The Boy Who Read Part Three… I promise this is the last one…maybe.
In Parts One and Two I went on at length about my dislike of reading as a child and my newfound addiction in the form of the Harry Potter novels. While I might have made it clear as to why I decided to read the sixth and seventh novels before seeing Half Blood Prince on film. I never really revisited the entire series as subject of debate. I will say that I have spanked that 24 year old that treated the novels and the overall series as childish and unnerving. If anything, J.K. Rowling has relit the pilot light of inspiration in me to continue writing and perhaps make a more concerted effort to finish a piece of work. Of course, commitment to a diet holds about as much weight. With this I offer five things I love about the Harry Potter series and two things I dislike. I won’t go so far as say hate because I went into the books knowing how it ended so a lot of guesswork was taken out of one of the ‘dislikes.’
- My first ‘love’ associated with the books comes from a background of loving language. I never met a pun or rhyme I didn’t like. Rowling has a firm grasp of etymology and linguistics which really delighted me in her usage throughout the series. The names of characters, locations, and objects such spells have this very soothing shape to them. Whether this can be attributed to her being English or just a lover of good study is beyond me. Looking at Tolkien or Lewis as standards in British Popular Literature, Rowling has earned her spot alongside some of the better writers in her use of language. I always looked at George Lucas’ use of language to create names for characters in the Star Wars universe as my own personal standard of yumminess, being primarily a fan of film and visual media, but Rowling now takes that mantle.
- My second ‘love’ of the books is the way in which she treats the reader. While the books are written in the third person perspective primarily associated with what is happening to Harry, it kind of invites the reader into the story as a first person narrative. I attribute this to an understanding her audience, a kid who can identify with the main characters and the adults who live vicariously through their children or their own childhood. I also believe this to be attributed to her style of writing, specifically her descriptiveness of the action and environment. It is very to imagine the locations and looks of the characters through her descriptions. My biggest hang up with reading is my imagination, which oddly enough is probably more refined than any other trait I possess. I can think of something ten times more horrible under my bed than what could actually be there when I was a kid. Jaws and The Blair Witch Project are favorites because of this acuity of my mind’s eye. Another great thing about how Rowling treats the audience is that she is great at tying things together without letting the reader feel like they’ve tread upon old ground. There are paragraphs and passages in the last books that reference action that took place in the first or second book and it felt like new information when I read it.
- Love number three is the story which is accessible to everyone. Remember, I was a skeptic. I admit, when the books first came out, I was totally against the idea of this school for wizards and witches setting. My gold standard for fantasy or science fiction has been either been based on Star Wars or JRR Tolkien. The idea of trying to fit a story about school and childhood into a medieval style or modern British world made me want to hear nails on chalkboards nonstop as an alternative. The fact that adults were gobbling up the books as much, if not more than, kids was disconcerting to me. Then, as time went by I started to soften a little. I had to admit from a cultural standpoint that this was a positive thing for kids. We were at a point where there was a definite shift from books to more visual media had occurred and then along comes these books that gets kids reading again. Not to mention, families are spending time together reading and discussing the books. It was a small check in the win column for family values. Of course, then the fundamentalist groups get in the way and start shouting “Satanic” and “Occult” and it sours the experience.
As I let the fad, which by now had become a pop culture juggernaut, start to play out and plateau, I picked up the first book and was immediately sucked into it. A friend recently quoted C.S. Lewis to me regarding my change of heart. “When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.” I never realized that I had already boiled down that beautiful quote years ago into, “I may get older, but I’ll never grow up.” I forgot that somewhere along the way. Once I allowed myself to accept the story for what it was, I was able to enjoy it. As the books progressed, the story matured as did the writer, I believe.
- My fourth love of the series is its hero structure and quest motifs. The story plays on the levels of the hero’s quest without relying on the standard convention of allegory on the surface. Yes, there are definite overtones of love vs. hate, family vs. solidarity, and good vs. evil, but it’s the subtext that really drives the action. By all accounts Harry Potter should not have lived until the age of two. Every step of the way he has someone there to help him. His mother’s love shields him and saves him as a baby. Dumbledore provides him with the tools to solve a lot of his problems. His friends sacrifice themselves time and time again for him to succeed.
In all seriousness, Harry Potter hardly takes a stand and fights back until the end of book two and that was after he was given help in the form of the Sorting Hat from which he pulled Gryffindor’s sword. From then on he still has other people doing things to advance his march towards victory until well into the last two books. But what is really going on here, besides the Christ like referencing is that Harry isn’t alone in his quest even though he is pretty much an orphan. Yes, the Dursley’s provide basic food and shelter but he is emotionally on his own for a decade. It’s not only the prophecy, but the willingness by nearly everyone to believe in him that gives him the strength to be victorious. There comes a point in Deathly Hallows when it finally clicks for Harry. Until this point, he’s never asked to be a hero. He’s a mediocre student but he has the potential to be much more, a leader. A great leader is someone who does the job without asking for it. The first hints to this are in Order of the Phoenix when he forms Dumbledore’s Army. But the realization to Harry’s need to be a leader happens when he buries Dobby.
The greatest lesson to be taught isn’t just the nature of love and good conquers hate and evil. It’s all about the journey. Voldemort is so obsessed with making things happen in order to become the most powerful, the he neglects to see the fine print. He rushes off into battle without first looking at the playing field. That’s why he loses. Harry only acts once he has enough information to secure his upper hand. This is another milestone for the boy who was willing to go off after Sirius when he thought him a killer and Voldemort when he returned. Over the course of the series, Harry follows in his father’s footsteps of arrogance and entitlement but learns to curb his temper and allow things to take their course. Thus, knowledge and defense become Harry’s greatest weapons over Voldemort. Yes, he was recognized as the master of the Elder Wand but if Voldemort had known that, he would have chose to dispose of Potter in some other fashion. Harry lets Voldemort destroy himself.
- Love Number Five is Rowling’s decision to not play it safe. In children’s literature, much like the upbringing of children these days there has been an inherent decision to not let kids fail. This is my biggest pet peeve against our society as it stands today. My kid falls down a lot and I tell her to get back up. Now, if she’s really hurt, I go get her, but she fails at the age of two. She doesn’t like it but she is starting to understand it. For a story aimed at kids, there is a reluctance to take a chance and push the boundaries in regards to the safety of your characters. Happy endings come with little sacrifice in some stories. But Rowling isn’t afraid to kill her characters, regardless of their popularity or overall goodness. Apart from the killing of Harry’s parents, no other major character shockingly dies until Cedric Diggory in the fourth book. I don’t count the other deaths in between because they are either peripheral or not as intricately tied to an emotional attachment. Having Wormtail kill Cedric, a teenager proves that this is no longer just a children’s story. People die in violent and tragic ways and by the time we reach book seven, the gloves are off in terms of who is safe and who is cursed.
Now, unfortunately, my two dislikes.
- Number one is Rowling’s use of Deus ex Machina. In the first book, Harry survives the Quirrell’s assault because he was protected by his Mother’s love. Albeit a stylized salvation, to simply end a climax by saying he was burned by love is pretty much phoning it in by my thoughts. In book two, Harry is first saved by Fawkes the phoenix when he blinds the basilisk and delivers the sorting hat which produces Gryffindor’s sword. Then he saves a dying Harry by producing tears that have healing abilities. Here Rowling has built into the early part of the story the significance of Fawkes and his abilities but even so, it still stands to serve as a “Just in time” salvation. As the books progress, the usage lessens or at least is subtle in its application which could account for the maturing tone of the novels over time.
- My other dislike is Rowling’s attention to detail. To say that she is overly descriptive sounds wrong. Her world is fully realized and her intention in moving the story from point A to point B is sound. However, over time you begin to build up an attachment with certain characters who either become important in terms of development of story or just because they accentuate the action in the right spot.
Case in point, Lupin and Tonks. Remus was a childhood friend of James and Sirius. He is an important part of Harry’s life in the third book but he stays out of Goblet of Fire. He comes back as part of books five and six but then only pops in and out of the story at certain moments in book seven to either deliver news or be sent away as a coward by Harry. He is regarded as a master duelist, yet he is hardly referenced at all in the Battle of Hogwarts except for whom he was fighting and that he died. The same goes for Tonks who has the same amount of action and is ultimately killed. Preference over character appearances aside, it’s the assumption of how both characters died that gets me. Both of them are seen sparsely during the battle and they are both killed off page. He get no real explanation other than the assumption that they were killed by their duelers. We get this passage about Fred dying and being placed in an alcove away from battle, but nothing about Lupin or Tonks. And what about Cho Chang and Lavendar Brown, did they survive? Accoding to the book, it's unclear, although Rowling states in an interview that Cho married a muggle. But what about Lavender? She was being attacked by Greyback and then Trewlaney smacked him in the head with a crystal ball. Did she survive? It seemed as if Rowling had too much going on and some to a footnote or explained afterwards. You see a lot of this over saturation of characters in television shows when cast members are continually added to an ensemble, creating a traffic jam of plotlines.
Also, right after they escape the Ministry, there is a lot of story downtime during the search for Horcruxes in book seven. It especially drags after Ron leaves. Now, the one great thing about books over movies is the ability to take a story and shape and progress it without rushing towards the end. Look at Stephen King’s Dark Tower series. He builds and builds up action from the beginning to the end of book three. Then in book four, he stops it all to tell you another story from the past. It’s a kind of bait and switch tactic that works on paper but can drive someone mad if they’ve built up momentum in their reading. You hit that wall and your eyes nearly fly right off the page.
Additionally, her ability to create a romantic development between characters seems to be a weak point. For the life of me I couldn’t resolve Harry’s affection for Ginny. It just seemed forced. Hermione and Ron’s affections are easy because they are rooted in conflict and that is a natural attraction but the payoff happens abruptly in the last chapters of book seven. I guess you can deduce that Ron’s compassion for the House Elves working in the kitchen is what spark the move for Hermione to eat his face off, but it didn’t read very well and it kind of broke my reading momentum. I hate having to go back and reread something once I've got a steady pace going.
For now, though, my head is not burning any longer. I have decided to take a small break in order to attend to other things that have been put on hold while I dive head first into the world of reading. I don’t think I will abandon it all together like I have in the past. I will probably make a more concerted effort to read something other than a magazine article. Just for a little while though, I need to enter a 12 step program and get myself clean. My wife is into book four of the Twilight series and even though she’s clipping along at a good pace, she seems perturbed at things that have happened in the fourth book. She has described in great detail the chemistry between these two characters and it really moves her. However, she is pissed. There is all this build up towards a payoff only to have the consummation of those desires be relegated to being alluded to and mentioned afterwards. It sounds as the author is great at setting the scene but can’t actually commit to writing about the icky stuff. I have my own thoughts on why, but I won’t get into a discussion about it here. I watched the movie and I feel as if I just watched a bad high school production of Into the Woods. My wife says the movie didn’t do the book justice. I think the producers and director went for marketing the film towards the OC and The Hills demographic and disregarded a lot of the text because they couldn’t keep the attention of the audience, otherwise.So, there you have it. I’m done. There is no more left to write. The Boy Who Read has grown up and is looking forward to the next good book. I’ve been given some suggestions and I will take them to heart. For now, the book is closed.