The first part of this, the review part, is difficult, for two reasons. One is that I keep finding myself falling into cliches, because, for once, the cliches fit. The other is that I am saying nice things. I'm not good at nice. I'm good at flaming, insulting, ranting, and raving. Praise does not come easily to me. Fortunately, I can get back to being my usual nasty self in the latter half of the document.
When I was halfway through, I stopped by my local bookstore to buy the second. I shall probably buy the third tomorrow, and read both back-to-back over the upcoming weekend.
Warning! This review contains some 'spoilers'. If you haven't read the books, please, do not read on unless you're the type which likes knowing Darth Vader was Luke's father. It's also based solely on the first book, but I doubt muchly that my opinions will change on reading the second and third.
The best books are places. That is, a truly good book is not black spots on white paper, but a place that you visit, a place that you feel at home. When people talk about being 'drawn into' a book, it is often in a very real sense. I know that when I have been deeply involved in a story, I am physically shocked when I come back to the 'real world', often taking minutes to adjust. The Harry Potter books (at least the first one) is a place.
The most cliched term used when describing childrens literature is 'timeless'. About ten million 'timeless classics' are published and forgotten each year. But the adjective fits Harry Potter. Reading it, I found it hard to imagine the book was written in the late 1990s. Despite occasional mentions of computers and video games, it feels like a book written decades ago. It has the feeling of a book that should have been a childrens classic for generations, despite it being only a few years old.
Another overused cliche (isn't that redundant?) is 'sense of wonder' - but again, nothing else fits. There is wonder dripping from every page, from Diagon Alley to Platform 9 3/4 to the Sorting Hat to the Mirror of Esired. Rowling has created a world that is magical in both senses of the word...in the literal sense of spells and wizards and flying broomsticks, and in the more abstract sense of joy and wonder.
She has a Dickensian or Vancian gift for names. A few misfires (Herbology Professor Sprout, for example) aside, her characters names are evocative, moody, and fit their owners precisely. The hideously mundane Durseleys, the evil Voldemort, or the larger-than-life Hagrid, for example, all feel 'right'. The naming of names is one of the most important parts of literature, especially childrens literature. Who could forget Augustus Gloop or the Vermicious Knids from Roald Dahl? Would they be as memorable named Fred Jones?
Characterization is likewise sharp and memorable. You know these people within minutes of 'meeting' them, and yet, they continue to shade and develop throughout the book. A few are never as developed as I'd like, but the author plans a seven book set, so I hope to learn more about some of the 'lesser' characters later.
Flaws? Some. The events of the story are supposed to cover a year, but I never got the feeling of time passing...while there is no need to go into the mundane detail of each day, many months seem to vanish into a paragraph. This would be excusable in a book chronicling the dull life of the muggles (the non-magical humans of Potters world) but life at a wizards academy should not blur into sameness!
There is a surprise twist at the end, in which the villain we suspected isn't the villain at all, but it is weakened by a Scooby-Doo-esque "villain explains entire plot to helpless hero" bit. And, lastly, there was an attempt to tack on an 'extra' happy ending on top of the main one, which felt very forced to me. A running sub-plot in the book involved the competition between the various houses of Hogwarts Academy, with each house gaining or losing points based on the triumphs or failures of its members. At the very end of the book, Harry's 'house' is dead last, and the villainous House Slytherin is poised to triumph. One reason for this is that Harry and his friends have been doing more Battling The Forces of Darkness than trying to earn points. However, for a variety of somewhat specious reasons, a few hundred points are dumped onto Harry's house so that it wins. A much better ending, at least for the first book, would have been to let the situation stand, teaching the lesson that sometimes you have to make hard choices in life -- that you can't win every battle, so you have to decide which battles are truly worth fighting. But in a rare moment of falling back on childrens lit traditions, Rowling hands Harry two victories, when one really would have been enough. Ah well, can't have everything.
Lizard says:Buy this book! And the sequels! And if you have kids, read it to them. If you don't have kids, borrow some and read it to them.
So much for nice part. Now, Lizard gets back to being his usual rotten self.
Naturally enough, whenever anything seizes the imagination of youth, there will be those who will condemn it -- and almost invariably, the condemners are members of the Religious Reich. And, of course, they resort to their usual tactic -- lying -- to make their 'arguments'. Last time I checked, lying was a sin, but if you're one of the saved, you're allowed a few indulgences. As it were.
As with any book that demonstrates the slightest hint of creativity, imagination, or wonder, the Harry Potter books have drawn the jackals out to circle, yip, and bite. Individually too small and weak to do much harm, the pack as a whole is willing to take on large prey. ("We are the little folk, we. Too little to love or to hate, But leave us alone and you'll see, How fast we can drag down the great!" (Kipling)). One of the most odious of the jackals is Karen Jo Gonaud, Lord High Bookburner for
Fascist Family Friendly Libraries, and here are her 'thoughts' on Harry Potter. Another leading Christian intellectual is a man(?) with the unfortunate name of Berit Kjos, and here are his ruminations on the evils of reading.
Before going any further, let me expound on a wee little theory of mine. As a rule, I am not content to accept that someone believes thus-and-such...I want to know why they believe it, even if the believer himself neither knows nor cares. So I have been pondering why the religious, as a rule, hate imagination and creativity with such passion. Is it pure envy? Devoid of imagination themselves, do they seek to destroy it in others? Perhaps. But I think it more likely that, fundementally, imagination is seen as inherently sinful. To imagine, after all, is to find fault with the world God made. If you can think of something -- unicorns, magic, rock candy mountains -- that doesn't exist in the world, you are presuming to know better than God what should or should not exist. To be a dreamer is to tamper in Gods domain -- and the religious, bless their pointy little heads, are not content to let God strike down those filled with hubris in His own good time. No, they feel obliged to save God the trouble and burn the witches themselves. (And do not doubt, for a minute, for a second, for a picosecond, that, if they could, Gonaud and Kjos and all of the rest of their foul ilk would be back to burning people at the stake. In a heartbeat, if they thought they could get away with it, they would be piling the wood and lighting the match, and basking in the glow of a burning human body and feeling the self-righteous satisfaction of a job well done. There is no doubt in my mind whatsoever that they would be delighted if the burning times came back. No doubt. None. As I have said many times, there is good and there is evil, and I know which is which (or witch, as the case may be). But I digress.)
You cannot be both a Christian and a Creator, just as you cannot be both a Christian and a Capitalist. There are many who claim to be both, or even all three, but they're lying. The fact that Lewis and Tolkein are in tremendous disfavor among the fundementalists is evidence of this. There is no way that any form of imagination can exist in a mind that considers "God said it, I believe it, that settles it" to be a valid worldview. Creativity and Faith are inherently opposed;the Creative mind is forever asking "What if?", while the Faithful mind sticks to a belief no matter what.
Whenever you are confronted with an issue of controversy, a good way to determine who has the right of it is this:Who has to lie to make their point? Who distorts, twists, and deceives in order to win the argument? For supposed followers of God, Gonaud and Kjos seem more inclined to live according to the dictates of the Lord of Lies.
For example, both pages above use a quote from the end of the first book ("After all, to the well-organized mind, death is but the next great adventure.") to imply there's something eeeeeevil about the works. What they do not provide is the full context -- the character speaking is talking of someone who has lived an artificially extended life of 600+ years, and is going to allow himself to finally die in order to help prevent evil forces from gaining power. It is an act of nobility, not suicide -- but you'd never realize that from the out-of-context quote.
Kjols also quotes two villainous characters (Snape and Quirrel) without identifying them as such. The words of the villains are, by definition, antithetical to the views of the author. That is, having a 'bad guy' say something in a story is a way of saying 'this worldview is wrong -- look at the scumwads who believe it'. If one is free to quote villains as if they spoke for, as opposed to against, the author, why, then, I could prove Ayn Rand was a communist simply by quoting Ellsworth Toohey and Jim Taggert! That Kjols feels such deception is necessary is a good indication of the faith he has in the correctness of his argument.
Of course, this is trivial next to the Big Lie of the anti-Potter crowd:That the books are somehow 'religious instruction'. Yes, Wicca is a real religion (and much less odious than Christianity, at least there's fewer of them) -- but there's nothing in Harry Potter what would teach anyone anything about Wicca, or Paganism, or any other 'New Age' of 'Neo Pagan' religion. (What's the difference between New Age and neo-pagan? $500.00 a weekend! Hah!) 'Real' magic (or magick, or majiiik, or however it's spelled these days) has very little to do with pointy hats, lightning bolts, mixing potions, or any of the fun stuff in the Potter books. You're as likely to learn about genuine wicca from the HP books as you are to learn wilderness survival techniques from a 'Gilligans Island' marathon. Anyone drawn to 'real magic' by Harry Potter will be bored silly in a few minutes, as there's nothing remotely fun about it. (OK, I suppose dancing around nekkid might seem like fun, until you realize 99% of neo-pagans are Trekkies. Go to a Star Trek con. Imagine them all naked. Fear for your sanity.) (I include myself in this category, by the way. Those who claim the human body is not obscene have never seen me nude.)
It is simple, and tempting, to dismiss the jackals as the detritus of a dying age, as pathetic remnants of a primitive culture. This is dangerous. Despite unprecedented prosperity and a stunning drop in crime, the media has conspired to make the world appear to be a dangerous place, and those who would rather lash out than think will always be looking for a convenient excuse for any problems, real or imagined. Bradbury wrote beautifully, passionately, on the destruction of the literature of imagination, inspired by the anti-comic-book hysteria of the 1950s. He saw the world that Gonaud and Kjols would ultimately lead us to, and he wrote about it in Farenheit 451. (The title is taken from the temperature at which paper burns, a temperature I'm sure Gonaud knows all too well!) While the nightmare he foresaw was somewhat diverted (consider that the bulk of bestsellers and top-grossing movies have fantasy/SF themes), the battle has not yet been won (and it may never be!). There are still those who wish for the day when the Firemen will come to burn the books, and if they are not fought, they will get that wish.
Addendume The Firste:It also occurs to me that the reason many Christian parents, especially those of the Gonaud/Kjos breed, object to Harry Potter is that they find that reading about the Durseleys to be far too much like looking into a mirror. Small-minded, evil-spirited, and wondrously petty, Harry's Aunt and Uncle seek to deny him his heritage and crush any trace of magic out of him, obstensibly 'for his own good', but, in actuality, out of their fear and hatred of anything even the slightest bit different than themselves. I know children of fundamentalists. (It's like being a child of an alcoholic, but without the benefit that the alcholics are occasionally sober). Every one of them has horror stories about what their parents did to them in the name of 'saving their souls'. Perhaps anti-Potterism is motivated not so much by a fear of children being taught 'magic', but by a fear of children recognizing their own home in the early chapters of the book? And worse still, finding comfort and support in the knowledge they aren't alone? (See http://www.mrlizard.com/fictional.html for why one mythical being is as good as any other)
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