Monday, May 24, 2010

An English Teacher Tackles Harry Potter

                    Snape's lab image link

Don't worry, no big spoilers in this review.
I am a grown-up, and a bit of a literary snob. But- I read the seven J. K. Rowling Harry Potter books basically in record time. I became the expert amongst my schoolchildren friends, of every character, motive and secret.

Rowling is a terrific writer. Is she among the great writers? Stephen King thinks so. This is everybody's favorite discussion! The scenes at Harry’s aunt’s house for example are mediocre. For me, the books are at their most amazing in plot, energy and luxurious detail, than in actual style (though solid), and her characters often tend to the archetypal. But the reading experience- I was spellbound.

I was surprised, having seen a movie first, that Harry Potter is a hothead, not a cool pale Daniel Radcliffe. Harry is continually indignant, which was puzzling- do modern kids relate to that? If you knew someone like that, he would get on your nerves. (Alan Rickman [above] is perfect.)

If you are a writer, you may find many of the plot twists guessable, as Rowling follows standard literary tradition. But guessing ahead gave me even more pleasure, because it allowed me extra insight into characters and scenes.

About the only things I had not guessed by, let's say, Book Three, were Dumbledore's secret, and of course that little surprise Harry got mixed up with there near the end (Just bragging!). And no one expected all those deaths.

I am in awe of Rowling’s astonishing complexity. An endless succession of characters, situations and details looping in and out of each other, that's what established Rowling as one of kid's books' greats. Rowling's mind is a labyrinth, carried out over 3000 packed pages. Apparently it took Rowling over 17 years to write.

I am old-school- it’s too much excitement for me! The plot is as headstrong as Harry, plunging from one deadly adventure to the next. There is never that delicious dangling anticipation. The moment something is expected, for sure it will happen by the end of the page, instant gratification. I found the remorseless action exhausting- I was always thinking “Oh no here we go again!”

As Stephen King praised on the seventh bookjacket, Rowling’s books "raise the bar" for children's writing. -But raise the bar to what? Don't get me wrong- I loved it! But I do hope the “old bar” won’t become too boring for the “new kids.”

" Portmanteau "
Rowling is especially strong and creative in her word and name inventions for people, places, items, spells and incantations (using Latin), etc.; including puns and “portmanteau” words (words blended to make one new word), etc.

Brief examples: the bad guys of the House of “Slitherin” and its professor “Severus Snape,” who instructs Harry in the study of “Occlumency” (closing the mind against invasion). Wikipedia: “from occlude, ‘to conceal,’ and mens, Latin for ‘mind.’”

The web is full of interpretation of list after list of Rowling’s word and name inventions. A two-second search found this article explaining just Latinate spells she invented for Book 6: article link

Seven books, over 3000 pages and 17 years:
Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows


Jim Fossett said...

Have you looked at the Redwall series by Brian Jacques? They're a little more conventional and less dense than Harry, but at least some kids--including my son--seem to really like them. The characters are animals, not people, who may make them seem a bit more "fairy tale"; but they have very strong female characters and are not cutesy at all.

Eve Scherr said...

Thanks, I will take a look and maybe I'll have something new to recommend to my young friends! But why do you suppose that Rowling became so rich and famous where others did not?

Jim Fossett said...

Good question to which I don't have a good answer, but I think the density of detail has something to do with it--there are many details, but they fit together in such a coherent way that you believe in the whole world because it makes internal sense--There's an old essay by Tolkien called "The Art of the Fairy Story" that makes a similar point, though far better than I do