Thursday, August 16, 2007

Harry Potter: Dreadful and Vulgar?

Some of you are ready to cast Cruciatus curses my way even now. So let me explain.

I'm a Harry Potter fan. I find myself caring deeply about him and his Hogwarts friends and teachers. I want him to win the hand of Ginny Weasley, pass his O.W.L.s and, in general, restore order to the universe. But Harry has his critics, both literary and moral. Some reviewers have castigated author J.K. Rowling for her awkward prose. And the moral guardians of truth? Where does one begin? How about with Spokesperson for the Moral Masses James Dobson.

Last week he reiterated his criticism of the books:

We have spoken out strongly against all of the Harry Potter products. Magical characters — witches, wizards, ghosts, goblins, werewolves, poltergeists and so on — fill the Harry Potter stories, and given the trend toward witchcraft and New Age ideology in the larger culture, it's difficult to ignore the effects such stories (albeit imaginary) might have on young, impressionable minds.

One hopes that someone will eventually introduce Dobson to the writings of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. This week he bemoans the loss of sacrificial heroes in our culture. If the irony were any thicker, you'd have to cut it with a Lumos spell.

It's unfortunate when the clueless have vast influence, but I honestly don't spend much time worrying about James Dobson and his woeful misconceptions. Of far more importance to me is the prevailing view in some circles that the Harry Potter books are lowbrow fluff, literature in only the most tenuous sense. To gain a better appreciation of those who hold this view, I refer you to this excellent article, written by Paul Spears.

To probably no one's great surprise, I am somewhat sympathetic to this view. I've read all seven Harry Potter books. And every five pages or so I found myself wincing at the awkward sentence structures, the lazy writing, the adjectives that weren't quite right. And my Inner Snob, which all too quickly becomes my Outer Snob, was offended. Spears describes this process very well:

Many who consider themselves academic are embarrassed to admit the guilty pleasure of popular literature, and in our public capacity believe it is our duty to point out that Harry Potter is not Dante’s Inferno. For some reason critics think that if people quit reading popular novels and spent more time immersed in the work of Homer or Spenser the world would be a more ethical and beautiful place.

I will note that this view applies not only to literature, but also to -- oh, let's just pick an artform at random -- music. The prevailing view among music critics is that popular equates to crap (to use the popular vulgar term), and that, in spite of occasional aberrations about once per decade (U2, Bruce Springsteen), there is an inverse relationship between number of albums sold and quality. According to this theory, the greatest music is currently being made by some kids in their bedrooms in Portland, Oregon, who are known only to four of their friends and their grandmothers. Since this music will be difficult to find, you might want to check out new albums from people named Ezra Furman and Joe Henry instead. Hypothetically.

But getting back to Harry, let me note again that I read all seven books. And I deeply enjoyed all seven books. Awkward writing be damned, there was something there that compelled me to read more than 4,000 pages of the story of the boy wizard. And sure enough, Paul Spears nails what that is, too:

The world of Harry Potter is grounded in transcendent truth. In J.K. Rowling’s magical world there is no doubt about the fact that there is good and evil. It may be difficult to determine who is good or evil (Snape), but whether or not good exists is never in question. Heroic acts are lauded by the good people, and pencil-pushing bureaucrats who are legalist for the sake of legalism are seen as not truly understanding the fight between good and evil. You learn that good is worth fighting for even when it puts you in mortal danger. It is because Rowling draws from the transcendent that we so resonate with her fiction.

It is good that Harry Potter is dreadful and vulgar. It appeals to those of humanity who, according to Chesterton, “have never doubted and never will doubt that courage is splendid, that fidelity is noble, that distressed ladies should be rescued, and vanquished enemies spared.”

To put it another way, you can't beat a ripping good story. But it's interesting to note what makes it so good -- those transcendent themes that transform us even if we are not cognitively aware of them. One of them, which Spears doesn't touch on directly, is laying down one's life for others. That reminds me of something, some big religious deal I'm thinking. Nah, that couldn't be right, because this is a demonic wizard we're talking about.


Anonymous said...

dreadful or wrong? about neither? its good stuff. and as for james...well, i can't print that "shit" here :) wonder when he'll find his next "friend" like ted haggard to throw under the bus.

mg said...

hmmmm...surprisingly james seems to be a little late to the party.

but yeah, i agree that perhaps he should read some tolkien/lewis for good measure. witches/warlocks and magical creatures aplenty in rings/narnia.

anyways, i'm reading the books for the first time right now. i finished 'sorcerers stone' a couple days ago and am now a chunk into 'chamber of secrets'. i haven't winced at the writing, but have thoroughly enjoyed it. i guess it's geared towards kids (at least was initially) and so maybe my bar is lowered.

nonetheless, i realized after watching films 3&4 that i felt like i was missing something and wasn't going to watch anymore HP films until i had read the accompanying book. the books definitely are a delight and better than the films in that they provide a more complete story. i'm definitely enjoying my first ride through potter-ville.

Go JK!

Karen said...

i have nothing deep to say about it, i just like harry potter a whole lot. there is something to be said for a book that can transport you to a magical world, and let you live there in it's pages. kid fiction or adult, i don't care. all i care about is the transport. to me, that's the best part about reading. harry potter does just that.

michael: yes, the books are better than the movies. always read the book first! always! the movies are just nice "extras." :)

Andy Whitman said...

I almost always prefer books to movies. That said, the latest Harry Potter movie ("Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix") might actually have been better than the book. That's the first Harry Potter movie where I've thought that's true. And that's not really meant to take anything away from the book, either. I just thought the movie was very, very well done -- dark and suspenseful, with all kinds of underlying Christian symbolism that couldn't really be there because of all those associations with witches and wizards.

Pilgrim said...

I read them all this summer, after
Alan Jacobs (The Narnian author) at Books & Culture gave me permission. :-) Over at American Scene, he calls them "penny dreadfuls." There's a place for them.

Mark D. Roberts, a prominent Godblogger, read them with his children. Some in his congregation didn't. He felt there's room to differ on the issue.

She's a good storyteller.

sg said...

Enjoyed your post. Thanks for the thoughtful sarcasm...


Beth said...

You're welcome, Andy.

I have yet to see the "Order of the Phoenix" film, but I expect to agree with you that it might be better than the book--a very unusual event!