Just magic

Over the course of 7 novels J.K. Rowling has charted the progress of her hero, the eponymous Harry Potter, from his first year at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry to his final battle with the great villain, Voldemort. The Harry Potter sequence is probably one of the best plotted of any literary sequence - this is especially evident when you read the books as a single read (or at least close together), when many tiny details from earlier volumes turn out to have importance in later volumes. It's clear that the whole sequence was pretty well thought out probably even before the first volume was written.

Over-hyped? Possibly, but you can hardly blame the publisher, Bloomsbury, who took a punt on an unknown writer, who'd been turned down several times, only to find that they had a runaway success on their hands. Actually, it's surprising that Rowling was rejected as the early Potters have all the elements of classic childrens' stories : an adventure, a quest, the supernatural, and the traditional school story beloved by generations of girls but here given a new spin to appeal equally to boys too. Harry Potter is influenced by those three greats of the fantasy genre T.H. White, author of The once and future king (Dumbledore was closely modelled on White's portrayal of Merlin), C.S. Lewis, and J.R.R. Tolkien, with a splash of Malory Towers, and big influences from ancient myths and legends and the Bible (especially the New Testament). This isn't surprising really as these were the same sources that influenced her predecessors White, Lewis and Tolkien.

At the heart of the sequence is a great traditional Good v Evil battle, dealing with biblical themes of love, atonement, and redemption; and at its best she writes incredibly movingly and brilliantly. There are some problems though - some of the later books (most notably Order of the Phoenix) need some drastic editing, they are incredibly overlong, and could have done with a good prune. Here the films do better than the books, cutting back much that is inessential, but where the films are not a patch on the books are in the back stories that Rowling gives several of her important characters (Dumbledore, Voldemort and Snape) enriching the whole sequence with their layers of complexity, and raising the whole series from a confection about a boy magician to a truly impressive saga worthy to be classed with the Narnia books, Once and future King and The Lord of the Rings.

I think that the major problem in terms of whether the books will continue to thrive and become classics once the HP hype is over is the change in tone of the books. Books 1-3 are childsize, and aimed very much at the late primary school market - they're great fun to read, generally very light and easy to read with good jokes, smashing villains, and real depth in the third volume Prisoner of Azkaban which is fairly frequently voted as readers' favourite HP. But from book 4 onwards the tone darkens as the books become correspondingly longer. The final three in the sequence are very dark in tone and deal with complex issues - these were set up in earlier volumes, but in a much lighter way, and so these latter volumes suit a teenage audience far more than a primary school one. J.K. Rowling was once asked about this, and was not bothered by it, as she felt her books were "growing up" as their readership was. Of course this was true at the time of publication, with each book coming out at roughly a year apart, but reading the whole sequence does show that there are some problems - I suspect that many younger children will not get beyond Book 4, while older children may be reluctant to read the more childish Books 1 & 2.

It would be a real shame though if the hype and the patchy writing in some of the books was to obscure what is a very fine literary sequence. Harry is an engaging hero, there's a great sense of fun, and the suspense and dark moments in Prisoner of Azkaban, Goblet of fire, and the final installment Deathly Hallows are brilliantly written; while in Voldemort Rowling has created one of the great all-time villains, easily on a par (if not surpassing) the White Witch and Professor Moriarty. Like all good childrens' classics, they ultimately transcend the readership they were written for; no adult should be ashamed to be caught reading a Harry Potter (yes, I have met those who refuse to read them in public) Rowling deals in deep themes of depression, life and death, love and hate. If you're a child you'll read the novels in one way, an adult will take away different things from them. I think that generally they're quite brilliant, and deserve a long life as a twenty-first century classic.


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