Thoughts on Harry Potter

I finally sat down to read the final Harry Potter book this weekend, finishing it last night around midnight. I enjoyed it as much as I had the previous six, and felt that Rowling had sufficiently tied everything up for me. As J says, I’m notoriously picky about book endings, and I am, for I feel that a book must come to a satisfactory conclusion. I don’t need a happy ending, but I do expect a resolution, and Rowling provided plenty of that.

What I want to respond to here, though, is about the comparisons I kept hearing between Harry Potter and Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, which is, to my mind, like comparing apples and oranges. Yes, both are fruit, or, in this case, both feature elves, goblins, dragons, and wizards, including one Big Boss who must be taken down by a party of friends, but bite into them and they are completely different. For one, Tolkien intended his book for adults; only The Hobbit was intended as children’s fare. Rowling’s books, although read by adults, are clearly aimed at teens, if not pre-teens. Tolkien’s series is about adults dealing with war; Rowling’s series is about children dealing with becoming adults.

A better comparison would be to C.S. Lewis’s Narnia books, which are about children, written for children, and dealing with maturation. Lewis’s books have an additional metaphorical level that both repulses some (particularly in the final book) or intrigues others (I’m one of the few who isn’t bothered by the Christian allusions, even if I don’t agree with Lewis’s interpretations) which Rowling lacks. Or does she. In this final book, I kept seeing comparisons with Hitler and Nazism (Hitler was fanatical about “pure blood,” while not being of the Aryan type himself; Riddle, likewise, was not pure blood), including the phraseology and the depictions of being being rounded up, tortured, and sent to prison. (My favorite visual connection was the new sculpture in the Ministry of Magic in which two wizards are depicted as sitting on thrones made up of the bodies of Muggles.)

If anything, Rowling pulls together Tolkien and Lewis. Much has been made of the fact that her world is a mish-mash of fantasy tropes, but that’s like saying that a chef can’t create a new dish because the chef is using the same ingredients that are in other recipes. Harry Potter straddles the line in children’s literature between the simplicity of Lewis’s world and the complexity of Tolkien, sharing something of both but truly able to stand on its own. It’s an amazing achievement, not only as a work of art, but a cultural phenomena. Who woulda thunk it that the biggest event of the summer would be our national book club? And Rowling’s success (as well as Peter Jackson’s films of the Tolkien books) has led to a resurgence of interest in fantasy books and movies, as children weened on Potter look for more magic, which is out there in books by Phillip Pullman, Diana Wynne Jones, Roald Dahl, and many many others. There’s still a long way to go before books replace the emphasis given in our culture to sports and fashion (i.e., looking good, fame), but Rowling has helped us take a giant leap in redressing that imbalance.

[Finished 27 Aug 2007]

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