Saturday, July 20, 2013

WFJ Book Club #12: The Harry Potter Series

I didn't really have strong feelings about J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series for most of its existence.  I'd seen the first two movies and made a half-hearted start at reading the first book, almost a decade ago.  Through the inexorable process of geek osmosis, I had a basic idea of who the major characters and what the critical plot points were.  But in a media universe that contained plenty of other things to interest me, it never occurred to me that this was a franchise that was really special, and not just popular.

It's a recurring theme for me, and typing it out makes me feel a bit snobby, but I've never been comfortable with becoming obsessed with things that everybody else obsesses over in a particular moment of time.  It's not that I suspect that all popular things are bad and that my taste is better.  It's just that I don't know whether a currently popular media franchise is really better than any comparable item I might pick at random.  If I want to get wrapped up in something, I want it to be something I know I'll respect and maybe even love. even when I've moved on to something else.

So my instinct is to take my time.  And in many cases, my instincts manifest as pure stubbornness.  But I like being proved wrong when my stubbornness is put to the test.  Harry Potter really is special, and I should have realized that a long time ago.

There's a qualitative realness to the stories of Harry Potter, where hourglasses can turn back time and paintings of dead people can discourse with the living.  For all the fantasy and the high drama of war that drives the later books, they remain stories about going to school, growing into adulthood, and learning about the subtle shades of morality that complicate the struggle between good and evil.  By the time of the final confrontation nearly everyone has chosen a side, and we get the climactic drama the genre seemingly demands.  But the ambivalence about some of those choices from both alignments reveals Rowling's care in presenting to her audience a cast of characters who actually make choices, rather than merely filling stock roles.

Although the books are written for younger readers and present no real difficulty, their greatest strength is put in its best light when they are read together, regarded not as seven self-contained installments but chapters in a larger tale.  Committing to seven progressively longer books is a lot to ask, but it's the only way to appreciate the thought and planning that went into developing the considerable cast of characters.  Good people, even the kindly Professor Dumbledore, occasionally do bad things for which they don't really have good excuses, even as they struggle to do what's right.  On the other side, the motivations of noted "evil" wizards and witches range from the joy of hurting and bullying others to the fear of being likewise hurt; but all of them are ultimately controlled by a devastating villain, whose aim is not violence in itself but who will casually use the cruelest violence to achieve his ends.

So you have Voldemort, whose fascist agenda brings together various strands of evil in an extended saga of tragedy and death.  Likewise, young Harry is often driven to despair by the sheer weight of loss in his life.  But there is sunlight to be found at Hogwarts, too.  Though marred by war and class strife, the world of witches and wizards is one where people are generally benign to one another.  Women are equally respected as men in both athletics and academics, and for every Percy Weasley who seems determined to suck the fun out of magic through dry bureaucracy, there's a Fred and a George committed to exploring the infinite possibilities of joy and wonder that wizarding brings.  Apart from the main plot, the Harry Potter books are enjoyable for the portraits they offer of the lives of interesting, eccentric, and emotionally realistic people.

Harry's world has most of the best virtues of good fantasy literature: great characters, imaginative problem solving, compelling moral stakes, and a novel world/setting that seems (for all its danger) like an appealing place to dwell.  In fact, most of the best fantasy literature leaves the reader with the distinct impression that the setting is really "out there," either just hidden from view or far removed in time.  That's the reason why ardent Tolkien fans study Quenya and Sindarin.  And it's also why there exists an International Quidditch Association.

Of course, Hogwarts and the rest of the Wizarding World aren't really "out there."  Cars rarely fly and owls only seldom carry mail.  When real Quidditch players lose hold of their broomsticks, it's more awkwardly hilarious than terrifying.  But the people still want to live in that world because they feel so welcome there, and feeling welcome is in large part what Harry Potter is all about.  What starts as a tale about children going to school becomes a story of making a home in the world, and if we've already got more than enough of those, most of them don't seem to feature half-giants on flying motorcycles.

Being fans of Harry Potter has inspired some people to do amazing things.  For many others, it simply brings great pleasure.  But in all cases, it's a kind of lasting feeling that gets inside of you and changes your world in subtle, hard-to-define ways.  It's definitely the kind of change that's worth letting in.

1 comment:

  1. Oh, good! Now that you've thrown in the towel I'm that much closer to being named in Guinness World Records as the last living literate person on Earth to not have read the Harry Potter series. What a smashing distinction that will be! (genqueue)