Friday, September 02, 2011

Rowling's Harry Potter isn't all that magical

Book 93: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling

Book 95: Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J.K. Rowling

I've done it. I've read them. Two books about that famous Potter boy. The one with the scar like a lightning bolt on his forehead. The one who had all those muzzy adolescents standing in line at midnight waiting for his next book to be issued. The one who starred in those movies.

O.K. Exactly what was all the excitement about?

Typical isn't it? Late to the party and now chippy about it.  Would I have been so snarky if I'd stumbled on Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone when it first appeared on the shelves of the local bookstores. Admittedly, I have the benefit of hindsight, but the books aren't all that well written (there is hope that the writing improves with each successive book) and they aren't terribly original.

That lack of originality is part of the appeal. Rowling's genius is not in unveiling something entirely new, but in repackaging something old.  Just as Harry stumbled on the Chamber of Secrets, she's stumbled on an ancient formula that compels 12-year-olds to read voraciously. 

In these two books, and I assume throughout the series, Rowling appeals to the fantasy life of the typical adolescent. A fantasy life that has nothing to be with magic or basilisks, flying cars or Sorting Hats, but everything to do with the perception that NO ONE UNDERSTANDS ME, NO ONE APPRECIATES ME, and NO ONE KNOWS HOW REALLY, REALLY SPECIAL I AM. 

Here's two things I think Rowling got spot on:

1. Potter's an orphan. Brilliant. He lives with a family of Muggles -- the sobriquet for us non-magical sort -- who don't like him, who don't recognize there's anything special about him and who won't let him exercise his special gifts i.e. talking to snakes and other magical stuff.

Harry finds a new family, and friends, once's he packed off to Hogwarts. I cast Hagrid as the mother and Dumbledore as the father.

Think about it. What's the first thing Hagrid does after meeting Harry? He takes him shopping for school supplies. Bet, you did that with your mum. He's always quick to offer a refreshing cup of tea and bit of advice. Dumbledore is the stern, but supportive father. He know it's best if Harry learns for himself, but he's there in the background, with a vanishing cloak or a phoenix to hand, should Harry need help extricating himself from a spot of  bother.

2. Anyone can develop magical powers.  There are entire families with magical ability, true, but Harry's mother's parents were Muggles. The same is true for that Hermione Granger. My God! Her parents are dentists.  You can't get LESS magical than that, yet she's the star pupil of Hogwarts. (I won't add a third point and get into all that suppressed sexuality that the films tap into in such marvelous fashion.)

But if anyone can develop magical powers, if a genetic line of succession isn't necessary, why I could become a powerful sorcerer. You could as well.  It's all there, bubbling below the surface, especially for our typical 12-year-old who doesn't understand those strange feelings he/she is experiencing is called puberty and is not one damn bit magical.

I understand that down the line the books in the Potter series grow fatter and darker.  I suppose I'll read them, but I don't feel any rush (that might require a tidy little compulsion spell, I suppose) now that I've satisifed my curiousity.

One aisde: The Guardian (a Brit newspaper) recently conducted a poll to see who was the favorite Harry Potter character. The winner was Severus Snape. Hermione was second and Harry was fourth -- a distant fourth. 

Two thoughts on the poll: Harry is a rather innocuous character, which I think is by design.  The less well drawn he is, the easier it is for our 12-year-old audience to identify with him. He's an everyman. We can all wear Harry's cloak.

The second thought is that the vote was driven more by the movies than the book.  In the movies, with his sneer and upturned brow, Alan Rickman is superb as Snape.  He makes the character come alive. Snape's rather one dimensional in the books (at least these first two). He doesn't like Harry and he's the source of suspicious when anything nasty happens. Convenient that.

1 comment:

  1. I think it's safest just to say we'll agree to disagree about this series (although I will say that I found Chamber of Secrets to be the weakest of the seven books).

    In any case, feel free to read my reviews on these two, if you're at all interested in the opposing (read: pro) viewpoint.