Book Review: Harry Potter and the ...
When it comes to the Harry Potter series, I have a mixed reaction. On the one hand, J.K. Rowling has written an immensely entertaining series which taps into our imaginative psyches. She creates relatable heroes and villains – characters with strengths and weaknesses who face moral conundrums and moral ambiguities. She carries Harry from youth to adulthood, an extensive bildungsroman of literal life-and-death adventures.
Rowling also exhibits a delightful sense of whimsy. Magic is unexpected, yet commonplace. No one thinks twice about casting an unlocking charm – alohamora – but it doesn’t always work. Students struggle with homework assignments: “Change this animal into a water goblet.” “Levitate this feather.” Along the same lines of getting one’s driver’s permit, sixteen-year-old students must be licensed to apparate. If you aren’t completely successful in transporting yourself from one spot to another (i.e., if you leave behind an eyebrow), you don’t pass the test.
But magic can have a darker side. In the final novel, Harry, Ron, and Hermione apparate to escape capture, but in their flight, Ron is splinched: Part of his shoulder and arm are left behind, leaving him grievously wounded.
Rowling explores magic in all its possibilities, even into the darkest magic of all: Horcruxes. The act of shredding a human soul in order to perpetuate mortality.
Overall, I have no fault with Rowling’s creativity. The fact that her stories have become a part of our culture speaks to their brilliance. And yet, I always balk at the extensive cruelty in the stories.
Harry famously suffers at the hands of the Dursleys, the Muggle family that raises him. They have nothing but contempt and disdain for him and for anything magic-related. They verbally abuse him. His cousin, Dudley, is a bully. And yet, Harry must live with them over each summer. At one point, Rowling tantalizes with the possibility that Harry might escape their abuse, but in the end, he is forced to remain.
There is also Snape, the Potions professor, who loathes Harry. There is, of course, a motivation for this: Snape was in love with Harry’s mother, Lily. But Rowling never tempers Snape’s jealousy with any other emotion. He is deliberately cruel to Harry over and over again. And no one ever calls him on his outrageous behavior. Not Professor McGonagall, not even Dumbledore; they all turn a blind eye to Snape’s ridiculous behavior, as though they are advising Harry to simply shrug it off.
But the worst abuse heaped on Harry is the chronic incidents of death and loss. He rarely catches a break from trauma. He loses friends and loved ones. And somehow, he manages to persevere. Of course, he has his closest friends, Hermione and Ron, and the Weasley family looks after him. Sometimes, though, the tragedy gets too crushing.
I’m not suggesting that Rowling should soften her tale into a tasteless pudding. But I question the relentless horrors that Harry must endure in his quest to defeat Voldemort. One fan proposed a rationale for it: Since Harry himself is a Horcrux, his life is tainted by the presence of dark magic in his own person. Rowling, of course, never spells it out that way, but I can buy the theory.
My other complaint with Rowling’s work is that the later books become baggy, unwieldy tales. A bit of judicious editing could tighten the stories. There is still plenty of room for imagination without redundancy. Case in point: Hermione’s crusade to liberate the House Elves in Goblet of Fire. It’s an important moment of awareness for Hermione that there is sanctioned injustice in the world. But given the amount of real estate it is afforded in the book, I had expected more to come of it.
I have watched the movie series probably a dozen times, and in many cases, the images from the films have supplanted that of the books. Movies, of course, can’t always do justice to all the details of the books. That is why going back to reread the series helps me appreciate Rowling’s stories all the more, particularly her humor.