The Harry Potter Novels

There have been books that appealed to all ages. There have been books meant for adults that have become, often in an edited form, classics for children. Within the genre of fantasy there have been a few books that have had a universal audience. Everybody reads Harry Potter and this series has become extraordinarily popular. It becomes a reasonable and timely project to examine these books objectively and to compare them with the most likely books of the same type.

by Bob Williams

Books about one central character depend on an author’s ingenuity to provide the reader with the basic information. This must of necessity be the same from book to book and can be a nuisance to the reader who has read the books in sequence and does not need the author’s repetitions. Other readers, on the other hand, will, if they begin elsewhere than at the beginning, need the basics repeated and will likely give up the book and the author if they are not provided.

J.K. Rowling does a creditable job at providing the necessary background. As opportunity allows she will work it in and if it does not she will, as it were, serve it up cold and quick. This is a good common-sense approach and saves much misapplied energy.

There have been books that appealed to all ages. There have been books meant for adults that have become, often in an edited form, classics for children. Within the genre of fantasy there have been a few books that have had a universal audience. Everybody reads Harry Potter and this series has become extraordinarily popular. It becomes a reasonable and timely project to examine these books objectively and to compare them with the most likely books of the same type.

There are not many books of this type and only Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings matches it in the fervor of its readers or in the persistence of its popularity. Comparable books, LeGuin’s Earthseaseries or C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia , are special cases. The Earthsea series is written in a special style that is acceptable only to a very uncritical (juvenile, in other words) audience andThe Chronicles of Narnia are more likely to be books bought for younger readers by adults rather than books sought out by younger readers themselves.

The continued popularity of Lord of the Rings emphasizes how little inner preoccupations – not to mention peculiarities – of the author can interfere with the enjoyment of a book. Tolkien was a reactionary in politics and religion; he had little use for women and a strong male bias. Much of this appears in his work. It is especially notable in his stage villains, the Orcs. They are Orcs because they are bad and they are bad because they are Orcs. This is not an acceptable platform in terms of the thinking of many people today. Tolkien’s strength was his ability to create a convincing virtual world although that world has only a sentimental economy or political life. In style Tolkien has a straightforward narrative style although it is great contrast to the spoken portions of the book where each character speaks very stiffly and as if he were addressing a public meeting. His work is of such length that it represents a major commitment on the part of the reader.

Rowling takes the world pretty much as she finds it. Although she divides her world – it is fantasy after all – between the magicians and the Muggles (humans without magical talent), the characteristics on both sides of the divide are much the same. Governing bodies can be inept, wrongly influenced and even corrupt. Magical power is not a defense against stupidity and moral shortcomings. And this among the good guys. The evildoers merely find that magic increases their power to be evil. Without being preachy in the manner of C.S. Lewis, she comes down firmly with great good humor and a very lively sense of fun on the side of honesty and honor. This basic position, bolstered by very respectable literary gifts, makes Rowling deservedly popular. It is equally likely to insure her lasting reputation as a very important writer.

It is not to be expected that Rowling’s reputation will extend beyond the limits that are apparent in the Harry Potter books. She will not, after the manner of Joyce, inaugurate a new literary sensibility. But among that class of writers capable of writing entertainingly and with standards of taste and moral discernment she is secure. There are fewer writers with these gifts than one thinks.

Although she divides her world between magicians and Muggles, there is much less about the latter. Harry is an orphan and he lives with his aunt’s family. They are not just Muggles, they are militant Muggles. They treat Harry like “a dog that has rolled in something smelly.” In addition to being unpleasant they are caricatures, so horrible as to be funny. Some of the children at Hogwarts School are magicians from either half or all Muggle families, but the issue of a Muggle background is largely like racial prejudice and a touchstone for discerning the fools from the intelligent. About Muggles themselves Rowling tells us almost nothing. Very sensibly, since we Muggles know all about ourselves anyway.

Rowling uses two elements to keep her work in motion. She writes a novel of school with rivalries, frictions, the school team, unfair teachers and mischief. She is in the tradition of Tom Brown’s Schooldays but has made it clever and lively. (She also dips into a Wind in the Willows mode.) The other element is the combat between good and evil, the necessary contest between Harry and Lord Voldemort. Rowling does not see that either requires much explanation. Voldemort lusts for power – a type sadly familiar to us all – and Harry is his natural enemy as a result of circumstances but also as a matter of choice, appropriately in a novel so concerned about honor.

There is in fact a core of very tough seriousness within these well-written books that are so much fun to read. Severe critics have deplored the author’s drawing on so many genres but this is part of the fun. Severe critics, I suspect, don’t have much. Religious folk who only venture on literary comment to disapprove have denounced Harry Potter but this is but a better guarantee of merit for the rest of us.

About the Reviewer: Bob Williams is retired and lives in a small town with his wife, dogs and a cat. He has been collecting books all his life, and has done freelance writing, mostly on classical music. His principle interests are
James Joyce, Jane Austen and Homer. His writings, two books and a number of short articles on Joyce, can be accessed at http://www.jamesjoycestudies.com:81/joyce/docs.html

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