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.
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.)