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The "Harry Potter" Series

Style: Good

Attitude: Positive

In Brief: Appealing adventure stories set in a world where evil is gaining the upper hand. Some magical elements. Simple presentation of good and evil. Mostly virtuous leading characters, but some aspects are less praiseworthy. Mostly delicate relationships between the sexes. Established atmosphere of friendship and respect among the nonetheless realistic characters.

Author: J.K. Rowling

Series: Harry Potter

Publisher: Bloomsbury

Age Range: General

Period: Contemporary

Setting: mostly Hogwarts School of Witchcraft & Wizardry

Genres:  AdventureFriendshipGrowing-UpMagicSchool


Characters:

  • THE YOUNGSTERS
  • [Harry Potter] is an orphaned schoolboy who lives with his uncaring relatives until he discovers that he a wizard and the child of wizards and that he is to go to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft & Wizardry.
  • Ron Weasley is the youngest of 6 brothers in a wizarding family and overshadowed by his older brothers in most things, who makes friends with Harry from their first day at school and who sticks by him through the difficulties they encounter.
  • Hermione Granger is the intelligent daughter of two non-magical dentists, Harry & Ron's good friend despite an occasionally overbearing manner and tendency to know it all.
  • Ginny Weasley, a mere cipher at first, comes in to her own in the fifth book, and by the end of the sixth is a definite member of the Sextet which includes the three principals, herself, Neville and Luna.
  • Fred & George Weasley are Ron's older twin brothers, prone to playing magical pranks on people and to make their mother despair because they don't take life seriously enough.
  • Draco Malfoy, son of a rich and pureblood wizarding family, is Harry's enemy from day one, helped by his heavies, Crabbe & Goyle.
  • Neville Longbottom, Seamus Finnigan & Dean Thomas are Harry & Ron's classmates.
  • Luna Lovegood is an interesting character, introduced only in the fifth book although she's been at the school all along. Independently-minded, she evokes in Harry feelings of pity at a moment when all he can feel is guilt and anger.
  • THE GROWN-UPS
  • [Albus Dumbledore], after Harry, the most important character in the series. Reckoned the most powerful wizard alive, he is headmaster of Hogwarts and his judgement is essentially the touchstone of Good & Evil in the books.
  • Lord Voldemort was an orphan when at Hogwarts and took to the Dark Arts, becoming the most powerful dark wizard, leader of a reign of terror which ended only when his attempt to kill the baby Harry Potter rebounded on him. Most wizards are too frightened even to pronounce his name, referring to him as You-Know-Who.
  • Rubeus Hagrid is the half-giant gamekeeper at Hogwarts, simple, trusting and trustworthy, if a little clumsy at times. It was he who took Harry as a baby from the wreck of his parents' house and who took him from the Dursleys to Hogwarts.
  • Sirius Black was the best friend of Harry's parents, the Best Man at their wedding, and Harry's Godfather. He has spent the last ten years in prison for betraying them to Voldemort and killing a streetful of bystanders before getting caught.
  • Arthur & Molly Weasley are Ron's parents, an ordinary wizard couple, hard-working but poor, and with a family of six boys and a girl to look after.
  • Professor Snape is the Potions Master at Hogwarts. A former associate of Lord Voldemort, his present loyalty is assured by Dumbledore, although he harbours a bitter hatred for Harry.
  • Vernon, Petunia & Dudley Dursley are Harry's only relatives. They are almost obsessively suburban, terrified lest any of their neighbours discover that they are giving houseroom to something so strange as a wizard.

Synopsis:

Harry Potter is orphaned at the age of one, his parents killed by the powerful dark wizard Lord Voldemort whose spell unaccountably rebounds off the baby Harry, leaving his attacker helpless and half-dead. Harry grows up with his extremely suburban uncle and aunt, and knowing nothing of this until his 11th birthday when Hagrid a half-giant wizard arrives to take him to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.

There he makes friends and enemies, likes some teachers and hates others, discovers he is an average student, but a natural at Quidditch (a ball game played on broomsticks). And with his friends, Ron & Hermione, he watches Lord Voldemort return to power and throw the world of wizardry into a panic which will set friend against friend and brother against brother.

Each book in the series covers one year of Harry's school life, seeing through his eyes as he discovers his strengths and weaknesses and opens his eyes to the world around him.

Notes:

General: Just in case you have been living on another planet I'll explain that this series of books (six at the time of writing with seven promised in total) has become a publishing phenomenon, here in Britain and worldwide, topping the various bestseller lists for long periods, and giving rise to near-hysteria when a new installment is due.

It seems as if the author, JK Rowling, has achieved a combination of plot and character, of action and people, of love and hate, so well-balanced that everyone is pleased. The basic storylines are simple, but they are delivered with such a sparkle and by means of such characters that every type of person is catered for, children and adults, boys and girls, those keen on action and those more into human interest. See the individual book reviews here for points of particular interest in each episode, but I'll highlight here some aspects which are generally applicable.

Literary: If you are looking for something with a “weighty literary matters” tag, look elsewhere. The genius of this author is to keep several threads of story woven together without confusing the reader, and without condescending in vocabulary or characterisation.

Names are carefully chosen to impart some nuance to the modern English ear. The Weasleys all have straightforward names: Fred, George, Ron, Percy, Bill and so on, while Draco Malfoy's name and those of his family smack of snobbery with a hint of the Norman Conquest. Some other names are directly suited to their characters, such as Remus Lupin: Remus, one of the twins suckled by a she-wolf; Lupin from Lupus, Latin for wolf. Others again are a little more oblique, such as Argus Filch: Argus, the many-eyed watchman slain by Hermes; Filch, suggesting a petty thief or pilferer. Still others are just partly suggestive, such as the wise Minerva McGonagall, the farseeing Sybill Trelawney or the foul-smelling Mundungus Fletcher. I've no idea how well these subtleties survive in translation. (Although I was amused to see the French translators go one better with the Choixpeau Magique for the Sorting Hat).

The main characters and the narrative use language normal for the late 20th century, with only occasional references to the particular decade in which the books have been written, although the level of slang does increase as the main characters get older and as Harry, at any rate, gets moodier. Depending on your point of view, this lack of contemporary slang will either make it more difficult for modern children to understand and identify with the main characters or will give them an accessible body of language outside that which they use in the playground anyway. As mentioned above, don't expect literary haute cuisine in any case.

Magic: Obviously a key element to the stories, and yet one which seems hardly to intrude at all. What the author does not do is to centre the story on the mechanics of the magical ability which all the principal characters have in common. Rather, the ability to do magic is both a source of some simple humour and an all-embracing plot device, giving the struggle between Good and Evil a certain sparkle. Take away the magic and there's still a story, only one not nearly so enjoyable. For a comparison of the use of magic in various well-known book series, see this essay on Decent Films.

Friendship: Undoubtedly at the heart of the attraction of these books to many, not least because it is not overstated. The friendship between the three main characters is rarely demonstrative, is often tested by their differences of opinion and approach, and remains a solid rock around which the currents of the different plots flow. For a slightly deeper analysis of this aspect, see this article on MercatorNet.

Family: It is the absence of Harry's own family — his parents killed by Lord Voldemort, his relatives uncaring — which highlights the appeal of the Weasleys, everything that the Dursleys aren't. Where the Dursleys are obsessively neat and tidy, the Weasleys are cheerfully chaotic; where the Dursleys are unloving and worried about what others think of them, the Weasleys are neither. As far as we know large families are not the norm in the Wizarding world although family — in the sense of ancestry — is important to many. One notable fact is that everyone who should be married, is married. Even those who are on the wrong side of Albus Dumbledore.

The families of the other students are rarely in evidence. However Hogwarts itself is more like a family home than a boarding school. There is little regimentation outside lessons: pupils go to bed and rise when it suits them, meals are informal, and with only a few exceptions the students are free to roam the grounds. This is interesting, not least because the portrayal of Boarding School life in youth lit. is, in recent times, fairly negative. Certainly, the School setting here is little more than a device to offer a safe environment within the Magical World within which Harry can operate; I doubt if the author had any great intention to popularise the Boarding School concept. Yet, by balancing the need for discipline in the form of serious homework and detentions as punishments and the chance for relaxation insofar as the youngsters have a fair degree of latitude to pursue their own interests, she's managed to paint a very attractive picture of which I'm sure many children wouldn't mind being a part.

Boys & Girls: Hogwarts is a mixed school and the students range from 11 to 18 years old. From the start we learn that their dormitories are separate, and that's how it stays. Comically, when Ron unthinkingly starts up the stairs to the girls' dormitory to give Hermione some news, the stairs become a helter-skelter, shooting him back down again. Hermione can enter the boys' dorms, although I suspect that this was an unthinking exception made by the author for which she had to find the later explanation that the school founders trusted girls more than boys. But there's no suggestion in the book that anything untoward takes place occurs as a result of this relaxation.

As the principal characters grow older, they start to have feelings for members of the opposite sex and this is neither precocious nor ignored. Hermione, and later Ginny, is rather ahead of the boys in this matter and the former reacts angrily in their fourth year when Ron fails to consider her as a possible partner for the School Ball except “as a last resort”. Overall the older boys and girls act and react as you would expect of people their age, but without this being the driving force behind their actions, nor even coming to the fore all that often. This changes somewhat in book six. Harry suddenly discovers a more serious attraction to Ginny, and tries to keep it in check for Ron's sake. Ron for his part is keen on Hermione but finds himself unable to say anything. In response to an angry taunt by his sister, he reacts stupidly, entering into a relationship with Lavender which involves little more than kissing wildly in public and in private. Hermione is devastated and she reacts angrily. However, after months of estrangement, their underlying friendship is undamaged and as events unfold they become reconciled with an unspoken truce. Friendship here is more important than Courtship.

Good & Evil: Behind the appeal of these books is a really quite simple struggle between Good, championed by Albus Dumbledore assisted by Harry and his friends, and Evil, represented by Lord Voldemort aided by his cohorts, the Death-Eaters. Almost everyone lines up on one side or the other, either allying themselves with one of the sides or opposing one of them without actively supporting the other.

In a less obvious way, the atmosphere in the school in general and among the principal characters especially is one of respect and good humour. The characters are not unnaturally good, but their general attitude is positive. There are some who say that books should reflect the reality of how people are — and here that would be taken to mean selfish and probably sex-obsessed teenagers — whereas this, the most successful series of books ever, presents people as they could be, while retaining a realism with which any reader can identify.

Pleasure & Hardship: Something else which sets these books aside from others for the same age group is the unspoken understanding that a certain level of possessions and of technology is not necessary for a happy existence. For obvious reasons, given the plot context, the characters do not own or use computers or televisions, do not fret over the fashion of their clothes, and are, by-and-large, content with their simple games and pastimes.

The technology behind the castle's heating and lighting is simple, the food is straightforward and plentiful, the surroundings are interesting if unspectacular. The school can be cold to the point of icicles. The homework they are given and do with moderate grace is demanding. While there are occasional grumbles about things, the characters are not driven by their need for comfort. Unspoken, but true.

Harry and Virtue: The question of Harry's own actions and their virtue or otherwise is raised from time to time. My general attitude here is that his vices are mostly peccadilloes of the school-story variety: sneaking out at night, fighting in the corridors, lying to cover his tracks, a moody anger and occasional self-obsession. These are balanced by a sense of responsibility and loyalty, a general attitude of industry, a sense of generosity towards his friends, and a feeling of gratitude towards those who help him. However, more people read these books than read any other book on the face of the planet, and so there seems to be a correspondingly great responsibility on the part of the author when it comes to her principal character. Frankly, as long as no-one's putting Harry Potter forward for canonisation, I doubt there's really a problem, but any parent who entered into a discussion on this most discussed of characters would do well to realise he's not entirely without faults.

Conclusion: In summary, if there had to be series of books which outsold every other, I'd far rather it were this one than many others I've seen. No-one would claim that the author is religiously motivated — the occasional references to Christian feasts and Godfathers are cultural rather than religious. However, virtue, vice and the difference between good and evil are more to the fore than they often are elsewhere. I don't claim the books are perfect, but I'm happy to recommend them to all and sundry.

“Knew he was goin' ter come back,” said Hagrid, and Harry, Ron and Hermione looked up at him, shocked. “Known it fer years, Harry. Knew he was out there, bidin' his time. It had ter happen. Well, now it has an' we'll jus' have ter get on with it.

We'll fight. Migh' be able ter stop him before he gets a good hold. That's Dumbledore's plan, anyway. Great man, Dumbledore. S'long as we've got him, I'm not too worried.”

Hagrid raised his bushy eyebrows at the disbelieving expressions on their faces.

“No good sittin' worryin' about it,” he said. “What's comin' will come an' we'll meet it when it does.”

Saturday 19th May 2007