Sunday, January 11, 2009

Rambling About Harry Potter

There isn't really anything I can say about the Harry Potter series that hasn't already been said. But since I finished the final book recently, I'm going to say some things anyway.

I started out as a skeptic. After all, how could a childrens' book series ever be as good as people were saying. In retrospect, that was a fairly stupid thing for me to think. After all, I love Doctor Who, which is every bit as "made for children" as Harry Potter was. Heck, being elitist about my age was every bit as silly as some religious people objecting over the use of magic as a plot device. The writing quality is unimpeachable. The invention of a second vocabulary for the wizarding world of the books, while not quite as detailed as the linguistics in The Lord of the Rings, adds a huge amount of verisimilitude in the same ways.

Speaking of which, comparisons to The Lord of the Rings are inevitable. Tolkien's work grew out of the era of the World Wars. Harry lies astraddle the new century, with all the turmoil of events from Y2K to 9-11-2001 happening as backdrop. In spite of this, Harry seems to me to be even less a product of its time, even more of a self-realized world than The Lord of the Rings. The story is both more complex and more personal. And crucially, for me at least, Harry Potter is a story about the characters. The Lord of the Rings emphasizes the setting, leaving the characters to be filled, with the exception of the crucial few primary actors, with stereotyped representations. Harry and his friends (and enemies) all have developed personalities. Only time will tell if Harry's wizardry will hold up as well as Gandalf's for the wider population, but then I think that too much comparison with Tolkien is the wrong way to go.

No, for me the comparison for Harry that I can't escape isn't Frodo Baggins, it's Dorothy Gale. L. Frank Baum's creation is the earliest extended series I remember reading myself, and it left a few elements permanently etched on my psyche. I suspect there are already a couple of things from Harry Potter that have stuck for me in similar ways. Dorothy's stories didn't have the overarching continuity of the Potter books, and they were much more targeted at children. But both are about normal children entering a world they didn't know existed and becoming a pivotal part of it. Though admittedly, that's where the direct comparisons must end.

Frankly, all this analysis and comparison I'm indulging in doesn't really pass on how wonderful I think the Potter books are. I can confidently say that the Potter books are the best fantasy series I've read since The Lord of the Rings, and in the fullness of time, they may surpass that lofty pinnacle. It will take a decade or two, and a half dozen readings to tell, but certainly the Potter books have found a permanent place on my bookshelves. If you haven't read them yet, give 'em a try, you might end up wanting them on your bookshelves too.

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