Observations from Reading the Harry Potter Series

Early this morning I finished reading Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, and so finished reading the entire seven-book Harry Potter series. I’ve read them all before, of course, but I wanted to do it one shot. It took about a month.

A few observations from reading the whole series at once:

Exposition Mania
It’s amazing how J.K. Rowling loves the exposition. Without fail every book in the series has a climactic moment that comes to a grinding halt while we bring on the exposition:

  • Sorcerer’s Stone – Quirrell explains everything to a stalling Harry Potter.
  • Chamber of Secrets – Tom Riddle stops to fill Harry in on everything instead of just calling the basilisk and getting it over with.
  • Prisoner of Azkaban – Sirius and Lupin have to recount the whole story of animangi and werewolves.
  • Goblet of Fire – Pick your expository moment! Voldemort tells Harry exactly how he came back, Fake Moody reveals exactly how he got away with it, or Dumbledore gets the full story from Harry (Harry sitting in Dumbledore’s office as exposition happens repeatedly).
  • Order of the Phoenix – A lengthy bit of post-climax exposition where Dumbledore explains everything to a raging Harry.
  • Half-Blood Prince – Since Malfoy can’t kill Dumbledore himself, he might as well do some exposition. While the climax is fairly exposition free, most of the rest of the book feels like cleverly disguised exposition.
  • Deathly Hallows – Another pick your expository moment! It could be Dumbledore’s brother before Harry, Ron and Hermione return to Hogwarts, or the entire chapter of Snape’s memories, or the psuedo-heaven sequence with Dumbledore (among others). This book could be divided neatly between daring action scenes, the three main characters arguing/plotting/camping, and exposition).

I’m not saying all this exposition is bad. These stories clearly need to fill in the details so you can know what’s happening. And for the most part, Rowling does that fairly creatively (though by the end I think the pensieve was cheating). I just think it’s amazing that she continually saved all the exposition for the end. After a while it starts to feel like you’re being strung along because you know all the pieces won’t come together until the very end.

Don’t get me wrong—I like exposition. I think most of the novels I’ve written have been exposition. I just don’t like it when the action grinds to a halt so we can fill in the missing pieces. I think it’s lazy.

Deathly Hallows Will Be a Long Movie
I feel for the poor sap who has to write a screenplay for Deathly Hallows. Yikes. That one could be a trilogy on its own.

Take Me Home
Rowling has always been very good at the dénouement, taking time to thoroughly explain things (see exposition above) and wind the story down, usually ending with the ride home on the Hogwarts Express and arrival at King’s Cross. I think J.R.R. Tolkien best understood the importance of this kind of catharsis, making the Scouring of the Shire one of my favorite parts of the Lord of the Rings series.

However, I think Rowling mucked it up on Deathly Hallows. She ends the narrative quickly after the final, final, no-really-this-is-it climactic scene and that’s all we get. But then she tacks on this epilogue that takes place 19 years later and relies way too heavily on what Harry named his children. The only touching scene in the whole epilogue is when Harry’s youngest son reveals his fears of being assigned to Slytherin instead of Gryffindor and Harry quietly eases those fears. The rest is an excuse to name drop and show who married who (as if we didn’t know).

I’m not saying she should have ditched the epilogue (while the epilogue doesn’t offer much catharsis, it’s better than nothing) and at 784 pages there was hardly room for a Scouring the Shire type ending, but I think she could have done something different and offered a more satisfying ending.

Characters Age
I think Rowling did do a masterful job of letting her characters grow. We see seven years in the Harry Potter series, from pre-teen 11-year-olds to of-age 17-year-old wizards. You couldn’t pick an age when a person goes through more changes. She captured the child-like wonder, the early teen spunk, the mid-teen brooding, and the late-teen (eventual) maturity pretty well. I don’t know that it was perfect, but I’ve rarely seen an author show that kind of slow, consistent growth so well.

Rules of Convenience
One of the difficulties of fantasy tales is that there’s a great temptation to create rules for the convenience of your storytelling. Fantasy stories require creating rules, but it gets a bit dicey when those rules are a little too convenient. Like Hermione’s small beaded handbag in Deathly Hallows that allows Harry, Ron and Hermione to bring everything they could possibly need with them, including a tent, changes of clothes, spare potions, a collection of books, a sword and even a portrait (but for some reason never a loaf of bread and some peanut butter). For the most part these rules are convincing throughout the series, but sometimes you just wonder why someone doesn’t use a particular bit of magic that worked just fine in the last chapter.

I’m Just Complaining—I Still Like It
But for all my complaints I do think it’s a pretty amazing series. I haven’t read very many series that manage to sustain your interest the whole way through and tell individual stories while maintaining a cohesive whole. Even the two most commonly compared series don’t stand up in that regard: Lord of the Rings was intended to be a single book, not a trilogy; and The Chronicles of Narnia is a collection of rather disparate books—you don’t even follow the same characters through all seven books. The Harry Potter series is fairly unique in that regard (yes, plenty of other series have done it, I just don’t think any have done it as well as Harry Potter).

2 thoughts on “Observations from Reading the Harry Potter Series”

  1. Hey Kevin,

    I’ve heard the last book is being split into two movies. The movies don’t really do much for me, though.

    I’m not a Potter hater – I agree with most of your positive thoughts on the series – but I was disappointed with the last two books. I think the 6th book suffered from being not much more than set up for the final book (I didn’t think the exposition was disguised very well) and the 7th suffered greatly from bloatedness and a general lack of editing. I remember thinking as I read it that there were 100 pages that could have been removed and the book wouldn’t have lost anything except some doorstop functionality. I wondered if either the book was rushed out the door (which would explain the rather high occurrence of typos in the hardcover) and/or nobody had the guts to edit Rowling’s final Potter story.

  2. I agree Dave. Starting with Goblet of Fire I think Rowling’s editors stopped editing. That’s about when her page count exploded and I think her publisher decided she was too brilliant to require editing, which is kind of stupid. Who else gets away with a 700 page kids’ book?

    I think part of the reason book 7 feels so random is because she doesn’t have the same convention of the school year to mark the passage of time. And Harry, Ron and Hermione in a tent for six months is a little tedious.

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