February 14, 2011

J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter... of course [review by starlight]

"You think the dead we loved ever truly leave us? You think we don’t recall them more clearly than ever in times of great trouble? Your father is alive in you, Harry, and shows himself plainly when you have need of him. How else could you produce that particular Patronus? Prongs rode again last night."

I want to start out by saying that on the first read-through, Prisoner of Azkaban was my favourite. Thanks for letting me get that off my chest. I can't really choose an all-time favourite, but I remember reading the third book for the first time at age of 10 and being completely swept off my feet by Rowling's story telling. Each Harry Potter book has had either an excellent twist or an important plot revelation in the climax (or both), and that of Sirius Black's true story is my favourite by far. I will always be a defender of the Harry Potter series, and a dedicated fan, so I would like to take this opportunity to defend something Rowling has often been criticized for - her writing.

She's been hailed as an incredible story-teller, and a great entertainer of the 21st century, but J.K. Rowling has also been criticized for her writing style. Some people say it's just not their cup of tea, while others claim she has no style, and no writing talent. I completely disagree with that statement. If it's not your cup of tea, it's probably because you've been brought up on great classics by masterful wordsmiths and Rowling's writing just really doesn't appeal to you, but think of it this way. The story of a 11 year old boy discovering that he is a wizard would not have worked with Victorian diction, or the style of Dickensian prose. It's a children's book. That isn't to say that the limitation of Rowling's audience made her use small words and avoid flowery rhetoric, but to say that she used a rhetoric that works for this kind of story.

Her style is to use wit and humour to tell an imaginative story, despite it's somewhat played-out premise. That is what we all loved about Harry Potter. What makes Hogwarts so special that an entire generation fell in love with it and tore through 7 books to find out how it would be saved from destruction? Its quirks and charms, of course. Moving staircases, talking paintings, dormitories with ridiculous passwords... What ten year old didn't want to run away to live at Hogwarts?

An example of her brilliant storytelling, and the writing style to accompany it, is the first chapter of the first book: The Boy Who Lived in Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone. I could actually read that chapter over and over, it was such a crafty introduction to the series - through the eyes of Mr. Dursley. Everything here is deliberate, humorous and fine-tuned - every detail brings life to the first scene in the series. So many of these details still make me laugh out loud when I re-read them - Mr. Dursley's outright consternation towards the people in cloaks, the little man who squeaks at him about you-know-who and hugs him around the middle,  Dumbledore's complete focus on his sherbet lemons, the cat reading the map, the owls swooping through the chapter and being reported on by the weather-man...

"And finally, bird-watchers everywhere have reported that the nation's owls have been behaving very unusually today. Although owls normally hunt at night and are hardly ever seen in daylight, there have been hundreds of sightings of these birds flying in every direction since sunrise. Experts are unable to explain why the owls have suddenly changed their sleeping pattern." The newscaster allowed himself a grin.
"Most mysterious. And now, over to Jim McGuffin with the weather. Going to be any more showers of owls tonight, Jim?"
"Well, Ted," said the weatherman, "I don't know about that, but it's not only the owls that have been acting oddly today. Viewers as far apart as Kent, Yorkshire, and Dundee have been phoning in to tell me that instead of the rain I promised yesterday, they've had a downpour of shooting stars! Perhaps people have been celebrating Bonfire Night early -- it's not until next week, folks! But I can promise a wet night tonight."
Mr. Dursley sat frozen in his armchair. Shooting stars all over Britain. Owls flying by daylight. Mysterious people in cloaks all over the place.
And a whisper, a whisper about the Potters...

Tell me that's not fantastically written to introduce a story about a boy wizard. It's not Shakespeare, it's Harry Potter. It has its own charms and merits, and in fifty years I'm fairly confident it will be hailed as some of the best literature of our generation.

I also just had to throw this in there, lest we forget:

Nothing like this man had ever been seen on Privet Drive. He was tall, thin, and very old, judging by the silver of his hair and beard, which were both long enough to tuck into his belt. He was wearing long robes, a purple cloak that swept the ground, and high-heeled, buckled boots.
His blue eyes were light, bright, and sparkling behind half-moon spectacles and his nose was very long and crooked, as though it had been broken at least twice. This man's name was Albus Dumbledore.
Albus Dumbledore didn't seem to realize that he had just arrived in a street where everything from his name to his boots was unwelcome.

By the way, Stephen King is on my side when he compares Rowling to Stephenie Meyer: "Both Rowling and Meyer, they’re speaking directly to young people… The real difference is that Jo Rowling is a terrific writer and Stephenie Meyer can’t write worth a darn. She’s not very good."


  1. a pious atheists virtuous indignationFebruary 14, 2011 at 6:56 PM

    Starlight are you saying that you think in 50 years The Harry Potter books will be held in the same levels of reverence as The Lord Of The Rings?.

  2. That is absolutely what I am saying. I imagine in its day Lord of the Rings received similar criticism. When Tolkien's narrator speaks to us and alludes to our own world, he isn't using the most artistic writing tactics of the era, yet today we celebrate him almost without criticism. His style is older, and therefore "better", than any of the writers of today.

  3. In a way I already believe it is considered an important literature text. In only 14 years since the first book was published Harry Potter has managed to change our society. The books have sold billions, more than was thought possible indicating many were interested in the story of the young wizard. A new sport was invented, at some high schools and universities people can play Quidditch (if you want a laugh, look it up on YouTube). A Harry Potter course at Durham University in England has even begun to be offered and I’m certain other universities will follow. There was definitely something magical about these books if they managed to cause such an impact.

  4. I completely agree. It's ridiculous to pretend that such a cultural phenomenon isn't of high enough quality to be considered great literature. And yes, I have seen many theses and studies on the importance of Harry Potter, so I know it's on the radar for critical acceptance, but it seems most people think Harry Potter is just a fad. Maybe it's just people who haven't read the series.

    Thanks for the comment!