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Jocelyn (The Reading World)

I love to read and can get very attached to my opinions, but recently I've been learning not to completely lose my head when people disagree with me, so feel safe to argue with me whenever you wish ;) 


Review of Harry Potter, Sort of? *sigh*

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone - J.K. Rowling, Mary GrandPré

Ugh. According to my English teacher, Harry Potter is being considered as an addition to 6th grade reading lists. This is a fun series, and I can't deny that I had a good time reading it, but HP's repeated elevation to the status of "great, classic children's literature," the claims of having ushered in some sort of "reading renaissance," and the very annoying and inaccurate comparisons to Shakespeare and Jane Austen (????) only make my eyes start rolling like marbles.

I've tried looking for the reported amazing literary depth in Rowling and it's just not there.

Returning to this series, it still strikes me how thematically simplistic it is. The vast majority of the characters are tried-and-true stereotypes without much attempt to really subvert them. Being patterned after a rather cliche coming-of-age story, most of them develop exactly as you predict they will, and the only times they show any surprising complexity are also the times that Rowling stretches her credibility to its limits. (Snape comes to mind.) The stories don't even really bother to hide this, starting in this book by sorting the Hogwarts students into Houses depending on intelligence, bravery, cunning, loyalty, etc. As usual, bravery is valued over all else, despite the fact that you can be brave and stupid too, and poor Hufflepuff is relegated to the status of the least desirable House, for unknown reasons. Maybe it's a coincidence that the most sympathetic characters are all in Gryffindor, but it seems like lazy writing to me to pick the easiest emotional appeals for the major characters. Again, this wouldn't bother me quite so much if HP isn't repeatedly lauded as amazing children's literature, but I don't see how sorting people into boxes and categories is really *that* educational for children's development.

Another thing that comes to mind is the occasional debate of the HP fandom over whether Hermione, being the designated "smart one," fits more in Gryffindor or Ravenclaw. The usual verdict is that she's both brave and smart, but her bravery trumps her intelligence. That again is a rather cliche and lazy route to go, along with drawing artificial lines between stereotypes. Isn't it possible to be intellectually brave? Wasn't it daring of Galileo to write down his ideas despite the risk of the church's persecution for example? Or how about within the Potter universe--wasn't it brave of Harry to stand up to Umbridge and tell everyone the truth about the Ministry's turning a blind eye to the return of Voldemort? It constantly seems like Rowling has so many opportunities to explore her themes and question our perceptions and assumptions about people (now that would make legit classic children's literature), but she falls victim to those assumptions instead. Voldemort naturally originates from Slytherin, because HP has a tendency of linking cunning, a thirst for power, and intelligence to evil and villainy.

To which I say, why is it that bad to be politically and socially savvy? Just because you have a knack for learning and understanding doesn't mean you're going to get the urge to cruelly manipulate people. Hermione breaks this assumption a little bit, but we don't get a ton of insight into what specifically makes her intelligent or what drives her character, she just angsts over tests a lot, gets straight A's all the time, and knows the answer to every question. Just like Ron and Harry, she's sympathetic to us in part because she's on the "underdog" side of things, the most oft-used emotional trick in this series. I love it as much anyone but prefer it in moderation.

Strangely enough, Rowling's reliance on familiar character setups occasionally tends to work in her favor. We do get a powerful authority figure in Dumbledore, the wise old mentor figure that can be recognized in nearly every monomyth, even if he plays a very limited role in terms of his purpose in the story (that of teaching Harry).

I think my problem with this series is that it keeps distilling very complex/adult subjects into the most child-appropriate manner possible. I don't know if it's Rowling's own internalized limits for thinking outside the box, or because she was overly conscious of her target audience, or if she didn't even know she would write a series with such an emotional and thematic scope and only found herself being drawn into it as the series went on and its popularity rose. As a 12-year-old, Harry Potter still rung quite hollow to me. Too many explorative opportunities missed, too many themes oversimplified, too many characters set in the same stereotypical boxes I personally often struggled to work around while growing up.

So I searched some more. I found TV shows like Avatar: The Last Airbender, which exceeds even HP as a children's story in tackling remarkably worldly issues and actually overturns the simplified character setups it seems to be following at first. I found books like This Song Will Save Your Life, a high school teenager's coming-of-age-story that deals with bullying and friendship with a hundred times more sensitivity and nuance than HP does. I found Princess Academy, which taught me the importance and value of education without shoving the main character into the role of being stereotypically smart.

Hence, my perpetually being baffled at not only the commercial, but also critical success of Harry Potter. If there was ever any possibility of HP being a childhood favorite of mine (which it wasn't), I'm sure I would have grown out of it eventually. HP as a childhood memory is a commonly tossed around reason for loving this series, but that doesn't explain the millions of adults who apparently find some sort of deep and powerful wisdom in these books, which I suppose I must have missed along the way. I wish I found it too. I think my least favorite kinds of books are not the ones I give 1-star rants to, but the ones with all the possibility of blowing my mind away only to fall into the same mistakes I expected it to overcome (and, admittedly, to watch it receive so much attention for its supposed thematic complexity, as condescending as that might sound to the book or series's fans. Oops, I guess). It feels a little like being cheated, and I sort of envy not being able to join in the HP fandom as sincerely as I'd wish to. If only Rowling had written a better story.