Tuesday, February 12, 2013

I Finally Read Harry Potter

When I mention to my friends that I've never read any of the Harry Potter books, their response is almost always shock. After all, I read a lot and I'm pop-culturally fluent most of the time, so it seems like a surprise that I somehow avoided this entire phenomenon. I only saw the first five movies, and barely remember the fifth one. I have no desire to go to that Harry Potter amusement park, I don't own any Harry Potter toys or merchandise, and I really didn't feel like I was missing anything.

Lately, though, the din among my friends became louder, and took on tones that were more critical than pitying.

"You've read all the Twilight books, but not Harry Potter?"

"You read so much. How have you not managed to squeeze those in?"

"You even read 50 Shades of Grey!"

Why yes, I do read a lot of crap. Are you equating "Harry Potter" with the other crap that I read? Because I notice no one is outraged that I've read the complete Sherlock Holmes while not reading this. My friends became slightly testy at the suggestion that "Harry Potter" might not be quite as awesome as it seems, so I decided to take action.

I spent the last two weeks reading all seven Harry Potter books.

And now I would like to talk about them. If you haven't read them and someday intend to, stop reading now, because I might be a little bit spoilery.

For starters, these are books written for young adults. Some of my friends tried to argue that, no, these are actually adult books that kids also enjoy, but as my friend Ilona put it, "those people have a very low reading level". The books do get longer as the series progresses, but they don't get harder. The vocabulary, reading level, and quality of writing do not change. That doesn't make them terrible, and it doesn't mean I automatically disliked them. I'll just go on the record now and say that I enjoyed reading this series. I don't plan to read it ever again, but it's been an entertaining two weeks.

That doesn't mean that I am without complaint, of course. In no particular order, here are my unanswered questions and minor annoyances:

Why doesn't Hagrid ever receive an official pardon from Hogwarts? We find out in the second book that Hagrid was expelled for opening the Chamber of Secrets and causing Myrtle's death, but then we find out later in the same book that he didn't do it. Hagrid's name is cleared and everyone is happy, but for some reason no one outside of Hogwarts is ever told this. In later books Lucius Malfoy and Dolores Umbridge both sneer about how Hagrid was expelled for being dangerous, and sure, they're only doing it to hurt him, but it's only hurtful because no one seems to know that he didn't actually do anything.

Why does it take so long to resolve Harry's summer situation into something tolerable? We find out in the fifth book that there is a valid reason why Harry has to go back to his muggle relatives once a year, but why doesn't anyone intercede with those relatives on Harry's behalf until the end of that book? Every summer he gets sent home to live under the stairs or be locked in his room and served food through a pet door, or to be starved to the point that he has to ask his friends to send food, and it takes five books for someone to say, "Hey, stop mistreating him." What the hell were they waiting for?

Snape is a jerk. Yes, he has a purpose and a mission and in the end is also a hero, but that doesn't change the fact that he's also an asshole. Sometimes assholes can still do good things, as Snape demonstrates, but for me his actions in the end don't make up for the fact that he's a dick to Harry for seven books. He's petty, demeaning, and deliberately hurtful when he doesn't have to be, because he's still mad at Harry's father. He could have focused instead on how much he loved Harry's mother, and to see all of her good qualities in Harry, but he chose to see only James Potter's bad qualities and acted accordingly. He's a dick.

While we're talking about that, I have something to say to the girl who left this note in the library's copy of the first book:

Harry Potter Note #1

You need to think about your life choices, and about the kinds of boys you're going to give your heart to.

(As a side note, I found two other notes in the books while reading. One was this inexplicable index card that fell out of a secondhand copy of the third book that I bought at McKay's:

Harry Potter Note #2

and a note that fell out of a copy of the seventh book that I borrowed from a friend. I cannot show you this note or speak of it because posting it on Facebook resulted in the friend calling me to complain, and I wish to avoid further calls of this nature.

Now, back to my nitpicking...)

Harry Potter is also a jerk. From the fifth book onward he is a moody little snot. It's suggested in book five that Voldemort is influencing Harry to make him moody, but that excuse only goes so far.

Why did the guards around Harry and continuous manhunts for Sirius Black stop after the third book? Black is a fugitive believed to have committed multiple murders. All of wizarding society is in panic and lockdown in the third book when he escapes from prison. During the course of the third book he exonerates himself to Harry, Dumbledore, Ron, and Hermione, but to the rest of wizarding society he is still a dangerous fugitive believed to have committed multiple murders, so why do they suddenly give up looking for him or guarding any of his anticipated targets? It's a slip in the internal logic of the books.

What does the extended "house elves are slaves" storyline add to the books? I'm not asking what house elves add to the books. They turn out to be very important. However, pages and pages of multiple books are spent on how awful they are treated, how terrible it is that they are slaves, and how Hermione wants to organize a society to free them, but at the end of the series the house elves are still slaves. There are uncomfortable shades of "Gone with the Wind"'s happy slaves, and for what purpose? To tell the readers that slavery is bad? The whole plotline doesn't seem to add anything to the story.

The "house elves are slaves" plotline isn't the only story element that needed some trimming. Why do we spend so much time on Hagrid's half brother, a character that overall adds very little to the plot? Why do we need to spend a chapter walking through Sirius Black's entire family tree? Rowling does a fantastic job of world-building in this series, but by the six hundredth page of the fifth book it feels kind of like the world could be a little less built, thanks. (This complaint is going to sound really odd in a couple of paragraphs, when I argue that something else should have been included.)

Why can't Harry see thestrals before the fifth book? Only those touched by death can see thestrals, and Harry can suddenly see them in book five after he's been touched by the terrible death of (the dreamy) Cedric Diggory. Why couldn't he see them all along? Was his mother's death, shielding him with her body, somehow not touching enough?

Why isn't Draco Malfoy in jail? In the epilogue, we see Draco Malfoy putting his kid on the train to Hogworts. As a willing Death Eater and follower of Voldemort, shouldn't he be in prison?

Why did Rowling wait until the series was finished to out Dumbledore as gay instead of just writing it in? There was plenty of room, and she had ample opportunity. Large parts of the seventh book were devoted to a "tell all" biography of Dumbledore, exploring his previously unseen family, his childhood friends, and his years as a student. As a person who has read a number of tell alls over the years, I can't fathom why romance would be left out. Especially scandalous gay romance. Why do we only find out through outside sources that Dumbledore was gay, rather than through the books themselves? There are some indications in the books, but nothing definitive, so the average reader will never realize this aspect of the character unless they research it on their own.

Like I said, these are mostly nitpicks. I enjoyed the books, and can understand why people love them even if my feeling is that they didn't quite live up to the hype.

Now I might go finish that "50 Shades of Grey" trilogy.


strong cookie. said...

I have been thinking non-stop about how I was going to have to wait until DECEMBER to know how you felt about this series, so I am thrilled that you posted this, and completely understand a lot of your frustrations. I imagine all those things are much more amplified when reading them all at once rather than waiting for each book. Especially the suffering summers!

JMBower said...

I had a lot of the same reactions, though part of my distaste was due to my initial feeling that Harry was a Disney-fied Will Stanton, and a poorly written one at that. However, as derivative as it may have been, I liked the first book. It was a good children's book...a mix of interesting world building and silly stuff. I think as it trudged toward finality, she had a harder time mixing that initial whimsy with the darker content. I think the compromise didn't work very well, and she overcompensated by adding extra pages. If you're going to go dark, it's hard to still have your characters using silly-named potions and such. It's a jarring juxtaposition. I love anything that gets kids interested in reading. I just think she ran out of gas after a couple books, because the heart seemed to go out of it after a while.

Dani C said...

First off, there are several mentions of Sirius Black still being considered a threat by the Ministry throughout the later books (he's not allowed to go outside, Kingsley Shacklebolt is in charge of looking for him). In fact, it's partially what leads to his death (his extreme desire to get out of 12 Grimmauld Place because of being cooped up). They take off the watch on Harry because Dumbledore put his foot down about the Dementors, plus he allows muggles to glimpse a very long way away from Hogwarts.

Secondly, I had always wondered about the Thestrals, too.

Thirdly, I partly think that the rest of the wizarding community just didn't care if Hagrid's name was cleared. It was a non-issue to them.

Fourthly, The Weasleys constantly try to get him away from the Dursley's as quickly as they can. There's only so much you can say to someone when they are out of your complete control. Besides, Harry's threats usually worked.

I agree about Snape, he's a jerk. I'm glad he turned out to be a good guy, but that doesn't make most of his actions less jerky.

Harry is a hormonal teenager. His moodiness makes sense to me. Also, I'd be rude, too, if I had so much of the fate of the world riding on my shoulders and was ALSO going through puberty.

I think that Harry had a hand in Draco not going to jail (he didn't really want to be a Death Eater).

The house elves storyline is important to Hermione and shows the kind of person she is, but I'll have to think about that one more to give a better answer.

I agree on the gay thing.

Sara K. said...

J.K. Rowling has stated in an interview that if she could have changed anything about the series she would have left the S.P.E.W. stuff out of the fourth book because it just added bulk.

As for the thestrals, Rowling has also stated that because he couldn't clearly remember the deaths of his parents they had no impact on his ability to view them. Her reasoning for the end of book four (after the death of the dreamy Diggory) is that harry had not yet processed his death and that she didn't want to interject something new to the end of a book without the ability to properly explain it.

As for Draco not being in jail, I can only assume it was because he was pretty coerced into his actions in the last two books.

In reference to the outing of Albus, I believe Rowling has stated that he was not out in the wizarding world. In fact, no one knew about the true nature of his relationship with Grindelwald except for the two of them, though Aberforth suspected it. So since it wasn't common knowledge, is wouldn't be in a biography.

I definitely agree about the reading level though.

Liz said...

I came to actively hate the wizarding world. It displayed all the worst parts of the British caste system and the casual sadism of the British public school system.

They keep slaves and think it's ok. This is a SLAVE-OWNING society. W.T.F.

There were no consequences for anyone in the end. That Malfoy was coerced in the last couple of books didn't make him less of an asshole for the first five. He didn't merely bully Harry, I seem to recall Malfoy slandering, entrapping, assaulting and framing him on several occasions. Do wizards not have laws against criminal harassment, or are they too busy attending slave auctions?

Hermione was an insufferable overbearing little know-it-all and Ron Weasley should RUN, not walk from that relationship if he doesn't want her storing his balls in her bedside cabinet.

The series badly needed an eighth volume called "Harry Potter and Judgement of Nuremberg" preferably with a scene of Dolores Umbridge being put up against a wall and shot. Did she get ANY comeuppance in the end? I don't even remember. The ending was a non-ending where after seven volumes of escalating civil war, everyone just sort of lost interest, went back to pretending to be civil to one another in a sort of repressed British way.

Until the next time. Because none of them seemed to learn anything from any of it.

Dee said...

That Snape was a jerk but turned out to be good was a trait of the series that I liked. Teens/kids sometimes think that anyone they dislike is evil. Seeing Snape and Harry could help them see (I hope) that no person is black & white.

I got nothing on the girls who find Snape dreamy.

Hermione was a strong character, and she and Ron made a good match. I find it hard to believe everybody was still with their 17-year-old crushes decades later -- and not in extensive therapy for PTSD -- but for their teen years it made sense. (Liz above me can shut her piehole.)

Marcheline said...

Here goes.

First, I was a reluctant HP fan. Which means that after all the media hype when the first book came out, I dubbed it crap. I vowed never to read it, because mass hysteria over something usually means it's drivel.

Three years on, I was in NYC with some time to kill before whatever event I was in the city for - I think it was a play. I wandered into a book store, and idly picked up the first HP book from a table. I flipped open the first page, with my sneer already half in place, ready to snap the book shut with a smug "I knew it was crap" look.

An hour later, I jumped because someone bumped my elbow. I was chapters deep in the book, and nearly missed the start time for the play.

Needless to say, I'm a HUGE fan. Of the books, the movies, the whole thing. Okay, not the theme park. Just the books and movies.

Yes, there are nitpicky little things about the storyline, but there are about every book I've ever read.

1. Hagrid got a raw deal. But the fact that he was hired on as a teacher sort of shows that nothing was officially being held against him.

2. I think the reason Dumbledore didn't rush in there and smooth things out for Harry while he lived on Privet Drive was because Harry needed to learn that life sucks sometimes. Muggles bite the big one just as often as wizards do. You have to learn to use all your skills - not just magic - to make your way in the world.

3. Snape is a bitter product of his childhood - yes, and a jerk - but he's an example of how abuse can transfer from generation to generation. Also, if there was no deliciously evil teacher to engender the righteous indignation of the reader, the books wouldn't be half so fun! A school full of nice teachers? Nah, I love Snape's character - and I think that most of the fangirls are actually in love with Alan Rickman - and I can't fault anyone for that.

4. Of course Harry is a jerk - there's nothing worse than reading a book (or a whole series of books) about a perfect main character.

5. Out of sight, out of mind.

6. It's just giving Hermione a soap box to stand on, so she can continue to boss people around about something. The fact that she's right adds some acid to it.

7. Perhaps the "seeing someone die" prerequisite should have been explained as "seeing someone die when you're capable of understanding what death is and what it means". Infants also have poor distance vision - they can only focus a few inches away from their face. Harry may only have seen a blurry movement and a flash of green light. This is substantiated by the recurring memories which only included the flash of green light.

8. If every wizard who deserved it was thrown in jail, they'd need a whole lot more than Azkaban to hold them. Just like in the muggle world.

9. Remember Dumbledore asking to borrow Slughorn's magazine from the loo because he adored knitting patterns? Or the passionate devotion he had to Grindelwald? I think that many hints were sprinkled throughout the stories which suggested (however stereotypically) which way Dumbledore's wand was pointed.

Also, J.K. Rowling wrote these books over many years. The characters grew and developed as she wrote - many of them, according to her interviews, ended up with attributes and personality traits that she did not plan from the beginning.

Considering the scope of the wizarding world, the amount of detail, and the number of characters, I'm surprised at how few mistakes there are in this series!

I have all the books on CD, and have listened to the entire series at least five times. Never get tired of it. Jim Dale is able to do the voices of each character as they sound in the movies - he's just amazing.