Harry Potter in Literary Flap

Giles Elgood

LONDON (Reuters) - A literary dogfight broke out over Britain's prestigious Whitbread
book prize Wednesday when it emerged that Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney came
close to being beaten by the tale of a schoolboy wizard.

The Whitbread judges broke with precedent by letting it be known that J.K. (Joanne)
Rowling's ``Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban'' finished just one vote behind
Heaney's much acclaimed translation of the Anglo-Saxon epic ``Beowulf.''

The Whitbread had already been accused of ``dumbing down'' by the organizers of its
rival -- the Booker prize -- when Jerry Hall, the Texan model and former partner of Rolling
Stones singer Mick Jagger, was appointed to the panel of judges.

That suspicion was reinforced in the minds of critics when it
became apparent that the latest Harry Potter -- a children's
book -- came close to scooping the 23,000 pound ($38,000)

One judge, author Anthony Holden, said it would have been a
''national humiliation'' if Potter had won.

His threat to resign if that happened was denounced as
''pompous'' by another judge, thriller writer Robert Harris.

``If Harry Potter had won, it would have shown Britain and the world that we are a
Ruritanian theme park country,'' Holden told reporters

London's Evening Standard newspaper commented: ``Rowling is a brilliant writer of
children's works but only readers who refuse to grow up demand that Harry Potter should
be treated as a masterpiece for adults too,''

It rejected suggestions from Rowling's backers that only ''literary snobbery'' had robbed
the author of the prize.


Critic Philip Hensher noted that special editions of the Potter books, which have sold
more than 27 million copies round the world, had been printed to allow adults to read
them on the train to work without embarrassment.

But he was also adamant that Rowling and her Potter character should not win the

``The world of these books is thin and unsatisfactory, their imagery is derivative, their
characterization automatic and their structure deeply flawed,'' he said.

Sara Odedina of Bloomsbury, the company which publishes the three Potter books, said
Hensher was being ``churlish and pompous.''

``By criticizing them he is criticizing the five million people who bought the books in
Britain,'' she said.

The series is also popular in the United States, with the three books topping the New
York Times best seller list.

``Harry Potter'' won the 10,000 pounds ($16,460) children's book award. It was allowed
into the main competition after the rules were changed to permit the entry of children's

In finally choosing Heaney's translation of a work from the first millennium, the judges
acknowledged they faced difficulties, especially as it was the fourth year in a row that a
volume of poetry had won.

``There was some argument whether a translation was a genuine collection of poems,''
said Eric Anderson, rector of Oxford University's Lincoln College and chairman of the

But he concluded that ``it was retrieving for the public a buried treasure.''