Thoughts on Harry Potter

So. I have finally finished book seven: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. In fact, over the last couple of weeks I re-read the first six books in the series in order to have everything fresh in my mind for the conclusion in book seven. Below I offer some thoughts about the series as a whole before tackling a review of Deathly Hallows in a separate post.

I consider myself in a sort of middle position on the whole Pottermania phenomenon. Despite having taken the time to read, and re-read, the entire series, I haven’t been a particularly zealous Potter fan. As the series has played out I haven’t scourged the internet seeking clues to hidden meanings or key plot developments of soon to be released books (or joined chat rooms connecting with other fans to engage in such speculation). I haven’t developed complex theories about the stories or characters; or attempted to make predictions about what would happen to them in the final book. The seventh book was the only book I purchased on the day it was released.

But neither have I joined in the frequent sneering criticism of the book’s style, or quality of writing, nor have I rejected the books as theologically dangerous, or tempting, for children. The first can often contain valid criticisms but are really beside the point and the second is preposterous over-reaction revealing a lack of subtlety and common sense.

As a fan of children’s and young adult fantasy literature I simply enjoyed reading the books. (Well, not all of them. I didn’t enjoy The Order of the Phoenix very much the first time around. I still think it is the weakest book of the series, but it makes up for it somewhat with a strong conclusion.) I am not particularly obsessive about it, I just find this sort of thing interesting and wanted to find out what the whole hoopla was about.

And I think anyone who tries to deny Rowling’s amazing accomplishment is being snobby, petty, or both. She has created an alternate universe that readers love to lose themselves in. This universe is complex and interesting and full of characters readers care about. To pull off a seven book series of this nature – particular under the pressure and microscope of the worldwide phenomenon – is an amazing feat. I am confident that people will be reading Harry Potter for years to come.

When asked about the issue in the past I have almost always replied that the early books were good but the later books needed editing. I still think this is largely true, but having re-read the entire series I have a greater appreciation for the scope of the series. As the series has progressed it has often bogged down a bit, but it has enough power to overcome this weight.

Thomas Hibbs points out this weakness in his review of Deathly Hallows

Rowling’s formula had been to give us an initial scare in the opening chapters and then slowly to build up to a particular quest and its defining battle. In the middle parts of her books, however, Rowling had developed a bad habit of inordinate expansion and repetition, testing readers’ interest in the daily life of Hogwarts Academy and particularly in the politics of institutional gossip, teen angst, and petty competitions for recognition.

This is what annoyed me so much about the Order of the Phoenix. The 870 page book simply took too long to get started. The “inordinate expansion and repetition” combined with Harry’s teenage angst to make long stretches rather unappealing. If the ending hadn’t been as exciting as it was, I might have given up on the series. Luckily, books 6 and 7 were much better and shorter, albeit only slightly.

But this is also part of Rowling’s popularity. Most younger children don’t care quite as much about tight plots and prose. They simply love inhabiting the world Rowling has created through her books. The long books provide a great deal of background for these readers to enjoy; pages and pages of just existing vicariously in the world of Hogwarts.

Perhaps not being of the target age, I enjoyed this aspect of the series a lot less. But I still found enough to enjoy. There are elements of action, mystery, fantasy, and coming of age stories all mixed into the series; there is tragedy, comedy, and pathos. The early books had a lighthearted comic quality while the later books had a darker more mythological tone and style. As noted, I found the former easier reads but can appreciate the appeal of the later.

As with so many fantasy novels, a certain amount of suspension of disbelief is necessary. Rowling has done an amazing job of creating an alternate world, but I find if you start picking apart the whole construct of the wizard world things fall apart. I am not one to over-analyze literature anyways so this wasn’t a big problem for me.

One interesting note on re-reading the series after having watched the movies: the movies can’t help but intrude. Once you have seen the visual images from the films it is almost impossible not to bring those images to mind when you revisit the stories. Particularly characters like Harry, Ron, and Hermione but also Snape, Professor McGonagall, Hagrid, and others. When I was reading the stories I kept seeing and hearing these actors in my mind. I also noticed that the illustrations didn’t match up with the films.

All in all I am glad I re-read the books. It provided a great immersion in the series and helped me to see it as a whole and appreciate Rowling’s accomplishment in greater detail. I think she has created something quite remarkable and lasting. Is it flawed? Sure. Rowling is not the polished writer or thinker of say Tolkien, Lewis, or others. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t a rare feat and something worth celebrating.

Next up, a review of the final book.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

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