Saturday, August 1, 2009

I'm Just Mild About Harry. An Introduction to The Harry Potter Retrospective

The Harry Potter series (book and film) is a phenomena that I can't get into and don't understand. However, since they are dominating the world of children's literature and are beloved by critics, I thought it would be good to take another look at the series as a whole.
There are two questions that are asked about Harry Potter: A.) Are they good, and, B.) Are they dangerous? Let me answer the first one first.

In terms actual literature, my answer is No. In fairness, I've only read one Harry Potter book (Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone), and I didn't like it. Mind you, I think it's a good IDEA for a story: a school where kids learn to be wizards is fantastic, and fantastical. Let's face it: wizards are cool.

However, I have serious problems with its execution. I HATE the portrayal of the Dursleys--they make the orphanage in Oliver Twist look like Candyland--and I think it was a mistake to reveal all (pun intended) at the very beginning. It would have worked better in my view if we (and Harry) learn gradually that he is a wizard. I think there should have been an air of mystery to it all, rather than explain EVERYTHING at the outset.

I also object strongly to Harry's size (no pun intended). The first two (Sorcerer's Stone and Chamber of Secrets) were a decent length for children's stories. While Prisoner of Azkaban is a bit long, it's still serviceable. All the others after that: Goblet of Fire, Order of the Phoenix, Half-Blood Prince, and especially Deathly Hallows, are far too long for children. I get the sense that either A.) J.K. Rowling let the story get away from her, or B.) she was convinced (or convinced herself) that she was writing an EPIC in the style of C.S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia or J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings.
Imagine if someone tried to collect all seven Potter books into one (The Chronicles of Harry Potter). It would be impossible. When you consider that all seven Narnia books are about the same length as Deathly Hallows, you can't help but wonder which one will be easier and/or better for children.

I admire her efforts, but I doubt Harry Potter will achieve the status of other children's stories like the Narnia stories or Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, The Wizard of Oz, or The Hobbit. Few books for children embraced by kids achieve the status of Great Literature. If one notices, all the other aforementioned books work on TWO levels: as stories or allegories. Harry Potter doesn't.

Finally, let's face it: children are, on the whole, not the best arbiters of what is good literature and what isn't. Time will tell if Harry Potter really stands the test of time or if it relegated to a less lofty status.


Now, Question Two. The question of the dangers of Potter is primarily a Christian question, predominantly in evangelical/Protestant quarters. There are those who believe the Potter books are the marijuana of Satanism: the gateway drug that will plunge children's souls into eternal damnation. A smaller group sees them as almost a mirror image of Christianity. Let me tackle the second.

For those who hold that Harry's parents sacrificing themselves to save their son is reflective of Christ's sacrificial death for us: You Are Idiots. Rowling, I doubt, ever had that in mind, so dismiss such thoughts.

As for those who believe "Pot is to Heroin as Potter is to Hell", you don't win converts by not only burning the books but by taking pride in such acts. It only makes you look Fascist and remarkably ignorant and superstitious. The fact that some of these Book Burners also condemn J.R.R. Tolkien (a man of most Catholic values) and even C.S. Lewis (the greatest Christian thinker of the 20th Century) makes you lose credibility. Censorship (the act of forbidding people to read/see things for their own protection) is barbarism. Parents have every right to decide what is appropriate for their children. Self-appointed guardians do not. Whatever your objections, state your case and you shall have a fair hearing, but do not justify your Fahrenheit 451 actions by invoking the Blood of Christ. Debate, reason, intellect: that defeats your enemies, not Gestapo-like tactics. You may think you're doing the Lord's work, but you're more Torquemada than St. Francis.

I can only offer my view, and it is this. I DO NOT believe reading Harry Potter books will lead children to become Satanist or break out the Ouija boards. I don't see it as harmless fantasy because it does harm children. It harms them by thinking this is good writing. It's a bit like what the Twilight series (excuse me, SAGA) is to teenage girls: harmful if accepted as good writing, but not harmful because in truth, the stories can't be believed or taken seriously.

I can only judge by my experiences. I grew up reading such things as Encyclopedia Brown and The Three Investigators, and my favorite T.V. show growing up was Hunter. Surprisingly enough, reading all those books didn't make me want to be a policeman or detective, and the show did not desensitize me to crime and murders. Even though I think children are not as bright as adults, I have trust that they CAN distinguish between reality and fantasy.

It is true: I wouldn't like my children to read Harry Potter, but not because I fear they would start performing occult ceremonies after Nap Time. Rather, I object to the killings galore in the books, and I find the size of the latter books far too much for children to handle.

Finally, I state here and now that I reject the idea that the Harry Potter books gets kids excited about reading. It gets them excited about reading more Harry Potter, but that's different. I've never heard of a case where after finishing Deathly Hallows, a ten year old rushes out to get his/her hands on War and Peace or And Then There Were None. Children respond to the fantasy elements in the books. I have a sense that when they grow up, they may see it as either a cherished childhood memory or an embarrassment as to how they could like something so awful.


Now, at last, as for the films. Since I've only read one I can only judge by what I see on the screen. I intend to do so, by going through every Harry Potter movie currently available. Which one is the best? Which one is the worst? Why is that? Why are some of Britain's greatest actors vying for roles as if they were being asked to perform Shakespeare? The movies have talents such as Richard Harris & Michael Gambon, Dame Maggie Smith, Robbie Coltraine and Alan Rickman--and those are the regulars. Kenneth Branagh, Emma Thompson, David Tennant, John Hurt, Ralph Fiennes--all great actors eager to be connected to it. I imagine it's because they are insanely popular, but there it is.

Harry Potter vs. Rick's Cafe Texan. Let the Quidditch match begin!

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