J.K. Rowling is arguably one the most famous names today, courtesy of her fantasy series, Harry Potter, with its wild, phenomenal success both in print and in film. Certainly, seven novels and eight movies, each longer and more complicated than the last, is no small accomplishment. Certainly, her success has left a strong imprint on our culture, and I don’t see it fading for a while.
I first heard of Harry Potter sometime around the third book, Prisoner of Azkaban, came out. There was some news feature about how wildly successful these books were despite having never been advertised, merely spreading by word of mouth. I was intrigued, so I got hold of the first novel Philosopher’s Stone, and read it through.
Even as a teenager, I found myself enchanted. It felt very similar to other novels I’d enjoyed as a child, such as Matilda and James and Giant Peach. Harry was an abused and neglected child, suddenly introduced to a more fantastic, wacky world than he’d ever known, and in which he was actually important. He suddenly mattered to someone. Not to mention, there was never really any statement of exactly when the novel was set, nor much said about civilization’s tech level, so I generally just imagined Matilda, James, and Harry having their respective adventures in that “long ago” period I always thought of when I thought of my parents being kids.
While that still hold true for Matilda and James, their stories were about finding some sort of refuge in a the world of a child. Harry, however, gave us a story about growing up, and leaving a great many of of a child’s illusions behind. Yet, his is also a story of taking strength and wisdom from such “insubstantial” things as love and fairy tales.
It also makes a potent argument about the folly of villainy, of doing terrible things for selfish reasons. The chief antagonist, Voldemort, eventually meets his end because of one single act, that being his choice to murder the symbolic epitome of innocence: a baby. Because he did that, because he was the sort of villain who would do that, everything he strove for came crashing down on him multiple times, and led to his demise. In trying to save himself, in his fear of death, he condemned himself to die.
All of these are excellent points, and Rowling tells this story fairly well. She communicates the characters, the struggle, the losses they suffer, the triumphs they achieve, all while keeping us entertained (by the end, I was so addicted that I was reading these super-long novels within a day or two of getting my hands on them), and by the time we reach the end, we have invested quite a bit into these characters.
And she managed to throw me for a loop several times. First, I was thinking Harry and Hermione would end up together, which they didn’t. Then I thought Cedric Diggory’s demise would become a rallying cry, which it didn’t, becoming, for the most part, just another one of Voldemort’s murders. Then I thought Dumbledore would make it to the last book before dying, which he did not. Time and again, I was wrong. The one thing I did correctly predict (and my friends disagreed with me, so now I can laugh at them, hahahah!) was how Voldemort would actually attack Hogwarts in force in the last novel. I was completely wrong about every circumstance surrounding it, but I got that one point right! :p
In truth, I don’t have any serious complaints or critiques about Rowling’s writing style or her stories. Her world-building could be improved, as there doesn’t seem to be that much point to going to Hogwarts. Yes, you learn magic, but do you learn any other skills? Can you go out into the world prepared for anything? Can you go get a job anywhere besides your nation’s ministry of magic? Being so isolated from the rest of the world, the muggles, the world of magic is filled with wonder, but it also seems terribly stagnant, barely managing to survive, let alone truly thrive. Harry and his friends all agree that they are only the equals of muggles, and of every other intelligent species, yet the whole lot of them live so separately from said muggles that even the most friendly of wizards regards them as a curious oddity.
Heck, Voldemort talks about ruling the muggles, but unless he were to lead the wizards out into the open, they aren’t really ruling them, so much as ignoring them. Granted, in his case, the separation likely spared a number of muggles from a grisly fate, but I’d like to see even a few hundred wizards with their giants and trolls and spiders just try to fend off every single muggle with a gun.
For that matter, if the wizards were so great that they could even avoid dying when they were burnt at the stake, then why did they not just take over, instead of going into hiding? There’s a similar, but grossly more substantial, issue with the so-called “vampires” in Twilight, but that is, fortunately, about the only similarity these two franchises have.
Of course, commonalities with Twilight should be avoided like the plague anyway. Yet another reason why quality world-building is so important.
Outside of this, the Harry Potter franchise, with seven main novels, eight movies, two booklets about magical creatures and quidditch, a short collection of wizard fairy tales by the fictitious Beedle the Bard, and the most recent short stories Rowling has released, there is plenty of quality material to talk about. We can debate, agree, and disagree on what the characters choose to do, or we can just sit back and relax and enjoy a fun ride with lovable characters, magic spells, mystical creatures, and a poignant theme.
Either way! 😉