Posted January 1, 2009
A few months ago, I decided to take the plunge: I would burn through the Harry Potter series, now complete, all in one go. It’s been… interesting. I’ve discovered all kinds of things I had not realized before, including the fact that Harry is – to put it diplomatically – not a particularly effective hero.
I decided to plow through the series, I had what turned out to be a
fair number of misconceptions. In each book, he fights
Voldemort at the end, and there’s a bunch of “British boarding school”
material that fills in the rest of it. Not so! The boarding school
stuff is omnipresent, but it all supports two themes:
- The nature of the hero, specifically Harry
- Growing up
of this is groundbreaking stuff, per se, but Rowling handles it
extraordinarily well. In terms of growing up, books 5 and 6 have a lot more material about
romance, and how relationships are not a particularly easy thing when you’re a teenager. Some of this feels about as painful as reality (fortunately not
at the Freaks and Geeks level of gritty painfulness – I’ve been catching up on my
iconic-yet-cancelled TV shows). In general, Harry is learning more about the adult world (in this case, the wizarding world) each year, and he gets more and more entangled in adult things like racism and dishonesty, and the rather grim realization that mistakes you made in your life years ago can cause problems much further down the road.
As for the nature of Harry the hero, I made a claim that he’s ineffective, but this is not necessarily a bad thing. For one thing, he gets a lot of hype around him, but his lack of perfection humanizes him in a way that a more heroic version might not. As Rowling has portrayed him, Harry is a convincing mix of hot-headed and naive; in the later books, he gets quite angry. If he was always calm and perfectly in control and all-powerful, he would be another Dumbledore! (Considerations of Dumbledore’s character would be an entirely different column).
would draw a parallel between Harry and Buffy, another “heroic” character, another
“Chosen One” (both series use this exact phrase, making my comparison a
little too easy), and while both would much rather have a normal life,
they don’t lay down their burdens. I would say that Harry is a much
angrier character than Buffy, who had her roots in her “Valley Girl
goes into a dark alley and comes out triumphant” high-concept. Harry
comes out of a Roald Dahl tradition, whose influences I would argue are
particularly strong on the first book. As he grows up, he becomes much
more susceptible to rage – against the Dahl-esque Dursleys, against all the circumstances arrayed against him. He knows that he should control his anger,
but how can he? It’s a horrible burden.
Harry gets by with generous help from other people. An idealized loner hero? Not here. The series is essentially the process by which Harry accumulates the friends and surrogate family to help him defeat evil (which makes another parallel to Buffy’s story). Harry on his own is not an effective hero, but because of his friendly nature, he has drawn people to him.
Some of this is explained rather explicitly in books
five and six once Dumbledore tells Harry a bit about the nature of the
prophecy that pits Voldemort against Harry specifically. Not to give too much away, but it boils down to this: Harry’s not so much a hero as an outward
manifestation of Voldemort’s innate characters flaws that will
eventually bring the Dark Lord down. Voldemort wanted to strike, and in striking,
created his worst enemy. Harry’s actions function in the opposite way: he draws people to him, turning them to the good side for their own reasons, not fear.
I mentioned another major misconception on my part. I’ve learned that Harry hardly
ever fights Voldemort! I don’t want to give away every ending in the series, so I’ll just say that Rowling provides a number of other interesting twists and turns.
At this point, I should add that I don’t know the ultimate ending. I’m about two-thirds of the way through Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, which is the seventh and final book. Maybe my points about Harry will be completely undermined? Let’s just amend the title of this piece to read “The Nature etc, So Far” and call these my observations on the Rowling’s accomplishments prior to the seventh book. One last observation: so far, my favourite book has been number six, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. It’s a compelling mix of the humourous moments from the start of the series with the more grown-up material from later on. I haven’t been a fan of book seven so far; that might change once I know what the actual ending is!
I’ve been listening to the audiobook versions, as read by Stephen Fry. Totally brilliant! Book 5, which clocked in at 26+ hours, was a bit of a drag, but Fry’s reading was solid throughout. Has anybody else out there tackled a big book or series via audiobook?