If there is one universal truth in the world of pop culture and media, it’s that when something becomes wildly popular with the masses it will automatically be shunned and ridiculed by “sophisticated” critics and consumers. It’s a mass mentality thing that seems to say if the great unwashed embrace something it can’t be good. Arguably the most popular prepared food on the planet, in terms of sheer consumption, is the McDonald’s hamburger. Is that good food? Uh…. no. That one deserves the disdain of the food snobs. Still, why is it that when something catches on and becomes incredibly popular it also becomes fashionable to dismiss it as trash? Personally I think it is more of a reaction to the media saturation that a popular item receives. When you can’t seem to turn around without hearing about something in your newspaper, on your TV or in your magazines, people begin to love to hate it. I also think there is a certain ‘hipness’ that is a need for some people that is lost when the Flanders next door start wearing t-shirts depicting what used to be their favorite band or start having parties around what used to be their favorite TV show. People love to believe they have something others do not… knowledge of something that is too cool for most people to understand. If that something becomes popular, then they distance themselves from it as the clique mentality is ruined. It’s a shame, really. While I have a hard time understanding why some things imbed themselves in the public psyche (like American Idol… I’ve watched it, don’t get it) other things become wildly popular because they are, well… GOOD. The Harry Potter books by J.K. Rowling are a prime example.
When our kids were younger, The Lovely Anna and I used to read to them before bed. In an effort to find books that were appropriate and fun, Anna picked up Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, which she had heard about from various sources. At the time only the first two had been released. These books have pretty long chapters, certainly much longer than our kids could stay awake for, so we would read only a part of a chapter until their droopy eyes succumbed to sleep, and we turned out their lights for the night. Then a funny thing happened… rather than putting a bookmark in the book to await picking up where we left off the next evening, we took the books downstairs and kept reading! Eventually we had two copies of the book, so we could both read them at the same time. We were hooked, and have been since.
I just finished listening to almost the entire Harry Potter series on audiobook in the studio, as far as getting deep into Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. I finished that one while here on Maui, but I am saving Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince for the studio next week, when I have a few jobs that will require inking and coloring. The audio books are superbly read by the talented Jim Dale, who like Frank Muller has a gift for subtle voice work that infuses each character with it’s own personality and instant recognizability. Even though these books are long they seem to fly by when Dale’s rich voice is relating the story to you. I’ve read them all before, of course. I revisit them occasionally on audiobook in the studio because even after several readings and listenings they remain eminently enjoyable.
What makes Rowling’s work so immersive and riveting? Well, in all fairness to many critics who dismiss her work as popular trash, it isn’t because she is an exceptional writer. Nobody’s going to mistake her for Capote, Hemmingway or Fitzgerald, but I think she is a good writer who has advancing plots, and makes generally good use of dialogue as well as foreshadowing and other techniques. Her books do suffer in places from repetitive dialogue and unnecessarily drawn out scenes… especially the many discussions between the main characters. There sometimes seems to be endless pages of Harry, Ron and Hermione discussing the same issues over and over, eventually drawing a conclusion that should have taken a few pages at most. This seems especially true as Rowling tries to inject Harry with anger, angst and frustration over his continual struggles against just about everybody. He flies off the handle at the littlest comment, creating long and numerous exchanges belaboring the same points over and over. I think several of her later books could have been much less long winded if the author would trust that her readers have gotten the idea that Harry is upset and frustrated with his destiny and lot in life. Then again, some people complain that her characters are cardboard cutouts with little depth and complexity. Harry seems to have a bit of a dark side but basically each character is an archetype and does not deviate from the mold very much. I say what’s wrong with that? Does a character need to be complex to be interesting and entertaining? Can’t we have good guys who are pure of heart and bad guys who are wicked to the core? Besides, I think Rowling is unjustly criticized for her lack of complex character development. Severus Snape is a character that nobody is quite sure about yet, and there is some complexity about Harry, belabored though it may be, that you cannot deny. Harry’s father was shown to be arrogant and obnoxious as a young man, very flawed it seems. Things are not as black and white in these books as some dismiss them to be.
For the most part her plots are well conceived and thought through, although when there is a hole in them, it’s a doozy. The biggest one, and one that bothers me immensely, is in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. SPOILER AHEAD: In this book, Harry is forced by a then unknown traitor in the school to compete in a contest called the Tri- Wizard Tournament. After months and a number of tasks, the winner is the first one to reach to the Tri-Wizard Cup amid a final maze of magical obstacles. The traitor has been helping Harry to win the contest, so he is the first to touch the cup. This cup has been bewitched into a “portkey”, a magical transportation device that whisks him away to a ceremony which needs his blood to bring his evil nemesis, Lord Voldemort, back to full strength and life. That’s all fine and well, but it takes all year for the contest to come to it’s conclusion, and if all they needed to do is have Harry touch a portkey to catch him, they could have made his toothbrush into one the first day of school and off he goes. Rowling should have established that the making of a portkey is a long and complex bit of magic involving months of incantations and preparations… but we later see that it’s the mere waving of a wand that does it. A big plot hole. Oh, well….
No, the key to what makes the Harry Potter books the engaging page turners they are is Rowling’s vivid and infectious imagination. The magical world she has created, that exists right next to our mundane real world, is rich with genuine, eye opening innovation and original ideas. Harry is continually presented with the cleverest of new magical concepts. For example, one way wizards travel is via bewitched fireplaces using floo powder amid the “floo network”. Interoffice memos at the wizard’s government offices, the Ministry of Magic, are paper airplanes that fly about irascibly in and out of elevators. Owls are the preferred manner of posting letters amid the magical community. The books are full of these kinds of brilliant and original ideas. Rowling’s magical world isn’t just a bunch of sorcerers that can do whatever they like with wands… she has built a wonderfully inhabitable place where some miracles are commonplace while others are still miraculous or impossible. She has established rules with regard to magic, imbibing the magical world with a king of logic even while making the illogical seem like it happens every day. My favorite parts of her imaginative storytelling are the little things that take place, seemingly without causing anything more than a raised eyebrow. The jokes and pranks played by wizards on each other, especially at Hogwarts, are hilarious. Students are regularly sent to the hospital wing with maladies like having sprouted antlers, endlessly vomiting slugs from their mouths, having boils that spell words like “sneak” break out on their faces or having a pumpkin for a head. There is also a kind of life and intelligence brought on by magically manipulating objects… when Harry and Ginny are chased from the library by an incensed librarian witch, Harry’s books and things follow them out repeatedly whacking them about their heads. If objects bewitched to do some task get interfered with, they seem to get angry about it and take it personally. How can someone not become absorbed in such a rich and enchanting world as that?
This June the final Harry Potter book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, hits the bookstores. It’s been a mesmerizing and enjoyable run. I am sure the final book will wrap things up nicely… Rowling is nothing if not thorough with her explanations and tying up of loose ends. It will be sad to finish that last page, though. Few things have captured the imagination of a new generation of readers, and those of us from other generations, as the magical world of Harry Potter…. and few things have deserved the immense popularity they have achieved more.
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