Monday, June 23, 2003

Harry Potter

Warning - This entry contains major spoilers for Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Read it at your own peril!

I've finished Harry Potter #5 and I'm quite satisfied. The previous volume in the series was a little ungainly, but Rowling's hit her stride with this one and everything flows beautifully. Harry is now 15, and the plotting and the characters reflect this. Harry and his friends are deep in the throws of adolescent angst and disillusionment, and the black and white world of previous books has been replaced by one rife with shades of grey. Rowling's style is more sophisticated now as well. She's been accused of being formulaic, but in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, the set pieces we've come to expect are shaken up quite a bit, and in many cases, framed in entirely different ways.

Not only does Rowling avoid following her own formula too closely, she also steps out of the conventions of the genre quite a bit. The end of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire seemed to be setting the series up for a classic battle of good vs. evil, beginning in the next book. Instead, HPatOotP deals only with very first stirrings of the epic battle, and is solidly focused on the bureaucratic nightmare of getting the government to acknowledge the threat. The focus is on the banality of everyday evil, rather than the glamour and horror of supervillain Voldemort. The news that a major character would die in book 5 suggested that Harry's beloved and wise mentor, Dumbledore, would die, leaving the younger generation to battle on their own. Instead, Sirius dies, leaving Harry even more bereft of family connections. Meanwhile, Dumbledore assumes far greater power and agency than we've seen in him so far.

The comfortable wish fulfillment world of the previous novels is all but gone. Harry feels excluded and abandoned by the adults he once trusted, Hogwarts is no longer the haven it once was, and the wizards who once lauded him are convinced he's a lying, attention seeking, lunatic. To top it all off, Harry's father may not have been the paragon he imagines. Pretty typical teen-age emotions, but not the usual stuff of heroic fantasy. Rowling's strategy of allowing the characters to mature and change as the series progresses is creating a fascinating blend of reality and fantasy which avoids the ham-handedness of allegory, while skillfully using metaphor to convey the difficulties of growing up. In fact, what I was most reminded of as I was reading HPatOotP was not The Chronicles of Narnia or The Lord of the Rings, but the first season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Although Rowling and Whedon are operating in very different fantasy traditions, in many ways they're using fantasy and metaphor in very similar ways.


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