Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Thoughts from the Pensieve

And it's done. I'm glad to say that I was able to predict a couple of the twists and turns, but certainly not all of them. I'm not ashamed to say that I teared up at least two or three times over the course of the book. I don't think it's spoiling anything to say that I wish we'd seen more of Ginny, who has consistently been one of my favorite characters. But it was a good book, perhaps a fantastic book, to end a damn good series. And that's all I'll say about this last book, at least until everyone's read it.

For years I've seen the Harry Potter books compared to the Lord of the Rings trilogy and the Narnia series. Over the course of reading this, I've realized how well Rowling has earned that spot, and how she's managed, in all honesty, to improve upon their faults.

Lord of the Rings, for all its wonder and grandeur, can be downright boring. Parts of it are just monumentally dull. Between that and all the fictional languages, all the characters with similar names, all the people who show up only briefly then vanish or who only really become important toward the end, the books can often feel meandering and sluggish. I understand that this was part of the point; Tolkien wanted to evoke the realities of war and struggle, of different co-existing races with different languages. In real life, people don't always serve a greater purpose, journeys are long and difficult, and battles are just short breaks in a larger, more uniform tension. I understand that these are all part of the point that Tolkien's trying to make. However, making a point doesn't always make for good reading. The Lord of the Rings is a classic and a wonderful trilogy; it deserves its accolades. But it has its flaws, and in some places they are oppressive.

The Chronicles of Narnia doesn't usually have the same problem. Shorter books and less attention to realism save it from the pitfalls of the Lord of the Rings, but it has its own issues. For one, it's preachy. I can't imagine why, being entirely composed of often thinly-veiled Biblical allegory. It's hard to pick out really clear-cut morals in Lord of the Rings; you might say that loyalty is the greatest virtue, or that power corrupts, or that people often defy your expectations of them, but there are counter-examples to all those messages. In Narnia, I think you'd be hard-pressed to disagree that it is better to be childlike than mature adults, or that the greedy are easily corrupted and manipulated, and so on. Narnia is far, far more black-and-white than Middle-Earth. Besides that, I recognize that the books are set (more or less) in 1940s Britain, with proper British children, but even taking that into account, the dialogue has never quite rung true to me. It never feels like these are real children talking to each other. Part of this, I'm sure, is due to the overall point of the books; the characters are simply less important than the plot and the allegory.

It is on these flaws, I think, that the Harry Potter series shines. Though some of the books aren't as good as the others (I know I'm not the only one who was less than thrilled with book 5), they're all pretty exciting. The first four books never really let up in their mad dash through years of schooling, the fifth book tries a more steady suspense, and I honestly don't remember much about the sixth book other than it being better than the fifth. One of these days, I'll probably take a week or two and plow through the whole series. In any case, boredom is rarely an issue with the Harry Potter books; they don't feel the need to inform you on every day's events over the course of the year (as it often seems that Lord of the Rings does), but lets you peek in when things are interesting.
And while there are characters who flit in and out of Harry's life, it's amazing how many of them end up being important, far more, I think, than one would expect. There aren't many (if any) Tom Bombadils in Harry Potter. Rowling has a good sense of Chekhov's Gun.
Harry Potter isn't above moralizing, to be certain. Besides general things like the importance of love and friendship and the virtues of courage and selflessness, we see allegories to real-life issues, past and present: the House-Elf civil rights movement, Umbridge's McCarthyist witch-hunts, Rita Skeeter's dishonest sensationalist journalism, the Daily Prophet and government-controlled media, Pureblood racism, and of course, the fascist supremacist Death Eaters. But where Harry Potter uses allegory to make moral and political points, Narnia presents morals that are themselves allegorical, symbolic of specific religious morals. And the Potterverse is significantly more gray-toned than Lewis's. Even characters we're meant to revere, like Dumbledore, have significant flaws, while the ones we're meant to despise, like Snape and Draco, have some redeeming characteristics. Even Voldemort isn't just plain evil, he's tragic and pitiable.
And those flaws? Not just classical tragic flaws like hubris or pride or greed or indecisiveness, but more nuanced, realistic flaws. Harry is a terrible study, a bit of a troublemaker, and a little clueless as to who deserves his trust, and who doesn't. Hermione's weaknesses are in places where Harry and Ron excel, like broomstick riding and Patronus-summoning, not to mention that she takes overachieving to undreamt-of levels, and is often skeptical to a fault (despite living in a world of magic and dragons and such). Every character has not just faults, but faults that ring true. Harry and the other students feel like real children, talk like real children, have the sort of character flaws that real people have. In fact, I daresay that the only real caricatures in the series are the occasional incidental character, and the Dursleys--but even they get some depth as the series wears on.

I think part of it has to do with the contexts in which these series were written: Lord of the Rings branched out of Tolkien's experiences in World War I, the Chronicles of Narnia are set in Britain during the bombings of World War II. Harry Potter doesn't have any real war to call its foundation, and the only war that encroaches into the story is the fictional battle between wizarding factions. Being a story of peacetime, I think, gives it a very different atmosphere than the other canonical fantasy series.

I'm sure there are those in the next few years especially who will scoff at the Harry Potter series, who will call it a flash-in-the-pan fad with no lasting impact or staying power. They'll consider it high literary treason to lump Rowling in with luminaries like Lewis and Tolkien. Frankly, I can only see one reason why. To quote Alexander Pope:
So much they scorn the Crowd, that if the Throng
By Chance go right, they purposely go wrong;
Yes, the Harry Potter books have been popular--immensely popular--but that's less a fault than a testament to the qualities they have. Rowling built a rich tapestry of a world that drew readers in from the very start; she crafted realistic, riveting characters and shepherded them through seven years of school and life; and ultimately she tied everything together neatly. The Harry Potter books are easily more entertaining than the Lord of the Rings and more nuanced than the Chronicles of Narnia. The series has its own faults and flaws (I think we might all agree that the length of these last 3-4 books is a bit excessive), but no moreso than the others. Eventually, I hope and believe, Harry Potter will join the Chronicles of Narnia and the Lord of the Rings, not just in the minds of readers and fans, but in the fantasy-series literary canon. It has earned that spot several times over.

I guess, put short, what I'm trying to say is "Long live Harry Potter!"


Don said...

Amen, brother. Couldn't have said it better myself.

Anonymous said...

What I see in the series is more of a tale that shows the reality of heroism. Potter is reluctant and, at times, selfish, yet from the outside, every adventure he has seems so much more noble and grand. When you read the final book, consider the action sequences from the eyes of the outsiders and the listeners of "Potterwatch." What must they think about Potter's antics throughout the novel? And yet, as the reader you are with Potter, and you can see his adventures are mostly made up of lucky breaks and close calls.

Obviously, I'm trying to remain spoiler-free here or I would elaborate more.

Tom Foss said...

Absolutely, Neverask. In fact, Harry says as much to Ron at one point in the book--that this adventuring stuff always sounds cooler than it actually is.

Matthew E said...

I'm not sure 'Lord of the Rings' really belongs in this comparison. LOTR wasn't, I believe, specifically intended for kids the way Narnia and Harry Potter are (or, even, the way 'The Hobbit' is). For that matter, I'm not sure it's even fair to consider LOTR a work of fiction; I might be more inclined to consider it Tolkien's hobby, a giant model railroad system that just happened to be in the form of a classic novel.

The Harry Potter series doesn't have to apologize for its success; its virtues are many and I was racing through the seventh book as fast as anybody. But I'm with Terry Pratchett: Harry Potter is not the be-all and end-all of fantasy; it's good, but so are many other things, some of which predate Rowling and some of which don't, some of which are better than Harry Potter and some of which are about as good.

SallyP said...

Nicely said, Tom.

Anthony Strand said...

I agree with every word of this post, especially the stuff about the characters sounding real. That's the reason I could never really get into Narnia. I never really felt connected to the Pevensies.

Anonymous said...

I agree w/ Matthew E-- No way should a kid be given a copy of LOTR. The Hobbit, definitely.

And I never got how Voldemort is "tragic". Pitiable, maybe, but I never saw any good qualities there.

Matthew E said...

I agree w/ Matthew E-- No way should a kid be given a copy of LOTR.

Well, I don't want to overstate the case; I was first introduced to LOTR when I was eleven or twelve and I loved it; I read it over and over and over and over. I think it's okay for kids; it's just not specifically aimed at them the way Harry Potter is.

Tom Foss said...

matthew e: I realize that LOTR is targeted at a somewhat different audience, and I struggled a bit with that as I was writing this. But I think the comparison is fair inasmuch as the frequent comparisons between Narnia and LOTR are fair. It seems to me that when people think "fantasy series," LOTR, Narnia, and Harry Potter are the three that come to mind, out of all the possibilities.

And I agree with Pratchett on that matter as well. Harry Potter is fun, it's enthralling, and it's relatively deep, but it's not the best fantasy ever.

manley ripsnort: I first read LOTR as a senior in High School, and I can't imagine trying to get through it much earlier than that. It is a dense series. Haven't read The Hobbit yet, though.

As far as Voldy, I think I said "tragic" because "misunderstood" wasn't the right word. He's a bad guy to be sure, but I think the "tragic" bit is that a lot of the reason he's such a bad guy is because he got dumped on his whole life by other bad guys.

Anonymous said...

I've never really been sure of the comparison between the three series.

I think one reason Narnia is so often compared to LOTR is that, in some ways, Narnia is LOTR-lite. A far-away land, fantastic creatures, epic battles, and unlikely heroes pulling off enormous feats - heck, even the Narnia film felt as though it were taking a page from Peter Jackson's interpretation of the trilogy.

Another reason for the comparison, I believe, is the fact that both Lewis and Tolkien were avowed Christians and both stories were known to have Christian allegory/symbolism (although, as you pointed out, Narnia sort of beats you over the head with it, whereas Tolkien's symbolism is far more subtle).

In the end, I think they're two different beasts. Narnia seems more comparable to things like The Pilgrim's Progress, another outright allegory. LOTR is less allegorical and has more to do with symbolism.

As far as Harry Potter goes, the comparison I hear most often is people pointing out to Potter-hating Christians that LOTR and Narnia both have their share of magic and mysticism, and yet the stories are hailed as great triumphs for the Christian faith (ESPECIALLY Narnia).

As for the book itself, I immensely enjoyed it. I was very glad that the characters got a relatively happy ending.


Jason said...

I think that whether this series will take a place amongst the classics is probably a question better left to later generations. Put simply, time is needed to see if these are simply a blip in pop culture or a true work of classic fiction.

That said, I loved the book (and the series) and I will definitely be handing my son my copies in a few years (he's four, so I figure he should master reading first).