Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Harry Potter - As Great as All That?

Although I expect little from pop-culture, the sheer mass of the Harry Potter phenomenon and the obvious attempts to link it with and sell it as true literature cause me a lot of consternation. So I have been thinking a lot about Harry Potter lately; and of course because of the media blitz and the fact that I have two kids I really have no choice. My first impressions of Harry Potter as of the first book(s) were positive.

However, after the third book the series (I would not consider the books an epic by any measure) it became clear that this was nothing more than a continual rehash over and over again. Each book has a formula that is repeated from the previous book - Harry is isolated, Harry is despondent, Harry breaks the rules and almost gets kicked out of Hogswart, Harry discovers a lurking evil and no one believes him, Harry defeats the evil (sort of) and saves his family and friends (sans-one at least, of course).

I fully accept Harry Potter for what it is - comic book quality entertainment which inspires the imaginations of children. I think it is great that kids love the books and it encourages them to read. I think it is great that they love the movies and it makes them think about magic and fantasy. I also think that J.K. Rowling does a great job of squarely contextualizing the entire series within the petit-bourgeois milieu making it very easy for the majority of the western world to identify with.

But literature it is not and it disturbs me that it disguises itself as such, because by doing so it offers us superfluous reflections on our own lives in a trite and disingenuous fashion. Basically J.K. Rowling gets to have her cake and eat it too by offering prepackaged pop-morals without actually having to put any effort into developing or exploring the meaning of, or taking any responsibility for, what she is writing.

In the end, literature is significant because of what it tells us about ourselves and the human condition. Harry Potter unfortunately has nothing significant to say.

Excerpt from an article by Lakshmi Chaudhry in The Nation:
When Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the eagerly anticipated conclusion of J.K. Rowling's seven-part saga, was finally released on July 21, the critics weren't disappointed. The New York Times's Michiko Kakutani praised the "epic showdown" as "deeply rooted in traditional literature and Hollywood sagas--from the Greek myths to Dickens and Tolkien to 'Star Wars.'" But great battles in fiction, especially of the caliber name-checked by Kakutani, are epic not merely in scale but also in moral content. Whether aimed at adults or children, they speak directly to the nature of good and evil and what is at stake when we choose between them. Most critics this past week didn't seem to notice that Rowling fails entirely to meet this key requirement. What we get instead is a moral fuzziness that parades as realism, innumerable references to a post-9/11 world coupled with throwaway and often derivative insights that never add up to a coherent moral vision.


Deathly Hallows is a sad confirmation of the same. The shallowness of Rowling's enterprise is revealed in the vapid little epilogue that seems inspired less by great fiction than B-list Hollywood scripts. Where the cataclysmic showdown in The Lord of the Rings leaves the Hobbits and Middle-earth irrevocably altered even in victory, the wizarding world merely returns to business as usual, restoring its most famous citizens to a life of middle-class comfort. At the end of this overly long saga, the reader leaves with the impression that what Harry was fighting for all along was his right--and now that of his children--to play Quidditch, cast cool spells and shop for the right wand. Or what George Bush would call "our way of life."

Harry Potter and the Half-Baked Epic

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