I wrote most of this when I’d just finished the harry potter books. It’s taken me much longer to roll out the blog entry.
I initially asked myself what was the point of writing something on the books, given nearly everyone seems to have read them or watched the films, and almost everyone has said something about them too. But that’s an argument for never saying anything at all, and that’s something I could never do.
Some of the things I’d normally criticise in the books, I can’t, because they’re children’s books. I don’t think it’s plausible a teenager could save the world from a great evil, Similarly, mister baddie is a caricature, at least on the surface. The books centres on a school, a boarding public school, which made me feel somewhat at home, actually. But these are children’s books, and I’m not at all sure I can expect children to have a properly developed sense of human nature. These points cannot be used against the books.
What I like about the books is that a child can grow up with Harry Potter. They can read one book a year, and watch the character develop as they themselves develop. I’d have loved to have something like these books when I was young, although I’d have found a way to jump ahead later on, as I’m sure many would. Fortunately, they’re complex and rich enough to be revisited.
Another great point about the books is they don’t run away from the difficult things in life. There are the difficulties of boys and girls, there is the death of animals and people. Children always used to be introduced to these hardships in stories, in fairy stories, and I’m glad these books don’t run away from them. The characters are developed, and not just the main characters, and they grow with the books.
Although the books deal with the fantasy, Rowling has not been lazy, she’s created her own version of the great myths, and given them a new life. For example, the elves and goblins are not the usual trope that so many lazy authors reroll. There’s also some essential elements of the books that I’ve not seen before (although that could simply be my ignorance), such as paintings containing living character portraits, who talk, who wander among their own and other paintings.
Rowling is on record as saying these books are about death. Death is certainly at the centre of much of the story. Learning how to deal with death is an important part of growing up, and is a lesson many people never learn. As such, the Harry Potter generation will, I hope, be a little more mature than their predecessors.
But I have a problem with the death theme. Rowling introduces, or perhaps reintroduces, a lot of the myths of death, a lot of ideas that are, and have been, central to our culture. It is very important children do know these things, because they’re part of where we come from.
But I regret that she didn’t also introduce the cold sun perspective, the atheist realisation that there’s no magic really, that death is the end. Mind you, in the context of the story, that would probably have been very very difficult, since much of the story involves life after death, on one form or another, so its absence would have run counter to an underlying theme. The problem is the atheist perspective is the only one that holds up to evidence. I guess perhaps learning from Harry Potter, but eventually moving on from the books to whatever post–Potter belief you attain, will be how the Harry Potter generation grow up. After all, they are children’s books, and, after all, Father Christmas.
There’s a lot of delicious complexity in these books. As the book develops, good characters get put in positions of great difficulty, and have to compromise the things they believe in order to protect the people they love. Rowling doesn’t avoid the darkness of life. So there’s caricature evil, in the form of mister super baddie, but there’s real evil, bad things done for apparently good reasons, bad things done by those who don’t dare see beyond their own spectacle rims. I like that. At the end, the black and white starts to blur to grey. I like that. Bad characters fight for the goodies, good characters fight for the baddies. I like that. The books start to blur to reality’s grey. I like that. There’s a lot of things that might, or might not, be messages, or themes. I like that. I like that adults who were Harry Potter children will argue about the themes (I recently overheard just such a discussion amongst waiters at my local restaurant). I like that these books will give and give for many years.
So, ultimately, I think that these books have become such a part of the conversation of modern life is no bad thing. Those too old to belong to the Harry Potter generation should read them anyway. These books are alive, and those alive should know these books.