24 June 2003 - Oxford
The Myth of Harry Potter

I'll actually assume that all of those reading this will have already read the book and know the story well. It's worth a read, anyway, and this review doesn't exist to persuade people to join the estimated nine million others who have already finished the story, but to act as a point of ddiscussion. An open-invitation book club, if you like.

Harry Potter is successful because it is mythology. It is the story of how a hero on the side of good is created and eventually truimphs over evil.

For mythology to work, the following must happen:

  1. The hero must be originally thrust into a situation, of no free will of his own. It is fate that deals him his immediate hand and for the most part in the beginning, he has not choice of what happens to him.
  2. The hero must initially fail oor failure must seem a foregone conclusion. This is usually because he lacks the knowledge or the skills to succeed. He may make mistakes and is obviously not up to the task.
  3. With the help of mentors, the hero improves himself. Skills and knowledge are imparted to him.
  4. The hero must finally choose to face his greatest fears and weaknesses and by himself overcome them.

It is interesting to note that the first three books follow this formula quite closely, but the last two have begun to deviate away from it.

For a start, Harry has been less in control of his destiny than before. In Goblet of Fire (GoF), he escapes a trap. He doesn't choose to be involved in the climax, he is led there. In Order of the Phoenix (OotP), Harry makes a bad decision and actually walks willingly into another trap (you tell kids, but there's no stopping 'em). This time, his emotions (or lack of control of them) is what gets him into trouble.

There is no redemption for past failures in both GoF and OotP, just narrow escapes. GoF seems to exist to remind the reader that Harry is somehow destined for his path in life. This is
actually made concrete in OotP by the prophecy.

It's also interesting to look at the mentors in the two books. Mad-Eyed Moody in GoF is teaching Harry skills to succeed in the Triwizard Tasks so that he will resurrect and be killed by Voldemort. This is one mentor who is not looking out for his charge's welfare.

Who is the mentor in OotP? I think that it is the Defence Against Dark Arts (DADA) teacher for the year, Delores Umbridge, as well as Hermione. Before the Order of the Phoenix drops by to save Harry from the Death Eaters, he is ably aided by representatives of Dumbledore's Army (DA). The DA is clearly a result of Harry's efforts and there would have been no reason for DA to exist if Umbridge was a more competent teacher and if Hermione had not pushed Harry.

(Incidentally, is there any significance that all of the DADA teachers who are still alive appear in OotP? Does Gilderoy Lockhart have some role to play in future books? And no comments please from anyone pointing out that Moody from GoF is not the same Moody in OotP.)

In both the last two books, Harry's choices near the end have resulted in disaster. Voldemort would have not come back nor would Sirius have been killed if not for Harry's choices. In effect, he is making bad choices.

The fifth installment details a rite of passage for the growing Harry Potter. Perhaps it should be called "Harry has Hormones", with all the pubescent turmoil and rage that floods Harry in almost every page. Never have I seen a children's book so full of SHOUTING from the main character that I fear Bloomsbury's pretting presses would have been well advised to have invested in a special Harry Potter font (Loud) just for this book.

Why is Harry angry? Plot-wise, it must be so that J.K. can bring Harry back down to Earth so that he is still the underdog. He needs to have things to learn or create in order to grow, and this lack of knowledge must be exhibited at the beginning of the book.

Of course, it's no good having this framework if you don't have anything to hang upon it. You still need to tell the story. And boy, is J.K. good at this. It is compelling to read her work, to the extent that you just can't stop. I know, I was up at two in the morning devouring her words. It's fun to read. You know you're reading good stuff when you find yourself feeling for the characters, when in your mind they become fleshed out and real.

Somebody the other day said that Roald Dahl was a better writer than J.K. Rowling. Now, I'm not about to begin World War III by agreeing or disagreeing with this, but both writers have the knack to create central characters that are believable. When you get to a stage that when you ask, "so what would so-and-so do in this situation?" and you know the answer, well, that part of the job's done.

The other thing is plotting and pacing. Harry Potter is mythology disguised as soap opera. There is not so much a plot, as there are several plots that weave in and out of one another.

It is telling that my least favourite chapter is the one where Hagrid recounts his encounter with the giants. I think the back story is needed because otherwise you don't really understand where his brother is coming from, but because it stands by itself, it feels disjointed from the rest of the book. You could have almost released it as a booklet for Comic Relief, "Hagrid's Diary" or something. It isn't as compelling a read where you learn things gradually over time.

Remember Anne of Green Gables? That was a soap opera as well, the point being when on Earth would Anne eventually figure out that Blythe would be the right one? I guess the Ron and Hermione relationship rollercoaster has shades of that (although, as in real life, only the girl is perspecascious enough to realise that they're even on such a ride). Mark my words, the day when Ron realises how great Hermione is is going to be one of the watershed points of the series. You heard it here first.

Since we're talking about love affairs, a word or two has to be said about Cho. I like Cho. I've always been a sucker for smart, pretty girls. And I'm sorry to see that Harry is having such a hard time of it. But I know exactly what he's going through. The uncertainty of romance is, to me, less romance and more pain, and credit needs to be given where it's due.

You know, reading Harry Potter has been to me nostalgic trips into my past, when I was young and in boarding school. Threre are things in there that just strike as being through. Staying up and waking up at ungodly hours to finish homework. Opting to study outside in the sun during Summer. Feeling the urge to punch somebody on the sports field.

All of this will culminate in book 7. Will that be the end? It probably looks that way if J.K. doesn't license the rights for other writers to create spin-offs. And yet...

posted on Tuesday, June 24, 2003 - permalink
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