When I look back on this summer in years to come, I believe I will think of it as the Summer of Hunger & Harry Potter. I have been fasting so much since the end of April that hunger has colored the whole summer for me, and will continue to do so. But, the benefits for my health have been considerable, so I don’t necessarily mean this as a complaint.
One way I have resisted the strong desire to eat is by reading through the entire Harry Potter book series. By random happenstance, I finished reading the last book on the 20th anniversary of the day the first book came out.
I know some of you are shocked. Some of you are shocked that I have only just now read these books for the first time. Some of you are shocked that I was willing to read them at all.
First of all, why did I wait so long? After all, these books are blockbuster bestsellers in the very genre that I hope to break into myself. Professionally, I need to be familiar with them, but there are two reasons I waited. First, I had zero interest in reading any of the books until I was sure the whole series was finished. I do not like waiting years for a new book to come out, because by the time it does, I feel obligated to reread all the preceding books so they will be fresh in my mind. I don’t have enough years left in me to keep doing this over and over. Now I won’t start a series unless I know for sure it is complete.
Secondly, when these books came out, I was immersed in a conservative homeschool culture that made it very difficult to admit that one might be interested in any fiction that was not overtly Christian. Even C.S. Lewis was questioned in some quarters. The general opinion seemed to be that letting your kids read Harry Potter was tantamount to buying them a one-way ticket to hell.
Cowardly as it might sound, I needed to have friends and belong to a support group, so I toed the line. I read enough about the books to know that I would probably not mind my kids reading them, but I was not willing to face the social ostracism that would certainly follow. I’m sure I damaged my reputation by allowing my kids to read both Tolkien and Lewis, but I was still accepted in the group.
The obvious follow-up question then is, why read them now? What has changed? Several things have changed. First of all, the book series has been finished, so I could read through all seven books one after the other. Secondly, as I already mentioned, this series is the most successful young adult fantasy series of all time, and since I also write young adult fantasy, it really is imperative for me to be familiar with them—and to know why they remain so popular.
Thirdly, I am no longer accepted in any homeschool group, so I don’t really care if they judge me for reading these books! I have reached the point where I figure that my remaining life is much too short to spend it trying to gain the approval of people whose opinions I don’t necessarily agree with in the first place. The homeschool scene is no longer a place where I feel I belong, despite the fact that I have three years left in my teaching career.
So, having done the deed, having read the books, what do I think? Here are my thoughts, in no particular order:
*I love the world building, the scope and depth of it. It is very well thought out, very detailed, very imaginative, very beguiling.
*I love the seven-year story arc, one book for each year of Harry’s schooling, with each successive book getting darker and the stakes getting higher. J.K. Rowling clearly had all the major plot elements planned well in advance. (Unlike me, for instance.)
*I was surprised by the huge role that racism plays in the series. Not black/white, obviously, but wizard/muggle. None of my friends who are fans of the books had mentioned this to me, so it caught me off guard. The villains are all racists.
*I was likewise surprised by the author’s apparent antipathy toward government. The Ministry of Magic is portrayed as worse than incompetent and becomes a body of institutionalized evil and racism. It kind of makes me wonder what Rowling thinks about her own government!
*I was disappointed in her portrayal of teen romance. It is very G-rated, which I love, but it also seems almost devoid of emotion. To me, teen relationships are all about the intense emotions, and I don’t feel she did a good job of depicting that.
*I love her focus on loyalty in friendships. Since I myself value loyalty very highly, this is not surprising, but I love how the relationships continue and deepen from book to book, and how willing Harry’s friends are to come to his aid even at considerable risk to their own safety.
*I don’t think the “witchcraft” depicted in the book can be taken seriously by any educated person in a Westernized civilization. I certainly don’t think it would threaten anyone’s Christian beliefs. It’s a fantasy, and I think most people totally get that. However, I would not recommend this series to someone who grew up in a third-world society where real witchcraft is a pervasive and dangerous part of the culture.
*During the years I abstained from reading this series, I read plenty of articles about how horrifying and satanic it was. I also read several articles that basically said these books are the most Christian thing written since the Bible and therefore it is fine to be obsessed with them. While they certainly do have themes of loyalty, sacrifice, and redemption, I wouldn’t go so far as to claim they are in any way “Christian.” That also does not bother me.
*At first I was bothered by how the kids in the story use magic frivolously to “hex” and “jinx” each other, especially since sometimes the results caused distress or embarrassment. However, I had to admit that this is very normal teenage behavior. In real life, kids can’t jinx each other, but they sure do play practical jokes and say things that are just as damaging and humiliating as any jinx in Harry Potter.
*I love that even the good characters are not perfect. No one’s a saint. They all have their foibles and they all do things they probably regret later. That’s how it should be, especially if they learn from their misdeeds.
*Rowling commits many of the modern “sins” of writing. She uses an unnecessary number of adverbs, indulges in head-hopping, tells instead of shows, and lets the action lag at times. At writers’ conferences, they make it sound like all of these sins are unpardonable, and if you commit them, you will never get published and no one will ever read your books. However, the reality is that you can get away with the most egregious writing transgressions as long as you have an engaging story, and since Rowling delivers on the story, all is forgiven.
So, now I can finally “get” all the Harry Potter references I’ve been hearing for years. I know my Hogwarts “house”—Ravenclaw. I didn’t take any tests to determine my patronus, because I already know what mine would be: a cape buffalo.
Happy Birthday, Harry.