I’m just barely returned from the world of Harry Potter. Having put off reading the books for so long now, I finally gave in and picked up a couple of the books in a used bookstore. After they sat on the shelf for a month or so, I finally started reading. Of course I’ve heard many things about the books, and am aware of the controversy that they caused in some ultra-conservative circles who forgot that C.S. Lewis also wrote children’s fantasy with magic in the books. I’d heard that they were well-written, and I now have to say that indeed, they are. Much better than a John Grisham novel, and not sloppily-written as a number of the bestselling authors are in the grownup world. As a writer, I confess I’m a little taken with the story of a single mother in a tiny apartment crafting a novel series in her spare time after work and landing a worldwide sensation. Also as a writer, I’ve been making a point of reading well-written fiction in the past few years, and despite being branded as children’s literature, the Harry Potter series landed squarely within this category for me.
The Accomplished Rowling
J.K. Rowling makes several notable accomplishments in her series. Firstly, I think Rowling set a new standard reference point for the phrase “page-turner”, at least in my mind. I didn’t quite get the fact that people lined up to purchase the final book in the series at midnight, then sat down and read the whole thing in a single sitting. But then, instead of taking a break to read something else before reading the last two books, I plowed straight through all 1200+ pages in the last two books in less than a week immediately after finishing the fifth in the series. With that realization, I was glad I waited until the series was complete.
Now just so you know, I’m not going to spare any spoilers from this point on, so if you haven’t read the books, feel free stop reading here and go read the entire series before you continue with this post. I’ve given you Amazon links if you need them, and I’ll still be here when you get back. Right, on we go then.
Rowling’s characters have flaws as well as strengths, and develop well through the full series of books, with the Hogwarts students maturing as they grow from book to book. This makes the characters — despite the fact that they are witches, wizards, and other mythical creatures — seem somehow strangely real. The major characters develop through the books and we learn more of the history of each, which helps explain earlier actions and motivations.
All this is fine, but perhaps the most significant thing Rowling manages is something few authors do… she makes you genuinely care about the characters. In fact, you tend to care enough that you wonder what happens to them after whatever book you’ve just finished — including the final one in the series. This point is universal enough that Rowling has had to fill in some of these gaps on her website and in later interviews: no, Harry and Ron did not return to Howarts, but Hermione did. Ginny went on to play professional Quidditch for the Hollyhead Harpies all-girls’ team before quitting to start a family with Harry, who later became head of the Auror Department at the Ministry of Magic. (Ron of course joins Harry as an Auror and is married to Hermione who also joins the Ministry for Magic and takes up humanitarian causes relating to non-human magical creatures.) People want to know. And the interesting thing here is not just that people were curious, but that Ms. Rowling actually had the answers for most of these questions. She’d already thought about it herself, and these were all part of the apparently extensive character notes she had made during her research and writing process. I suggest that this thoroughness is in no small part is the major contributing factor the the quality and efficacy of the characters in her novel series. For my part, I had to look up many of these answers online to help resolve the futures of some of these characters, and I find myself wishing for more books in the series.
The Allegorical Potter
Now I’d heard about allegory in the books, and by the end of book seven, people were putting it on par with The Narnia Chronicles and The Lord of the Rings. I was pretty skeptical, and even now I’d be cautious about making such a claim… J.K. Rowling is not an original Inkling, but there’s more to it than that. In a lot of ways, sometimes a great book can be damaged by rating it too highly, so there’s nothing left to be surprised about how much one enjoys it — it can meet expectations at best, but most often it’s a bit of a letdown.
More to the point, by the time I’d finished the third book I was wondering where the real allegory was. The books all have the classic good-versus-evil theme mingled with moral lessons, but there was supposed to be more crafted allegory that hadn’t yet become plain. I debated posting the question here at that time, but (a) I didn’t want to get flamed, and (b) I figured I’d better finish the series first. And as I did, I found that beginning with the fifth book (The Order of the Phoenix) the allegory that emerged most clearly had to do with Adolph Hitler and misguided appeals for “racial purity”, with the attendant lesson that such things must be resisted in their infancy before they become powerful cataclysms of disaster. There are Christian themes evident as well, though I would have to say they aren’t that clear before the final novel when Harry must decide to lay down his life for his friends.
• Harry Potter Author Reveals Books’ Christian Allegory, Her Struggling Faith
• Harry Potter: A Strikingly Accurate Allegory of World War II
• New ‘Harry Potter’ Is a Holocaust Allegory (Or else it’s a Christ allegory)
In my mind then, the major allegory of the series is more social and political with a minor in religion or spirituality, so that the more apt allegorical comparison might be George Orwell’s Animal Farm, though the two differ significantly in length. Perhaps the fact that it’s a seven-book allegory helped bring to mind Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings and Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia. These latter two are most often set as containing Christian allegorical themes, with Narnia being of course the clearest. To my way of thinking, Christian allegory in Tolkein was never all that overt, and perhaps less so than in Harry Potter.
In my reading of Harry Potter, I didn’t find these themes until the series had really had a chance to develop — unlike, say, Narnia, where it’s pretty clear in the first two books. Of course, Harry Potter is actually the longest of the three series, and even in Narnia there are extended (relatively) periods where there isn’t a clear allegorical meaning.
The Satiated Reader
This post isn’t intended to be a review or thorough critique of any type, but rather a response to the series as a whole. Firstly, I thoroughly enjoyed it, and am somewhat surprised to be saying so. Rowling’s attention to detail in the world and characters she has created have paid great dividends. Secondly, I am confirmed in my negative opinion of the anti-Potter hoopla. (Get over it.) Thirdly, I think some of the grandiose sentiment for its allegorical interpretation that came out when the final book was published was a little over the top. Having said that though, the allegory is clearly present and of exceptional calibre. Would I let my 11-year-old daughter read the books? Yes, I think I would. Or will. Is it okay for your kids? I couldn’t say. My wife is reading them now, and as she got into the final three books of the series, she found them getting darker than she’s generally comfortable with. It will depend on the child, and you may need to read them yourself in order to make the determination. The movies, on the other hand, given their pace and special effects, are much more overwhelming than the books, so that any given book will probably be suitable for a child younger than that for which the corresponding movie is suitable.
On the subject of the movies, I’ve been watching them as I’ve finished each book (only up until the 6th movie, of course). The movies clearly need to take shortcuts that the books don’t, and leave out material that the reader will no doubt feel was important, but concessions must always be made for movies (no pun intended), even if they do clock in at 2½ hours long. Suffice to say that as with many epics, if you’ve seen the movie, you still haven’t gotten the author’s entire story. I was therefore very pleased to hear that the seventh book is actually being made into not one, but two movies. The book does have a fairly logical place to divide it, and this will allow the portrayal of this final segment of the story in a much better way, as there is a lot of detail that has to come together in order to resolve the series-long conflict with Voldemort. Unfortunately, I evidently am Lord Voldemort.
There it is. I’m not likely to be reading any teen vampire lit anytime soon, but I enjoyed the Harry Potter series enough that I could see myself reading it again at some point in the future. What say you who have read the series? (Or even you who haven’t read the books and utterly disregarded my warning about spoilers in this post!) How have you experienced the series, and what has it meant to you? (Me, I just want to see a real Quidditch match.)
Thanks for writing this post so that i don’t have to…I can just link to yours!
Costco finally came out with the whole set of 7 books in a paperback box set, so I bought them this July and my three sons and I read through them all (my youngest and I for the first time…the older boys have read them many times already).
My youngest, only 8 1/2, was a little intimidated by the books, so I checked out each book in CD form from our local library. That was a wonderful thing — and many of the rest of us listened to the books being read, as well … so we could hear how words and names were supposed to be pronounced….
Anyway, I was absoluted absorbed and simultaneoused outraged at those who have made such a fuss about Harry Potter. AAUGH!
It has been the single most important catalyst for interaction between me and my three sons over the summer and into the fall. We even got the Wii game of Half Blood Prince … which is a blast. I think that will be your best chance at Quidditch….
I hadn’t had time to look up what happened between the end of the book and the epilogue, so thanks for that. Aurors … so they got their wish, after all!
Would love to listen in on the portraits of the headmasters with Albus and Severus next to each other….
Don’t worry about being Voldemort/INTP … you have plenty of good company (my husband among them) who did not give in to the dark side (not meaning to mix my fantasy, of course ;^))
Abi gives two purple thumbs way up for Rowling and the Harry Potter series. And an extra bit for taking a significant hit in her share of the movie profits so that she could retain significant artistic control. It shows….
I enjoyed your review of the HP series. I waited until the last book was published and read straight through that summer. I share your appreciation for Rowling’s character development-so thorough and well done, and I found myself feeling like I “know” these characters. I have read book 7 a few times; it’s become sort of an annual summer tradition (seem to always find new details I missed before). Great story.
I was 13 when I first heard of the Harry Potter series. My mother and father were on a visit in Mexico city when an American lady informed them of this wonderful series called Harry Potter. I was and still am an extremely picky reader, so my mother (rather desperate to stop my whining) went in search of the series when she came back home (South Africa) only to discover that the series was not even available in our bookstores yet. We placed an order, waited for months and by the time I was 14 I finally got Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (2nd print, 1999, Bloomsbury, with the brown-bearded wizard on the back).
I was instantly hooked and greedily devoured the first three books in the series. The wait for the fourth book, The Goblet of Fire, felt unbearably long and the rest of the series there after even more so. My friends became Potter fanatics with me (am to this day happily blamed for “converting” them to the HP-side) and we often found ourselves (even now 10 years down the line) in heated discussion about the series, the characters, the majority of events, and now more than then, the issues addressed by J.K. Rowling.
In my teenage years Harry Potter was my escape from the dreary world of body issues, boys with hormones and girls with nasty streaks. When ever I felt overwhelmed by school, issues with friends or school mates, or my family I would grab a Harry Potter book and emerge at the end of it feeling positive, motivated and ready to dare to take on my meagre problems head on. Because, if Harry could face Lord Voldemort and cope with growing up, why should I not be able to face my own obstacles?
I am now 24 and still a happy HP-addict. It is my fix, my drug of choice, my “personal brand of heroin” (if I may be so bold as to quote an over popular sparkling vampire). Harry Potter is my steady book companion through out life, whether I am bored, miserable, happy, or simply looking for a fun-filled diversion. I will make sure that my children read Harry Potter one day, and my grandchildren after that, because if nothing else, Harry Potter is a wonderful story you can loose yourself in and make almost all of your dreams come to life on a page.
(PS. The Twilight series is over rated in my humble opinion. It really simply is a teenage romance set in a supernatural world. Not to mention that the supporting characters are better developed than the two main characters, almost no character development takes place throughout the series and the forth book is a complete waste of paper.)
I like this article but..
last night i went to the midnight premiere of harry potter and the half blood prince! I was honestly so disappointed! was it just me or did it seem very choppy and for some reason didn’t feel like it was a harry potter movie. Don’t get me wrong some of the parts in it were either really funny or somewhat scary but i really was not sastified. I dont know, what did you think?? Am i wrong? Give me your opinions
I think book 7 is the I’m most likely to reread. I probably enjoyed that one the most.
Thanks for your comment on the Twilight series — I think my issue with it is how the protagonist seems so one-dimensional; she gets obsessed with a guy and ends up married and having a child just barely out of high school. Otherwise the story seems imaginative, and I like a good vampire story as well as anyone else. And it’s not the fact she falls in love with a vampire that makes her a bad role model. I could see giving the movies a view, but…
I haven’t seen the latest movie yet, but I can imagine it being difficult to get HBP down to movie-length and still get in all the plot updates that set up the final novel. And it’s gotta end on a downer note in keeping with the book, so probably won’t be the best HP movie to stand on its own.
Wow, really good post on the series. It’s funny, because I’d ignored the books (dismissed them as “kids’ books) until the first movie came out. The trailer looked good and some friends invited me to go along- and one of them handed me a copy of Sorcerer’s Stone and told me to read it before we saw the movie. I did, and have been hooked ever since.
In fact, I usually would re-read the entire series that was available just before the next book would launch, and even after reading the first three books, oh, 5 or 6 times so far, I’m still finding little tidbits that I’d missed the other half dozen times through. Even though the tension from the first read through is gone, it’s just as interesting seeing all the clues that have been worked in so subtly- you can only see them after you know the conclusion.
Can you tell that I’m a fan?