Wednesday, July 02, 2003

I recently finished reading the first 4 of the Harry Potter books. I have Pottermania now, hence the decor of my blog (What? You can’t see it? I guess that’s because it is MAGIC decor!).

Sarcasm aside, I enjoyed the books. Actually, I enjoyed them to varying degrees.

I read the first one in May of 2002 (in one sitting: it ain’t Ulysses). I thought it was pretty good: I could definitely see why kids dug it so much, but I thought it was a little bit too kiddish for me to become a real fan. The second book didn’t do too much for me. I read it in August 2002 (again, in one sitting) and was disappointed that there seemed to be a formula emerging: Harry is with the Dursleys, miserable; Harry finally gets to go to school and see his friends; Snape and Malfoy harass him; Dumbledore and Hagrid are sweet to him; the school faces a threat; Harry (with help from his friends) vanquishes the foe and saves the day; Harry learns that it is really all about him; Harry goes back to the Dursleys and misery.

The third and fourth books I read last week and Monday. I liked them better. There are surprises (to an extent) in these books. I am particularly impressed at how the Rowling has managed to make very subtle changes in the way the kids talk and what they talk about as they age. I would imagine that it is difficult to write aging children believably, but I think she has done a good job (although the candy fixation is getting a little hard to accept: I certainly don’t recall getting all wiggy for candy when I was 13).

I know nothing about the plot of the fifth book and I don’t want to know until I read it, but I hope it is more like the last two than the first two.

I read, recently (in the Guardian, perhaps) an article suggesting that the world of Harry Potter is essentially conservative England. Maybe. It does seem to be class conscious (a nice thing for children’s lit), though: there are poor wizard families and rich ones; “old” families and less “respectable” ones; prejudice and spite and bigotry and corruption. Harry seems have fame based on merit, whereas some of the others just inherit their status. The Weasleys are clearly set up to be loved by the readers, but they are equally clearly presented as lower/middle class. Hermione’s parents aren’t even wizards and Hagrid is part of a loathed race. In fact, almost all of the baddies seem to be from a sort of aristocracy, and the goodies are either from the bourgeoisie or working class (except for some of the professors, who don’t all have a clear background). If anything, it seems to be pretty darned liberal (in the 19th century sense): the “old order” is prone to corruption and failure and very susceptible to evil, and the new class (represented by the heroes, who get help from some enlightened members of the establishment) are poised to supplant them.

Far be it from me to bash the Lord of the Rings, but it has long bugged me that bloodlines play such a prominent role (witness Sam’s relationship to the other Hobbits and the “return” of Aragorn to the throne). The Potter books are better in this respect: Tolkein created a mythical past and loaded it with social mores which were all but dead in his time, whereas Rowling is creating a fantasy present and is attacking, implicitly, those same social mores.

She did fumble an explicit allegory, though, in the fourth book: the plight of the House Elfs. That could have been a nice B Plot but turned into little more than a bad joke. We are left, at the end of the book, with a marginally-free Dobby, a screwed up Winky, and a reinforcement of the idea (repeated by several characters) that House Elfs don’t want to be free. Maybe not. She shouldn’t have brought it up, if you ask me, if that’s the way she’s going to leave it.

By the way: Dobby is Hugh of Borg and Harry Potter is his Geordi.

Also by the way: the Durmstrang school has a pretty clearly Germanic name but seems to be peopled by Slavs. Sup with that?

It is a bit of a shame that Rowling seems to have gotten tired of it all so quickly (I’ve read that she isn’t sure how much more, if any, she will write) because I think what she has on her hands is something approaching a Tolkein-like universe. There are, quite simply, limitless stories she could write about the world she has created. Backstory, for example, would be fun. Or something like “Hogwarts: the Next Generation”. She’s got a good handle on the subtleties and a very good imagination. Ah well. We shall see.


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