Sunday, October 23, 2011

Book Review -- HARRY POTTER SERIES by J.K. Rowling

It took about three months' worth of reading, between classes and settling in after my return from Korea, to finish the Harry Potter novels by J.K. Rowling. Unfortunately, I never got around to buying the British versions when I was in Korea, and especially regret not having done so. While in Korea, I sat in a bookstore for a few minutes doing side-by-side comparisons of the two texts and finding that Scholastic had heavily edited the American versions (more about this later).

J.K. Rowling's story of rags-to-riches is quite well known. Published on June 30, 1997, Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone had sold up to 300,000 copies in the UK by March, 1999. It was an instant success as a children's novel and was rapidly acquired by Scholastic Corporation, who strong-armed Rowling into changing the name to Sorcerer's Stone because they thought American children wouldn't want to read a book with the word "philosopher" in the title (more on this later). We all know how the tale grew to become a phenomenon complete with films and accompanying books about Harry Potter's world. Rowling has become an incredibly rich billionaire.

The story is incredibly well-known so there's no reason to discuss it. Essentially, Rowling's story is not at all original but that is not a criticism. It's long been mused that between Shakespeare, the Bible, and Homer, every possible story has already been told. However, Harry Potter achieves an incredible resonance with it's readers. Rowling was able to take Thomas Hughes' Tom Brown's Schooldays, an 1857 novel about a private boarding school in England, add such fantasy elements as magic and antiquity, and marry it to the Campbellian heroic journey.

Her brilliance in such a combination cannot be understated. Tom Brown's Schooldays had been extremely successful and spawned an entire genre of schoolboy stories during the 19th and early 20th centuries. Its great appeal was due to the interest of poor boys who couldn't afford to attend boarding schools and their curiosity of what such a life is like. It also appealed to former such academy students reminiscing about their times there. Such a setting made it easy for Rowling to incorporate the elements of a typical bildungsroman. To increase the appeal and make the story much more dynamic than the typical school novel, Rowling added the idea that the school in her story (Hogwarts) specifically existed to educate children and adolescents who displayed innate magical talents and prepare them to live in a hidden society of wizards and witches. The Campbellian monomyth provided a tremendous cultural resonance to her stories.

The influence of the monomyth cannot be understated. Written well, a story that incorporates the monomyth can evoke a powerful emotional response in the reader. Written poorly, such a story devolves into formula and cliche, much like Terry Brooks' The Sword of Shannara.

Rowling's prose evolves as her protagonist and audience age. In the first two books, her writing style isn't very impressive. Indeed, if she had stopped at Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, I'd not have any qualms agreeing with Harold Bloom's assessment of the books (more on that later). At several points, she felt the need to recap previous events, concepts, and setting material in the form of tedious info-dumps as the series progressed. This is jarring to her narrative rhythm and honestly unnecessary. To her credit, Rowling reduces these to a few stray sentences in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix and virtually does away with them altogether in The Half-Blood Prince and The Deathly Hallows. She never achieves a poetic or moving style of prose but I feel that had she attempted as much, her work would have been tastelessly turgid instead of straightforward and event-driven.

The characterization of Harry Potter and his friends is incredible. Rowling's characters feel like real people (with a few exceptions). The character dynamics between Hermione, Ron, and Harry are incredible. Many of the characters are spectacularly well-developed and fully realized on the page. Through their dialogue they take life and express their personalities. Very few of the major characters feel flat (and those that do are mostly villains, which does, admittedly, weaken her narrative, but I digress...) and their interactions are excellently enjoyable. It is difficult not to feel amusement and affection for Fred and George Weasley, for example.

Equally well-realized is the wizarding world, complete with its own lore, legends, entertainment, music, and culture. Rowling's world grows as the books progress and she reveals more and more of the land of enchantment which comes to be just as imaginative and dynamic as Carol's Wonderland or Baum's Oz and despite Bloom's criticisms (see below), much more self-sustaining. What irked me, however, was the complete independence the wizarding world experienced from the Muggle world in contrast to how events in the wizarding world would effect the Muggle world (Sirius Black's escape and the return of Voldemort, for example). Also, I found the helplessness of the Muggle world in the face of wizardly conflicts a plot hole (especially since the wizards went into hiding in the 17th century because of Muggle persecutions against magic-users). Rowling does a lot of wand-waving (heh, heh) to separate the Muggle and wizard worlds so much, often resorting (quite literally) to "a wizard did it" to deal with any potential for the isolation of the wizarding world being breached by the Muggle one.

Harold Bloom's infamous criticisms of Rowling's achievement are well known and discussed throughout the blogosphere. Just google "Harry Potter and Harold Bloom" and you'll be hit with a plethora of blog entries and magazine articles on Bloom's scathing criticism.

Bloom's primary points of contention?
  • The books are bereft of imaginative vision.
  • Rowling's setting and the action therein have nothing to do with reality, which he sees as completely contradictory to the "realism" of Tom Brown's Schooldays.
  • Rowling's dichotomy of wizard vs. Muggle is offensive, especially when the Muggles are abusive, dull, and close-minded.
  • Sex and sexuality is all but nonexistent.
However, Bloom's conclusion is quite revealing.
And yet I feel a discomfort with the Harry Potter mania, and I hope that my discontent is not merely a highbrow snobbery, or a nostalgia for a more literate fantasy to beguile (shall we say) intelligent children of all ages. Can more than 35 million book buyers, and their offspring, be wrong? yes, they have been, and will continue to be for as long as they persevere with Potter.

A vast concourse of inadequate works, for adults and for children, crams the dustbins of the ages. At a time when public judgment is no better and no worse than what is proclaimed by the ideological cheerleaders who have so destroyed humanistic study, anything goes.
The review was published in July, 2000, in The Wall Street Journal, almost at the same time as Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire hit American bookstores and Harry had to deal with death and sexuality for the first time. Indeed, Bloom should have waited until the series was complete before he leveled his infamous criticisms against it. It does read as highbrow snobbery, as he frequently compares the novels to The Wind in the Willows and The Wizard of Oz as exemplars of imaginative children's literature.

Rowling's writing style and imagination matures as her protagonist--something that Bloom misses. Bloom characterizes himself as a guardian of the great books of the past. Indeed, I agree that the Western canon needs defending in this post-modern era and that many of the books Bloom holds in highest esteem deserve to be read and appreciated, I still feel that his attack on Rowling is endemic of the ivory-tower isolation of the academics from the masses and is a result of intellectual elitism.

The evidence is written all across the last novel. Harry Potter is faced with the realities of Dumbledore, his late guide and adviser, as a human with human failings and frailties of the heart. Harry is faced with making extremely difficult choices that result in the survival or demise of friends, teachers, and students. There is moral ambiguity in his decisions and although he inevitably triumphs, Rowling wisely glosses over the reconstruction and gives us a small glimpse into the lives of the characters and their children decades hence. The brevity of the epilogue leaves the aftermath vague and ambiguous, leading the reader to ask, "Was it worth it? Did everything go back to normal? How could it after such tragic events?" (The weakness of omitting the aftermath means we never see how many of the characters cope with loss and tragedy. It is impossible that the characters have all been able to return to their normal lives and I would have very much like to have seen how George Weasley dealt with his very tragic loss).

Similarly, the wizard attitude toward Muggles is never described as correct throughout her novels. With the exception of the Dursleys, Muggles are rarely encountered in the novels but it is evident that the Dursleys are not to be considered the model on which one should judge. The visceral reaction of the reader to the wizards' and witches' patronizing and (oftentimes inadvertent) bigotry toward Muggles (indeed, even the name sounds pejorative) should evoke a certain distaste in the reader. This is never a situation that Rowling addresses and is, necessarily, left up to the reader to wrestle. Though I do not believe Rowling did this purposely, that she did it is still a strength and not a narrative weakness. Indeed, she even intensifies this question through the revelations of Albus Dumbledore's friendship with Grindelwald.

The greatest weakness is the unsympathetic character of Voldemort. Although Rowling describes the difficulties and rejections he experienced as a child, Tom Riddle's development into an irredeemable villain is rather one-note. His inability to love is not only his greatest weakness as a villain, it's also his greatest weakness as a character. Voldemort is less human than Darth Vader, who despite being more machine than man still rescued his son from death. Despite being a common trope in fantasy, the monolithic villain that is so evil as to be inhuman and incapable of love or compassion is not nearly as interesting as a villain that has purposely rejected, submerged, and killed those emotions deliberately due to some pain or suffering in his past. Voldemort is not a tragic villain, he's simply a villain. Similarly, nearly every Slytherin character is petty, scheming, and hateful (I was very disappointed that no Slytherin characters besides Slughorn opted to fight Voldemort and the Death Eaters during the Battle of Hogwarts).

Another weakness in the narrative is the over-morality of the good guys. They never resort to use of the Killing Curse and never deliberately kill any of their opponents. Since such an action will result in breaking a person's soul apart, it is considered highly reprehensible. However, since the wizard community of Britain finds itself in a civil war, the prolific use of the Killing Curse by the forces of evil results in a growing disparity between them and the forces of good as the latter's numbers are reduced through attrition. Ultimately, Voldemort's hate and villainy are self-defeating and Harry triumphs without actually killing Voldemort. While there are many other examples of Harry struggling with pain and suffering, there is never a point where he is forced to kill in order to survive. He never experiences the pain and suffering that Simon experiences in Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn as he is forced to fight and kill in order to save the people and ideals that he loves. Though in the setting the good characters are spared such existential suffering and dilemmas that typical war veterans have to wrestle with due to their exemplary conduct (not descending to the use of the Killing Curse), it doesn't make for a complex, compelling, and interesting narrative.

In the end, the books are still for children. Rowling skirts such issues as good guys killing or sex and sexuality in order to keep the books "suitable" for her audience. I don't begrudge her decision. She includes a great many other complex issues and ideas in her books that young readers must consider. By the later volumes, she refuses to "write down" to her audience. Through excellent characterization and a well-paced narrative progression, she keeps her readers' attention.

Rowling has definitely accomplished something. Are these books classics of literature? Bloom says no. I say yes. The Harry Potter series is not simply a flash-in-the-pan. Discerning readers who find the Twilight series to be utter garbage still consider the Harry Potter Series to be a fantastic work of epic fiction and adventure. I've read many works of literature, like Bloom, but unlike Bloom I believe that Rowling overcomes her shortcomings as a writer and the weaknesses of many of her narrative choices to write an increasingly complex and dynamic story. No, it is not the equal of Don Quixote, Hamlet, or even The Lord of the Rings. It's rife with flaws, plot holes, inconsistencies, and characterization issues (specifically among the villains of the story). Yet Rowling's achievement is still worthwhile and I'd argue that it is just as worth reading as The Wizard of Oz.

As a final note, I'd like to discuss Scholastic Corporation's editing choices in "translating" the British dialect to standard American idiom. This is quite galling and struck me as very disparaging toward American children. Granted, many of the terms would be a bit confusing, but instead of a translation, incorporating a short glossary at the back might have been a bit more respectful to the intelligences of the readers. Similarly, the opinion that American children would find a novel with "philosopher" in its title unappealing (as opposed to British children, who had no such problems) displays the innately low opinion that Scholastic Corporation has of American schoolchildren. Considering that Scholastic is a corporation that produces schoolbooks (indeed, its very name is, in this case, ironic), this begs a great many questions about American education and the people and companies we allow to teach our children.

The Harry Potter Series
by J.K. Rowling
Substance B
Overall B+


Dennis Laffey said...

Excellent review, Dave!

I agree on all points. The Potter series is not high literature, and doesn't aim to be. It is, however, one of the best series for children to come out in the past few decades.

Dave Cesarano said...

Thanks, Dennis. I'm kinda flattered you read this review almost immediately after I posted it!

Yeah, I've been away from my keyboard for a while, but that's because I am so darn busy.

Anyway, despite all of it's flaws, I really loved the Potter series.

Dennis Laffey said...

Just happened to be checking my own blog at that time, and had a few minutes to read this between Flynn needing me to give him breakfast and helping him play with some dinosaurs. :D

Dave Cesarano said...

You mean he LET you play dinosaurs with him. I don't care how old we get, real men still like to play with dinosaurs. Having a kid just gives them an excuse so their wives don't look at them weird.

Unknown said...

I very much enjoyed reading your review, and agree with the points you've made here. The only other thing that got under my skin in the series - and this is in part from thinking like a gamer - is that the magic doesn't hold my interest as a system, and is rarely used in clever ways.

To your point about the Killing Curse, I would add the note that the characters do use a different Unforgivable Curse, specifically the Cruciatus Curse. Not very successfully, but I think it still might count as a nod to moral choices under pressure during conflict.

Jason Carney said...

I'm not fully sympathetic with Bloom's criticisms. Like a lot of Modernists, anything that smacks of 'the masses' he is automatically and I think unfairly suspect of. If you have the time, you should check out John Carey's _Intellectuals and the Masses_ (Chicago: Academy, 1992) for a polemic account of the relationship between high artists and 'the masses.' Really eye-opening. It's kind of my "Riddikulus charm" against academic/artistic pomposity.

With that said, there's something about Harry Potter that I just don't care for, and I think a minor thread of it runs through Bloom's criticisms. Let me try to articulate it *briefly*. Put simply, I don't like them because they are not serious. They are too playful, both in technique and in content. And here is where I side with Bloom.

Bloom is really concerned with literature as a competitive, agonistic process. In other words, the reason why Dante is better than, say, Virgil, is because Dante identified Virgil as a competitor and tried to "out do" him. In Bloom's _The Western Canon_, he never quite says it but he makes the case that good art is art that has explicit artistic ambitions. He's offended by art that is just "delightful," that doesn't take itself seriously. Let me try to be clearer: I'm not offended by literature that is just delightful. Without apology, I love Margret Weiss, Tracy Hickman, and the other Dragonlance novels. I even read Gary Gygax's fiction. But considering the idea that these works are art, to be compared to Shakespeare or Tolkien, well, this is where I agree with Bloom. They're not. I need to qualify something: just because an artist professes to *not aspire* to create art doesn't mean that they don't take what they are doing very seriously and therefore, kind of by accident, create art. I am thinking of pulp writers like Robert E. Howard and H.P. Lovecraft. Both had chips on their shoulders in that they both knew what they were writing would not be accepted by the literary mainstream and that their work would be shunned by the arbiters of taste of the time (e.g. Edmund Wilson--his reviews of both Howard and HPL are damning). BUT, they both took their work VERY seriously. One may think the Conan movies are silly, but R.E.H.'s fiction is nothing if not sincere and pervaded by a kind of grim authenticity. H.P. Lovecraft's work, I don't think I need to defend it as recently books being published by respected academic presses now treat on HPL. This, for me, pretty much secures his place in what Bloom might call the canon.

Back to J.K. Rowling. I'm sure she took her work seriously. I am thinking of her interviews where she attests to crying over having to kill Cedric in the Goblet of Fire. But, in spite of this, there is nevertheless an inherently playful, child-like, and--worse--commercial tone that pervades the books. Good and evil are clearly defined. Villians, villains. Good guys, truly good. There is not moral nuance. Everything goes down easy. Don't get me wrong: there's nothing wrong with this kind of simplicity. And there's nothing intrinsically non-artistic about playfulness. I am thinking of Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories, which are fun and playful at the same time some of the greatest, most artistic sword-and-sorcery ever written. But the issue basically boils down to what do you want your art to do: reveal and intensify the world and being in its full complexity (something fantasy is, with its ability to disregard the reality principle, particularly capable of doing); or, diminish the world, simplify it, "clean it up" both morally and ontologically? I like your reading of Voldemort because it gets to the key distinction between art and non-art. Edmund from King Lear. Voldemort. Artistic Villain. Non-artistic Villain.

Thanks for the thought provoking review!

Finley09 said...

One point I would like to add is towards the comments about the "playful" writing in Rowlings first two novels. I look at it this way; While first two books take place while Harry is eleven and twelve years old and therefore are written for an eleven and twelve year old. The series progresses and develops soforth. If Rowlinghad written the first book with the same depth and darkness the fifth, sixth, and seventh books include, I highly doubt they would have gained the strong fan base that it acquired. I believe she started simple and fun to draw the readers into this magical world and allowed them to wonder and dream about different possibilities before she pursued the story of Harry's true destiny. Just my opinions :)

Anonymous said...

not good