of J. K. Rowling: the Harry Potter series

It takes courage to come out and say one doesn’t love Harry Potter. Especially because there are so many people who make ridiculous claims about it: that it is “satanic” or will infect the minds of readers with an occultic agenda. Claims which are, frankly, balderdash. Is it possible to respectably dislike–or at least not love–Harry Potter for other reasons?

J. K. Rowling is an incredible storyteller. She may be The Storyteller of her generation. Like Tolkien before her, she excels at the creation of lore. She hasn’t merely told a story about the world but created a new one. Her world has a definite shape and consistency of its own, with its own entities, laws, and history. She has filled it out with a wealth of detail and peopled it with memorable and almost iconic characters. And we will remember. Rowling’s story has entered national–and international–consciousness. People will be pointing pencils and muttering Riddikulus! at their fears for a long time to come.

This is not criticism but I do observe that these books represent, for most, a reading commitment. Reading Harry Potter means persevering for 3407 pages (in the editions I read). As a girl who sold me several of the early volumes in a charity shop put it: “These first ‘uns were shorter, but she got a bit long-winded toward the end.” The remarkable thing is that the only book that feels long is the fifth, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.

Experienced readers of fantasy will observe all the elements of the genre: the reliance on mythology and folklore, the inclusion of various monsters and talking animals, the construction of a separate world with its own accepted possibilities, the personification of Evil, the presence of sidekicks to the protagonist, the magical objects. The familiar theme of help arising from unexpected characters, such as Neville Longbottom and Luna Lovegood, is also present. There are also undeniable parallels to classic examples of the genre–such as the role and fate of Gandalf Dumbledore, and the need for Frodo Harry to undertake a quest to defeat evil that cannot be handed to another. Did anyone else recognize the lake of the dead in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince? This is an invention of Tolkien’s in The Two Towers, only the corpses in the Dead Marshes are images that do not wake, it is instead weeds that pull the unwary quester down into the depths.

The Harry Potter heptalogy is a timeless tale of good vs. evil. It even includes the age-old ethical dilemma: should good stoop to evil means to achieve its (good) ends? This is a classic obscurity which Harry does not always navigate correctly–as in his treatment of the goblin Griphook in the affair of the sword of Griffindor.

So what’s not to love? I love the greater story, the characters, the writing, and the subtle twist of humor woven throughout. Do I think that by reading I have exposed my brain to the forces of evil? Um, no. In fact, as pure fantasy goes, that theory is itself worthy of Rowling’s invention! The only thing that gives me pause is this: the imagery is of a variety with which I do not choose to strew my mind. It is dark, you cannot deny it. Blood and torture and brutality and sadism are elements heavily present. The very gothic nature of the story’s decor, both physical (skulls in the bookcase, shrunken heads in the hall) and figurative may appeal to the dark side of English humor, but not to mine. I am aware that there is a twist of horror in English stories for even the youngest of children–reread Little Red Riding Hood or The Three Little Pigs–but I knew when, at the end of the fourth book, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Rowling had entered a new area from which she never returns. Something was finally unleashed in her imagination that should at least have been taught to heel.

I have long known that I have a mind unusually sensitive to imagery, particularly that of the frightening variety. Most likely the majority of readers would not share this criticism. It is not perhaps everyone’s experience that sleep is difficult after one’s mind is painted with images of miserable half-dead corpses dragging people down to drown in dark lakes or innocent Muggle-borns banished summarily to die slowly in Azkaban, that place without hope or joy. It doesn’t matter, to a mind like mine, that these things are not real. They are real in Harry Potter’s world, which any reader of his adventures cannot help but enter.

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7 Responses to of J. K. Rowling: the Harry Potter series

  1. Susan says:

    Hello, I appreciate your thoughtful review of the HP books. The fact that the imagery had such an effect on you is testimony to Rowling’s excellent ability to tell a story. I read the books after moving here to Zurich – as I’m unemployed I have lots of time, and thoroughly enjoyed each one. Since the last 3 movies have come out, I have re-read the series each time. I’ve also had the privilege of attending a book club where one of the members is a dear friend of JKR; her insight into the process, and bits and bobs in the books has been delightful.

    I enjoy your blog very much, as one expat to another 🙂 Thanks for blogging!

    • betsy says:

      Thank you so much for sharing this comment, Susan, and for your encouragement! How fascinating to be a part of such a book club–I’m jealous. 🙂

  2. You are on quite the literary role here, Betsy! Your critical analyses put me to shame…I get dreadfully lazy when it comes to this step. I would jump at the chance to book club it with someone but the discipline of writing out my thoughts….well, I admire you. This is fun to see you post as I just started the Potter series last Friday and am waiting for the fourth installment at the library. I am enjoying them for what they are and will likely feel compelled to see the series through….but now I fear it will too cost me some sleep towards the end! I’m thinking to try the Cupboard series by N.D. Wilson after this – should be refreshing. Enjoy your writing so much.
    Love, Cailan

  3. Liz says:

    Well dear Betsy – some day we will chat about this series face to face, I hope. Two summers ago I read ALL of those pages – a “labor of love” for my children who LOVE these books. I did not enjoy them. They drove me crazy! She is long-winded – Harry is a rascal (thinks primarily of himself at all turns and yet for some reason we have made him into a hero), and the one character that I did enjoy, they kill! Along with you, I agree that the imagery is too much for those of us bothered by such gruesome things. I have not and will not see the films. Have I read them all? Yes! Do I think I opened myself up to evil and dark and Satanic things? I am still unsure about that – I think Rowling crosses a line in fantasy when she sends the kids to the school of “Witchcraft and Sorcery” – I can’t help but wonder about that. So….I have probably said too much. I will look forward to the chance to chat about this with you some day!! You always make me think and I love that about you! Happy New Year my friend!! Love you guys.

    • betsy says:

      You have most definitely not said too much, Liz! I am really grateful to you for your insightful contribution to the discussion. Keep the thoughts coming, your input is valuable to me. Happy New Year!

      And yes, I will add this to the my ever-lengthening list of conversations I would like to have with you. 🙂

  4. Rachel says:

    What a thoughtful review. I thought you were very kind in your assessment of the books. I have watched all of the movies, but have not yet read the books. A dear friend of mine had nightmares when she read the books. I agree with you that I do not think they are satanic, and it drives me crazy when I hear people speak of them that way.

    Thanks for all of your book review posts! I’m always looking for recommendations.

  5. Ashlea says:

    I have never read the Harry Potter books, but I have watched some of the movies with my husband over the years. It took me a while to have any desire to watch the movies, but slowly viewed some out of order and eventually had to see how it ended despite its dark nature. My husband is a avid fan and reader of fantasy books, and over the years he has chosen some trilogies he thought I might enjoy that we could read together. I do like books of series because I enjoy the longevity… watching the characters develop and engaging in an in-depth story that spans over a longer period of time. I very much enjoyed the trilogies my husband recommended, BUT in two of them I found a few images/moments disturbing. I can still remember them. I am very much like you in that regard– very sensitive to dark and disturbing images. So, I can understand your feelings. While I suppose it’s to the authors credit to draw us so fully into the story, sometimes I wish they would leave certain parts out for people like me… and you. 🙂

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