July 22, 2007

Obligatory Harry Potter 7 review

Not unlike many others, I ensconced myself in my flat all day Saturday to avoid reading, hearing or overhearing spoilers from the end of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. JK Rowling isn't the best writer, technically, but as a storyteller she's without modern peer. Her ability to weave bits and pieces from myths throughout the ages is stupendous -- and beyond the pages, her effect upon the publishing world has been nothing short of, well, magical.

-- Attempts, and failures, to prevent spoilers below --

Cover: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Book 7 uses Lord of the Rings perhaps more than any other Potter book has lifted from any one influence; but who else other than Tolkien can claim to have manufactured such a complex, believable universe so similar, yet so unique from our own? Rowling is one of the few modern writers who could do this and get away with it -- but here's hoping she eschews the temptation to release the widely reported, encyclopaedic Potteralion, with all the background and history of each place and character.

Of course it's possible to nitpick. The last few books have been criticised for awkward bits of prose, but they mirror aptly the confusion of the 17-year-old protagonists. Her reliance upon the gimmicky Pensieve (lessened, thankfully, in book 7) is, in the scope of her 10,000 pages of Potterlore, a minor indulgence. And hey, can anyone find me a book by Charles Dickens that isn't fraught with show-offish bits of loquacious cleverness? By Tolkien that doesn't smack of naïveté? George Orwell, pomposity? CS Lewis, preaching? Oscar Wilde, ego? Just as altruism hints at selfishness, publishing reeks of idiosyncrasy and tics of personality. That doesn't make Rowling a slouch -- merely human.

The first three books were above average, if not inspired children's lit. They stayed within a fairly well-defined formula: an otherwise unremarkable boy is shipped from a horrible homelife into a stunning world of magic and mystery, and is revealed to be not just unusual, but "The Chosen One." He learns of friendship, experiences pre-destined enmity, and overcomes trials that make his previous suffering seem banal in comparison. Heck, that initial triptych is practically a Roald Dahl story with a magical train for an elevator, and a megalomaniacal Dark Lord in place of corporate espionage. Rowling even has chocolate frogs!

Starting with book four, however, Rowling turned up the black light. The Goblet of Fire introduced the finality of death -- in any other story, as the text implies, Cedric Diggory would have been the hero, would have held aloft the trophy, would have lived.

Rowling made it clear in book four that she was going to go in the footsteps of the ancient Greeks, who always had death or disfigurement to balance out the good and the glorious. And after the Brothers Grimm, who didn't shy away from calling a spade a spade, then using it to bury the protagonist. Books five and six have famously continued this plunge into darkness -- a nod to common contemporary thought: to catch the killer, you must think like the killer. Indeed, in books five and seven, Harry is literally inside Voldemort's mind, and must deal with the psychological baggage that comes with that repulsive attachment. Nothing new here, right? It's become an industry unto itself, as the sixty-seven CSI franchises will attest. Need more? Ask Fox Mulder, Clarice Starling, Dominic Da Vinci, or Robert Langdon.

Where Tolkien's hero is elevated to sainthood by his crusade to destroy the superhuman Sauron, Harry Potter starts his adventure swathed in celebrity. The object of his quest is normalcy. The result of his victory, a good woman and a truckload of kids. By the end, Harry has proven to be more Samwise Gamgee than Frodo Baggins, more everyman than tragic hero.

In her wildly anticipated finale, Rowling leaves few threads dangling (unlike, say, Lemony Snicket's largely unsatisfying, triskaidecodic The End), yet avoids longish explanations and overly cumbersome epilogues (apolgies to the venerated Mr Tolkien). This is a welcome change, frankly, from her book 5, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, where at the very climax of the book Harry falls asleep and must hear the conclusion second-hand from a longwinded Dumbledore. Harry's anger at feeling left out was an adequate portrayal of many readers' feelings at having the resolution of that otherwise brilliant 1200-page tome come down to a couple of anecdotes.

Book Seven will be similarly critiqued and second-guessed by many in the weeks and months to come. It's natural for people, especially those of lesser talent, to seek out fault in great works. In time, the entire series will be highly regarded, even studied, not just as a good collection of popular fiction, but as being a genuinely uplifting piece of well-crafted literature.

1 comment:

Erin said...

I've just finished it. I love your comments on the book, and on the series as a whole.