orphan magically elevated to the status of hero.

This story is far more familiar than we perhaps realize. Children first encounter it with Cinderella and Dorothy from "The Wizard of Oz." Then there are the comic book heroes, Superman, Batman and Spiderman, also orphans who apply extraordinary powers in the fight against evil. Frodo Baggins in "The Lord of the Rings" is an orphan and so is Luke Skywalker from the "Star Wars" trilogy. At the intersection of history and myth, we find Romulus and Remus, co-founders of Rome. As infant twins, they were abandoned and left to die, only to be saved by a she-wolf who raised them as her own.

In the Old Testament, Moses' mother places him in a papyrus basket and sends him floating down the Nile to save him from a blanket death sentence on all Hebrew males. The pharaoh's daughter rescues him, brings him up as her child until Moses grows up to lead his people out of captivity and into the promised land.

And then there's Taras Shevchenko. His life story is at the center of Ukraine's national ethos: the orphan whose talent leads to a miraculous emancipation. Once free, he composes verse that is so compelling, it inspires a nation of serfs toward liberation and redemption.

Regardless of its underlying appeal - magic, identification with an orphan underdog, or something else - the Harry Potter series, now all of six years old, is a worldwide sensation. Teachers and parents rejoice because their children turn off the television set and read, not only in English, the language of the author, but also in 50-plus languages: in addition to German, French, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese, there's also Urdu, Zulu, Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Hebrew, Arabic, Latin and Ancient Greek.

And yes, Harry Potter is available in Ukrainian. Early in 2002, Ivan Malkovich, founder and president of A-Ba-Ba-Ha-La-Ma-Ha, the premier Ukrainian children's publishing house, purchased the Ukrainian-language rights to the Harry Potter series. Viktor Morozov translated the first four books and is working on the latest.

Although I've never met either Mr. Malkovych or Mr. Morozov, I consider both of them to be old friends. For the past 10 years, my children have been enjoying Mr. Malkovych's children's books with their delightful illustrations. As for Mr. Morozov, I first met him through videos of the Lviv theater Ne Zhurys! (Don't Worry!), which staged a series of historic cabaret productions in the late 1980s and early '90s, mocking the Soviet regime and reviving long-forbidden themes and songs. Now these two, along with many others, have collaborated to bring Harry Potter to Ukrainian readers.

Like all good literature, Harry Potter is about a lot of things. It's a whodunit, a coming-of-age story and, with its three-headed dogs, phoenixes and gorgons, a modern application of classical mythology. Above all, it's a page-turner. And now, thanks to Messrs. Malkovych and Morozov, Harry Potter is motivating my children to read Ukrainian.

The translated version of "Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone" is sitting on my son's nightstand, next to the English version, which he knows backwards and forwards. Don't quite understand the Ukie text? Find its equivalent in English and then read on. And it's working. Mykhas is reading Harry Potter in Ukrainian. In the meantime, our 8-year-old Olesia has also discovered Harry Potter, so far in the English version. She recommends it highly. (Just for the record, Mykhas finished the 870-page "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix" 35 hours after we bought it. "Harri Potter i Filosofskyi Kamin" is taking a good bit longer. But that's okay. He's reading.)

To order your own copy of Harry Potter in Ukrainian, go to the online stores http://www.yevshan.com/ or http://www.oleksa.co.uk/.


Andrew Fedynsky's e-mail address is: fedynsky@stratos.net.


Copyright The Ukrainian Weekly, July 27, 2003, No. 30, Vol. LXXI


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