I must say, I am glad. There are many comparisons I could try for, but finishing this book, in fact the series, is rather like finishing a roller coaster ride. It was thrilling while it lasted, but now that it’s over, I am happy to get my feet back on the ground. And, I confess, I was beginning to resent the whipsaws back and forth.
In a previous post, I noted that I had received my HP7, and thereby generated a mini-discussion on the merits of the series, ranging from--
“Harry Potter! Not interested! From all I’ve heard & read [the author] is a poor imitation of the Narnia series”
“Oh, I'm a big Harry Potter fan too! . . .My neighborhood is filled with kids and it is so heartening to see them all on their front porches reading the same book”
As I was frantically reading my copy of Deathly Hallows at 3 AM on Sunday--delivered right to my door by the lovely folks at Barnes & Noble--I kept drawing parallels to Star Wars. Darth (as Voldemort):
"Come to the Dark Side, Luke." Obi-Wan (as Dumbledore): "If you strike me down, I will become more powerful than you can possibly imagine."
“They [the HP books] do (roughly) belong to the fantasy genre, but not all fantasy books are Narnia or Lord of the Rings any more than all mysteries are Sherlock Holmes. . .The ingredients of Harry Potter are not ground breaking, unique, or gourmet, but the combination still makes for a tasty popcorn read.”
Thoughtful comments, all. What I especially like about the Harry Potter series is the way they generated interest among readers of all ages. Some news writers noted that not since people lined up at the docks in New York shouting to incoming ships “Is little Nell dead?” has a book grabbed public imagination so much. (Dickens’ The Old Curiosity Shop featured the character Little Nell. The work was serialized, and published in sections. Dickens mastered the cliff hanger ending of each installment, so readers clamored for the next portion.)
J.K. Rowling has certainly learned that technique. While her novels in the Harry Potter series were not published in serialized sections, the way each book blended into the next accomplished some of the same effect. And, as anticipation built prior to the publication of HP7, speculation was rife—you could almost hear all her readers thinking “Is Harry Potter dead?’
I also am pleased that J.K. Rowling is quite wealthy now, having recently been recognized as “wealthier than the Queen.” Why not? Why shouldn’t an author experience financial success for her accomplishments. After all, far lesser individuals have achieved great wealth—I won’t even start in on the undeserving rich.
Now, to reflect a bit on the books themselves. This reflection is not intended as a plot analysis or any such thing, so I don’t think I will give away the outcome of HP7—but, if you are still reading the book, or plan to in the near future, you might want to cease reading here.
One aspect of writing that J.K. Rowling has absolutely mastered is the use of archetypal themes. While archetypes and myths have long been the subject for literary analysis, their use formed the core of the 1980s PBS series with Bill Moyers interviewing Joseph Campbell. Among the archetypal themes that we can find in literature are the hero on a quest, coming of age, the eternal struggle between good and evil, facing death—all of these should sound familiar to any reader of the Harry Potter series.
In brief: Harry is on a quest—its precise nature is not known at the outset, either to Harry or the reader. Each book adds a little bit to his and our understanding of the quest. Along the way, Harry has to come of age—he needs to learn the truth about many things, and to be at peace with that knowledge. We are constantly reminded that Harry’s existence is due to the power of good to defeat evil, even as good itself may be destroyed. And, of course, we knew there would be a final battle in HP7 between the forces of good and evil. It is this archetypal theme that most links the HP series to the Narnia Chronicles, and to the Lord of the Ring trilogy. Finally, as various characters in the HP series face death, we explore the nature of the eternal. And it should surprise no reader that Harry himself must face death in HP7 as he did at times in some of the books before.
My main quarrel with J.K. Rowling may not be fair at all, but I have a suspicion that she is a serious enough author to want to have her works matter. My quarrel is that her books need some work before they will be literary treasures. Not the HP series, mind, but the next book she writes. Assuming she does want her books to matter, she could use a few tips—that I am happy to give her.
1) Work on your character development. Rowling’s descriptions are rich, but her character development needs some work. A good author paints a picture of a character, and then stands back to see what that character will do. Sometimes, a character takes over and absconds with the plot. Central in good character development is motivation—why do characters do what they do? Good characters (well drawn, that is; not characters who are “good”) have motivation for what they do. Too often, Rowling’s characters did what they did because Rowling made them. A great example—without giving away the end of HP7—what is the motivation for Draco Malfoy?
2) Close behind character development is dialogue. While Rowling creates good dialogue, you rarely get a sense of distinctive voice of a particular character. Of course, there are some exceptions—example, Hagrid always sounds like Hagrid. And some of the expressions of Ron or Hermione are their own. But dialogue is a weak point for Rowling. One of the tests of good dialogue is—if you take a line from one character and give it to another, does it sound wrong? In Rowling’s case, the usual reason why a line of dialogue would sound wrong is because of the information conveyed, not because she has imagined a singular voice for a character.
3) On to plot—here is where Rowling shines. When I finished HP7, my first thought was—that was a thumping good read. (Back to the roller coaster ride.) But I also get frustrated with her use of plot—she spends so much time DOING things to her characters, rather than having the plot arise out of their natures. There were moments when I almost wanted to say—oh, leave him alone, give him a chance to breath!
4) So, now my final criticism—one of the singular hallmarks of good fiction is that an author SHOWS you what is happening, not TELLS. And you the reader are left to figure out why, which you should be able to do because you have well drawn characters, and you understand their motivation. You might be saying now—well, isn’t that what we have with Snape. And my answer is no—sorry, but Rowling whip-sawed Snape back and forth as to his allegiance, even though by the end of HP7 you know why. But I can’t help but feel that Snape’s changes back and forth were due more to the author TELLING you that is what he is doing than to the author SHOWING you and you coming to your own understanding.
Oh, lighten up, you say—these are only children’s books. Yes, good point. But, as I said, I have a suspicion that Rowling is an author who wants to write good literature, and she will keep on writing. So she has some room to grow. Oh, and there are wonderful children’s books that meet all of the criteria I have listed—think Bridge to Terabithia, or Jacob Have I Loved by Katherine Patterson, or Stuart Little or Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White, or Danny, Champion of the World by Roald Dahl.
Of course the great news is Rowling has established a reputation of being a bankable author, so she won’t have any trouble getting her next book published. And she has enough money to ride things out if the public doesn’t respond as wildly as they have with HP.
Yes, but did you like the book?. . .Of course!