I’m not arguing that “Harry Potter” is actually — in some objective sense — better than “Lord of the Rings.” (If it even makes sense to say “in some objective sense” when you’re talking about art.) I get that “Lord of the Rings” is probably Great Art, and I’m not sure that “Harry Potter” is. (Talk to me in a hundred years, when we see if kids are still reading it.)
What I’m saying is that I enjoy “Harry Potter” immeasurably more than “Lord of the Rings.” With “Harry Potter,” I eagerly look forward to each new installment in the series. I re-read the books frequently and with pleasure; I have an extensive memory of the story, and can discuss its finer points at length; and I have an elaborate and probably unhealthy fantasy life centering around the Potterverse.
“Lord of the Rings,” on the other hand, I slogged through twenty years ago out of a sense of duty. I found it tedious and unengaging, and skimmed through long sections of it; I’ve never had the slightest desire to re-read it even once; I have only the vaguest memory of the general outline of the plot (ring, Mordor, lots of battles, yada yada yada); and I couldn’t tell you the names of more than four or five characters — and that only because those names get tossed around so much in conversation. (Yes, my friends are nerds.) “Lord of the Rings” is like Wagner or Bob Dylan to me — I recognize and acknowledge its greatness, without actually liking or enjoying it.
And I think this is a defensible position.
So I’m going to defend it.
Here’s what I think “Harry Potter” has that “Lord of the Rings” doesn’t.
1. Moral complexity. I may be being unfair here — like I said, I have only the vaguest memory of “Lord of the Rings” — but the characters in LOTR seemed to line up into clearly distinguished Good Guy/Bad Guy camps. Who then proceed to fight each other. For three long books. With the exception of Frodo — and are we ever really in doubt that he’ll do the right thing? — the battle of good against evil is always external. Evil is Out There, and you kill it with an axe or something.
“Harry Potter,” on the other hand, has genuine moral complexity. The battle against evil is often internal, and the right thing to do isn’t always clear. Good people do bad things, and not always for good reasons, and sometimes with serious consequences. Bad people turn out to have surprisingly decent and sympathetic sides to them. And perhaps more importantly, there’s a continuum of good and bad. There are people who are jerks but aren’t actually evil — and in some cases who have strong and important good tendencies, or who are at least understandable and somewhat sympathetic. And there are people who are likable but weak and selfish, and who screw up a lot. Forget comparing it to other juvenile literature — there’s more moral complexity and shades of gray in “Harry Potter” than there is in most adult fiction.
2. Political relevance. There are times when “Harry Potter” reads like Chomsky for kids. In “Harry Potter,” people in government ignore real threats that they don’t want to deal with; magnify fake threats to make it look like they’re taking action; use fear-mongering to solidify their power; make alliances of convenience with people they know are evil; serve their rich friends instead of the people they’re governing; manipulate and even censor the press; and use the education of children as an opportunity for propaganda. The book is like a civics lesson at the most left-wing junior high you can imagine.
“Lord of the Rings,” on the other hand… well, I suppose it’s not fair to critique the books for creating an entirely fresh and imaginary world. That’s one of its strengths, after all. But I didn’t feel that LOTR shed any light at all on my life and the world I live in. This is just a personal preference, but I strongly prefer fiction — including fantasy/sci-fi — that has some relevance and connection to me and my world. Sure, I like escapism, I like being taken out of my life… but I like being taken out of my life for the purpose of stepping back and getting perspective on it. I didn’t get that from “Lord of the Rings”… and I get it in trumps from “Harry Potter.”
3. Female characters. There’s been some debate about whether the Harry Potter books are sexist. And I’ll grant that the female characters in “Harry Potter” — and their place in the story — have some problematic aspects.
But here’s the thing about female characters in “Harry Potter”:
It has some.
More than a couple, even.
And those female characters aren’t just sidelines or afterthoughts. They’re central to the plot, they’re in positions of strength and authority, and they take an active role in making things happen. There are times when “Harry Potter” is a bit of a testosterone-fest… but compared to “Lord of the Rings,” it’s freakin’ Adrienne Rich.
Anyway. That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it. What do you think? Arguments, agreements, questions, outraged objections, and other comments are cheerfully encouraged.