Wednesday, June 07, 2006

The genius of J.K. Rowling

While I always enjoyed the Harry Potter books, my admiration for them grew over time. I first heard about them in 1998, when my mother described them to me as the adventures of a group of nerdy kids who are also wizards. It sounded like the typical book my mother likes to read, but as the series increased in popularity and a fourth book awaited publication in 2000, I decided to read the first three.

I remember my first night reading Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. I was reminded of Roald Dahl, one of my favorite authors as a kid. All the ingredients were there: the child who lives a cruel life and is then granted a journey into a wonderful magical world; the wretched characters who eventually get their comeuppance; and the bizarre types of candy that are right out of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

But I also noticed some differences. Not only was the scantly illustrated book at a much higher reading level than Dahl's fiction, the story itself was far more sophisticated than the modern fairy tales for which Dahl is famous. Rowling's writing is never condescending; it never explains straight out the rules of the magical world. Like an adult fantasy book, it allows readers to figure out these rules for themselves as the story progresses. The first chapter may even confuse children with its bewildering sequence of strange events that only gradually become understandable.

The surprise ending caught me off guard. In hindsight, it didn't seem like an original idea. But I simply wasn't expecting such a twist. Having associated the novel in my mind with Roald Dahl's fiction, I took all the characterization to be black and white. I thought I had the characters pegged, but their motives turned out to be more complex than I had initially assumed.

The first book remains my favorite of the series, with the next three close in line. But the fifth and sixth have not pleased me as much. They get bogged down in plot mechanics and have less of the delightful humor that characterized the earlier books. I know there are many fans who prefer the later books, but personally I think this reflects people's attachment to the unfolding storyline. Everyone wants to know what will happen next.

At first, I did not accept the popular idea that the Harry Potter books are classics. I considered them good entertainment, but hardly groundbreaking. The premise of the series, in which kids attend a school for witches and wizards, seems to lack the uniqueness of true fantasy classics like The Wizard of Oz and Lord of the Rings.

Though the broad sketch of Harry Potter is fairly conventional, the details are incredible in their scope. They bring to life a magical society that exists within our own "muggle" world and that is kept secret by a bureaucracy with its own rules, history, and politics. Rowling's approach differs from that of traditional fantasy, which typically takes place in a medieval type of setting. Even when fantasies are set in modern times, as in Charles De Lint's "urban fantasies," the magic itself is still rooted in the past. Rowling's magical world resembles an advanced technological society. But because that society is fueled by magic and not by science, she has more freedom than a science fiction writer, who is less likely to envision a future where people communicate through owls rather than through telephones. This flexibility makes it easier for us to believe in the story's assortment of creatures from classical mythology and medieval folklore. Rowling, who studied classical literature in college, gives these beings a feeling of reality that is missing from most fantasy books.

But the intricacy of Rowling's world cannot fully explain the popularity of the series. If people love the books, it is in part because they love the characters, who are drawn with a surprising level of realism. Harry, Ron, and Hermione are not high school stereotypes but fully fleshed out characters with many distinctive traits. Harry may look like a nerd, but he's brave, quick-thinking, and altruistic. He also has several flaws. Hagrid may seem on the surface like the standard "dumb giant," but he's more nuanced than that. We get to know these characters inside out as the series progresses. Not all the characters are well drawn. The main villain, Voldemort, always seems vague and generic. But some of the other menacing figures are fascinating, like the ever-elusive Snape, whose true nature has yet to be explained.

The books also have a strong satirical undercurrent aimed at schools, the media, and politicians. The first book contains the following amusing line: "Professor McGonagall watched [her students] turn a mouse into a snuffbox--points were given for how pretty the snuffbox was, but taken away if it had whiskers." The later books lampoon tabloid reporters and obtuse educators, and the sixth book seems to comment indirectly on the War on Terror, though I'm sure that wasn't a part of Rowling's original plan for the series.

One of the most overlooked qualities of the series is the clever plotting. The plots are better crafted than most cinematic thrillers. Rowling never cheats by creating a surprise that doesn't fit the earlier events. I suspect that she had worked out the outline of the entire series before she had published even the first book. As each new layer of the story gets uncovered, I am astonished at how well it meshes with everything that came before.

In this regard, the sixth (and most recent) book is particularly interesting. I have found that readers have two entirely different interpretations of the ending. I suppose we will find out which one is correct as soon as Rowling releases the seventh (and presumably final) novel. This is one of several plot mysteries in the series that explore the theme of how people are too judgmental, making assumptions about other people before knowing all the facts. Harry is unfairly judged by people who put too much stock into rumors, yet he himself misjudges other characters. The plot twists which emphasize this theme are not simply manipulation; they contain lessons about human nature.

Will Rowling provide a satisfying conclusion to the series? I don't see any reason why not. She has shown an absolute mastery over this genre. That's what I failed to grasp when I first thought her books unoriginal. I've since come to the conclusion that it's much less important where artists get their ideas as the way they handle them. I'll take Rowling's finely executed novels any day over an original but sloppily written work.


Jack Davidov said...

When I was younger I used to be very into fantasy and science fiction. However, I look back on the books that I read and I realized that they are often empty of any meaning or literary depth. I haven't bought into the Harry Potter craze - I've yet to read any of Rowling's novels. Is there any depth or symbolism to Harry Potter? Is there a message that she is trying to get across?

Kylopod said...

I personally don't evaluate novels by whether they try to get a "message" across. I don't consider that the primary purpose of literature. I also don't think that a novel can be reduced to a single message. Take Of Mice and Men, one of my favorite books. Steinbeck no doubt had specific social themes in mind when he wrote it, but those themes had very little to do with what attracted me to the book as a teenager. The book deeply affected me on an emotional level, dealing as it did with the power of dreams. The insights that any work of fiction has into the human condition are practically endless. All stories contain symbolism, but authors are better off letting their own subconscious do the work rather than artificially inserting symbolism. (If there's one type of writing I hate, it's the pretentious.)

I believe that the main purpose of the Harry Potter books is to entertain. They do include satirical commentary on the media and the educational system. But that's only one aspect to the series. The moral themes are fairly conventional: courage, integrity, loyalty, fairness, and so on. But I do not believe that a book's intended message (if there is one) is what determines its merit.

Joe in Australia said...

If you like J K Rowling you'll probably like Diana Wynne Jones, especially her early books. I recommend _Charmed Life_, _Eight Days of Luke_ and _The Ogre Downstairs_. You might also like _Fire and Hemlock_, although it's a harder read.

Kylopod said...

Thanks, I'll take a look at them. I probably did read some of her books a long time ago, but I don't remember which ones.