Perhaps it’s just me, and I’ve been obsessing too much, but it seems to me that a lot too much attention is being paid to the final Harry Potter book. I suppose I didn’t realize before how damn big a ‘cultural phenomenon’ it is. But everywhere I look I see articles about Harry Potter, people talking about Harry Potter, and of course the three people in my house who are about to start reading Book 7 and the two besides me who have already finished it.
And, because my views on Harry Potter are different from most of the ones I’ve read, I feel obliged to argue with all of the reviews I read and all of the opinions on the book I hear. I’ve read reviews I agree with, in whole or in part, but all of them I think miss something important even when everything they say is true.
So I’m going to write a review of Deathly Hallows (which, yes, I read). Except it won’t be so much a review of Deathly Hallows as a review of the entire series. And there certainly won’t be any spoilers.
So, I would say that Harry Potter is…
- It is certainly not great literature.
- Nor is it very good children’s literature. I certainly wouldn’t encourage any child of mine to read it. It’s not a good thing that Harry Potter is so popular.
- But it isn’t evil witchcraftery that’s making children want to use black magic.
- But it is evil in that it corrupts the proper view of Faerie and mythopoeia, and it shouldn’t be by people who don’t realize this going in.
The first three of those opinoins aren’t unheard of, but I’ll defend them anyway. The last one need more discussion, which I’ll try to provide.
(1) Anyone who thinks Harry Potter is great literature is obviously a fool. Compare the writing of J. K. Rowling to that of, say, Flannery O’Connor. There’s no doubt whose prose is better. The characters, in my opinion, aren’t particularly likeable, though I liked Snape until Book 7 (and, to a lesser degree, after it), and I for some reason like Ginny, probably because I pity her for falling for Harry. It’s driven entirely, it seems to me, by plot and the sense of fantasy it creates – a grievously flawed sense, as we shall see.
(2) For most of the above reasons, I wouldn’t encourage any child to read it. Good children’s literature should also be readable by adults. And, I might as well put this here, their length is not a virtue, it is a vice. The books are bloated. They could be cut in half at least, probably more, without losing much of anything. If you’re looking for good children’s fantasy literature, I can recommend several books – The Hobbit, The Chronicles of Narnia, The Dark is Rising, The Chronicles of Prydain, The Deptford Mice and Deptford Histories trilogies… all of those have not-horrible prose, more believable characters, and just as good plotting as Harry Potter does.
(3) Still, it seems absurd to me how some Christians accuse Harry Potter of encouraging black magic. I’ve said this before, I think; there’s a difference between magic in our world, which means calling upon and trying to control powers greater than ourselves and expecting them to follow our commands. That’s foolish whether the powers are good or evil, though for different reasons – if they’re demons, they might serve you until they can betray you and damn you, while if it’s God you try to control that very act of trying to control him is a sin.
But ‘magic’ in Harry Potter isn’t anything like that at all. It’s basically another natural force, like gravity or electromagnetism. Making up a world in which there is such a force is hardly sinful. It’s normal mythopoeia. It’s possible that children don’t understand this and think that Harry Potter is encouraging black magic, but I don’t buy that. It’s pretty obvious, I think. It’s never said or even implied in the books that their “magic” is calling upon other powers; from what we can gather, it just uses powers from inside the person. A series of books that discusses this explicitly is Tales of Alvin Maker, which I read in June and which I enjoyed a lot more than Harry Potter.
(4) And yet I call Harry Potter evil. How is this? As I said in my previous post about Harry Potter I think that the world of Harry Potter makes no sense. This isn’t a minor fault. It makes the book that much less of good literature (for those adults reading it), and it gives children, who perhaps can’t be expected to realize this, a twisted view of the fantasy genre. Some children will eventually catch on and see that Harry Potter is grossly deficient in this area, but many will not, and will go on thinking that Harry Potter is a good way to view the magic of Faerie or worldmaking in general. And even those who do catch on will have wasted countless hours reading Harry Potter under the impression that it’s good (why would they read it unless an adult told them it was good or they thought it might be and so tried it themselves?). It’s dangerous to read something bad under the impression that it’s good, even if you later discover it’s badness. So yes, I view this aspect of Harry Potter as evil, and as a good reason to not read the books or allow children to read them (you’re not depriving them of anything – they’re not particularly good books regardless and there are many other better children’s books out there).
It is true that there are other books who mythopoeic worlds make no sense; take The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which I liked and still like. The different between Hitchhiker’s Guide and Harry Potter is that Hitchhiker’s Guide is a satire. No reader will ever be under the impression that the world is supposed to make sense. It’s absurdity for the sake of absurdity, which I can appreciate and which I often enjoy. (I have on occasion been known to make stories that are absurdities; take the world of Wadish Rac that resides in a Hyperdonut on which Sfinckses from east of the corruption line and Freaks from west of it battle for superiority until the Mad Scientist blows the whole damn world up then travels backwards in time to create it.) Harry Potter is a very serious story. Rowling wants us to read it as if it is, anyway.
Setting a serious story in an absurd setting shouldn’t be done (unless you’re trying to make some very avant-garde point), but that’s exactly what Rowling has done. And even worse, the setting isn’t intentionally absurd, but unintentionally, which means the absurdities cast no light on the story itself – they make no avant-garde point. They just confuse things and corrupt the reader. The seriousness of the story subconsciously makes the reader expect the world to make sense, and when on the surface it does, he’s lulled into a false sense of complacency and proceeds to take in the world as presented as being the right way to make worlds.
OK, that’s enough ranting about Harry Potter for now. I won’t return to the subject unless/until I publish my own Harry Potter-like story here (it’s currently titled Ben and I’m spending way too much time working on it).
[This post composed while listening to: Rhapsody of Fire, The Mystic Prophecy of the Demon Knight; Kamelot, Ghost Opera; Blind Guardian, Theatre of Pain; Rhapsody, The Last Angel’s Call; Yo-Yo Ma, “Noli, Ò Cara, Te Adorantis” (Vivaldi); Sonata Arctica, Gravenimage; Stratovarius, United; Aleksi Aubry-Carlson, Main Menu (from the Wesnoth OST); Týr, The End; Kamelot, Descent of the Archangel; Rhapsody, Dawn of Victory. It took me about an hour to write.]