Writing on Harry Potter is a daunting task. So much has been written already both in support and against. For every person who loved the novels and the world they created, there are just as many (just like the person opposing me in this argument) who find the series over-rated. But despite all this, let’s wade once again into the mire that is writing about Harry Potter.
First things first. Of course Harry Potter is over-rated. This has nothing at all to do with the series itself and everything to do with the hype surrounding it. It is a publishing house’s job to create publicity around a product and just like everything else in the history of marketing there was some exaggeration (no, Coca Cola will not make you cooler). So claiming that Harry Potter doesn’t live up to the hype is a non-argument – it can’t, the second coming of Christ couldn’t.
So the question is really whether or not Harry Potter the series is any good at all – or more specifically, does the good outweigh the bad. And I think the answer to this is very strongly in the affirmative.
Let’s start with Harry Potter as a character. Harry is not the most gifted wizard but he is the guy who comes through in a pinch. When it’s balls to the wall, Harry time and time again finds a way to survive. He’s often lucky — and he always has excellent support — but at the end of the day Harry has that unshakeable self-belief and determination which is common to all great heroes. He isn’t the Spiderman ‘sit around and feel sorry for myself’ type; he’s the Batman “use any trick that works” type. And with that comes a fair amount of hubris. When Harry gets thrown into the Tri-Wizard Tournament and doesn’t try very hard, it’s because he’s Harry Fucking Potter, doesn’t everyone remember that he killed a basilisk with a sword? And this is one response I find entirely credible. At the age of ten Harry is thrown into a world where he’s Jesus Christ, where he is, really, more important than those around him. Now when sportspeople are put in that position they become self-centered arrogant twits (hello, Tiger) and across the fourth and fifth books Harry does the same. It’s hard not to be a narcissist when everyone tells you every single day that you’re better than everyone else. But it never gets out of control. His crush on Cho and his awkwardness with her is the perfect example.
Then there are the support characters. There are so many amazing characters in this series that it’s near impossible to select just a few for special mention. The stand out though is Hermione Granger. More than anyone else in the entire series, Hermione really demonstrates the possibilities of magic and how incongruous that is with the Muggle world. Hermione begins the series with large buck teeth despite her parents being Muggle dentists but after Draco Malfoy curses her and makes the teeth grow longer and longer, Hermione has Madame Pomfrey shrink the teeth down to a normal size. Her parents would be horrified. Hermione’s shining moment for me, though, comes in the final book. Everyone important is at the Weasley’s house for Bill and Fleur’s wedding when Death Eaters attack and everyone scatters. Hermione disapparates with Ron and Harry, the two boys have nothing with them but the clothes on their backs and they wonder how they will get back to the Burrow to collect everything they need for the quest ahead.
‘Undetectable Extension Charm,’ said Hermione. ‘Tricky but I think I’ve done it OK; anyway, I managed to fit everything we need in here.’ She gave the fragile-looking bag a little shake and it echoed like a cargo hold as a number of heavy objects rolled around inside it. ‘Oh damn, that’ll be the books,’ she said, peering into it, ‘and I had them all stacked by subject…’
It’s brilliant and so is Hermione. Sure, Harry’s name is the one of the front of the book but Hermione’s awesomeness is hardly an argument against the greatness of the series. The same goes for all the other marvelous support characters. From Hagrid to Professor Trelawney, Grawp to (my personal favourite) Gilderoy Lockhart. They are all masterful creations, each believable within the logic of the series, always hitting just the right level of strange and extraordinary.
But far and away the shining achievement of the Harry Potter series is the creation of the perfect fantasy world. For every child who reads that first book, when Hagrid breaks into a far flung shack on a rocky island and tells Harry that he’s a wizard there’s the same excitement that magic could one day appear in their world and spirit them off to the most wondrous of schools. Harry’s world is so close to ours that the possibility of the one spilling into the other is always tantalizing.
The most impressive thing about Hogwarts and the entire magical world in Harry Potter is the way that it blends the real world into the imaginary. It isn’t just that Hogwarts is the most exciting place to go to school on the planet or that flying on a broom and repeatedly saving the wizarding world (sometime around the end of each school year) is fantastic, but rather that it all seems so possible and well, so British. It seems, in the context of the novels, perfectly obvious that British wizards would drink cups of tea and eat bread and butter pudding. They could have the house elves prepare anything in the world, real or imaginary, but they stick to what is widely recognised as one of the worst cuisines in the world. God love ‘em.
Sure, the novels go from being simple children’s fiction to more dramatic young teen fare and that along the way things get longer and darker, but the consistency throughout the series is not lost. The blend of crazy and mundane stays well balanced and I particularly love the wizarding version of a police state that we get towards the end of the series. Umbridge, for example, is at once surprising in her cruel punishments and penchant for pink and at the same time entirely predictable as the archetype of the government agent who takes her job too far and too seriously. At every stage she is an imaginative creation and a carbon copy of South American fascists.
No writer in any genre has managed to create such a complete, coherent and compelling world. The rules of magic are set out very early on and consistently applied (unlike the disaster that is the His Dark Materials series) and we are never provided with random new rules that we are just expected to accept (à la Artemis Fowl). The wizarding world is at all times simultaneously fantastic and completely believable, and that is a feat not to be sneezed at.