Harry Potter is a phenomenon. Because of this, it has spawned many opinions, varied in stance. There are those extremists who either praise HP as the greatest thing ever to have graced paper or decry the books as “the death of reading”. It is neither. Before beginning, note these two things: I am a HP fan, but not a zealot. Also, I am part of Rowling’s intended audience, at the age of 16; therefore, I read the series from the intended perspective. Now, let’s look at the basics of HP before breaking it down:
~*Harry Potter is intended for children and teenagers.
~*J.K. Rowling’s writing is shallow.
~*J.K. Rowling’s writing is solid.
~*The storyline, world, and characters are well-wrought.
~*J.K. Rowling is a thief.
~*Harry Potter is great children’s fiction.
As I rather doubt anyone agrees with all of these claims, let’s hit each point:
Harry Potter is intended for children and teenagers. Not adults. That said, there is nothing wrong with adults embracing it as a light and enjoyable read. Fairly short point, but well worth making. However, there is a side note to be had here– there are some people, children and adults, that can’t seem to get past one or both of two things: light reads and the “bestseller syndrome”. Shallow and popular books certainly have their merit, but the fact that many are reluctant or unable to move past these things is quite a shame, really. This is where the misled “death of reading” notion is spawned; light reads are fine, but to limit one’s experience to them is not. The “bestseller syndrome” is similar to why kids who strive to be popular do and wear certain, widely accepted things and refuse to try anything else.
J.K. Rowling’s writing is shallow. It does not employ complex and difficult passages, nor does it contain intricate parallels and symbolism. The reason for the former is because, as just noted, children are the primary audience. The latter is merely fact; most of Rowling’s parallels and symbolism are quite obvious and blatant, and therefore are noticed by anyone who reads the books. There are morals and lessons, but they are easy to grasp. In short, Harry Potter is neither Moby Dick nor Alice in Wonderland; it does not try to be either of these things, and therefore does not fail in its purpose.
J.K. Rowling’s writing is solid, particularly her dialogue. But Neil, you just said her writing is shallow! So? Shallow and bad are not synonymous; just because her text lacks reams of hidden meaning doesn’t mean it’s shoddily wrought. That said, her writing moves along quite briskly (which is very important, as the point is to tell a story), and also contains a fair deal of humor, which is heavily lacking in literature. There are, perhaps, a few sideplots or occurrences that are unnecessary to the story (school occurrences), but they do serve a purpose (which will be discussed later).
The storyline, world, and characters are well-wrought. This is one of the places where the books pull away from similar works. Obviously, the mass of appealing material reused or recreated here (e.g. magic, witches and wizards, the Philosopher’s Stone, etc.) made it possible for this phenomenon to occur, but if this was all it was, such a craze would have occurred several times already. The storyline is, to be frank, very good. Sure, it is a bit too forgiving a at few points, but remember the primary audience. At least Rowling is willing to kill off some main characters when it’s necessary.
The wizarding world is also well-created, and existent within our own (which is important– more on that later). The primary characters, though archetypal and predictable in some cases, are not one-dimensional lightweights, nor are they psychological studies (with, perhaps, one exception). A few characters in particular are quite interesting (the dialogue helps alot here) and difficult to predict.
J.K. Rowling is a thief, bless her heart. Her writing steals from other sources, as noted in the previous section. Some consider this plagiarism. However, drawing from other people is part of writing; would you prefer for the book to be about rempus and garlos that use ribble instead of witches and wizards that use magic? Once lore is established to mean certain things, why tinker with it when you can reuse it, then expand? Like T.S. Eliot said: “Immature poets imitate; Mature poets steal.” This holds true for art in general.
Harry Potter is great children’s fiction. However, it is not great children’s fiction in the sense that there are complicated allusions and unplumbed depths for the grown reader. HP connects with kids and offers a reprieve from persistent reality; it is escapist fiction that occurs within our own world. The wizarding world exists on earth, hidden from the likes of non-magical people; who can say that such a world doesn’t exist? The same technique is employed in the Narnia series, the Oz series, and in the Alice books, and compels children to ponder over the question of what is real.
Harry Potter further mixes the ordinary with the extraordinary; though Hogwarts is a school of wizardry, students still must attend classes, do homework, and take tests. The characters have crushes, go through puberty, and are, save for the magic, quite like normal teenagers. Pull such a combination together with good, brisk writing, and you have something reluctant kids are willing to actually read. That children and teenagers are reading these books, enjoying themselves, and taking in the simple, but existent, lessons and symbolism, is admirable, and preferable to the alternative of them not reading anything. It’s a shame that many will never move on to enjoy other books, for there is so much grand and exciting literature to be had; really, though, how is that Rowling’s fault?
In short, Harry Potter is a well-written children’s fiction series that manages to pull kids in despite the current reign of visceral and lazy media, something that so many books fail in doing. It’s not the greatest or deepest writing ever, nor is it bad or “the death of reading”; it’s a light, enjoyable, and appealing story. Oh, and by the way– I do rather wish I was a wizard.
~Neil Hester will be entering his third year of high school. He is a poet who blogs at http://laevanesce.blogspot.com/