In the past several weeks I’ve read the three fattest Harry Potter books, The Prizoner of Azkaban, The Goblet of Fire, and The Order of the Phoenix. In all three cases I read them in a matter of days (less than three), and I think in every case much faster than I read them the first time around.
It started after seeing the movie of The Prisoner of Azkaban and feeling a bit let down. It was a decent movie (much better than the other Potter flicks), but the story was just too complex for a two hour movie. So I reread the book to renew my appreciation for what has become my favorite Harry Potter book.
Of course it didn’t end with just one and I quickly dove into the next two books, eager to remember what happened. I can already feel myself itching to read the first two again, especially after J.K. Rowling’s comments that the second book has a lot of parallels to the upcoming sixth book, The Half-Blood Prince (even though the second book has long been my least favorite).
As I’ve been rather addicted to Harry Potter lately (I confess to losing myself in a few Potter fan sites), I wanted to explore the series a bit and figure out why it’s so captivating (though part of the reason might be that I’m prone to entertainment-related addictions, e.g. Buffy the Vampire Slayer).
One of the great things about the book is that it does what many of the most celebrated and enjoyed works have done. It takes a lowly, downcast, rejected soul and suddenly bestows on them great power, or a place of honor, or dumb luck. Basically they finally get a break. Harry Potter learned he was a wizard. Luke discovers he’s a Jedi. Buffy is the Slayer. Frodo is the ring bearer (a task that comes with no special powers). Suddenly boring, ordinary life bursts into something so much more. Secretly many of us yearn for that, and thus love being lost in fantastic stories.
I also love the many themes laced throughout the Harry Potter series. There’s a continual thread of love and sacrifice (Harry Potter’s mother died to save him, and that love later protects him) as well as friendship (Harry, Ron and Hermione are a trio few can tangle with). There are also issues of responsibility and duty. At times that plays against the heroes (as Harry rushes to save Sirius in Order of the Phoenix). Even minor themes, like the half-breed racism, stereotypes among the different magical beings (wizards/witches, centaurs, house elves, goblins, giants, etc.), and the grudges among different houses in Hogwarts (the Sorting Hat’s calls for cooperation in Order of the Phoenix are partly answered in the forming of the Defense of the Dark Arts club, though Slytherin is notably absent) are thoroughly intriguing and a fresh take on the real world counterparts.
The characters are fun and imaginative as well as realistic. There are times when they seem a bit flat, though many fantasy characters fall into that (they wouldn’t be fantastic if they were too realistic). Voldemort is completely over the top evil, just like Darth Vader in the original Star Wars (yeah, yeah, there is good in him!). Even Draco Malfoy is too sinister and I’m holding out for a glimmer of hope in his character. Dumbledore is the perfectly amazing good guy, older than dirt but able to move and react with amazing speed. He’s like Gandalf or Obi-wan from the original Star Wars reincarnated (like these other two wise guru figures, Dumbledore sacrifices himself for the hero; though in Order of the Phoenix it wasn’t a sacrifice of his life — I wonder if that’s yet to ocme).
But even with some of these flat characters, there are some incredibly deep characters. Snape is one of them. He’s portrayed as wicked and sinister, but we’re shown some of the reason for this. Ironically he’s also a good guy, as much as Harry and his friends like to doubt. Like Malfoy, I’m hoping to see Harry and Snape finally confront one another and get over their mutual hatred. Even Harry, Ron and Hermione are deeper than you’d expect. At times Harry is so thoroughly a teenager it’s annoying. He’s impatient, stubborn and rude. Rowling lets these three get through amazingly tight spots, but they’re still human. They still hold grudges, swell up with pride, and need the help of others. It’s interesting to note that trios of friends appear often in literature, usually in a sort of love triangle: King Arthur, Lancelot and Gwenevere is the most common example, repeated almost exactly in Star Wars with Luke, Han Solo and Leia (though that sibling thing sure put a damper on that love triangle). Romance has been a growing part of the Harry Potter series as the characters become older.
The plots of the books themselves are a lot of fun to explore. Every book is structured the same way, and rather than making the books dull and repetitive, gives the series structure and order. Despite the chaos going on you know the book will wrap up with the school year. It’s a comfort in the midst of chaos. While the books are increasingly lengthy, almost every detail in the books matters. Hints briefly mentioned in early chapters will come back later. Characters introduced almost always come up again or figure into the conflict. Rowling doesn’t waste a lot of words, which makes you wonder as you read how each piece will fit into the unfolding puzzle of the plot.
The fantasy world itself is an immense draw. Just like Star Wars, Buffy, LOTR, or any comic book you can imagine, so much of the draw of Harry Potter is a world where unimaginable things can happen. Superpowers, whether they be magical, mystical or radioactive, have a gripping power on the human psyche. We want to do more than we can. Perhaps it