Thursday, June 18, 2009

Simply Harry Potter

OK. I know that in my last post I may have indirectly heaped trash on the name of J.K. Rowling.

I swear I heard gasping, because there are so many for whom reading Rowling is nigh-unto worship.

That's why I have been reluctant to admit to you all that in the past nine days I re-read all seven Harry Potter novels. Yep. The entire series. Started on June 7 and ended last night.

It was an enjoyable little jaunt.

I am not going to take back my scorn, however.

And I am going to offend some people.

Yeah, I hear you saying that at least she's published. That people know who she is and who am I to criticize her. I understand all that.

I will admit the books are a somewhat pleasant diversion. But they are just that. There is no deeper meaning to them, although I am sure that the typical liberal-arts loving English professor could deconstruct them and find hidden meaning galore, if not The True Meaning Of Life. (Yes, capitalized even.) I tried last night as I was finishing up The Deathly Hallows. Surely there's a message there about learning the truth about your heroes, some warning to children not to look up to or trust adults, because there's always some hidden evil in their background. That was as close as I got, and if I am right -- if that was intended -- well then, J.K. Rowling should be ashamed of herself.

But see, I am of the opinion -- the STRONG opinion that these books are not children's books. I do not care what kind of marketing strategy or philosophy involved, these are not children's books. In fact, I am ready to argue that allowing a child to read some of these books may be akin to child abuse, or at least indifference to the child's mental/emotional welfare and well-being.

We will not discuss the movies, because I gave up caring after the second one.

But I remember being in a grocery store years ago and watching in disgusted amazement as a three-year-old child pointed at a Harry Potter balloon and called out "Harry Potter! Harry Potter!"

A three-year-old child has NO business knowing who Harry Potter is.

And I am not sure that anyone under the age of mid-teens should know either. My teenager has not read them yet, and has not suffered any ill effects. She may in fact be able to live without reading them; the jury is still out on that one, though. Some sudden attack of fatal lackofpotteritis may yet prove to be her undoing.

Do not get me wrong: I am not going to make the argument of witchcraft and sorcery being peddled to our young. Others have made this argument, that is their prerogative. My thinking? They are fantasy novels. Not reality. Heck, outside of my spiritual endeavors, I spend most of my life in a fantasy world. [Aside: What? You think lawyers are sane individuals fully functioning in reality? I beg to differ.] I cannot take too much umbrage with this point. After all, Gandalf did magic. So did Willy Wonka.

No, I have different issues with Ms. Rowling's works. First and foremost, there is very little pure good represented in the books. Pure evil? Sure, it is everywhere; it saturates her little universe and it pours off the page. But pure good? I challenge you to point to ten major characters that are examples of pure, unadulterated, unquestioned goodness in the novels. No fair using animals: Hedwig and the owls do not count. Neither does Fawkes. I'll start the list, though these should probably be qualified as supporting cast:
1. Hagrid. Hagrid is an innocent and I am hardpressed to remember any specifically bad intentional act. The other characters treat Hagrid with pity, in part because he just doesn't seem as smart as they are.
2. Arthur and Molly Weasley. Again, innocents without any memorable bad intentional act. Again, well-meaning, but portrayed as slightly pitiable or less-intelligent. In fact, I could probably lump Bill and perhaps Charlie Weasley in here as well, but they are even more minor characters than their parents and, as such, perhaps do not warrant inclusion in the discussion at all.
3. Luna Lovejoy. Possibly. Her name just came to me; I will have to reserve judgment unless and until I can remember any specifics. But here again, an innocent that everyone considers to be slightly off-kilter or insane (or stupid).
4. Professor Minerva McGonagall. Again, she just came to me. I will have to think on her. She may be an exception to this list, as she is strong and intelligent.
5. Neville Longbottom. Another innocent. Another slightly off-kilter, slightly less-intelligent member of the cast.

See a trend? The only arguably purely good characters in the books are those that are innocent, naive, and possibly not intelligent. That's a nice portrayal; nice message to send to kids. "Hey, son! Why can't you act more like Neville Longbottom, eh?"

No, the main protaganists -- and by this I mean Harry, Ron, Hermione, and Dumbledore -- none of these are as unequivocally good as Voldemort is unequivocally evil. The Dark Lord has no direct counterpart. Dumbledore has a dark side and has done bad things. Harry and Ron waffle back and forth; they are not examples of pure good. Harry's soul is certainly not as lily-white as Voldemort's soul is midnight-black.

After the whole "peddling-these-books-to-kids" issue, this is my main beef with the books. There is pure good in this world. There is also pure evil. If you are going to acquaint readers with evil, especially if you are going to market to children and acquaint impressionable children with the concept of pure evil, then you better darn well be willing and prepared to acquaint them with the concept of pure good.

Plus, I simply cannot accept these as "great" literature. They are pleasant distractions. They cannot -- no matter how loud the groundlings scream -- compare to Shakespeare. Dickens. Twain. Rand. Do not try and argue; one hundred years from now, two hundred? Will Harry Potter be remembered? Will he be taught in AP English classes? Who's to say? Perhaps our standards are indeed that low. They're already suggested reading in elementary school. [Aside: We actually considered a private school for our oldest when she was ready to start school. The fact that the classrooms displayed posters of Harry Potter and Star Wars actually helped convince us to homeschool. Yes, even with a Star Wars-nerd father. There has to be a line in Education. That is a rant for another day, though.] I hope our standards -- not just as Americans, but as a civilization as a whole -- are not this low; I truly hope not. If she is our day's Shakespeare, we may as well simply throw in the towel.

I hear you saying that Shakespeare wrote to entertain, to satisfy the groundlings. Yes, but he did so with style, skill, and art. While Rowling uses magic as a subject, there is little or no magic in her words. Want to argue? Give me a passage with as much feeling and meaning as these:

What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason! how infinite in faculty! in form, in moving, how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world! the paragon of animals! And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?
The Bard distills the essence of what makes up a man: the inherent goodness. And he does so with skill, art, and brevity. In the approximately 3,000 pages of the series, she cannot make Harry -- or, truly, any character -- fit this profile, let alone describe anything with this manner of magnificent prose.

I have actually read a review saying, "This [the fact that the characters, good and evil, are developed in such a way that they are, well, not simply good or evil] is perhaps Rowling's greatest achievement in the book. While the series can be described as an epic tale between good and evil, the individuals involved are not so easily defined." This is said as PRAISE of the books. [Aside: what adds a twist to this review was that it came from And yes, it was a random search; I just happened across it. In fact, now that I think about it, there's a whole host of blog entries on the fact that self-proclaimed socialists thrill over the blurring of the lines between good and evil. But I will leave that for another day. I do not want to discuss politics right now.] Sure... it may be an epic tale between good and evil, but it is one without a heck of a lot of real good shining out.

In these dark times, do we not deserve to treat ourselves to a little real good now and then?

And do not our children also deserve it? In fact, is it possible that they deserve it even more?

I know, it's a work of fiction. Why am I getting so riled up?

In part because it is a work of fiction. It is not literature.

Rowling's books surely cannot be part of the works of the Ages. If they are, well, I guess we deserve what we get.


Janci said...

Hey now. Sweetpea knows who Harry Potter is. She has not had the books read to her, nor has she seen any part of the movies...come to think of it, she doesn't like him. But she knows who he is!!

Iguana Montana said...

OK. You make a good point. Perhaps I misspoke/over-generalized.

I shouldn't have said that a three-year-old has no business knowing who Harry Potter is. Maybe what I should have said is that, for the most part (in fact, I cannot think of an extenuating circumstance) a parent has no business showing the movies to a three-year-old or allowing very young children to read or listen to the books.

That was my point.

Now. Flame away!