Now that the conclusion of the seven-book Harry Potter saga is finally upon us, it is not too early to begin placing J.K. Rowling’s creation into literary perspective. Sure, the story of an orphaned boy wizard and his battle against evil while attending a boarding school and navigating adolescence may be unprecedented in its monumental popularity. But where does it rank in comparison to the classics of the fantasy genre—J.R.R. Tolkien, say, or C.S. Lewis?
The Lords of High Culture, not surprisingly, have examined Harry and found him wanting. The literary scholar Harold Bloom decried the series, after having read only the first book, as “another confirmation of the dumbing-down” of Western civilization, while novelist A.S. Byatt subjected the Potter phenomenon to a dismissive, slapdash combination of Freudian analysis and personal prejudice.
It’s amazing that such intelligent people could read so poorly. True, the Harry Potter series is not perfect—but then, no book is. The greatest classic—Great Expectations, for example; or perhaps Huckleberry Finn—achieves greatness despite its flaws, not because it doesn’t have any. Thus it is with Rowling’s fantasy novels.
Even her severest critics, Byatt and Bloom not excepted, grumpily allow the Potter books are entertaining, while her most ardent partisans, at least those old enough to know the difference, admit she’s not the greatest stylist to ever hoist a pen.
Rowling’s style is never less than workmanlike, but it does rely overmuch on cliche and sometimes chases its tail around the room before finding the door to the next scene. Yet it’s a style that possesses its own warm voice, a voice that assumes intelligence on the part of the reader. Companionability in literature is no vice.
Rowling is an absolute genius of plotting and narrative structure, the kind that went out of fashion after the 19th century, and therein lies much of the explanation for her popularity. It should be asked why certain skills of literary craftsmanship are held in higher critical esteem than others. The shelves groan with novels written in clever, crystalline prose that could not find their way from beginning to middle to end with an iPhone Googled to MapQuest. Readers are ravenous for complicated stories well told, as Dickens knew. So does Rowling.
The Potter books are often criticized, even by such a supporter as fellow pop-fiction eminence Stephen King, for being “formulaic.” (I guess it takes one to know one.) Most start with Harry living at the home of his odious Muggle relatives, the Dursleys, then return to Hogwarts for a bit of Tom Brown-ish school shenanigans before building to a Magical Confrontation With Evil. But this is a formula in the way a sonnet, or a villanelle, is a formula; in the limitations of the form lie its potentialities. Am I alone in finding it thrilling each time Rowling returns to Number 4 Privet Drive, Little Whinging, Surrey, to start the adventure anew?
Originality, in truth, is the rarest of literary coin. The Lord of the Rings is superior to Harry Potter in all respects, true, but it is not original, standing as it does upon Tolkien’s deep knowledge of English and Nordic myth and languages. Rowling’s books, like Tolkien’s, are a synthesis of their influences and the author’s creative imagination, rearranged and added to, thereby making something fresh if not altogether unprecedented.
Those who truly thirst for originality in fantasy literature might seek out Lord Dunsany’s The Gods of Pegana, which imagined a world with virtually no reference to earlier works, or Clive Barker’s The Hellbound Heart, which performed similar service for horror. Or perhaps The Epic of Gilgamesh, which, as the oldest narrative we have, is original in the purest sense. (I recommend the Stephen Mitchell translation. Run along now. Have fun.)
The real test of lasting literary value in the Harry Potter books might be said to lie with Rowling’s moral seriousness, which neither Bloom nor Byatt deign to acknowledge.
In the world of Harry Potter may be found prejudice and oppression. Not only do pure-blood wizards think themselves superior to “mudbloods”—those with Muggle lineage—but also werewolves are feared and hated without sound reason, centaurs are confined to a reservation, and elves are subjected to near-slavery.
Rowling skillfully shades moral ambiguity into the persona of Severus Snape, the unlovely professor who seems to become a turncoat murderer, yet has protected Harry more than once when it brought no obvious benefit. Harry, though remaining essentially heroic, grows less pure in his motives as he learns more about his connection, psychic and otherwise, with the malevolent Voldemort.
And beginning with book four, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Rowling signaled an astonishing willingness to put sympathetic characters in mortal peril—and beyond.
Indeed, Rowling herself has identified mortality—the stuff of all great literature, from “Gilgamesh” onward—as the central theme of the series. “My books are largely about death,” Rowling said in 2000, preparing younger readers for the murder of a minor but stalwart character in Goblet of Fire. “They open with the death of Harry’s parents. There is Voldemort’s obsession with conquering death and his quest for immortality at any price, the goal of anyone with magic. I so understand why Voldemort wants to conquer death. We’re all frightened of it.”
Rowling has killed off protagonists beloved to author and reader alike, when the story demands it. The renegade wizard Sirius Black—Harry’s godfather, and his brightest hope of a reconstituted family—died in battle in book five, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, while Dumbledore, Harry’s mentor, was murdered in cold blood in book six, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.
As the final installment, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, draws nearer to publication this weekend, the Potterverse has been buzzing with speculation about who might die en route to the ultimate confrontation with Voldemort. No one in Rowling’s magical realm, up to and including Harry, is considered exempt. A greater tribute to Rowling’s seriousness as an artist can hardly be imagined.
Consider: Of the nine characters who set out to destroy the One Ring in The Fellowship of the Ring, only one, Boromir, dies, and he deserves his fate. Did any reader ever really fear Frodo or Aragorn or Gandalf (after his resurrection, anyway) might not survive Sauron’s eventual defeat? But Rowling, with a heedless courage that is breathtaking when looked at from this vantage, has the knife at the throat of every single character in the series.
Bloom and Byatt, I’ll concede, are important writers. It may be that at least some of Bloom’s many erudite books will survive him. His 1994 volume, The Western Canon, is a powerful argument for the supremacy of reading as a matter of individual pleasure and enrichment. Likewise for the novels of A.S. Byatt, best known for “Possession,” a highly accomplished post-modern romance that won the Booker Prize. But they’d be well advised to make room in the pantheon, lest their laurels get knocked askew.
Because J.K. Rowling will be climbing up to take her spot beside them.
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