Tuesday, June 14, 2005

My Harry Potter post

I have always liked the Harry Potter books. Jack Zipes thinks they're sexist and derivative (among other things) and other critics have found other problems with them. Bah, I say!

Well, not really. Yes, I agree with Zipes and other feminist critics that Rowling replicates traditional gender roles. Hermione is only a side-kick, other than McGonagall the women professors are ludicrous or stereotyped, other than Hermione the girls are pretty lame as well. (I have high hopes for Ginny Weasley in the next book, though...) Mrs. Weasley stays home and worries about the kids while Mr. Weasley goes to work--same as the Dursleys, in fact. (Hmm, anyone else notice the near-rhyme of those names?)

And, yes, they have become a marketing bonanza, so that kids who've never even picked up a book know who the characters are and what products associated with them you can buy. Right now, in fact.

But there I was at one in the morning still reading--that must count for something! Rowling does a few things brilliantly, I think. One is, she has pulled together elements of a variety of popular genres: the school story, the mystery, the education of a wizard (think Wizard of Earthsea for that one), the cosmic fight between good and evil (Lord of the Rings, Chronicles of Narnia), the orphan story (Harry is Cinderella, down to the abuse by step-family), and rolled them all into one. Yes, that's derivative, as Zipes says, but it's also innovative, in that I don't think we've seen quite this combination of genres before. And they are genres that do have something to tell us, that continue to nourish--so why not keep at them?

The books are also full of incident. This annoys people who don't read them--it's relatively easy to distill the plot of any one novel down to its bare elements (Harry confronts Voldemort or his minion(s) and wins, with help from Dumbledore and/or his friends), but that doesn't really convey the texture of the books. Mark, watching the first movie, noted that the "plot" didn't really get going until the last half hour or so, and he was right, but all those incidents along the way (the troll in the bathroom, Hagrid's dragon, etc.) are part of the pleasure of the novel. The novels are also very funny in places (much funnier than the two movies from the series that I've seen); the Weasley twins account for a lot of the comic relief, but so does Dumbledore, who seems to be based on Gandalf--a seemingly doddering fool who blows smoke rings (Gandalf) or has a sweet tooth (Dumbledore) but turns out to be a nearly-omniscient figure of immense power and divine wisdom.

And while we know the basic outlines of each novel, each one also manages a surprise. "Good" people turn out to be "bad" (Scabbers, Ginny, Mad-Eye Moody) and "bad" people turn out to be good (Snape, over and over again, but also Sirius Black). And then good guys make mistakes, like Cornelius Fudge or Harry or even Dumbledore. The concepts of good and evil are becoming more complex in these novels--unlike in, say, The Chronicles of Narnia, where other than one relatively predictable "traitor" who makes good in each book, good and evil are clear and easy to discern. In this Rowling is doing something closer to what Pullman does in His Dark Materials: calling into question the categories, but suggesting (as is typical in children's fantasy) that nonetheless children have almost an instinctive ability to sort them out.

So I'm interested to read the next one, though I doubt I'll stand in line for it. Then again, maybe I will: we'll be in England then, and it might be fun to see how Harry Potter mania works on the other side of the pond.

1 comment:

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