Harry Potter series

I have great respect for much of what J.K. Rowling has done:

  • succeeding as a first-time published author;
  • weaving a complex plot;
  • selling gazillions of books;
  • getting kids (girls & boys) and adults excited to read;
  • possessing the sheer courage of committing to 7 books.

But . . . I have problems with the series. My concerns aren’t that of a fan, who enjoys (legitimately!) every scrap of info, every paragraph (strong or weak), doesn’t want the series to end (ever), etc.

My concerns are how good the series is in overall quality. Especially when held up to other comparable series by great authors such as Ursula Le Guin (Earthsea), C.S. Lewis (Narnia), etc.

Frankly, in my opinion, the Harry Potter series started off strong. But the latter books suffered in the writing quality. Drawbacks:

1. The small group of main characters and settings.

Perhaps the series suffered from the weight of the author’s bold commitment to write a series of 7 books, following Harry through each year at Hogwarts. The pace, trying for 1 per year, was daunting. And Rowling decided to focus the 7 novels on the same main characters, following them from beginning to end. And she used the same settings, and the same overarching threat from Lord Voldemort and his minions, more or less. (Other great series writers – Le Guin and Lewis, for instance – did similar numbers of books but varied the settings and characters.)

By the second half of the series, less of Rowling’s immense creativity, storytelling ability, and humor comes forth. The latter books are bloated in length and dragged down by the demands of the complex plot.

Personally, as a reader, I found myself losing interest in the repeated scenes within Hogwarts; with the Dursleys, the similar conversations amongst Harry, Hermione, and Ron; the creeping around with the cloak of invisibility, etc.

Perhaps the series could have been better had it been done in fewer volumes, and had the second half of the series been done in shorter books instead of the mammoth doorstops that they became.

2. The complexity of the plot.

Like a grand tournament between chess masters, with move and countermove, stratagem and defense, ruse and revelation, game after game, the Harry Potter series is densely plotted, with all sorts of twists, turns, surprises, connections. The problem: it requires so much to spin it all out. By the last book, there are pages and pages and yet more pages of characters explaining to each other what really happened.

By the end of Book 7, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows . . . sure, it’s fascinating how J.K. Rowling ties everything up as an intellectual challenge. But it just wasn’t as well-told as the first books in the series. The plot with all its puzzles has become an albatross, along with, perhaps, all the distractions of fan speculation, and the movies, and all the hoopla about what was going to happen next to whom, instead of just letting Rowling focus on writing a good story.

3. Huge plot holes.

Book 7 has some of the worst clunkers, holes big enough to drive a Gringotts armored truck through them. The most extreme occurs midway, when Harry & Hermione & Ron have taken off on their own, hiding out and moving constantly around the English countryside, camping in an invisible tent. Unfortunately, they have cut all ties with everyone else, and don’t know what to do next or where to go.

They are mystified . . . until finally Rowling has to create a fishing party of acquaintances who show up (amazing coincidence) to go fishing in the middle of nowhere right next to the (invisible) tent; they proceed to talk loudly about what’s up, so that H, H, and R can overhear the needed clue about what to do next.

Okay, that’s just lame, plot-wise . . . and suggests to me that Rowling had written herself into a corner, and came up with this desperate deus ex machina device to move her story forward.

As an editor, I wouldn’t let a new author get away with it. But Rowling was beyond reproach, or perhaps just under a tight deadline, and she and her editors were confident (and correct) that this would not affect sales, fan appeal, etc.

Sure, many fictional stories benefit from some luck, but that was a bit far-fetched. England is a big country, and the chances of hearing the needed clue while sitting inside your tent are pretty slim. You can’t let a plot depend on some random people showing up in the middle of nowhere to tell the protagonists what they need to know.

If this were the only instance . . . but other similar too-lucky or convenient magical things happen time and again, bailing out the plot. The explanations don’t really hold water, even given all the magic involved.

As many authors have said, especially in fantasy, the magic needs rules and limits, believable enough to create the proper dramatic tension, so that the good characters face real challenges. It’s a problem when magic (with its ability to produce the revealing conversation, letter, clue, homing device, secret weapon, or whatever) bails them out, time and again.

Rowling just goes to the well too often, coming up with fantastic ways that things work out. After a while, like watching a stage magician, we tend not to get too emotionally involved, suspecting that if trouble brews, the author will just pull another rabbit out of the hat.

4. Harry’s likability.

As the series progresses, Harry becomes more and more a chess piece, moved around by others, by greater and greater powers, by the grand struggle between good and evil, and by his own loose emotions.

Most of all, he undermines his own likability by getting angry, over and over, at his closest friends, Ron & Hermione, and at his likable mentor, Dumbledore. In Book 4, Harry is just angry a lot of the time, acting irritated and often mean to his friends.

In Book 7, he is still angry and argumentative. And he lets it get the best of him. He wants “the truth,” which means he doesn’t always seem to care if things do or don’t work out well. And he doesn’t always care about the trouble he gets his friends into. In fact, he does a number of fairly stupid things that gets them into major trouble, even when they are supposedly working together as a team. And when those excursions don’t work out well, and bad things happen like Hermione is tortured and cut by a knife-wielding maniac, Harry never really acknowledges what an idiot he was to give way to his personal anger and interests, and he doesn’t apologize.

I found myself feeling sorry for Harry. Sure, I hoped things worked out. But I stopped really rooting for him to get what he wanted. Instead, I began to identify with Ron and Hermione, who are so patient, and supportive, and truly kind, and in Hermione’s case, far more sensible.

Crossword Puzzles, Cricket Matches, and a Fantasy Series that Was Stretched Too Long

So in the end, I read all the books, and enjoyed many parts: the page-turning dense plot, the early humor, the wonderful place of Hogwarts. In the end, though, while at first a fan, I drifted away from true enthusiasm as the series progressed. For me, the series didn’t really live up to its earlier promise of grand appeal.

By the final volume, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, that book, and the overall series, wasn’t exactly something I’d recommend to others.

It was more like how I enjoy a bit of chess, or the occasional crossword puzzle . . . or watching baseball or other games like tennis without time limits, back and forth, back and forth, appreciating the skills and athleticism . . . but in the end, being bored by the repetitive game happening over and over on the same court.

In length, the Harry Potter series is like a cricket tournament. Intriguing, but it goes on far too long, to the point of being interesting mostly to its true fans.

As an editor, I think Rowling would have had a better series, had it been tightened into four, maybe five volumes. Seven books focused on the same characters and the same struggle was excessive. And the length of the latter books . . . ho, boy. The excessive length was probably connected to tight deadlines (“If I’d had more time, I would have written something shorter,” as a famous author said).

So, while commercially successful – a gigantic fan phenomenon, and all power to Rowling for that – the series slid downhill in quality over time, in my opinion.

All this may undermine how enthusiastically the series is recommended, and revered, by new readers a decade from now, let along in forty or fifty years . . . as is true of the novels of Le Guin (first Earthsea book in 1968), or C.S. Lewis (first Narnia book in 1950), or the books of Madeleine L’Engle or Lloyd Alexander, who also wrote high-quality fantasy series but more succinctly, with far more variety, more literary appeal, and (I suspect), a more lasting readership.

Time will tell. That’s just my guess, based on what I know about good writing and fantasy literature.

[Part 2 to come]

(Blog post on the Creeping Past Dragons blog by Philip Martin, director of Great Lakes Literary and author of A Guide to Fantasy Literature.)


My favorite description of what makes a classic comes from magical realist Italo Calvino: “A classic is a work which has not yet finished telling its story.”

My question: will the Harry Potter books endure and become classics of literature?

First, let’s agree that “great storytelling” and “literary quality” are often found together, but not always. A well-told story is not necessarily great literature.

Yet it seems obvious that great works of literature – the classics – generally have both literary quality and good storytelling. And of the two, skill in storytelling comes first and lasts longest in the minds of readers.

The skills of superb storytellers like Stephen King or J.K. Rowling, despite being disparaged for their suspicious popularity, are undisputed and often under-recognized for their complexity. Great storytelling is not something that anyone can do. To believe that misses the skills that writers at the tops of their fields – especially in genre areas like fantasy, science fiction, and mystery novels – have mastered, skills which lie beyond the reach of most graduates of creative writing programs.

The debate over storytelling versus literary quality in popular novels like the works of Rowling or King reminds me of the comment about why Dickens wrote popular novels. G.K. Chesterton wrote: “Dickens didn’t write what the people wanted, he wanted what the people wanted.”

The criticism of being a popular writer, not a literary great, was also leveled on Rudyard Kipling — who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1907, the first English-language author to win that prize established in 1901. In the presentation, Kipling was praised by the Swedish academy for his great “genius in the realm of narrative.”

So the classics speak to readers for a long time. It might be useful to consider the Harry Potter series in light of the Narnia books, which fifty years after their publication are still beguiling hordes of readers, young and old.

Will the Potter books do the same?

The only fair answer: time will tell.

I don’t happen to believe, by the way, in the term “instant classic.” It’s like “jumbo shrimp” – an oxymoron that just doesn’t make a lot of sense.

I’m inclined to give the series the benefit of the doubt . . . and wait to see. In the meantime, J.K. Rowling and her immensely successful Harry Potter series is doing just fine as a decade-long run of contemporary and popular books.

And movies! Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is about to leap, magic wands ablaze, potent spells spouting, onto the silver screen next week.

[Coming next week . . . further thoughts about Pottermania and the role of the series in fantasy literature.]

(Blog post on the Creeping Past Dragons blog by Philip Martin, director of Great Lakes Literary and author of A Guide to Fantasy Literature.)

Is Harry Potter a decent person?

Okay, we all know that the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling has been the subject of Christian concern, some criticism, and occasional outright attempts at banning by certain factions.

On that subject, I enjoyed reading and recommend to you this article:

Harry Potter vs. Gandalf: An in-depth analysis of the literary use of magic in the works of J. K. Rowling, J. R. R. Tolkien, and C. S. Lewis
A booklet-length essay by Steven D. Greydanus

The piece is posted on DecentFilms.com, a site of “film appreciation, information, and criticism informed by Christian faith.” It’s run by Mr. Greydanus, film critic for the National Catholic Register. He also writes for Christianity Today Movies and Our Sunday Visitor.

The (long) article compares Harry Potter to C.S Lewis, Tolkien, and modern occult-based stories like the Buffy series, The Craft, etc.

What, then, defines morally acceptable use of good magic in fiction? Where, and how, do we draw the line? How do we distinguish the truly worthwhile (Tolkien and Lewis), the basically harmless (Glinda, Cinderella’s fairy godmother), and the problematic or objectionable (“Buffy,” The Craft)? And where on this continuum does Harry Potter really fall?

The article is fascinating, well-informed, and well-nuanced. Worth reading!

It’s particularly interesting as Greydanus looks at the cautionary limits to magic (what he calls “Seven Hedges”) that Tolkien and C.S. Lewis implanted in their works, as essentially Christian writers. These “hedges” are:

seven specific literary characteristics common to Tolkien’s and Lewis’s fiction — above and beyond the fantasy nature of the magic itself — that have the net effect of limiting and restricting the role of magic in their fantasy worlds, essentially acting as barricades or hedges between magic and the reader, in effect saying: “Magic is not for the likes of us.”

The “hedges” that Greydanus outlines and then examines are things like how open or secret the magic is (more secret in Rowling’s fictional world, less in Tolkien’s or Lewis’s); how central the role of magic is to the main events; how dangerous or corrupting to the users; how much the acquisition of magic is portrayed as a practical process rather than a mysterious one; and so on.

It’s an interesting look at the use of magic in fantasy fiction. I don’t agree with all his assumptions about which is better or worse, but I found the analysis interesting.

Greydanus concludes fairly reasonably that Potter books have fewer “hedges,” and could be “potentially problematic”  . . . but probably aren’t. “The key,” he says rather fairly, “in my judgment, is balance and context. ”

. . . [It isn’t necessary to rewrite who God is in order to imagine a world, like Narnia or Middle-earth, in which the order of creation includes powerful forces, good or neutral in themselves, that some inhabitants of that world are able to engage or control by means of such paraphernalia as incantations or wands — some using this power for good, lawfully, while others for ill, unlawfully.

And this is in fact what’s going on in Tolkien and Lewis, not to mention The Wizard of Oz, Cinderella . . . and J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter stories.

While the article is well-nuanced, I don’t agree in particular with his view of dark fantasy. He tends to object to the dark fantasy of works like Buffy the Vampire Slayer or The Craft as bad because they are realistic enough to possibly encourage young readers to consider dabbling in actual occult practice. He differentiates between “séances vs. flying broomsticks” (with the latter, or similar magic found in Hogwarts, Narnia, and Middle-earth, being so imaginary as to be impossible and unrewarding to try to implement in real life.)

As I discuss in my own book, A Guide to Fantasy Literature: Thoughts on Stories of Wonder and Enchantment, in a chapter titled “Types of Fantasy: Five Rings of Tradition,” dark fantasy and high fantasy are to great degree just different styles of a common genre, with their own interests and approaches. That doesn’t mean that they necessarily believe in different standards of good and evil.

Although some may not see it, dark fantasy doesn’t embrace evil things as good; they are more often just cautionary, scary, often humorous tales. Yes, they focus on those dark powers – their allure and sheer power to scare and grab us . . . physically, emotionally, psychically – and our primal fears of all things dark and different. (Of course, the best dark-fantasy authors do that with more more insight than the hacks in the field . . . as is also true of high fantasy and its weaker vs. stronger works.)

And yes, for fictional power, dark fantasy typically adopts a realistic setting, which high fantasy doesn’t as often.

With dark fantasy, you need to understand the humor and practical catharsis (literally, a purging) implicit in the genre. Stephen King isn’t an evil person. And the Twilight Saga examines issues of real significance (romance, physical attraction, morality, abstinence), in an interesting, fictional way.

And I’ll point out that a blind swallowing of all aspects of high fantasy can lead to a weakness of insight about how easy it is to split the world into black and white, and how goodness will always triumph through conviction and pluckiness and persistence.

In his article, Greydanus concludes:

For my part, I don’t see any one hard and fast answer: no one line in the sand, no one litmus test capable of distinguishing all acceptable uses of good magic in fiction from all unacceptable ones.

I agree with that statement!

(Blog post on the Creeping Past Dragons blog by Philip Martin, director of Great Lakes Literary and author of A Guide to Fantasy Literature.)

Our young but rapidly maturing friend, Harry Potter, is coming back to the silver screen, on July 15, 2009, in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, the sixth of seven movies, based on the seven books of the series by J.K. Rowling.

The film’s synopsis, from IMDB (the Internet Movie Database):

As Harry Potter begins his 6th year at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, he discovers an old book marked mysteriously “This book is the property of the Half-Blood Prince” and begins to learn more about Lord Voldemort’s dark past.

Ratings for Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, per IMDB:

In the UK, the film has been given a 12A rating by the BBFC . . . for “Moderate Threat.” In the US, however, the MPAA have given the film a PG rating, for “scary images, some violence, language, and mild sensuality.”

In general, I’m a fan of Rowling’s books. But I do have some some doubts how well the Harry Potter series will fare as the years go by.

In view of that, here’s a review from the Washington Post of the final volume in the 7-boo0k series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, reviewed by Elizabeth Hand. Ms. Hand is an award-winning, brilliant author of books of dark fantasy for adult readers (Winterlong, Waking the Moon, Glimmering, Mortal Love, and others).

In the review (she too is a fan of the series), she hits a number of nails on their heads. She points to the likability of the series and its protagonists, drawing in adult readers like her as well as many millions of young readers.

She points to the delightfully Dickensian nature of Rowling’s secondary characters, with goofy names and little side stories woven into the big picture.

And she notes the great element of the books, how the human heart triumphs over the magic, an essential ingredient (in my opinion) for truly great fantasy.

But Hand also points to what I see to be the major flaw in the series as a whole: the shift of the latter books into grim, dark, more mature themes.

For Elizabeth Hand, as a writer of dark fantasy, this is appealing. By and large, the legions of young fans who grew up with the series (published over ten years, from 1997 to 2007) also agree, finding this development appropriate to their own maturing interests.

But what happens as new young readers are introduced to the completed series? The gap between the maturity level from the first to the last Harry Potter books is quite large and of legitimate concern to parents and educators, as well as to younger readers who want to be able to sleep at night without visions of Dementors and such. (Dementors are flying creatures in dark, hooded cloaks, showing only gray, decayed hands, blind, eyeless, and a large hole where the mouth should be, floating silently toward their victims . . . to suck out all the happiness from their souls.)

While interesting to older readers, portions of the later books are unsettling, scary, and inappropriate for younger ones.

For instance, the movie version of book 4, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, was rated PG-13 for “sequences of fantasy violence and frightening images.” Here is a partial list of the warnings (again, from IMDB)

Action scenes involving Harry fighting dragons, water demons, other competitors and him being trapped in a violent maze.

Harry’s nightmares begin in this film, which are very intense.

Several violent scenes at the beginning of an old man being murdered by Voldemort.

Overall, 3 onscreen deaths.

The events involving the Death Eaters at the Quidditch World Cup are violent and extremely intense.

Lord Voldemort is shown for the first time . . . and is violently portrayed by actor Ralph Fiennes

One main character is murdered in front of Harry with the Avada Kedavra curse.

Harry is violently tortured by Lord Voldemort and is forced to duel him.

Harry brings the body of his dead friend back to Hogwarts, and the scene is rather intense with Harry crying hysterically.

Harry’s wrist is cut open with blood shown and Harry screaming in pain.

Hand compares it to the differences between Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. The latter started as an intended sequel to The Hobbit (per his publisher’s request), but developed into something far greater and mature and dense in its mythic themes, in part with the guidance of his fellow Inklings, including C.S. Lewis. In Tolkien’s case, LOTR was released in the 1950s long after The Hobbit (1937) and packaged as a separate trilogy.

In the case of the Harry Potter books, there’s not much from the publisher to differentiate any maturity levels from Books 1 to 7. The descriptive text, for instance, on the Scholastic website just refers to things like “thrills and adventures” in the later books.

The problem: a logical person might well think the Harry Potter series was like most series, where book 1 and book 7 are intended for the same audiences, albeit with a natural maturation of the central characters.

In comparison, the Narnia series, also 7 books, keeps a pretty uniform tone, although the final book, The Last Battle, does turn darker and less light-hearted, with the killing of friendly animals in the final battle. But this occurs with a less drawn-out build-up with all the terrifying creatures, nightmares, super-scary enemies, etc., found in the Potter series. (More often, the foes in the Narnia series are beguiling, like the White Witch who offers sweet words and treacle; although evil they are less frightening, less likely to cause young readers to have their own nightmares.)

Myself, I lost a bit of fondness for the Potter series in Book 4, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, where Harry is a cranky, uncooperative, very angry teenager, lashing out at long and true friends who are clearly trying to help him. Check the number of time phrases the words angry or angrily are used. He spends a lot of the book in an unlikable funk, and I found it most of it unnecessary. Although he grew out of it, I was a little disenchanted.

To me, it ends up being a set of mostly great books, but a flawed series. A terrific series for those who grew up with it over ten years, who embraced it as a true touchstone for both their social and literary lives.

Less terrific for those youngest and newest young readers who might be relishing reading the whole series after reading the first few books. They (and their parents) have a real problem avoiding the later books until those young readers mature.

(Blog post on the Creeping Past Dragons blog by Philip Martin, director of Great Lakes Literary and author of A Guide to Fantasy Literature.)