The Harry Potter series

The Harry Potter series

New books dissected over email.
Aug. 23 1999 12:27 PM

The Harry Potter series

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Dear Tony,

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I have to admit, I began the first Harry Potter book in a mood of irritable skepticism. Having worn out flashlight batteries under the blankets since earliest childhood, I've never understood why other grown-ups won't read children's books. Of course, there's plenty of dreck being written for all ages, but the best kids' books--particularly ones by British writers--pull their readers through adventures of the sort that seem to have vanished from serious adult fiction, with compelling inventiveness that's rarely been seen since Lawrence Sterne. (OK, maybe Donald Barthelme and Thomas Pynchon.) Plus, they're a lot easier to read. Peter Dickinson, who writes superb fantasy novels for children, once explained it by saying, "You're not allowed to bore children." And since no one bundles them off into the ghetto of genre when they bring in magic (unless you consider juvenile lit a genre), children's authors can draw on myths and fairy tales to give their books resonance and deeply satisfying structure.

But until this year, it was almost impossible to get any self-respecting adult to read them. Friends would thank me with polite puzzlement when I gave them great children's books I knew they'd love--then would tuck them away in the bookshelves for when their kids were a bit older. If my book-loving peers would rather spend their beach reading on plodding thrillers than on the heart-stopping adventure stories of Philip Pullman (author of the "Dark Materials" trilogy), say, or the scintillating allegory of Norton Juster (The Phantom Tollbooth), then nothing could be done about it, short of reading aloud to them when they were laid up with the flu (which does work, but you lose your voice). So what were these Harry Potter books? Why were healthy adults fighting for them? Could they really be better than the books by Diana Wynne Jones, or E. Nesbit, or T.H. White (I'm sure you can add your own favorites here, Tony), which everybody turned up their noses at?

Well, no, the Harry Potter books aren't better. But that's good news for his fans--it's like saying that Dickens is no better than George Eliot. I'm hoping adults will find a savory spread of great kids' books right beneath their noses, now that they've plucked those noses down from the stratosphere. And I bet kids are turning to other great books while they wait for the next installment.

Harry Potter, the orphan son of a witch and a wizard, gets sent to Hogwarts School for Wizards after discovering his own magical powers in the first book in the series, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. This puts him squarely in two time-honored juvenile genres--magic books and school stories. There's even a fine body of literature in the intersection. When I started Rowling's series, I found myself comparing them to Jill Murphy's out-of-print "Worst Witch" books, a series for slightly younger kids (7-to-11-year-olds), about a hapless student at Miss Cackle's Academy for Witches. The two series share lots of obvious details: broom-riding lessons; animal familiars with minds of their own; scary teachers; potions gone wrong; school uniforms that look like Halloween costumes to us Muggles, as Rowling calls nonmagical folks. (I hope Murphy's books will fly back into print on Rowling's robe-tails.) I also thought of Diana Wynne Jones' "Witch Week," one of my all-time favorite books. It's a dark, witty suspense story about an outbreak of illegal magic in a school full of witch orphans--children whose parents have been burned as witches. I was miffed on Jones' and Murphy's accounts (among others) that Rowling was getting all the press.

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But soon I was hooked, just like everyone else. The woman has an amazing imagination. She structures the series like one of those Renaissance paintings, with the perspective lines heading off to infinity in all directions, and weird supernatural beings and rock formations in the background, while in the foreground someone in a peculiar hat has an intense interaction with a hippogriff. And she's so funny! Didn't you love the Whomping Willow, the tree on the school grounds that bashes any creature fool enough to touch it, and Peeves, the school poltergeist, whom everyone treats with irritated toleration? Not to mention poor Nearly Headless Nick, the ghost who's not allowed to ride in the wild headless chase because the ax that did him in was too blunt and left a flap of skin on his neck. I also admire Rowling's talent for balancing humor with serious save-the-world drama, which she does with a far defter hand than Tolkien.

I was impressed with her technique for interweaving her magical world with Muggle life. Her wizard world exists in the interstices of everyday Britain, with its denizens wandering around in a bit of a muddle. Think of that hilarious scene when one of Harry's school friends tries to call him on the telephone and keeps shouting--he can't believe his message is getting through. Wizards, of course, send messages via owl post.

And the books are getting better and better. What did you think of the Dementors, those elegantly symbolic, bone-chilling villains in the latest, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban? They guard Azkaban, the wizard prison, by sucking hope from the prisoners, leaving them in a state of icy despair, as good a description of depression as I've ever read.

Like Harry's nerdy, courageous, always-right friend Hermione, I'm tasting the delicous pleasure of telling everyone I told them so. It's so bad--but it's so good!

Yours,
Polly

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This week, a discussion of J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (click here to buy the book), Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (click here to buy the book), and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (click here to buy the book). The first chapter of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets is available here. Polly Shulman, a contributing editor at Science, writes a column about children's books forSalon. A.O. Scott is a regular contributor to Slate.