A university is just a group of buildings gathered around a library. ~Shelby Foote

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Harry Potter and the Really Good Book

Finished Potter #7. Fabulous. Just phenomenally good. No spoiler alerts-- this post will not contain any revelations about the book.

I went into the Deathly Hallows with high hopes, but also serious trepidation. Perhaps my view had been colored by the lackluster Order of the Phoenix movie, or perhaps because I had been disappointed with other epic sagas, but for whatever reason I just didn't think Rowling would be able to satisfactorily wrap everything up and without making the final book seem rushed and superficial.

Needn't have worried.

The story moves nearly effortlessly along, seamlessly sewing up loose ends as it goes and the ending was very satisfying. Most amazingly, Rowling actually works new stuff into the plot. I was nearly constantly delighted by the book, by the unexpected twists and turns in the plot, by the continued character development and by the way Rowling worked past bits into the current book.

My only real disappointment was that it had to end. Which is the conundrum of any good book, much less a really great book like this one-- you want to see how it all turns out, you want to experience it all, and yet you don't want it to end because there will never be another first time. The joy of reading a truly great novel is one of my most favorite ways to spend time, yet when it is finished, I sometimes wish I could forget it all so I could read it again without knowing what I now know.

I still don't fully understand why the Potter books are the phenomenon that they are, but I do have some thoughts on the matter. One of the reasons I think the series has done so well is that it has gotten better as it has gone along-- with the exception of #2, every book has been better than the previous book. No easy task, since many a promising start has bogged down in boring exposition and lackluster plot lines-- see Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series or Terry Goodkind's Sword of Truth series for excellent examples of this.

Secondly, they are continually inventive-- every book adds something to the previous ones, and also often provides further clarification or detailing of things that happened in the earlier stories. Even in book 7, Rowling is still adding new things--the Deathly Hallows-- and fleshing out things that are only mentioned in passing in previous books.

Thirdly, each one has a distinct and satisfying end point. The 'each book is a year in Hogwarts' structure of the series is brilliant. Even though life does not usually provide us with such easily digested beginning and end points, people like their stories to have them. This is another flaw that many-- indeed most-- epic stories suffer from. They are not self-contained.

Fourthly, Rowling uses the somewhat unusually literary device of having nearly everything in the books happen from Harry's viewpoint. There are exceptions, but not many of them. As a writer, I'm sure this was a real crimp in Rowling's ability to give the reader the knowledge needed at any given point-- surely it would have been easier to write much of the story if it could have been told from Ron's viewpoint, or Hermione's, or Dumbledore's or... well, you get the idea. As a reader, however, it really, really, really gets us to identify with Harry and his struggles, joys, triumphs and losses. It is greatly to J.K. Rowling's credit that she is skillful enough to make her narrative understandable without needing to go outside of Harry's head very often. It also means that, should you wish to, Rowling can now go back and tell, for instance, Luna Lovegood's story without having some of it being a mere rehash of the Potter storyline. Nice.

Fifthly, Rowling was able to make the grand saga accessible and enjoyable for both children, young adults and adults. No small feat. While the later books are definitely heavier and darker, the foundation for young adults and children is laid in the earlier books, which are shorter, more whimsical and more charming. The progression to the heavier material is progressive and seamless. Which ties into...

Sixthly, the books really do reflect Harry's journey from early adolescence to adulthood. The early books are more childlike, but as Harry's troubles and trials grow, so do he, Ron, Hermoine, Ginny, Fred, George and all the rest of the Hogwarts' students. Perhaps the only aspect of going through your teenage years that isn't reflected well in the Harry Potter stories is adolescent hormones and concurrent sexual development. This topic Rowlings touches on very lightly, but I don't think this distracts from the works much, if at all, because Harry is so beset with other issues that it really isn't hard to believe that sex and the various matters related to it would be way down the priority list for him.

Seventhly, Rowling is a truly gifted story teller. I've heard others claim that the Potter stories aren't that great, that there are better things out there, but I don't agree. I'm a pretty widely read person, and I think both the story, and the telling of it, are top notch-- as good as anything I've read in many years. Perhaps as good as anything I've read, period.

Finally, I think Harry Potter came along at just the right time. For whatever reason, the first book resonated with its readers, and each subsequent book has done likewise-- perhaps in some fashion, Rowling has been able to capture the essence of her times and distill them into the story of the Boy Who Lived. Or maybe it was blind luck.

Regardless, the whole is a fine saga indeed, and the concluding chapter of the saga is a masterpiece.
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