Reflections on the Harry Potter books (no spoilers)

I read the last book in the Harry Potter series Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows about a week after it was released. It was necessary that I read it soon because I am surrounded by people who are die-hard Potter fans and they could not talk freely about it in my presence until I had done so.

This was a nice quality about true Harry Potter aficionados They tend to be very scrupulous about not wanting to spoil other people’s fun, and carefully avoid saying anything that might give the ending away. So even though I surf the web and read a lot of websites, I found it easy to avoid accidentally tripping into a site that had spoilers. Of course, very shortly people who have not read the book or do not care for the series or even actually hate it will learn what happened and will not hesitate to reveal the ending, thinking it silly to treat it with such care. Such people do not really understand the wonder that is in books.

The whole Harry Potter phenomenon has been curious. Children in general have loved the books, but the adult reaction has spread across the board. Many loved the books as much as children did. There were, of course, those religious people who objected to the books on the grounds that it promoted witchcraft. There were also those who did not themselves read them but thought that having children read long books was a good thing. Meanwhile some book snobs sneered that the Potter books were just childish escapism and that children would be better off reading Wuthering Heights or other elevated forms of literature.

Although I am not one who went to the extent of dressing up as a wizard and attending parties, I found all that hype to be harmless fun and cannot understand those who frowned on it as overblown. What can be so bad about people getting highly involved with books and having fun with them? I also found it hard to sympathize with those adults who measured the value of the series based on whether it encouraged reading in general. Some praised the books because they felt it provided a doorway for children to enter the world of literature. Others said that it had a negative effect and pointed to some evidence that said that Potter fans were not moving on to read other books because they did not have the same appeal.

I find this debate to be silly. Why must the value of books be measured by whether they serve any important function? Why can’t we just enjoy them just for their own sake? Clearly many, many people obtained a great deal of enjoyment from the books and that should be enough. Maybe the books encouraged them to tackle Beowulf next or maybe they went back to playing video games. Why should that influence our judgment of the books?

As for the books themselves, some people complained about the occasional uneven pacing where there seemed to be long stretches of time when little or nothing happened. This was especially true in the very last book. This was probably due to the books being firmly in the genre of British boarding school literature. In that genre, the stories follow two complementary schedules. One format is situated in the school or its environs and invariably starts with the beginning of the school year and the children arriving at the school from all over the country, the adventure beginning soon after, and ending just in time near the end of the school year when all the children disperse for the summer holidays.

The other schedule arises because the action is situated in a town and begins with children arriving home from boarding schools for the summer holidays, having an adventure whose end coincides with the end of summer and everyone then dispersing to their various schools for the new year.

J. K. Rowling follows the first schedule and this formula enforces a fairly rigid timetable on the adventure as she has to make sure that the plot is stretched out over nine months or so, and this requires a certain amount of treading water where the characters just fill in the time.

In the early books the reader does not notice this because there is a lot of character development, details about boarding school life, studying for tests, quidditch matches, and side plots that can be woven into the story, providing some humor as well. But in later books, as the emphasis shifted to the more serious and direct confrontation between the Voldemort and Potter sides, filling in the time gaps became more difficult although Rowling’s skill as a writer managed to hide it well most of the time.

The first time the stretching out showed for me was in book four Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire in which the central action involved the Triwizard tournament. This involved teams from three different schools, two of whom sent a large contingent to Hogwarts for it. The tournament involved just three events that individually lasted at most a few hours each, and realistically the whole thing could have been completed over a weekend (or at most a few days) like most interschool tournaments, But in the book there were long intervals between the events that lasted months. Although accommodating a huge number of visitors at Hogwarts for so long a time would have been unrealistic, no satisfactory explanation was given as to why this was necessary.

These are minor quibbles but may help to explain why in Deathly Hallows, the middle section had our hero and his friends wandering around in the woods with no clearly discernible purpose. Although compressing the time would have tightened the pacing, that would have resulted in the adventure ending before Christmas, something that Rowling presumably felt she had to avoid.

All in all, this was a very good series of books. Rowling handled emotions well, dealing with tragedy and death without being maudlin, with love without being sappy, and drawing moral lessons without being preachy.


  1. Corbin says

    Not to mention that the writing is sometimes
    extremely funny and touching at the same time.
    My favorite angle in the last book is the
    development of the Ron-Hermione relationship:
    “Always the tone of surprise!”

  2. says

    A very nice article -- I loved the books and also read the final book shortly after it’s release as to avoid the eventual spoilers!

    It’s funny that you mentioned the Triwizard tournament, as I also found that very weird, especially as nobody got to play Quidditch for an entire year! I couldn’t work out the connection! None the less, Rowling definitely covers over these areas well.. it didn’t stop me reading!

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