Saturday, August 11, 2007

The HARRY POTTER series by J. K. Rowling

There are a few small spoilers here. If you have not read all the books and you plan to or if you for some reason don't want to know what happens, then just walk away.

I decline to deal with Harry Potter as a children's series. The hype and response to the Harry Potter books is such that we are now well beyond "Harry Potter is children's fantasy" and into "Where does Harry Potter fit in the pantheon of fantasy works?" And now, my thoughts on the individual books. These are by no means comprehensive reviews; rather, they consist of what jumped out at me.

This is a charming little book. It's quite obviously for kids. The Dursleys' treatment of Harry Potter is so over the top and so far beyond suspension of disbelief that it only flies in a kids' book. Not a lot actually happens, as most of the book is focused on introducing the school and the classes, which is okay. Harry Potter inadvertently saves the day by wandering around where he's not supposed to, and when you look back and consider how severely he set Voldemort back without even knowing what's going on, well, it makes you kind of wonder about Voldemort, doesn't it?

The book and the series are very engrossing, and they have good humor. Harry Potter is a pretty rash little kid, and he's not very likeable, although Ron and Hermione are both good characters. The knock against this book, nay, against this series, is that many things happen with exceptionally convenient timing. Also it was here that I began noticing some questionable comma use that pervades the series.

Harry Potter is more rash here, and less likable . Every other page, Harry Potter's getting ready to get kicked out of school. More characters are more over the top than ever – notably, the Dursleys, Malfoy, and Hagrid. The reason this doesn't really work in Azkaban is because Rowling is beginning to shift the series toward more adult themes and audiences.

There are some plot holes here. One concerns the pointless amount of time between events in the competition, which would never happen and which only serves to make the competition last the whole book. A second involves the feeble explanation for why Voldemort can't just go kill Harry Potter when he's with the Dursleys. Furthermore, it is astounding that everyone's favorite hippie Gandalf, Dumbledore, never knows what's going on in any of the books. You'd think he'd take a more active hand in actually running the school.

In this book, Harry Potter is more unlikable than ever. He's shady, deceitful and tricky, he's immature, he's prideful, and he throws tantrums. At this point, he's really starting to put a damper on an otherwise charming series. Snape, who is presented as the villain in all respects, is proven absolutely right in his accusations against Harry Potter.

Harry Potter's crush is underdeveloped here, and it's pretty lame. There are also some semicolon use issues. In spite of all this, Goblet of Fire is one of the better books in the series.


The first time I read this book, I thought it was the worst of the series, and way too long. The second time I read it, I thought it just might be the best. Here, we've made the full transition to adult novel.

Harry Potter's crush is much better developed, although the romance is extremely poor, and it consists of nothing but arguments.

Harry Potter himself is in full-blown tantrum mode. He's a pompous, prideful jerk, and he yells at absolutely everyone. He's not the slightest bit sympathetic. I know his parents were murdered when he was a baby and he was raised by jerks, but that's just not an excuse for lashing out at anything that moves. So because of this behavior, in spite of everybody and their mom telling him to learn occlumency, he decides he's not going to do it. As a direct result of this, Sirius dies, in no small part due to the fact that Harry Potter forgets he has the magic mirror because he's too busy running around throwing a tantrum and trying to save the day.

Everything in this book not named "Harry Potter" is excellent. This book has a frenetic tone and there are a million things going on. Rowling has created good supporting characters, and lots of them. She's done a good job of creating a world that feels populous.

One note: young witches and wizards seem to be habitual drug users, yet nobody cares. They have potions for everything. There are stress-relieving potions, sleep potions, love potions, et cetera. If you have any kind of problem, there's a potion for that. They'd all be potion addicts. Plus they'd all be fat because they always eat whatever they want every single day. They must have a magic carb-blocker potion.

This book is a throwback, with everybody mostly taking it easy around the school. Instead of any real plot, we've got low-key fill-in mysteries like "Who is the prince?" and "How did Voldemort go crazy in the first place?" Only at the end of the book do we get some excitement.

Fortunately for everyone, Harry Potter's tantrums are finally on the downswing. Unfortunately, we've got some story issues, mostly concerning his relationship with Ginny. The "monster within" is pretty stupid, and kind of creepy, like he's some kind of stalker. However, the kiss scene with him and Ginny is exceptionally well done. The problem with this whole relationship, though, is that Harry Potter's like for Ginny is out of nowhere, and Ginny herself has not been well developed throughout the series. That is, she receives character development, but unevenly, and much if it is done completely apart from any interaction with Harry Potter. And then at the end we have the lame Spider-Man movie breakup.

Other issues: Harry Potter is "pure in heart"? Really? And how in the world did Harry Potter get an "exceeds expectations" in potions? Dumbledore is cooking the gradebook. Also, there is absolutely no good reason why Harry Potter couldn't use truth serum on Slughorn, except that we would lose part of an already slim plot.

Finally, and this issue does not belong to Harry Potter alone, but to many fantasy worlds: how can you see with an invisibility cloak over your face? Your eyes wouldn't work if they were invisible. Yes, I know, it's a magic cloak. Maybe you can see through the plot holes.

I thought this was the worst book of the seven (when the last book is the worst, well, you've got trouble, my friend) and that it made quite a poor ending to the series. Here is why.

Books 5, 6, and 7 continually prove that Death Eaters are bumbling morons. The students always beat them. Harry Potter could have killed nearly all of them if he'd really wanted to. They're like a cross between Stormtroopers and Sergeant Schultz from Hogan's Heroes. What a bunch of freaking losers.

I had long suspected that the charm in this series lay in the school. Hogwarts is a brilliant setting. Who doesn't want to go to a school and learn to make potions and do magic and have a good old time? This book confirms my suspicions. There's no school for most of the book, and there's no charm, either. The middle of the book is slow and boring, and the mysteries in this book aren't particularly interesting (more so even than book 6). And I was right about Snape all along. Ron's tantrum and abandonment of Harry Potter are completely out of character and bring nothing to the story.

Rowling made a big deal about how she was going to kill more characters. She starts by killing a character we haven't even had mentioned in any of the books, and moves on to killing scores of minor and irrelevant characters that we quite frankly don't care about. She also uses this forewarning as an opportunity to toy with the reader early on, but in a bad-sported way.
We've got deus ex machina out the yin-yang here. We've also got the belaboring of the pureblood/half-blood issue that has permeated this series like it was set in Germany in the 1930s. I guess Rowling's trying to make some kind of point on elitism or racism, but it just gets old.

Here is a glaring plot hole that irritated me thoroughly: Harry Potter is told that the Deathly Hallow cloak provides "constant and impenetrable concealment" (whether it actually does or not is irrelevant). How, then, does he immediately think his invisibility cloak is it when Moody could always see him while he was wearing it?

I believe that it is not the readers' place to second-guess the author about plot points. Who lives, who dies, who does what (so far as the actions are in character) are solely the business of the author. You can't rewrite their history. So I do not complain about what happened as much as I complain about the way it happened. After all this build-up, we get a thoroughly pedestrian ending, more or less by the numbers, with little real emotional punch. And we end the series with a poor, worthless "19 years later when everybody's grown up and had kids" epilogue that does nothing for any character and adds nothing to the story.

On the whole, the books are quite enjoyable. The dialogue tends to be quite good, as does the humor. If only Rowling, like so many fantasy writers before her, did not rely so heavily on magically convenient solutions to all their problems.

There are some themes in this series that I would like to discuss.

First, Harry Potter is a monument to "ends justify means" philosophy. That evil magic's pretty handy, isn't it, Harry Potter? And pretty lucky that Voldemort had the maturity level of an eight year old, huh?

I always feel that it's copout when a book focuses on death to this extent without getting into religion. When Rowling finally does get into some discussion of afterlife, all we get is "oh, they're in a better place." Poor.

Why does Harry Potter run around doing his own thing with no regard for anyone else? Because he didn't have a mommy? Or is it because he suffers from deeply-rooted inadequacy and low self-esteem? He needs counseling. He needs a psychiatrist. He was about one tantrum away from murdering some little kid in book 5. And he never shows any remorse for his tantrums, either. His behavior is just fine, because he's Harry Potter.

Will you die for Harry Potter? Everybody else is doing it. The books strongly support hero worship. First, we've got everybody blindly following Dumbledore, which really didn't ever seem like a good idea. Then we've got everybody blindly following Harry Potter, like he's Jesus, which also turned out to be a pretty bad idea. It's ridiculous that any adult didn't ever sit him down and make him explain what was going on. Who lets teenagers run around like secret agents?

Rowling is not adept at writing death scenes. This is particularly glaring given the number of deaths in this series. I understand we don't want to get into all the gory details for the kids' sakes, but we need a little more than the equivalent of "Character X died somehow. Harry Potter got real angry."

Those of us who read a lot of high fantasy are frustrated by the Harry Potter magic system, which is completely unexplained, and which has problems. Where does the magic come from? Do you need a wand to do magic or not? Harry Potter did magic inadvertently when he was little, but in book 5, nobody can do jack without a wand. It's inconsistent. Sometimes Rowling makes it sound like wands just help you channel your magic; other times, wands are like guns.

Harry Potter is the Devil
There has been a ridiculous lot made about how Harry Potter is evil, the devil, and will take your kids straight to hell. Why? Because it has magic. Magic, as a literary device, is not inherently good or evil, but reveals good and evil by its origins and the purposes for its use. If we throw out Harry Potter, we have to throw out The Chronicles of Narnia and The Lord of the Rings. And that's just stupid.

But there is a legitimate gripe against Harry Potter. Here's why Harry Potter is bad (or could be, let's say): it teaches kids to disobey authority and to do their own thing. Sure, little kid, you know better than those adults do, so run amok. There's nothing but upside. This disregard for adults/authority, incidentally, is the same reason E.T. was banned in many countries.

Quidditch is flawed and kind of dumb. You've got a game that has seven players on a side, but you only need one of them. The seeker is the only one relevant to the outcome of the game. Everybody else is kind of doing his own thing, scoring points that ultimately don't matter. There's not even any crossover allowed. I think Rowling figured this out, and so she had to put an exception into book 4, where the seeker who caught the Snitch still lost the World Cup, which was pretty stupid, since they were only one goal away from being eligible for a tie score. Get rid of the seeker, and you've got a much more interesting game, although there'd be less to do for egomaniacal Harry Potter.

A lot of critics of the Harry Potter series have said that it's unoriginal. But writing, particularly fantasy writing, is like building with Legos. Everybody plays with the same Legos. There's nothing new under the sun. Once in a while somebody might show up with a new piece, but by and large, everybody's building with the same set. Most people build something close to the basic castle: elves, dwarves, wizards, dragons, and so on. But by constructing a thoroughly engrossing series, Rowling has built something pretty impressive, even if she does use most all the retread fantasy elements.

So where does Harry Potter fit in the pantheon of timeless fantasy? Well, I don't know that it does. Harry Potter certainly isn't great literature. Hogwarts is immensely charming and delightful to read about, but by the end of book 6, even that was getting old. We've got good characters, a great setting, and generally mediocre plotting. The setting can carry the story only so far, and when the characters got off and had to walk, it didn't turn out so well, and the drama didn't end up being very dramatic. However, Harry Potter ends up being somehow more than the sum of its parts, and as such is a wholly enjoyable series.