Tuesday, April 13, 2010

harry potter is overrated (and also underrated)

I had an assignment yesterday, and all I wanted to do was write a blog post. Now it's handed in, and my motivation is flagging. Still! I did have all that time to think about what I wanted to say, so here goes...

I remember first reading Harry Potter. I believe it was 1999, my parents were in the UK and when I went to visit they had Harry Potter, which was being reviewed at the time in the papers. But I hadn't really heard of it before. To my family, children's and young adult fantasy is pretty standard reading, and it was pretty natural for us to all read any book that came into the house. So, enough of setting the scene, I read Harry Potter and the Philosophers Stone and I really enjoyed it. It had a great world, and it was a lot of fun, the language was so bubbly, it had a great humour to it and the story was a great adventure. But then the trouble started- I read the first review. And here follows the account of my continuing encounter with People's Reactions to Harry Potter.

If my memory serves correctly, the first review I read of Harry Potter praised it highly for it originality- particularly for having the amazing idea of a school for wizards. Fancy! Which made me grind my teeth, why would someone review Harry Potter having apparently no idea of the fantasy genre? Here are some wizard schools predating Harry Potter: the Roke academy in 'The Wizard of Earthsea', Unseen University in the Discworld books (it is a university, but similar concept), 'the Worst Witch' (both book and tv), I've heard Dianna Wynne Jones has written some and I think Margaret Mahy may have too. There are probably others, these are just those that spring to mind. Not that JK Rowling hasn't written her own unique take on the subject, but the idea of a wizard school is not what people should really focus on if looking for originality here.

But things have not really gotten any better. JK Rowling now has a large array of fans, who are keen to point out her amazing achievement, and how the books are flawless, every detail accounted for, every happening foreshadowed. Also, reading a lot of comments floating around from fans about their favourite book the early ones don't get a look in, the middle ones are preferred because they are 'darker'. OK, so here are my thoughts about that:

My favourite book is the first one! I feel that as they go on, and become darker, and longer, they also become slower, and start to make less sense. JK Rowling's writing perfectly suited the first book, I thought it was well written, light-hearted and conveyed a sense of wonder. I just don't think her writing performs as well with heavier subject matter, as the series goes on it becomes more and more workmanlike, less fun. The teenaged characters can be annoying, I think the love stories are not very well developed and the consistent repeating of mistakes and mistrust of characters (and having recently read Ronni's blog post on authority in Harry Potter, I will clarify that my annoyance is at the way the lose trust so quickly in adults who have previously gained their trust) gets annoying. The world stops making sense to me when I look closer- there don't seem to be many limitations on magic, yet there is poverty? Why? And above all I just don't think the books are that dark. Just because people die, doesn't make it dark. Dark how? I don't get it. There are some scary moments, some (well, at least one) ambiguous characters, and some death. But there are scarier books that get thrown into the 'children's literature' category (Susan Cooper and Alan Garner write some fairly menacing scenes), and the death of major secondary characters is a standard trope. To my mind, the later books are less well realised and not particularly dark. And books don't have to be dark! I think JK Rowling does light better than dark.


I guess to summarise, I think that reactions to Harry Potter fall into one of two camps. Either people haven't read it and dismiss it as 'a kid's book', or they have and won't hear a word against it. I think the series deserves a more considered approach- it was a massive phenomenon and very hard to put down. To be fair, I have read some more thoughtful reactions (I mentioned Ronni's post, and The Last Muggle to Read Harry Potter has had some interesting reactions when finishing the series). I read them all, and quickly. I think JK Rowling is good at creating suspense, and one of her major achievements was the way she engaged with fans- feeding them clues while they waited for the next installment and so on. But it's not perfect, and the reactions often just make me feel that so much of the fantasy genre is unappreciated. But I guess I should be more understanding. It's a whole different story if anyone criticizes LOTR...


  1. Anonymous14/4/10 22:24


    Obviously deeply held opinions about HP. I have to agree that the first book had a very original feel about it, even if a wizarding school was not absolutely new. I think the whole phenomenon started with that fresh, and very satirical, view. After that, when it was clear that the whole thing was highly profitable, it became an industry. Then the series rolled on, and people kept buying having been “hooked”, so that the rest of the books did not have to be so good.

    I only got through the first one and a half books. The feeling I got was that the books did not have the depth of LOTR. They are not the product of a lifetime’s labour of love. I could see all sorts of looming contradictions, even if I can’t now enumerate them for you.

    And then there were the various nods to the fads of the moment. Admittedly I only got a sense of this at second hand from the newspaper reports.

    The films were something else of course – well realized fun. Does everything have to be dark? I liked Narnia precisely because it was not dark. I have to admit to you that I did not read those books when I was invited to by a friend at school, because the friend was a year or so younger, and I remember saying very archly that they were kid stuff and not really my cup of tea. It was university before I got into them, and after I had an introduction to LOTR. Then I thought that if the friends who liked LOTR also liked Narnia, perhaps there might be something in them after all. But that wa a year which saw me read “The First Circle”, “Catch 22”, half of “The female Eunuch”, (got half way through and just couldn’t maintain the energy. Amused to see Louis Nowra recently comprehensively pan it. Fairly I think, but then I never did pretend to be a feminist.) LOTR in a week of nights (didn’t get to too many morning lectures), “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch”. I think Dr Zhivago was while I was still at school. You can see that I had a yen fro Russian lit for a while.

    So will we still be reading Harry Potter in 2100? I think the average Muggle will only know about him as a footnote to 21st century popular culture from Wikipaedia, or from a yellowing collection of great grandma’s books stored in the attic.

  2. "Obviously deeply held opinions about HP."

    I don't know really, I just react strongly to internet opinions, and once I start ranting it's so hard to stop...

    I think they'll continue to be read, because they are readable and well plotted and very popular. I often wonder how the books will hold up when read all at once, particularly by a younger age group which the first was directed at. I tend to think it will be ok, they should be able to handle the later books, but it will be a very different experience.

  3. Anonymous16/4/10 19:23

    ranting is habit forming, no doubt about that. If I let go i can just wind up and up.

    Don't get me started.

    But seriously, do you really think that HP is well written? I stopped basically because they didn't carry me along.

  4. Well I enjoyed reading the series, while it was slow in parts it did carry me through. As I said in my post, I think the writing is not always great in terms of style, but the story is very readable.