Sunday, August 05, 2007

Pottered out

Well, it is over—I have finally finished Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. My daughter tells me that the book is being referred to as HP7 in the UK. So, HP7 it is.

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!


Anonymous said...

I believe that anything she writes will be a number 1 hit for sure! Congrats on finishing!

Cathy said...

I feel like such a . . . I dunno - drag, slug . . . I know so many people who are reading and enjoying this series. I just can't.

Maybe it's the scary stuff. Yep. Bet that's it. Never read Stephen King. Don't watch horror movies. I'm a chicken.

I loved your critique, though, Donna. I know it's based on solid judgment born of years of study and reading.

You're right. You can't begrudge Rowling's financial success. Good for her!

dmmgmfm said...

I have to admit I'm with Cathy. I've not read a one of them. I am with her on the scary stuff too, I couldn't even watch The Wizard of Oz all the way through until I was in my 20's. Of course NOW I love the show. Maybe when I'm in my 80's I'll be brave enough to read Harry Potter. :-)

Ruth said...

Very good analysis...Like the others who have commented, I haven't read the books. They are all here in the house and my daughters have read them. I read about 1/3 of the first book and it never caught my interest. I haven't bothered with the movies either. I must be odd, because millions of people love the stories.

possumlady said...

Wow, now THAT is a thorough analysis! I really agree with the "whiplashing" going on. I, too, would just think "my lord, just let Harry catch his breath" and have a light chapter or two before it gets so intensely stressful again.

SPOILER ALERT!! Do not read the rest of my comments if you haven't finished the book.

When I finished the book, I chuckled to myself because I always feel I have a skewed look on things as I think I felt just as bad about Hedwig as I did about anything else. And, that poor partially blind dragon! I actually thought to myself "I hope he makes it."

Mary said...

Donna, my time is limited here at work so I'll be brief: I didn't read the book. No comment :o)

Nevin said...

Well, I see that I'm not the only one who can spend most of a post about a book I liked talking about what I didn't like about the book.

KGMom said...

Mon@rch--thanks; I don't think I have ever been congratulated before on finishing a book! Admittedly, it is 750+ pages. I've read longer.

Cathy--you remind me of my brother--he is known to get up & walk out of scary movies. What's scary--just about anything.

Laurie--you too. You couldn't take Wizard of Oz? Well, as you note, you got over it--DMMGMFM! Flying monkeys, indeed!

Ruth--I think you are the first person I have heard of who started the 1st Harry Potter book and didn't finish. Many people don't want to read them at all, but for most once started, hooked.

Possumlady--SPOILER ALERT--I totally agree--I kept waiting for one more word about Hedwig, but no.

Mary--consider yourself excused--as much else as you do, signing on for Harry Potter? You just don't need that. . .unless, you give up American Idol?!?

Nevin--hmmmm; might we both have Climenhaga blood? Hmmm? By the way, when do you leave for Egypt?

Anvilcloud said...

Your students are in for a treat.

Cathy said...

Ha! I love it. AC nailed. You've got some lucky students filing into your rooms.

Nevin said...

I leave for Egypt August 28.

dguzman said...

Nice analysis! I loved the books, absolutely devoured them. I was most impressed by the amazingly complete and wonderful world she created, running parallel to ours. Wish I had that talent!

Rhonda said...

Hmmmm. Interesting analysis--I agree on many points. But I'm still an unabashed fan, as pedestrian as this may seem to others!

I will state for the record, however, that I have never seen Titanic, unlike the remainder of the free world (eagerly hoping to redeem herself...)