My take on Harry Potter (and I’m sure JKR is really worried)

By , 27 July 2007 5:00 pm

That’s it, I’ve had enough. I’m going to retaliate. She-Who-Need-Not-Be-Named made £1 million an hour on Saturday. I have held off on the HP series waiting for the dénouement but now, as my final blog before going on holiday, I shall give my take on HP7 and the series.

Now I have to make a confession. I gave up on the series two books earlier but I was so intrigued by the hype over the last one that I read the Wikipedia summary and then speed-read the last 50 or so pages of the HP7. Sorry guys, but life is short (and art is long and HP7 isn’t the latter). Anyway, if there are great plot spoilers below I apologise for offending the faithful.

Let’s get the praise out of the way first. JKR is imaginative, celebrates some good values, has some clever ideas and err… looks good on pictures.

1) Rowling was never a particularly good stylist, but she appears to have actually got worse. Perhaps now she is a megastar, she thinks she can dispense with editors. The TLS (Times Literary Supplement) review described her writing as ‘barely adequate’. And that’s generous. I know good writing when I read it, and this isn’t it.

2) Linked to this, is the fact that JKR she has no sense of what is best called ‘architecture’. We are running to the climax of an epic series so all the energy should be building up to be released in some final climactic confrontation. Instead, we get … well, she doesn’t deliver.

3) The plot is labyrinthine and often downright confusing. And no, I don’t think it’s because I had skipped about 1,800 pages. The websites seem abuzz with unresolved issues, and possible contradictions and superfluous characters.

4) I’m old-fashioned, but she is too ambiguous. The big question before the book came out was ‘Will Harry die?’ The big question now is ‘Did Harry die?’ I think she wanted to kill him off but couldn’t stomach it.

5) The book is pitched at an odd level. There are signs that Rowling is (sad to say) taking herself seriously and even aspiring to literature. So we get the portentous quotes at the start of the book. Yet the book inhabits two worlds simultaneously; the children’s story of sweets and spells and the black Gothic fantasy possibly saying something meaningful about life are uneasily intermingled.

6) There is an epilogue of unspeakable Middle-Class tweeness. ‘Nuff said.

7) The weaknesses in Rowling’s worldview are now exposed. There were those in the Christian camp who believed she was a Christian writer, albeit a very subtle one. I think that view is now impossible to hold. Those atheists who feared that God was going to walk on stage in the last book are doubtless relieved. He doesn’t: he’s gone missing. It seems plain that if Christianity exists for JKR as a writer, it exists as a set of ethical ideas and images merely to be ransacked for effect. For all the ‘superstition’ in the books, there is no overruling deity or divine powers. Despite the magic (which in most cases is little more than an alternative technology) it’s a bleak atheistic world out there. It’s sad. I had hoped for a clear redemptive death or the ‘Deeper Magic’ but no, it’s not there. Ironically, I think the American religious right were correct, but for the wrong reasons. The books are problematic, not because they promote Satanism but because they promote secularism.

Anyway, I’m on holiday for two weeks in Ireland. I will try and access the web, but I can’t guarantee it. For those who pray, do pray that when the manuscript of The Infinite Day reaches Tyndale on Monday it will be greeted with pleasure and a determination to push the book and the now finished series with all possible power.

Chris

12 Responses to “My take on Harry Potter (and I’m sure JKR is really worried)”

  1. Tony says:

    I’m afraid that I must agree with just about everything you wrote about HP7. I am no great fan of the series, but I have enjoyed it for the light reading that it is. I have never understood the hype surrounding the series, nor the praise Ms. Rowling has garnered as a literary giant. Comparing the secondary world she has created in a couple of years to that world invented by Tolkien over a lifetime? Your world of a far-flung future strikes me as a far more solid creation by far. I am looking forward to The Infinite Day an infinite amount more than HP7. God bless.

  2. Mirtika says:

    Except there is an afterlife, which secularists pooh-pooh. :)

    Mir

  3. Chris says:

    Hi Mir,

    I’m not sure. It might be possible to have an after life without God as in some sort of survival of the conscious spirit. (That’s what a lot of Brits seem to believe).And even the vehemently anti-Christian Pullman has some sort of supernatural. But the word ‘atheism’ might have been more accurate in the blog. It just didn’t sound as good!

    Thanks for commenting tho’

    Chris

  4. Matthew says:

    Well, I agree and disagree. As a fan of the series I thought the ending *was* satisfying, the plot understandable, and that she managed to form an ending that no-one I’d seen had managed to predict (with the exception of Harry being a Horcrux). As to mingling the literary and the kids’ level, given that most of her readers *aren’t* children but enjoy those bits anyway, you could argue that it makes the book more satisfying for the majority (and the kids will survive the more complex stuff I’m sure, as they have already).

    Rowling’s worldview was always suspect but I don’t think that detracts from her inventiveness. The epilogue, however, was pretty poor, and she’s not a literary writer. I can put up with that.

    That all said, you know I’m waiting to read The Infinite Day just as eagerly :)

  5. Anonymous says:

    I’ve never left a comment on ANY blog before, but I must tell you that I’m looking so forward to The Infinite Day. I bought the second book and read it straightaway through in June, then had to go back and read the first one, followed by the second one again. I’m all primed for the finale. Praying that all goes well with Tyndale.
    Denise

  6. Jon says:

    I’ve never read the Harry Potter books, and I don’t really feel I am missing out on anything. The movies were tolerable, but I think I might read them to get my own opinion firm in stone.

    But that really isn’t the reason I am writing right now.

    I would really like to say that the Lamb Among the Stars is one of the best formulated and written science fiction/fantasy book series’ I have read. Granted, I haven’t read very many, but even so, I feel it is very good.

    You have well-developed characters whose names do not seem far fetched and are actually believable as future names.

    The plot is solid: something I loved seeing develop as I read.

    The spiritual elements are also solid (though I don’t personally believe such a utopian society as presented in the first book is possible due to human nature, [regardless of a removal of external evils]).

    Anyway, you have at least two fans (me and my brother) looking forward to the unfortunately last book. Thanks for writing!

  7. Anonymous says:

    I hope you humour me and read the entirety of my response to your post. First of all, know that I am biased, and that judged as a whole I do like Harry Potter.

    I suspect I am a good deal less intelligent than yourself (I’m an ex-Gorseinon college student, not that I’ve ever been in any of your classes), and I found the plot mostly transparent, so I think you would have too if you had just read those missing 1,800 pages.

    There’s no denying the Harry Potter series is not high literature, but this does not mean it cannot be engaging and a valid form of entertainment. However, your claim that she has pretentions and is taking herself too seriously is a little absurd. The reason that poetry was included at the front was because, rightly or wrongly, a lot of people have become very much attached to these characters over the many thousands of pages that they have known them. Several of them die in this book. The poetry was both a justification for the deaths, and a crutch for those who felt lost now that their favourite character had been killed off.

    The epilogue was excruciating, we agree on that. :)

    Now, for my final point, the secularism. I’m proud that JKR didn’t include a religious worldview in her books, she neither promoted a religion nor did she promote atheism. People are entitled to their opinions, and for the Harry Potter series to embrace one or the other religion would be to alienate a great many of them. You don’t have to believe that other religions are valid to recognise the fact that we need secularism for us all to co-exist peacefully in this society. And that’s all there is to say on the matter, really… I hope you can forgive me if you find this view too naive, and likewise I would rather leave this comment unsigned. I will visit this page from time to time to check for a reply, which I’d be very interested in reading.

  8. Chris says:

    A Full(ish) Response to Anonymous…
    I hope you humour me and read the entirety of my response to your post. [Of course I will!] First of all, know that I am biased, and that judged as a whole I do like Harry Potter. [ Well I’m biased the other way so that’s okay ]
    I suspect I am a good deal less intelligent than yourself [Hmm; not so sure about that but I love flattery] (I’m an ex-Gorseinon college student, not that I’ve ever been in any of your classes), and I found the plot mostly transparent, so I think you would have too if you had just read those missing 1,800 pages.

    There’s no denying the Harry Potter series is not high literature, but this does not mean it cannot be engaging and a valid form of entertainment. However, your claim that she has pretentions and is taking herself too seriously is a little absurd. The reason that poetry was included at the front was because, rightly or wrongly, a lot of people have become very much attached to these characters over the many thousands of pages that they have known them. Several of them die in this book. The poetry was both a justification for the deaths, and a crutch for those who felt lost now that their favourite character had been killed off. [ Okay, if that’s why it was there but I’d suggest that your average ten year old would find the quotes pretty hard going. But I do think for a series that started life as a children’s tale, a chunk of Aeschylus in front of Vol 7 is odd! Other words could have been used]

    The epilogue was excruciating, we agree on that. :) [ Good: I loathe the idea of the epic hero ending up as civil servant ]

    Now, for my final point, the secularism. I’m proud that JKR didn’t include a religious worldview in her books, she neither promoted a religion nor did she promote atheism. [ Ah but that’s the problem. She tried to have her cake and eat it. She invoked a supernatural with an ultimate good and evil but gave us no real explanation of how it worked. Presumably there is/are some final power(s) that run the show? Otherwise who is to say that Voldemort is evil? JKR celebrates such Judaeo-Christian values as loyalty, friendship and self sacrifice but shuns the belief system that underlies it. But you can’t have the fruit without the tree! ] People are entitled to their opinions, and for the Harry Potter series to embrace one or the other religion would be to alienate a great many of them. [ My point here, perhaps ill expressed, was not primarily a complaint that JKR hadn’t produced a Christian work but a) a criticism of those who felt that she was a Christian writer and b) a disappointment that she hadn’t dealt with some of the major issues that had emerged. For instance there is a hint of ‘deeper magic’ but she passes on by quickly ] You don’t have to believe that other religions are valid to recognise the fact that we need secularism for us all to co-exist peacefully in this society. [ Sorry: now here I disagree. Who says secularism is tolerant? Have you listened to Dawkins? He’d have any believers in the supernatural in the gas chambers very quickly. Have you heard what happened in the old USSR to believers? The problem with secularism is that takes away any transcendent value from human beings. You and I are just things. And things can be reprogrammed, erased or destroyed. ] And that’s all there is to say on the matter, really… I hope you can forgive me if you find this view too naive, and likewise I would rather leave this comment unsigned. [ Of course I forgive you! In fact I welcome the comments and the debate ]. I will visit this page from time to time to check for a reply, which I’d be very interested in reading. [ Please call back! ]

  9. Anonymous says:

    Thank you for the reply! I read it with great interest, and I feel the need to reply to some of it below, if nothing else to show that your words didn’t just go in one ear and out the other, but were considered carefully. Summer holidays leaves me with entirely too much time to write comments on blogs, it seems.

    “Otherwise who is to say that Voldemort is evil? JKR celebrates such Judaeo-Christian values as loyalty, friendship and self sacrifice but shuns the belief system that underlies it.”

    “Loyalty, friendship and self sacrifice” are very admirable qualities promoted by Judaism and Christianity, but those religions don’t have a monopoly on them, other religions promote them too (a controversial point, but Islam certainly appears to promote “self seacrifice” in a very ill-guided, perverse manner). I think perhaps JKR was trying to say that we can call a man evil for murder because we’ve seen how awful Harry’s life was a result without his parents, without needing to justify that by including a religion. I often have a problem with the line of thought that religions are responsible for morality. If a child was raised as an orphan, without any moral guidance from the Church, would they then grow up to be a murderer? I’d like to think that a person can condemn murder because it is murder, and not because his religion tells him to condemn it.

    “now here I disagree. Who says secularism is tolerant? Have you listened to Dawkins? He’d have any believers in the supernatural in the gas chambers very quickly. Have you heard what happened in the old USSR to believers? The problem with secularism is that takes away any transcendent value from human beings. You and I are just things. And things can be reprogrammed, erased or destroyed.”

    Secularism does has its issues, you need only look to the so-called “militant” atheists for evidence of that, Dawkins himself doesn’t seem to tolerate believers in the supernatural, regardless of how much he says otherwise. However I think to say he’d have people put into gas chambers for it is a little much. Dawkins, whatever his faults, is just an academic, and certainly not a nazi (any mention of gas chambers will always force this comparison).

    I am very much ignorant when it comes to the USSR, I know only the basics. Whenever I find the opportunity I try to increase my knowledge of history (as George Santayana said, “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”), but at the moment there are still big gaps in my knowledge. I looked up wikipedia’s article (assuming it’s somewhat reliable) here http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Religion_in_the_Soviet_Union#Policy_toward_religions_in_practice and parts of it certainly does provide chilling reading. I’m not sure what I can say after reading about events like that, but secularism itself is just the idea and can’t harm by itself, these acts can only come about by the people who implement that idea. These people after all weren’t just being guided by the idea of secularism, but also by Marxism-Leninism too. I don’t think secularism as a concept should be rejected just because of these evil people who took it to extremes, because surely that’d just be like saying that Christianity should be rejected because of the horrors that were done in its name during The Crusades.

    “You and I are just things.” I think this raises the real question of if we are property of the state, or of ourselves. The Human Rights’ Act suggests the latter, and any government that recognises and supports the rights of its people to practice what they want can’t go far wrong. I don’t think secularism necessarily precludes this, a secularist state could exist simply by saying “I don’t agree with your religion, and your religion will have no part in the running of this state, but you are free to believe it and to practice it however you see fit” (this has echoes of “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” which incidentally was said by Evelyn Beatrice Hall and not Voltaire, which is who I thought to have said it when I first read that quotation). This isn’t neccesarily what I believe, but is just a hypothetical example of a state that could be secular without comitting the attrocities that the USSR did. In any case, a state run by a religion is surely more likely to persecute other religions than a state run without religion?

    China is another more modern-day example of a more-or-less secularist state, but this comment is long enough as it is without starting a discussion on that too. Needless to say, considering China’s attitude to bloggers, it might not even be possible to have this discussion in China.

    I have no absolute beliefs here, for the simple reason I don’t know enough and haven’t thought about it enough, what I’ve said in this over-long comment is just what seems to make sense to me. Don’t think that I think secularism is a good idea, I honestly don’t know, but I don’t think it should be dismissed out of hand either.

    Thanks for reading, and as interested as I would be in it, I don’t expect a reply, since I’ve really said quite a lot, but I’d be happy to know it’s been read at least.

  10. Chris says:

    Hi Anonymous
    I will get back to you on this in the next 24 hours. Some stimulating points!

    Chris

  11. Chris says:

    Right Anon, Here we go!

    Thank you for the reply! I read it with great interest, and I feel the need to reply to some of it below, if nothing else to show that your words didn’t just go in one ear and out the other, but were considered carefully. Summer holidays leaves me with entirely too much time to write comments on blogs, it seems.

    “Otherwise who is to say that Voldemort is evil? JKR celebrates such Judaeo-Christian values as loyalty, friendship and self sacrifice but shuns the belief system that underlies it.”

    “Loyalty, friendship and self sacrifice” are very admirable qualities promoted by Judaism and Christianity, but those religions don’t have a monopoly on them, other religions promote them too (a controversial point, but Islam certainly appears to promote “self secrifice” in a very ill-guided, perverse manner). I think perhaps JKR was trying to say that we can call a man evil for murder because we’ve seen how awful Harry’s life was a result without his parents, without needing to justify that by including a religion. I often have a problem with the line of thought that religions are responsible for morality. If a child was raised as an orphan, without any moral guidance from the Church, would they then grow up to be a murderer? I’d like to think that a person can condemn murder because it is murder, and not because his religion tells him to condemn it.

    Hmm. You seem to have more faith in the inherent goodness of human beings than I have. I think left to themselves without any external standard human beings slip into the law of the jungle. Might becomes right. And no, Christianity doesn’t have a monopoly on virtues but let me list some key ones that it proclaims which frequently seem to be missing elsewhere (it might be interesting to tick off which of them occur in Harry Potter). In no particular order I would list: forgiveness, the value of an individual regardless of sex or social status, the value of the weak over the powerful, the supremacy of caring love in morality, the importance of truth, the binding nature of promises, the unimportance of ‘honour’, the duty to God over even close family ties, the existence of an ultimate hope. That is not to say all Christians live this out, he hastens to add. But we strive to.

    “now here I disagree. Who says secularism is tolerant? Have you listened to Dawkins? He’d have any believers in the supernatural in the gas chambers very quickly. Have you heard what happened in the old USSR to believers? The problem with secularism is that takes away any transcendent value from human beings. You and I are just things. And things can be reprogrammed, erased or destroyed.” Secularism does has its issues, you need only look to the so-called “militant” atheists for evidence of that, Dawkins himself doesn’t seem to tolerate believers in the supernatural, regardless of how much he says otherwise. However I think to say he’d have people put into gas chambers for it is a little much. Dawkins, whatever his faults, is just an academic, and certainly not a nazi (any mention of gas chambers will always force this comparison).

    The reference to the gas chambers was a tactical blunder. My younger son told me only last month that to try to make your opponents sound like Nazis is a guaranteed way to lose a debate. And Dawkins is careful in what he says. But he seems to believe that religion is a virus of the mind and we know what we do to those with contagious and untreatable diseases.

    I am very much ignorant when it comes to the USSR, I know only the basics. Whenever I find the opportunity I try to increase my knowledge of history (as George Santayana said, “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”), but at the moment there are still big gaps in my knowledge. I looked up wikipedia’s article (assuming it’s somewhat reliable) here http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Religion_in_the_Soviet_Union#Policy_toward_religions_in_practice and parts of it certainly does provide chilling reading. I’m not sure what I can say after reading about events like that, but secularism itself is just the idea and can’t harm by itself, these acts can only come about by the people who implement that idea. These people after all weren’t just being guided by the idea of secularism, but also by Marxism-Leninism too. I don’t think secularism as a concept should be rejected just because of these evil people who took it to extremes, because surely that’d just be like saying that Christianity should be rejected because of the horrors that were done in its name during The Crusades.

    I don’t reject secularism because of its record, but for other reasons. But there is a post 9/11 mood that says secularism will cure all our ills; I think it is vital we are aware that its record suggests that this may not work. And I’m hardly going to defend the Crusades but I think they were a social and political hijacking of a weak Christianity. Christianity has always said that power corrupts; the Crusades proved it.

    “You and I are just things.” I think this raises the real question of if we are property of the state, or of ourselves. The Human Rights’ Act suggests the latter, and any government that recognises and supports the rights of its people to practice what they want can’t go far wrong. I don’t think secularism necessarily precludes this, a secularist state could exist simply by saying “I don’t agree with your religion, and your religion will have no part in the running of this state, but you are free to believe it and to practice it however you see fit” (this has echoes of “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” which incidentally was said by Evelyn Beatrice Hall and not Voltaire, which is who I thought to have said it when I first read that quotation). This isn’t necessarily what I believe, but is just a hypothetical example of a state that could be secular without committing the atrocities that the USSR did. In any case, a state run by a religion is surely more likely to persecute other religions than a state run without religion?

    I am fascinated that isn’t a genuine Voltairism; you learn something new every day. One way of looking at this is to say that our species is inherently religious and that because nature abhors a vacuum, a secular state will inevitably start to become a religion itself (As it did with the cult of Lenin and Mao Tse-Tung ).

    China is another more modern-day example of a more-or-less secularist state, but this comment is long enough as it is without starting a discussion on that too. Needless to say, considering China’s attitude to bloggers, it might not even be possible to have this discussion in China.

    I have no absolute beliefs here, for the simple reason I don’t know enough and haven’t thought about it enough, what I’ve said in this over-long comment is just what seems to make sense to me. Don’t think that I think secularism is a good idea, I honestly don’t know, but I don’t think it should be dismissed out of hand either.

    I think there is more agreement between us than you thought! I am heartened by your willingness to tackle me. You have made me think! If you want to pursue this by email any time feel free. Incidentally on most of these issues C. S. Lewis is very good. You’d enjoy him I think.

    Thanks for reading, and as interested as I would be in it, I don’t expect a reply, since I’ve really said quite a lot, but I’d be happy to know it’s been read at least.

    Blessings

    Chris

  12. Anonymous says:

    Thanks for taking the time to write another interesting reply, this discussion has certainly given me food for thought.

    I’ve heard C. S. Lewis’ name mentioned a few times recently, my last experience with him was at a time where I was too young to even realise the Christian undertones in the Narnia books, and wasn’t even aware he’d written non-fiction books. So it seems it would be a good idea for me to revisit his work.

    Also on the subject of books, I’ve recently started reading science fiction books again (I’ve just now started Dune, last week I was reading Philip K. Dick), so I look forward to reading your own books too.

    Thanks again for taking the time to reply, and this is me signing off now, since I’ll be flying away on holiday soon, so I don’t have time to comment anymore. Needless to say I’ll keep thinking about these things, and hopefully I’ll find some definite answers some day.

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