Having finally struggled through to the end of the Harry Potter series, I am, of course, going to write about it.
I intended never to waste time reading the books, let alone watching the movies, but a couple of friends of mine told me (not in so many words, and of course more politely) that my opinion doesn’t matter if I haven’t read them. Which makes sense — unless you know what you’re talking about, you can hardly expect people to think of you as an authourity. So I decided to try.
I’ll start with the problems I found.
First, a serious problem with morals. This is a world without a map. I don’t object immediately to a secular worldview in a book written by an authour with wrong ideas, because it would be quite unfair to expect a good worldview under those circumstances. However, in a case like this, where magic is an essential part of the whole thing, it points out its own shortcomings. Magic exists and some people have it — that’s neat, yes, but where did it come from? If it’s something outside the normal natural order, which seems to be the case since not everybody can use it, how did it come to be? Who put its rules in place? For spells as tricky and complicated as the one used to Apparate, you’d think some kind of Intelligent Designer is needed. But no one ever mentions anything of the sort. Some things, such as the power that’s stronger than death, are acknowledged to be mysteries. That’s nice and all, but that doesn’t answer the question.
The bad guys are bad, and the good guys, being not-as-bad, are called good. The thing is, they often use situational ethics and things like “the end justifies the means”. How does that make them any better than their enemies? In the last couple of books, Harry tries to use Unforgivable Curses on some of his enemies, and nothing ever hints that he was wrong to do so. Dumbledore, in one place, encourages Harry to lie, and (spoilers ahead) arranges his own death by assisted suicide, under the pretext that this is the only way things will work out all right. (What I’d like to know is why he wasn’t in Slytherin, with a mind like that?) (End spoilers) Whatever happened to Spenser’s “Die rather, than do aught, that might dishonour yield”? And even this isn’t hinted at as being bad. I don’t need an interjection from the narrator to say, “And so, children, you must never ever let the end justify the means”, which is bad writing on many levels, but you’d think a little poetic justice wouldn’t hurt.
In this world without a map, so far all of this is perfectly consistent with the worldview. If there is no order, rule, or law imposed on the universe from an outside authourity, it certainly doesn’t make sense to say “It’s wrong for everybody to use Unforgivable Curses, even Harry Potter the Chosen One”. By this worldview, it’s actually quite consistent to make exceptions here, or there, or everywhere. That’s a logical application of the worldview, internally consistent. There’s nothing wrong with it except that it’s wrong. (Am I making any sense?)
Everybody’s fighting Voldemort, because he’s bad. But what are you fighting for? Is it merely a negative thing: to have no positive evil left? Or are you fighting for a positive good? Defeat Voldemort — so that what? To preserve what goodness, truth, or beauty? So that the likes of Fred and George can keep setting off Dungbombs in Filch’s office? The world they’re trying to keep feels a bit sordid. It’s not a question of saving it. It’s a question of getting rid of the evil, and then turning to (what may be an even bigger job) cleaning up the world. If they do bother cleaning it up at all.
Then came the ending of the last book. (Naturally, spoilers follow) I started the last book being quite fed up with various and sundry issues that had persisted through the entire series so far, and was beginning to seriously consider skipping to the end (something I almost never do). But I resisted temptation. Anyway, the ending was surprisingly good, considering. Considering the inevitable presence of “good” situational ethics, the usual cliched villain monologue, Voldemort being a perfect fool when it comes to strategy, a glimpse of a rather unsatisfying afterlife. But even the quality of the writing suddenly got better, and Harry’s sacrifice was a splendid picture, not allegorical, of course, of sacrificial love.
The thing is. . . I didn’t like it. Coming on its own, or ending a series which had been, all the way through, up to the same level, it would have been even more stunning. But coming after a series where you have a personification of pure evil (Voldemort, in case you hadn’t guessed) but no corresponding personification of pure good (since all the candidates, Harry, Dumbledore, etc. freely admitted they have many, many faults) — well, it’s morally inconsistent. With a worldview that has no ultimate authourity or absolute morality, where do you even get the idea that sacrificial love is a good thing? Dumbledore arranged his own death, and made someone he trusted kill him, so that “good” could win. Harry has broken rules (and been rewarded for it) and told lies (and good things have happened because of, not in spite of, those lies). If none of this is bad, and can be even good, who’s to say it wouldn’t have been better for Harry not to lay down his life for his friends? This is not a very convincing theory of the world. We’re missing something of vast importance here, and it shows.
Deep breath. Okay. If any of that made sense, and feel free to pester me in the comments if it didn’t (or if you understood and disagree), let’s move on to the other problems I had with it.
1. Poor writing. One of the most basic rules in writing is “Show, don’t tell”. A lot of times, not always, but more often than not, there’s more telling in a scene than there ought to be. I’m a writer, so excessive use of adjectives, or having no better way to communicate anger than to write in all caps, bothers me. Other people might not notice it so much. But still, bearing with that kind of writing for seven (some of them quite long) books, rewriting scenes in your head most of the time, does get tiresome.
2. Flat characters. Now some of them, the main characters, and once in a great while a secondary character, have a little depth. Or they change throughout the series, or grow up in some way, or you see a side of them you hadn’t before. Even Voldemort (spoilers for ending follow) has a bit of development when he calls off the battle at Hogwarts, saying he admires courage, and will give his enemies time and peace to bury their dead — and he doesn’t break his word, which your ordinary second-rate villain would waste no time in doing. I liked that. Too bad that’s about the only depth we get. Oh, there’s loads of backstory, but his present character, as we’re dealing with him for all seven books, is seriously lacking. But I’m getting ahead of myself. (End spoilers) Flat characters are a problem. First, real people (with, perhaps, occasional extremely rare exceptions) are not flat. So a flat character will of necessity be unrealistic. Also, it gets annoying quite quickly. With people like Lockhart, if he were vain, in addition to this, and with that, and another attribute to go along, his vanity would be bearable. But as it happens, all he is, is vain. You have to deal with his unrelenting vanity for an entire book. It doesn’t make me want to keep reading. Now Tonks was a better secondary character. If she were like a normal side character in the series, she’d be clumsy — and that would be all. Or she’d like to change her hair — and that would be her only attribute. Or she’d be in love with Lupin (whom I also liked), and we’d see nothing of her character beyond that. But, for a change, she’s a side character with more than one side, and that’s the way it should be. Too bad it wasn’t that way more often.
3. (And this goes along with the first two) Villain monologues. At the end of every book. You can’t avoid them. They’re always there. They’re never a good thing. The villain (whoever he happens to be in this case) catches Harry, has him at his mercy, and instead of doing the smart thing (from a villain’s point of view), which would be killing Harry without taking any chances on his escaping, he has to sit him down and talk to him. For pages upon pages upon pages. The villain, meanwhile, secure in the knowledge that though Harry has escaped six and a half times so far, under increasingly implausible circumstances, he can’t possibly get away this time. “All right,” you say, “it’s not the best move, but Rowling has a lot of details to work in and things to connect.” It’s a sign of bad writing that that’s the best way she can do that, though, quite apart from the bad strategy. If it happened once, you could overlook it, but no, it has to happen seven times.
Now that I’ve torn the entire thing apart, and found fault even with the ending’s splendid theme of sacrificial love, you might be wondering if I found anything good about the books.
I found several things, in fact.
Once in a while the usual poor quality of the writing disappears and an actually well-written passage pops up. The plotting is done very well. More than once I was laughing aloud at some of the humour. The occasional character will be lovable, or grow, or have some good lines. The worldbuilding is very well done indeed. If I go on and on about these things as much as I went on about the flaws, I’ll take too much time. But, nonetheless, I don’t think Harry Potter is an unmitigated evil of poor writing. It has good spots. The series, dare I say it, is not a flat, one-sided character.
“Aren’t you forgetting something?” you say. “There’s no such thing as a Christian review of Harry Potter that doesn’t attack the magic.”
Well. . . you thought for sure I was going to get to it when I was talking about the lacking morality, didn’t you? No such luck. I actually. . . didn’t think it was much of a problem.
Don’t look so shocked. Listen to me explain why. It’ll be the last monologue from my side for a while.
Magic, in the world of Harry Potter, is something you’re born with, and then you go to school to learn how to deal with it (and keep it under control, unless you’re Fred or George). So it’s not going to be nudging a child to try to learn how to do magic in this world, because it’s not a thing you learn, and if you’re not born with it (and you’d know if you are), you’re stuck as a magicless Muggle. So if the point of the books is to encourage people to dabble in the occult, it’s shooting itself in the foot.
Secondly, the class which comes closest to being like a form of magic in our world, Divination, is one the books make the most fun of. I don’t have the books with me, so I can’t copy a passage to show you what I mean. But Hermione, the rationalist, walks out of the class (something she’s not at all the type to do) because she’s fed up with how silly and superstitious it is. The teacher has only made one or two true prophecies in her life, though at the beginning of every school year she predicts the death of one of her students. That sort of thing. So if the point of the books is to encourage a belief in Astrology, fortune-telling, and the like, it took the wrong tack by making fun of itself.
I’m probably forgetting something.