Why I Love Harry Potter (and J.K. Rowling)
I remember walking through a movie theater and seeing a teaser poster for the first Harry Potter film. It showed an owl carrying a card addressed to Harry, in the cupboard under the stairs. There it is, to the right.
I was not a Harry Potter fan at the time, so I reacted to this much the same way I would react to a Living with the Kardasians film: annoyance and disgust.
See, being a fan of science fiction and fantasy is supposed to be outside the norm. I’d built my entire life around the idea that I was different from everyone else. (More on my crisis of geekdom in an upcoming essay.)
And here was this stinking boy wizard turning everyone into a fantasy geek. People who had never even heard of Narnia, Krynn, or Middle Earth, who wouldn’t know a Balrog from a Chromatic Dragon, rambled on and on about Hogwarts and He Who Must Not Be Named.
What about him so transfixed everyone?
Oh, I would learn.
The First Night of Pottermania
I remember that at around that time, a local group of friends got together at a bar. (Okay, my Mensa group, that’s how big a geek I am. Former treasurer of Southeast Michigan Mensa. You don’t get much geekier than treasurer of a Mensa chapter, unless it’s Research Director of Mensa’s Education Research Foundation … a position I have yet to attain. Anyway, I digress…)
The bar was located in a strip mall which had, at its other end, a Borders bookstore. (Kids, bookstores are these actual physical locations where they sold books. Borders was a chain of these archaic institutions.) Frequently, after our libations and merriment, a group of us would walk from one end of the strip mall to the other, to peruse the books.
Halfway between our bar and our bookstore was a toy store. This was at the height of the Beanie Baby craze and new Beanies were released on Saturday morning, so on Friday nights there was literally a line outside the toy store of people waiting to get the newly-release Beanies the next morning.
One night – July 7, 2000, it was – a group of us walked from the bar to the bookstore, past the Beanie people, only to discover … another line of people outside the bookstore. What the …?
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire was coming out at midnight, July 8, 2000.
Quickly, I concocted a plan. If I’d had the means to create a Beanie Harry Potter, I would have flung him in between the two groups, triggering a bloody battle to the death.
Alas, I had no such means.
Still, even with all my disgust at this pop culture icon, I realized the import of what I was witnessing. There was no book signing. This was playing out at nearly every bookstore across the country. A line at a bookstore, waiting for the release of a new book. This next generation loved these books.
Maybe there was something to them after all.
My Personal Pottermania Moment
Despite this, it was over a year before I got around to reading the first book. A couple of my friends had and were telling me that I should. Goblet of Fire had won the Hugo, which was a bit frustrating because one of my favorite novels, Robert J. Sawyer’s Calculating God, had also been in the running. (Stinking boy wizard ruins everything!)
I received a copy of the book as a gift, so finally decided to read it. I remember that I read it during the 2001 World Fantasy Convention in Montreal, Quebec. (Coincidentally, I believe this was also same weekend I first met John O’Neill, editor of Black Gate magazine.)
The first Harry Potter book is a strange experience. You read about two-thirds of the book, thinking that it’s fairly good, but not really quite seeing what all the fuss is about, after all, it’s not like anything in it is really all that original. These are, after all, fairly old ideas just packaged together in a clever way and then … oh, my god … everything clicks together. Subtle comments throughout the book are more than they seem, themes that you didn’t even notice are center stage, everyone’s personality is key to the resolution of the plot. It all comes together and you race through that last third of the book.
Then comes the moment which, even a decade later, fills me with joy when I think about it. I had already fallen in love with Harry Potter, but the following section is the one which made me fall in love with J.K. Rowling:
[Gryffindor and Slytherin] had tied for the house cup — if only Dumbledore had given Harry just one more point.
Dumbledore raised his hand. The room gradually fell silent.
“There are all kinds of courage,” said Dumbledore, smiling. “It takes a great deal of bravery to stand up to our enemies, but just as much to stand up to our friends. I therefore award ten points to Mr. Neville Longbottom.”
I literally cheered out loud on reading this line. (Fortunately, I was alone in my hotel room instead of out in the hallway of the World Fantasy Convention. This might be the one place where you’ll hear someone cheer out loud while reading a book, but it’s still fairly odd.)
This was a deft, subtle, totally-unexpected moral lesson, woven perfectly into the fabric of a children’s book. It was perfect. It was sublime.
It was an example of every good thing about the book, packed into a single line. What could well have been a throw-away encounter took on monumental importance.
When my cheer quieted down, I quickly finished the last few pages of the book and then sighed … because I would have to wait until I got home to get a copy of the next book. (I read Chamber of Secrets, my least favorite of the series, in about 10 hours straight the following Saturday.)
By the time Sorcerer’s Stone came out in theaters a week later, I was totally on board, helping to organize our group to go to the film on opening night.
The Final Potter
As the series progressed, the charm wore off a bit. The latter books were good, though that first magic was hard to fully channel again. The series transformed from children solving a mystery to young adults fighting a war, so what can one really expect? Though the books changed, I continued to enjoy the evolving tone of the narrative, the maturing of the writing, and the man that Harry was turning into.
Still, I confess to being a bit underwhelmed by the final novel.
I was pleased to be proven right about Snape’s motivations (which I’d suspected since somewhere in the middle of Goblet of Fire, though I can’t remember precisely what clue triggered it for me), but there were a lot of crucial elements in Deathly Hallows which felt tacked on at the end. Specifically, there were three components crucial to the final book’s resolution which I felt needed more development earlier:
- The ghosts, though they’d been introduced in the first book, had been relatively ignored for several books. Their only big part was Nearly-Headless Nick’s deathday party, in Chamber of Secrets, which was excluded from the film.
- The horcruxes should have been introduced before the Half-Blood Prince
- The Deathly Hallows came out of nowhere (except for the invisibility cloak, but I recall no one having hinted that it was particularly unusual prior to The Deathly Hallows), which is odd given that they’re part of a mythology
- Bonus point: Though not quite as crucial to the plot, the secondary use of the Deluminator could also have been established in some way earlier on.
The issue isn’t that she “cheated” necessarily, just that none of these plot twists felt well-established in the previous books. They gave the impression of having been thought of later in the writing process, as opposed to the deft way she slipped in foreshadowing in the earlier books. Given that one of the main reasons I fell in love with her writing was how well she handled calling back earlier references, to have them suddenly stripped away and a deus ex machina feel in some of the climactic points of the book felt like a noticeable slip.
And now the final movie is out, bringing to an end the story arc in a spectacular way. It’s hard for me to judge the above points in the film since, obviously, I knew about them already. Still, they didn’t feel quite as abrupt in the film as I recall them feeling in the book.
I’ll leave it to someone else to discuss the film itself at length, other than to say that the only bad thing about it is that it was too violent and frightening for my 6-year old to accompany me to it. I look forward to the day he reaches the age I feel okay showing them to him. (I figure he’ll be ready for the books in a couple more years.)
I personally still hope for more Harry Potter, that my son will have some connection to that world as he grows up. No doubt there will continue to be commentary on the series, such as this Tor.com essay. And, of course, there’s Rowling’s new Pottermore project, which promises to reveal some form of new content.
I think the Potter world holds potential for Rowling to do some great things, even without returning to the story of Harry Potter himself. A few ideas include:
- Dumbledore’s biography, up until the initial defeat of Voldemort (at least)
- The story of Hogwart’s founding by Gryffindor, Hufflepuff, Slytherin, and Ravenclaw (perhaps entitled, Hogwarts: A History, vol. 1)
- Lovegood’s Guide to Very Mythical Creatures
I can still dream. After all, I do love to read this her stories, even when I notice flaws in them.
Do you think there’ll be more books set in this world? Or any new books by Rowling? What would you like to see?
P.S. – Ms. Rowling, if you’re looking for a ghost writer to help with any of these projects, I’m completely available! I am willing to move to Britain, even apply for citizenship, if needed.
A fine, fine reminiscence. I admit to a similar late-coming to Pottermania. In the late 90s I was writing the entries for these books in the “Best of the Year” lists at SF Site, writing glibly about the narrative power of each volume, without having read any myself. Such are the demons of the editorial deadline.
It wasn’t until I found a remaindered copy of HARRY POTTER AND THE CHAMBER OF SECRETS on tape at Waldenbooks for $4.98 that I started listening to the books in the car. I hunted around to find the first few at similar prices… but by the fourth book, I was willing to pay whatever price the publisher wanted.
I listened to all seven books, unabridged, during business trips in 2009. In preparation for the final movie, I started over with my favorite volume, HARRY POTTER AND THE ORDER OF THE PHOENIX, and right now I’m in the middle of DEATHLY HALLOWS.
In some ways I regret that these didn’t come out when I was a kid. But I’ve enjoyed them plenty as an adult, and I’m grateful for that.
I read these for analgesia while I slogged through my dissertation. The year I finally worked up the guts to leave academia, I cycled through the first four books three times. Too many Dursleys in my department. The plea those early books make for imagination as a virtue worth preserving helped tremendously when I started stealing my life back. I’d have tweeted about that during the whole #YAsaves flurry after that Dursleyish article in The Wall Street Journal about YA novels being to dark, except that I was in my early 30’s when YA saved me.
I was staying at my parents, and so was my older sister. I picked up the first one — I think I was doing research and heard it was popular — and not only did I read it that evening, I put it down where my sister could look at it. She read it too.
The next day, I bought the next two, all that were out, and hid the third in my room. I got through the second, put it down where my sister could find, and retrieved and read the third.
It took my parents a little longer to read them. But all my copies have been read by four people.
I remember writing a very positive review of Goblet of Fire for the Mythopoeic Society. It’s still my favorite of the series. I was somewhat disheartened when most of the responses I got were variations on “How can you like something so childish?” I found it so odd coming from people who study C.S. Lewis and Tolkien, I left soon after.
My favortie way of experiencing the books these days is in audio book format. That has a lot to do with Stephen Fry narrating them though.
This is adorable!
AZJ: Good stuff. I had to link it: http://mythopoeicrambling.blogspot.com/2011/07/harry-potter-unsystematic-postscript.html
Darangrissom: Very sad.
A Question: Has anyone ever seen Andrew Zimmerman Jones and Howard Andrew Jones at the same time in the same place? I can’t believe it took me this long to ask.