Tuesday, June 24, 2003

Harry Potter - Eyewitness News

Okay, I finished reading the new Harry Potter Book. First observation: the 766 page British edition, like most British editions of hardcover books, isn't very well bound. As I read the book, it from time to time made cracking noises when I turned the pages. The book is glued rather than sewn. American books are usually sewn. (This interesting Slate article discusses the issue). I suspect that if the books is read three or four times it will fall apart, and this is made much more likely by the book's length. The publisher seems to realise this, which is why there are no pages of advertisements for other books or anything at the back. The text stops, and that is the last page of the physical book. People who have a choice between the US and British editions will likely find that the US edition (which also has larger print and is 870 pages long) is the better choice to purchase.

In any event, the content. The people who have argued that the book is in some ways strongly libertarian in outlook are right, but that is not the aspect of it I wish to discuss. There are one or two mild spoilers to follow. They are spoilers of characterisation mainly, and I won't give away the plot. As I said previously, the book is a couple of hundred pages too long. When you read this kind of fairly easy reading book, you want the book to make you want to keep turning the pages, and you want a certain compulsion to keep reading. And while this book has that compulsive quality in places, it doesn't have it consistently. What happens is that after reading a hundred pages or two, you come to the conclusion that nothing much has happened for a while, and you either want to flick forward a few pages and find out when something does happen, or you want to put the book down for a bit and go to the pub. (The book is good enough that it is generally enjoyable again when you return from the pub).

The Harry Potter Books are highly structured. They have quite a strict template plotwise, and the books all seem to follow this template strictly. The book starts at home with Harry and his obnoxious aunt and uncle, then there is a period of meeting up with his friends and shopping for school things before catching the train to Hogwarts, and then we meet the new Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher, and then we go and see Hagrid, who has some new magical creature. Then we play Quiddich. And so on, until Harry confonts Voldemort (or a proxy for Voldemort), Harry talks about it with Dumbledore. Harry catches the train to Kings Cross, says goodbye to Ron and Hermione, and goes back to the Dursleys. Where J.K. Rowling is highly skilled is in her ability to conform to this strict formula, and at the same time have the overall plot advance from book to book, and to have characters that we only see in passing suddenly jump into the foreground in the next book, and to show us the characters growing up at the same point.

The fourth book departed from this formula rather more than any of the first three. When we read it, some of us might have thought that this was going to be the pattern of the subsequent books, but with the fifth book, it seems not. It seems more a case that J.K. Rowling was rushing for a deadline for the fourth book, and it lost shape a little as a consequence. (She has decided not to work to deadlines in future, so we will get the books when she chooses to give them to us). We are back, pretty strictly to the original formula. Yet, as the characters have grown up, the books have got longer, the characterisation has got better and the characterisations have developed more shades of grey than they had in earlier books. This is fitting, as the characters are growing up, and people's perception of life develops complexity and shades of grey at that point. The characters are becoming less black and white. It is clear that Rowling knows what it is to be an outsider. Not just an outsider in the sense of not being the centre of attention, but an outsider in the sense of being the person that everyone despises and torments not because they do anything to deserve it but simply because they can. (This good review in Salon looks at the book from this perspective). This is shown in the way Harry's circle of allies is growing broader, too, as in this book he fights his final battle with Voldemort in the company of five friends (one of who is a new and quite interesting character, although I will probably find she was there in the background and I didn't notice in the earlier books). Harry's horrible aunt Petunia has developed slightly more complexity than we were previously aware of. And most interestingly with Professor Snape, who has always been a complex character, nasty and unpleasant, and with a real grudge against Harry, but none the less is on the side of good and not evil. In this book we get to see precisely why Snape is this way, and we discover that a lot of it has to do with Harry's father having not actually been the paragon of virtue that Harry had previously thought.

Snape has become perhaps the most interesting character in the books. I am not sure where he is going. (Plus, there is still a whole lot of his back story missing. How and why did he become a Death Eater, and how did he cease to be one). Natalie Solent thinks that he will sacrifice himself to ensure the final victory over Voldemort in book seven. I'm not so sure. This is kind of predictable. The mean, spiteful character who is none the less on the side of good normally is the one who sacrifices himself to kind of redeem the mean and spitefulness, but I think this may be a little too obvious. It may be that someone else takes that role here. (I have a theory as to who it will be, but I won't mention it right now). Whether or not he makes a noble sacrifice, it is clear that the one lesson Snape is going to learn at some point is that Harry is not his father. Harry has gone through four books with everyone telling him that he is just like his father, and that this is a good thing, but he has just learned that this is perhaps not entirely such a good thing after all. His mother on the other hand was apparently just as kind and brave a person as everyone has always said. (This is presumably why Harry has always been described as looking just like his father "but with his mother's eyes").

And Harry's friend Hermione is getting through her childhood bossiness and becoming the most moral and decent character in the books, as well as being smart and powerful. Almost the younger form of Harry's mother, I think. It's always nice to meet characters like this, in life as well as fiction.

I also have a few thoughts on the filmability of the last couple of Harry Potter books. But, as David Attenborough might say, this is where we will go next week.

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