In Which We Discuss Harry Potter : an updated re-post in honor of our goodbye to Hogwarts

Instead of picking up some quality literature and engaging with the themes and content of real life, kids and teenagers (yea, even infantilized adults) have immersed themselves in a puerile, shoddily written fantasy world of wands and broomsticks, dragons and spells and wizards, all ready-made for a fantastically lucrative film franchise. You might think that any BOOK a kid is willing to READ (in this age of earphone and video-game appendages) should be viewed as a heaven-sent gateway to more reading, as if it’s worth allowing your kids to consume this nonsense because it might lead them to open a real book in the future. But literary critics have been known to consign Potter to the rubbish bin.

So say the Harry Potter Snobs. If you’re a Harry Potter Snob, let me fill you in on a few key facts before we proceed.

If you want to talk about worthwhile themes for tweens and teens, J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter novels are pretty high on the list. Friendship, bravery and loyalty pull HP and friends through year after year. The whole series revolves around the defeat of one uber-bad wizard’s goal of wiping out those he deems inferior and impure – in Rowling’s world, non-magical “muggles” and “mud-blood” wizards who have muggles in their family tree. Rowling underscores the equality/diversity theme by emphasizing international and interracial friendships and romances.

One of my favorite novels in the series is number five, “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix”. Rowling takes pains to avoid reducing the story to simplistic good and evil. With the introduction of the sadistic Dolores Umbridge and her fearful, incompetent Ministry of Magic cronies, the author dwells on complicated conflicts, pointing out that ignorance, denial and selfish ambition can be just as dangerous as outright malevolence.  In “Order of the Phoenix”, a newly angry, isolated 15-year-old Harry feels a treacherous mental and emotional proximity to his nemesis, Lord Voldemort,  as if his usual qualities are coming unmoored in favor of a dark new presence. It’s a great metaphor for the difficulties of adolescence, when bizarre new urges, influences and feelings bombard the growing teen, volatile emotions giving way to the conviction that no-one, especially staid, authoritative adults, can fathom what you’re going through.

And do we need to mention the irresistible etymological wordplay of the novels’ spells and names? If HP readers ever take Latin, they’ll have a leg up.

Why hate HP? That being said, respect for the HP novels should not mean an obsession with the denizens of Hogwarts. There are many reasons to take Rowling’s exalted talents with a slightly snooty grain of salt.

Critics who attack her pedestrian, repetitive prose have a point. I’m all for an aptly placed adverb, but Rowling sows some pretty hefty ones as if she senses an opportunity, outside of her role as storyteller, to seed young minds with fancy words. Because why else would you write that Crabbe and Goyle “laughed sycophantically”, unless you wanted your young reader to glean new vocab from the context? As a piece of description, you can’t get any less original. On its own, in a typical context, a $10 adverb does not an interesting sentence make.

I enjoyed the HP books. That doesn’t mean I don’t have some serious questions, though. For example, in The Goblet of Fire, I always wondered: if Barty Crouch Jr. (disguised as Professor Moody) wanted to serve Harry up to Lord Voldemort through a portkey, why the heck didn’t he just make it Harry’s fork or textbook? Why does he bewitch the Goblet of Fire and mentor Harry at great personal risk through the Triwizard Tournament in hopes that Harry will be first to grab the Cup? There are just so many variables – like Cedric and Harry, painfully noble, reaching the Cup together.  But just as Voldemort always waxes lyrical about Harry’s death before Harry defeats him, I guess the Dark Arts must be done with style – flashy, questionable strategies be damned.

As for Hermione Granger, I’d like to know what she has against Divination. She finds it, if I recall correctly, a “very woolly discipline”, far too ethereal and subjective for her concrete, practical tastes. But don’t you think that’s just a bit rich coming from a girl who can conjure birds out of thin air?

And Dumbledore, how did you get the reputation for such sound judgment? Granted, you do say that since you’re more intelligent than everyone else, your mistakes are “correspondingly huger”, but come on. Ignoring Voldemort’s early dark tendencies, you provided him with a top magical education and his first opportunities in evil recruitment.  And really, I’m shocked by your abysmal estimation of potential faculty. You hire Quirrell (who happens to have Voldemort growing out of the back of his head – one of the more surreal moments of late 20th-century children’s lit), Lockhart (a devious, inept charlatan), Lupin (a werewolf who almost takes out your favorite students), Mad-Eye Moody (whom you failed to notice was actually a deadly criminal in disguise), and Slughorn (who taught young Voldemort how murders could be the key to eternal life, and then lied about it to cover his behind). This is not to mention the near-fatal Hogwarts basilisk incident. And if you really wanted Harry to stay out of trouble, you would have confiscated that Invisibility Cloak in Book One. Dumbledore clearly has tenure, because if he were an American muggle professor, even the teachers’ unions would be howling for his dismissal.

Despite their fantastic abilities, Dumbledore’s Hogwarts charges seem steeped in an almost medieval ignorance. Somehow I don’t think “History of Magic” covers the Norman Conquest, the defeat of the Spanish Armada, the American Revolution or the Boer War. Hogwarts students learn how to transfigure animals (although why you’d need to transform an animal into an inanimate object is beyond me, unless, instead of throwing the TV Guide at the yowling cat as my father was wont to do, you could simply turn the offending feline into a nice quiet magazine), but do they learn any modern languages? Do they study grammar or literature? What about geography? They might take Care of Magical Creatures and Herbology, but do they learn about Adenosine Triphosphate, photosynthesis, the Periodic Table, or evolution?

Those who want to ban poor HP on grounds of witchcraft probably would not mind Hogwarts’ scientific omissions. The anti-Darwin league would probably also get behind Hogwarts’ apparent lack of any sex-ed curriculum – a potential problem, given all the snogging in books 5 and 6. Could Molly Weasley, shocked and horrified by the concept of muggle medicine, master the biology behind the appearance of her and Arthur Weasley’s large, red-headed brood? Because I doubt she learned about gametes and genetics at Hogwarts.

I don’t want to spoil anyone’s enjoyment of HP with my questions. These queries are ill-applied to fantasy novels. There’s a reason I never have, and probably never will, publish fiction (unless you count press releases and playbill articles, but those aren’t so much fiction as drivel based on the truth, a genre at which I excel). Nobody would want to hear about Ron’s Geology presentation, Hermione’s Spanish exam, Harry’s paper on Samuel Beckett, or the birds and the bees at the Weasleys’. What would “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire” be without Harry in the Triwizard Tournament, glaring plot device or not? So having said my piece, I subside. I think the Harry Potter Snobs are frustrated people who wish they could have sold 15 million copies of their book in just 24 hours. Long life to The Boy Who Lived.

I went to see Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2 yesterday, and popcorn stands were set up inside the auditoriums themselves, presumably because if everyone seeing Harry Potter bought their popcorn at the regular counter, it would be swamped. Partway through the movie I took my eyes off the screen and looked over the huge, packed theater of all races and ages. The single cell phone that rang during the movie was quickly silenced. I hope you’re all enjoying your goodbyes to Harry Potter.

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2 Comments

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  1. Well… since I only read the first one – HORRORS! – because fiction is not the genre of choice with my limited reading time… I still enjoyed your insightful critique of Harry Potter’s saga. The books DO get children (and adults) to read, which is high on my list.

    • You and about eight other people worldwide can enjoy being the only ones who have not read the entire Potter series. Thanks for taking your extremely limited free time for reading my blog!

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