Saturday, July 28, 2007

Harry Potter

Google ‘Deathly Hallows review’ and you get over 6 million hits, so anyone who wants to know how it ends can soon find out without spending the £5 it cost me to buy the book in Asda, but if they do they will miss out on the fun of reading it. Over the past 10 years I have read all the books and seen all the films. Some American Christians have warned off potential readers with suggestions that this will lead children into the occult. For a community that invented the annual ritual of children dressing up as witches and going out tricking and treating on the evening of October 31st, this is a bit rich. The magic is just a literary device and is completely harmless.

The books have has many elements that make them readable for children. There are strong characters, a fantastic world, gross inventions of the Roald Dahl sort (vomit flavoured sweets), a new and exciting sport, teenage romance, monsters, a cracking pace, easy language, heroes and villains and silly jokes. They are not written as literature and there are plenty of clichés for critics to get their teeth into. Then the critics hated Enid Blyton.

As Harry Potter has grown older, so the characters have become more complex and the narrative darker. In the final book we begin to see shades of grey in even the most saintly and most evil individuals. Dumbledore flirted with fascism. Voldemort had a deprived childhood.

For JK Rowling, the love of a mother for her child is perhaps the most powerful force in the universe. It was that which protected Harry from Voldemort’s murderous attack right at the beginning, and Mary Weasley is motivated by it to become a fearsome warrior in the final battle. Even for Narcissa Malfoy its power is greater than Voldemort’s hold over her.

‘Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also’. Rowling quotes from the Sermon on the Mount. She might also have quoted from John’s Gospel, ‘Greater love has no man than this that a man lay down his life for his friends’, for this is very much the theme of the novel.

Like all good fantasy books there is a quest at the heart of it. Ron, Hermione and Harry are searching for the Horcruxes, the artefacts where Voldemort has hidden pieces of his soul, but with Dumbledore dead and Hogwarts in the hands of Snape, all the world seems against them. Each of them has been left a clue by Dumbledore in his will: a strange silver cigarette lighter that absorbs all the light in a room to Ron, a book of children’s fairy tales to Hermione and a Quidditch Snitch to Harry, as well as the sword of Godric Gryffindor. All are to have important roles in the story, though the sword is withheld by the Ministry of Magic.

Rowling gives us a clue in that the book of fairy stories contains the moral of the tale, just as her books of fairy stories contain the moral she wishes us to absorb. In an oblique way it tells of the Deathly Hallows, objects of immense significance: a wand of enormous power, a stone with the power of resurrection and a cloak of invisibility. Which one would you desire?

The heroic trio fall out. Should they seek the Horcruxes or the Hallows? There are jealousies, arguments, sulks and angry words. We see old characters put in cameo appearances, including Rita Skeeter who has written an expose of the Hogwart’s headmaster, ‘The Life and lies of Albus Dumbledore’. Doubt overwhelms Harry as he reads extracts from it.

There are plenty of deaths, as promised. Rowling casts off familiar and well-loved characters right from the very beginning. In the previous books we were so used to her creations making miraculous escapes that when we first lose Hedwig, we are not sure that the owl is really dead, but as the body count rises and individuals that we have become attached to are summarily despatched we begin to realise that this is no game. No-one is invulnerable. It comes as no surprise that Harry eventually realises that Dumbledore had planned all along that he, Harry, would have to die in defeating Voldemort. Dumbledore was not the soft, cuddly uncle we had grown to love.

In the end all the threads come together. We understand. The best leaders are those who have it thrust upon them. Integrity will out. Those who seek power are not qualified to wield it. Blessed are the pure in heart.


Anonymous said...

I slogged through the first one and found it boring. There is little sense of wonder in spite of the fun notion of streets where you can by a flying broom and magic wands. You get set up that Harry is a once-in-a-lifetime reluctant hero put on earth to banish or defeat evil (a common enough plot).

I kept waiting for the payoff, which never came.

If you like the sword-and-sorcery books, I'd recommend the 'Wizard of Earthsea' books by a true mistress of the genre, Ursula LeGuin, an American authoress. These are so much better written, with a true sense of wonder and menace, that they put Potter out in Potter's field.

Unfortunately, they are slim books, but did win the Newberry award for children's literature.

The only reason Rowling is a billionaire is that there are so few decent books written aimed at children that don't talk down to them or hit them over the head with the idea that gay people make better parents than heterosexual (normal) parents, and that disabled folks are more noble than regular people.

Seek out the LeGuin books and see if I'm not right.

Terry Hamblin said...

I read the LeGuin books years ago. They are fine enough examples of the genre, but children delight in Harry Potter. My children found the Wizard of Earthsea boring. You have to remember that these are books meant for children, and just like the Narnia books, the children lap them up.

Vance Esler said...

I just finished the book a couple of hours ago. Your review is spot on.

My wife finished the book first. Last night, while nearing the end, I told her, "JK Rowling said a couple of characters would die. Man, that was an understatement. It seems like everyone is dying..."

Not only was I astonished by how much action there is, but by how well Rowling described it all. Things happening quickly and simultaneously. Yet I was able to keep up.

I also did not feel that the ending felt contrived. Rather, it answered all the questions. I liked it.

She sure knows how to tell a story.

Anonymous said...

I suppose children would prefer immature works by a second-rate author. I felt the first book (the only one I read) was a let-down based upon the hype.

I will tell you that I have no interest in re-reading the Potter book, but I have re-read the LeGuin books again and again.

I must say that I am pleased to enjoy a more adult tale than one geared for the average 10 year old.

It is sad, though, that LeGuin has been ignored in favor of Rowling.

I was never into comic books and books geared for the juvenile. I devoured science fiction as a child, of all stripes. I eschewed the fantasy books such as Tarzan and Planet of the Apes. I demanded something at least plausible (OK, faster-than-light is a terrible violation of the standard model).

Yet I enjoyed the Earthsea books. Excellent writing is excellent writing in any genre.

Rowling, sad to say, isn't an excellent writer. Life is too short to wade through second-rate tales.

I will say, anything to pull children away from the mind-numbing video games and the telly is a good thing.

I just found the book to be unfulfilling. I wanted more. And better.

(Interesting to see two docs liking the book. What does that mean? Probably nothing.)

Jenny Lou said...

I just started laughing out loud at your comment on Halloween in true, but leave it to that same group of people who boycott the Harry Potter series to state that your children have to dress up as "angels" or some other Godly like form to go trick or treating. Always a way around anything in the U.S. Thanks for the belly laugh. And on topic, I love all the Harry Potter books. Those who don't have ceased to be in touch with their inner child.

Anonymous said...

I read several of the books to my classes (5th and 6th grade), and they loved them. I finished Deathly Hallows yesterday and thoroughly enjoyed it.

What was really exciting, though, was to have students who disliked reading as a subject, never picked up a book for pleasure reading, and yet were dragging their parents to the bookstore to buy the Harry Potter books.

Out local paper today featured reviews from a range of ages - children through adults, and they all gave glowing reviews to this last book. Several described growing up with Harry Potter and relating to all the trials and tribulatins of moving through adolescence.

Ursula LeGuin appeals to certain children, but I have yet to find a child who did not truly delight in reading the Harry Potter series.

Anonymous said...

Let's see what others say about the Earthsea books and LeGuin in general:
Winner of five Nebula and five Hugo Awards, the National Book Award, the Newbery, and many other awards, Ursula K. Le Guin is one of the finest authors ever to write science fiction and fantasy.

Her greatest creation may be the powerful, beautifully written, and deeply imagined Earthsea Cycle, which inhabits the rarified air at the pinnacle of modern fantasy with J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy and Jane Yolen's Chronicles of Great Alta.

Publishers Weekly
In her seventies, Le Guin is still at the height of her powers, a superb stylist with a knack for creating characters who are both wise and deeply humane. The publication of this collection is a major event in fantasy literature.

New York Times
(T)he big question is: Who is your favorite wizard? Gandalf? Dumbledore? Merlin? The Wizard of Oz?

I'll give my answer up front, although I won't say why just yet. My favorite is not as famous as the ones I just mentioned. He is Ged, the hero of "A Wizard of Earthsea," by Ursula K. Le Guin.

C.E.S. Wood Distinguished Writer Award,

National Book Award

Hugo award (multiple)

Nebula award (multiple)

Ursula K. Le Guin was the first woman to win the National Book Award in Young People's Literature

Terry Hamblin said...

We have an Ursula LeGuin fan reading the blog.

Anonymous said...

I don't see this as an "either or" choice. From my perspective, any book/series which gets kids excited about reading is truly worthwhile!I don't think any of us would nominate the Potter series for a Newberry Award, but if reading this series generates enthusiasm for reading in general, then chances are they are going to explore other genres/authors....perhaps even Le Guin!