Tuesday, July 24, 2007

In Defense of Harry Potter

(While this isn't technically a post about grammar, books, we all agree, hold a starring place in how we employ language. In Harry Potter, I'm not interested in how JK Rowling uses syntax--although I find her creativity and exposition delightful--but what she has chosen to give us through her use of language.)

So the last Harry Potter has finally come out, and, as was predictable, scads of critics and reviewers have attempted to pretend that they enjoy these (holding them delicately with two fingers far away from Dostoevsky so they don't infect 'real literature') "children's books," and ended up proving, once again, that they have no idea what the story is about.

The Salon reviewer complained that the books are "boarding school" books, so why didn't the last one take place at Hogwarts? That argument doesn't even deserve a reply. And, as many critics have, she relates the books to The Lord of the Rings, thinking she's giving a compliment but once again showing ignorance by looking simply at plot mechanics rather than at the underlying themes of the fantasy genre. The NPR reviewer tried not to say the same thing regarding boarding schools, but whined that the first 400 pages was like a whirlwind trip around the English countryside and he wondered if Rowling knew what she was doing.

After listening to that last review on Monday morning, I switched off the radio and vowed not to read or listen to a single review about Harry Potter again. The ignorance of these people just served to annoy me, and their failure to appreciate the importance of the epic ruined my enjoyment of it. So I now stick to only discussing the books with my over-educated sister and mother.

The three of us delighted in the fact that Rowling made the last book live up to, and exceed, the expectations of the previous six. It would have been all too easy to fail, but at almost every turn she chose to make the story live a little more rather than plugging in easy, loose-end-tying plot developments.

What interested us, though, was not the explanation of Snape or Harry's final actions or even the exciting plot twist of the Deathly Hallows. No, what we talked about was the same thing that is keeping millions of readers hooked to these books, whether they know it or not. It's not just about the magic, as many critics and snooty "these are just children's books" readers would like to claim. Do you know how many books about magic and other worlds and good vs. evil have been published in the last fifty years? Do some research. There are thousands, and huge numbers of them, surprise, are actually very good, such as Susan Cooper's 'The Dark is Rising' series.

But none of them, not even The Lord of the Rings, which I have read and loved and lived in once a year since I was eight years old, addresses the question of personal choice in that good-vs.-evil struggle. That is the power that Rowling has brought to her excellent series. Amid all the humor and the whimsy, the incredible creativity and imagination brought to bear on creating the Potter world, and lovely character developments, what gives these book come-back-and-stay power is the fierce internal struggle each character, but especially Harry, has to make in the fight against evil in the form of Voldemort. What makes these books important is their emphasis on personal choices.

The fantasy genre has always had as its paramount theme these question of right vs. wrong embedded in the struggle of good over evil. But very few books address the personal choices the heroes have to make when they face a decision between, as Dumbledore put it, "what is right and what is easy."

My older sister pointed out that most of 20th-century literature has dropped any discussion of these questions, which is perhaps why we're both so much more attracted to 19th-century British and Russian novels. For some reason, the last century has been fascinated with the sordid, despairing details of modern life. It insists that, not only is "truth" found only in the minute, but that the truth so found is never something that uplifts us.

It is, somehow, left to children's literature to address questions of real importance: morality, goodness, evil, hope, right, wrong. What are adults so frightened of? Being thought sappy for caring? Being judged? Finding that they will choose wrong over right because it's expedient or beneficial for them? Or maybe they're scared of these questions because they don't want any messy moral truths screwing up their acceptance of a dominant paradigm that claims right and wrong don't exist.

This paradigm likes to complicate questions of morality, couching them in the languages of economics and balances and religions and "greater good." But these questions are never complicated: there is a right and there is a wrong, and your intuition, if you block out the surrounding social-political noise and listen to it, will always tell you which choice to make.

It is the focus on personal choice that makes the Harry Potter books so powerful. Harry, and his friends and cohorts, always have the choice to turn back or turn away. They have to face these decisions, large and small, all the time. What JK Rowling has given us is a way back to our internal guides, the realization that, every day at every moment, we too have choices to make, whether we will serve good or evil and how. It's not an easy choice, not a smooth path. Harry's story--a metaphor for finding and defining your character through childhood and adolescence--is littered with life-threatening obstacles. Our paths aren't easy, either, but, as there is no all-powerful Dark Lord waiting to murder us if our courage falters, we have less of an excuse for failing to face that question: when given the choice between what is right and what is easy, do we look it in the face, or do we run away?


John Cowan said...

Introvert Girl, I absolutely agree with you about HP, as much as I can since I have not yet read HP7, but I must take issue with your implied characterization of The Lord of the Rings.

The L.R. has a wider canvas than HP, and a larger number of themes. Who, if anyone, deserves to be worshipped. Human death and Elvish deathlessness, and the escape from either one. The victory of the humble over the proud. The ancient vs. the modern theories of courage. Whether magic (or technology) is inherently good or evil, or only as applied. And so on. But one thing that each character certainly must face is the choice between good and evil, between loyalty and betrayal, between honor and dishonor.

The following list is certainly not exhaustive. Frodo upholds the good until the very end, when he is tortured beyond what human flesh can bear and falls into evil, but both he and the Quest are saved at the last possible moment by his (and Bilbo's) previous acts of pity and mercy. Sam and Gandalf and Galadriel and Faramir are tempted briefly, but do not fall. Boromir and Denethor give into the various temptations of the Dark Lord, and do fall, though Boromir partly redeems himself at the last. (Boromir, by the way, is the definitive evidence that the L.R. is not just a story of the Good Guys vs. the Bad Guys.) Aragorn holds himself to the fire for seventy years between his maturity and his coronation. Éomer has to choose between obeying his king (and taking Aragorn's party captive) and letting them pursue their errand of mercy.

You write:

This paradigm likes to complicate questions of morality [...]. But these questions are never complicated: there is a right and there is a wrong, and your intuition, if you block out the surrounding social-political noise and listen to it, will always tell you which choice to make.

That is precisely what Aragorn tells Éomer:

"Our friends were attired even as we are," said Aragorn; "and you passed us by under the full light of day."

"I had forgotten that," said Éomer. "It is hard to be sure of anything among so many marvels. The world is all grown strange. Elf and Dwarf in company walk in our daily fields; and folk speak with the Lady of the Wood and yet live; and the Sword comes back to war that was broken in the long ages ere the fathers of our fathers rode into the Mark! How shall a man judge what to do in such times?"

"As he ever has judged," said Aragorn. "Good and ill have not changed since yesteryear; nor are they one thing among Elves and Dwarves : and another among Men. It is a man's part to discern them, as much in the Golden Wood as in his own house."

I too have been reading and rereading the L.R. since I was eight, and I love it as you do, but it seems to me that there may be elements in it that you have not yet seen.

Karen M said...

Thank you, IntrovertGirl, for not providing any spoilers! I've been avoiding reading/listening to any reviews because I've been afraid there would be spoilers, and I haven't started No. 7 yet.

But, I could still appreciate your critique of the reviews you've read/heard anyway. And it's interesting to me that so many of them referred to the series as "boarding school" books. How unimaginative! And here I thought it was another series about an orphan. I've always loved books about orphans more than those about children with siblings (and I had 5 of my own).

Reading your comments and then John Cowan's, I'm thinking it might be that being an orphan is the child's equivalent of being "an island," i.e., having to be responsible for your own moral choices. (Lord of the Flies is an anomaly.) There are usually still people with whom the child interacts, but none who have the same moral sway as a parent. Somehow, orphaned children have to find that moral core within themselves by using their imaginations about themselves and their parents, in conjunction with their relationships with others.

I can't enter into the discussion about the Lord of the Rings trilogy, because I could never really get into it... perhaps because it wasn't primarily about an orphan.

And maybe it's that in books about orphans there's that tremendous loss, right from the get-go, the deaths of one's parents, that they seem to me more than just "boarding school" books, even though a lot of orphans probably do end up in boarding school.

John Cowan said...

Karen M:

The protagonistof The Lord Of The Rings, Frodo Baggins, actually is an orphan. He lost his parents in a boating accident at age 12 (which is more like the equivalent of 8 for a human being, as hobbits grow more slowly and live longer). He was raised by his mother's extended family, the Brandybucks.

It's true that when we first meet Frodo, he is mature (33, the equivalent of 21 human years), and most of the action of the book takes place when he is in his early 50s (equivalent of mid-30s). But he grew up as an orphan just the same.

Tolkien himself was also an orphan: he lost his father at age 4, after not seeing him for a year, and his mother at age 12. He was brought up by the guardian appointed by his mother, a Catholic priest: her mother was estranged from her family due to her conversion to Catholicism.

Karen M said...

John: I don't know how I missed knowing that Frodo was an orphan, too. In fact, that fact was probably mentioned in The Hobbit, too, wasn't it?

I'm still not sure I'll ever get into that particular trilogy, but maybe... now that I know it's about an orphan. ;~)

Actually, I'd probably be more interested now in reading about Tolkien knowing that little bit about his history. My mother converted to Catholicism, too, but was not ostracized by her family. It did have a large impact on our family, though.

Thanks for the background.

Introvert Girl said...

Hi John and Karen,
Sorry for the delayed reply--I ran away to catch a flight after posting that piece, and only have five minutes on the Internet right now (will be back next week).

Karen, your point about orphans isn't one I had thought about before, but it's interesting. You wouldn't have picked it up with Frodo in The Hobbit because he's not mentioned there. He only comes in with LOR, many years after The Hobbit's events.

John, you're absolutely right about the prevalence of moral issues throughout Lord of the Rings. My point with Harry Potter was that it brings those issues very much into a specific, personal sphere in a way that most other fantasy series don't do, not even, I still maintain, LOR.

While you point out instances of temptation in LOR, I still don't think that Tolkien makes that personal, internal struggle real for us, not on a human level. I never felt that Frodo or others really had a choice, certainly not in the way Harry does. That doesn't mean the moral issues are any less present.

Also, Rowling addresses issues such as torture in a way that is very important to current affairs.

Sorry for typos. I'm out of time!

Andrew Shields said...

Personal choice in HP: a wonderful thing to think about. Thanks for the insights.