Well, it has been about 3 weeks since my last post, and in that time I’ve read about 4 and a half books. Sometime in July I decided that I would take my August intersession (that glorious period between semesters where I can sleep in a smidge, take a long lunch to read in the park, and leave work just a little bit earlier than when the students are here) to re-read the Harry Potter series. It has been close to 6 years since I read them all (the last iteration of this project was completed during the hyper-busy first semester of my senior year of college), and I’ve been feeling that it’s about time to do it again. It’s a lot of reading, though, totaling, 4,224 pages, and I’ve realized I may have to take a week or so of September to finish all 7. No problem.
Rather than writing a blog post for each individual book, I decided on three blog posts: the first on Books 1-3, the second on books 4-5, and the last on books 6-7. I did this for three reasons: first, part of my rereading the entire series at once is to evaluate J.K. Rowling’s story arc as a whole. Second, each grouping represents a kind of “break” in the series where there is some sort of major tonal shift. And finally, the last four books are really long, and I just didn’t want to write a blog post on either all four or each one individually. A single blog post on the last four would break the Guinness World Record for longest blog post, I’m sure.
Before we really begin, there is one thing you should know about me: I am of that first generation of Harry Potter readers who met Harry around age 11 and grew up with Harry. As much as some people may claim to love Harry Potter, you will be hard pressed to find another group of people that are more rabid fans than us. We are all in our mid-to-late 20’s now, and our devotion to Rowling’s world and characters remains unfailing. Many of us still harbor some small hope that one day our Hogwarts acceptance letter will, in fact, arrive. By owl, of course.
The revelation that I am rereading this series has been met with excitement and a knowing smile by many of my fellow Potterheads and has led to multiple highly intellectual and, at times, intensely passionate discussions about the series everywhere from work to trivia night and facebook. My goal is not to make any sweeping literary declarations about the series but to share a little bit about the joys and, yes, frustrations, of reading Harry Potter’s story as a whole and as an adult along with the conversations that have arisen from that.
Books 1-3 are comprised of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, as I’m sure you all know. The first thing I noticed as I read these three books is this: People roar a lot in Rowling’s wizarding world. “To roar” appears to be one of Rowling’s favorite verbs to describe speaking loudly and with great emotion.
The first three books in the series are beautifully consistent in tone. Rowling really takes her time establishing very specific, fully realized, individualized characters; a comprehensively detailed world in which those characters live; and a very clear tone that ties all of that together. I group these books together precisely because of that tone. Harry, Ron, and Hermione are 11, 12, and 13 in these first three books, and the tone of the books reflect a level of innocence that still exists (to a point) with children at these ages. At the same time, Rowling never patronizes her young heroes or her young readers. Their emotions, experiences, and relationships with their peers and with adults are complex and beautifully drawn, and, I feel, reflect the reality of what many children feel as they enter their pre-teen years. And though these stories are set in a wonderful fantasy world, Harry, Ron, and Hermione are completely relatable. Rowling gives young people a voice in these stories, validating their emotions, and she does not shy away from dealing with difficult, complicated emotions and situations. For example, in the Prisoner of Azkaban, Sirius is desperate to kill Scabbers (a.k.a Wormtail), who killed Harry’s parents and framed Sirius. Sirius, who has been imprisoned for 12 years for murders he did not commit, begs to be allowed to “commit the murder I was imprisoned for”. That’s big, complicated, supremely human stuff for anyone. Sirius, though innocent, is desperate to avenge his dear friends’ deaths, to the point that he is willing to return to the hellish prison where he has lived the past 12 years being punished for that same murder. The intricacies of this kind of highly charged emotion are part of what makes humans human. What is spectacular in this scene, though, is how Rowling draws the young people’s reactions. There is anger, confusion, hurt, bravery, loyalty, friendship, fear, desire for truth, weariness, desperation, among other emotions, roiling around in each of the young heroes, and Rowling presents their struggles to understand the situation and act accordingly as if to say to her young readers, “I know you feel these things, too.” Rowling has established a tone in these first three books that validates very real experiences and emotions and character traits young people have by creating a gorgeous fantasy world where it is safe to voice and express those personal qualities. Though I hope I am not quite as big of a know-it-all, I am struck every time I read these books by the fact that I am Hermione. Bushy hair and all.
Additionally, it has been so fun to find little clues Rowling plants and to see how early in the series many of her ideas were in place already. The bezoar, which is vitally important in Book 6, makes its first brief appearance in Book 1. In Book 2, Harry extracts a promise from Dobby that he will never try to save Harry’s life again, foreshadowing Dobby’s future heroism in Book 7. The naming conventions are also much more intricate that I initially realized. Obviously some of them are quite obvious: Warewolf Remus Lupin’s last name is connected to “lupus”, the Latin word for wolf; Albus, Dumbledore’s first name, comes from the Latin for “white” indicating goodness; and several names are derived from Greek mythology, including Argus Filch, the ever-watchful Hogwarts caretaker, and Hermes the owl who delivers messages. Some of the names, however, are a bit more obscure and have finally started to make sense to me. Most notable was Fawkes, Dumbledore’s phoenix who occasionally bursts into flame upon his death only to be reborn from the ashes. This time I finally realized the connection between Fawkes the Phoenix and Guy Fawkes, who planned the failed Gunpowder Plot, a part of the plan to assassinate King James I and put a Catholic monarch on the British throne in 1605. The British celebrate Guy Fawkes Day every November 5 by burning effigies of Guy Fawkes in bonfires and shooting off fireworks.
As this post is already getting quite long, I only wish to point out a couple more things. First, one of my minor complaints with the series is the complete lack of understanding the wizarding community seems to have regarding Muggles, or us non-magical folk. My complaint is this: according to Rowling, there is only one all-wizarding community in Britain, the village of Hogsmead up near Hogwarts. Logically, then, most wizards and witches live interspersed throughout Muggle communities, though Muggles have no clue. Though I can understand not comprehending things like electricity or telephones, as the wizarding world have found other ways to handle the challenges of power and communication, I simply don’t understand why the adult wizarding community seems to be so completely confused by Muggle clothing. Even if one is working for the Ministry of Magic, these witches and wizards move through the Muggle world, and the general observation of daily life should be enough to eliminate some of the more egregious clothing errors. Case in point: the Dursley’s neighbor, Mrs. Figg, who, while technically a Squib, has intimate knowledge of the wizarding world but is still able to “pass” as a Muggle enough for Harry to have no clue as to her true identity until Order of the Phoenix (Book 5).
On the other hand, I do think Rowling has done an incredible job world building while still utilizing a remarkable beauty of language. One of the cool things about reading the series as a whole is seeing how her writing evolves and grows along with her characters. However, it is clear from the first book that she has a talent for language, and there are moments of simple yet rather breathtaking linguistic imagery. The way she describes people standing up in Book 3 is a completely creative way of describing such a basic action, and yet I’ve never seen it described that way anywhere else. (Not that I’ve read everything ever written.)
Tonally, these first three books are quite different from the last four, and I think a lot of that has to do with the presence, or lack thereof, of Voldemort. In these first three books, he is present but not in a physical form that can do long-term damage. He is an ever-present threat but not an immediate danger, allowing these first three books to maintain a more idyllic, for lack of a better term, tone, a tone more in keeping with the age and understanding of the three young heroes. As Harry ages and Voldemort becomes more of a real danger, the tone will shift, particularly starting with the fourth installment, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, one subject of the next post in this series.