Editorial: Harry Potter and the Pretentious Book Reviewer

b76I made a social blunder recently when I disparaged Harry Potter during a family vacation.

I started reading the Harry Potter series this summer, along with my wife and our 11-year-old daughter. There are lots of Harry Potter fans in our extended family. I have several nieces and nephews that grew up with author J.K. Rowling’s books and movies. My niece recently visited to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Florida to celebrate her graduation … from college!

These were hardcore fans. I should have known better when they asked what I thought of the first book in the series, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.

“It’s kind of childish,” I said. “Heavy handed. Does the bad kid at school need to be named Draco Malfoy, and his thug friends Crabbe and Goyle? Is Goyle’s first name Gar? I understand these characters are snakes in the grass, but do they need to live in Slytherin House, too?”

UnknownEveryone looked at me slack-jawed, like I’d blasted a wet shart right there in front of the group. Really, Uncle Rob? Are you that guy, the one who finds fault with things that everybody else likes?

Well, yeah, I’m that guy. I’m a book reviewer, a “literary critic.” (www.bobsbookblog.com). I’m supposed to kick the tires and pick at the seams of novels and short stories, check the quality of their build, see how they function, and let people know if they deliver the literary goods.

I tried to clarify my Harry Potter stance with my wife later on.

hpcovers7“There’s a simple beauty to J.K. Rowling’s work, the way some of the best songs are built around three chords. It’s catchy, gets your heart pumping, and sweeps you away. That’s the magic of Harry Potter. It’s like a great pop song you can’t stop humming,” I explained.

“But I didn’t appreciate Rowling’s running gag with the character names. It was silly and took me out of the story,” I said. “There’s no reason to name your characters Billy Badguy, Sally Sidekick, or Lucy Loveinterest.”

“What if you had a character named Bob Buzzkill?” my wife asked. “Or Peter Pretentious. Maybe Biggie Blackcloud. He’d be a mopey Native American who makes it rain on everybody’s parade.”

“Funny, but that’s not me,” I said. “I’m a journalist! I dissect the subject to get to the truth! I’d be Chris Critic! Geraldo Reviewer!”

“Jerky McJealous,” my wife countered. “Write your own bestselling young adult series if you don’t like Harry Potter.”

Clearly this is not an argument I’m meant to win. Nor do I want to.

harry_potter_and_640_07Because I like Harry Potter! I’m new to Rowling’s Wizarding World, but already I can see it’s filled with memorable adventures and unforgettable characters. I don’t know if it’s a modern literary classic, but it’s certainly well crafted and delightfully designed. Harry Potter is built with love and built to last.

So what if I have quibbles with Rowling’s character names? It’s certainly not the first thing I should mention when people ask how I like the Harry Potter series. But I have poor social skills, and I’m…I’m…

Igor Ignorant. Arnie Awkward. Jack Ass. Dullard Scott.

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Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone by JK Rowling
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by JK Rowling

The magic of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling lies in its combination of simplicity and familiarity. Like a three-chord pop song, Harry Potter sticks in your head, causing pleasant sensations as it bounces around your brain.

We know this story; an unlikely hero with a regal destiny is sent on an epic quest. We know these characters, too, from source material as diverse as the Brothers Grimm, Mother Goose, Greek mythology, and Disney movies.

The star of the show, of course, is Harry Potter himself, a downtrodden elementary school student who must contend with the sudden responsibility of fulfilling a magical destiny. The well-known coming-of-age tale of finding (and re-inventing) yourself in a new school gives Harry Potter’s high fantasy a connection to real-world grade school drama, which is what makes this book so appealing to readers of all ages.

Harry embarks upon a hero’s quest to find the elusive Sorcerer’s Stone.

The Stone will transform any metal into pure gold. It also produces the Elixir of Life, which will make the drinker immortal.

Harry Potter has stock villains (the real ones, and the ones you only think are bad) and stock friends. Even the guard dog feels like a hybrid of the Minotaur and Cerebrus. Bumbling-but-lovable sidekick, Hagrid, strikes me as part Luca Brasi from The Godfather, and part Bigfoot from The Howard Stern Show.

“Now, don’t ask me anymore,” said Hagrid gruffly. “That’s top secret, that is.”

There’s the wise and patient old teacher, Dumbledore, who walks a trail blazed by Gandolf and Yoda, and gets the lion’s share of the book’s most meaningful quotes:

It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live, remember that.

To the well-organized mind, death is but the next great adventure.

“The truth.” Dumbledore sighed. “It is a beautiful and terrible thing, and should therefore be treated with great caution.”

“Always use the proper name for things. Fear of a name increases fear of the thing itself.”

This last one is interesting, since Rowling plays an annoying name game with the characters in Harry Potter. The school bully is named Draco Malfoy and his thug friends are Crabbe and Goyle. These characters are snakes in the grass and they live in Slytherin House. The school nerd is Neville Longbottom. A wicked teacher is named Severus Snape. Maybe younger readers find these over-the-top character names endearing, but they took me out of the story a bit every time I encountered them.

Naming quibbles aside, Rowling’s writing is sharp, lean, and constantly moving forward. This is the stuff that page-turners are made off. Keeping her younger readers in mind, Rowling sometimes goes straight for juvenile gross-out:

“Can you smell something?” Harry sniffed and a foul stench reached his nostrils, a mixture of old socks and the kind of public toilet no one seems to clean.

He bent down and pulled his wand out of the troll’s nose. It was covered in what looked like lumpy gray glue. “Urgh – troll boogers.” He wiped it on the troll’s trousers.

Other times, Harry Potter skirts the fringes of horror fiction (while conjuring the legend of Edward Mordake):

Harry would have screamed, but he couldn’t make a sound. Where there should have been a back to Quirrell’s head, there was a face, the most terrible face Harry had ever seen. It was chalk white with glaring red eyes and slits for nostrils, like a snake.

And sometimes Harry Potter brushes against the madness of Alice in Wonderland.

A piercing, bloodcurdling shriek split the silence — the book was screaming! Harry snapped it shut, but the shriek went on and on, one high, unbroken, earsplitting note.

Part of the fun of Harry Potter is the interactive games, wizarding spells, and puzzle solving that keeps the reader engaged the way an old Agatha Christie or Ellery Queen mystery might.

“Wingardium Leviosa!”

Erised stra ehru oyt ube cafru oyt on wohsi.

Dumbledore serves up the novel’s main theme—undying love versus ancient evil—for young hero, Harry:

He (Voldemort) didn’t realize that love as powerful as your mother’s for you leaves its own mark. Not a scar, no visible sign . . . to have been loved so deeply, even though the person who loved us is gone, will give us some protection forever. It is in your very skin.

Isn’t this the wish of all living beings, to be loved by our mothers, and to be watched over by those who came before us? To be marked by a love so powerful and eternal it will protect and guide you through life?

It’s no wonder the Harry Potter franchise is so popular. It contains characters and situations we can all relate too (even if they’re cloaked in the fantastic) while quietly fulfilling humanity’s deepest wish.

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