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What's Wrong with Harry Potter?

The Obsidian Quest,
short-listed in the Dream Realm Awards 2001

(See also Is there Life After Harry Potter? and
How Harry Potter Nearly Didn't Get Published)

Well, here it is August 2007 and by now even the slowest readers will know that the series ended in a blaze of triumph. If there are readers out there who found the ending unsatisfying I would be very surprised. I do, however, feel sorry for all those young readers who will be feeling absolutely awful because the series has ended, even though they could hardly wait for the last book. What you are experiencing is a form of bereavement, because it’s as though you have lost a dear friend. The only way to help yourself get over this feeling is to find a new book, or series of books, to get enthusiastic over. Believe me, there are plenty out there! Please see my Is there Life After Harry Potter? page if you need help finding something. But back to the subject of this web page, which is “What’s wrong with Harry Potter?”

 Not a lot really, but I think perhaps Philip Pullman pinpointed it very well when he said:

As for Harry Potter—good for him, or her, rather. Rowling has been criticised for her lack of literary grace (see Harold Bloom) and there’s no denying that her style is pretty functional, but she’s full of invention and wit and she can do that mysterious thing—tell a story. Her readers’ enthusiasm is perfectly genuine. The publishers’ hype is there, but it’s pushing something that’s already galloping in that direction.

Compare this, however, with the views of Anthony Holden, one of the judges of the Whitbread book awards, for which Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban was entered. Having described the book as “a tedious, clunkily written version of Billy Bunter on broomsticks”, Holden writes of:

…pedestrian, ungrammatical prose style which has left me with a headache and a sense of a wasted opportunity. If Rowling is blessed with this magic gift of tapping into young minds, I can only wish she had made better use of it. Her characters, unlike life’s, are all black-and-white. Her story-lines are predictable, the suspense minimal, the sentimentality cloying every page.

I feel Mr Holden’s criticism is unnecessarily harsh, particularly when he slams Rowling for sending Harry to “a good old private English boarding school” instead of “a comprehensive, or an embattled secondary modern or a solid old-fashioned grammar—a school of the kind with which most of those millions of young readers can identify”. Harry’s school seems to me more like a university than anything else (even at Harrow the teachers are not referred to as professors) and I have no quarrel with it. Readers would expect someone as special as Harry to go to something better than all the above schools.

From my own perspective, Harry Potter (or, more specifically, the boost these books have given to the world of children’s books) is definitely one of the best things to happen to children’s literature for a long time. However, as a writer myself, I have to agree the writing could be better. I recently read the extract from chapter two of the first book on amazon.com and I have to say I found the writing worse than I remembered it from the English edition that I read. For a start, it was full of one of my pet hates: run-on sentences. Of course, these would also have been in the English edition. They’re so common in published books that I must have shut my mind against them to avoid being irritated. Unfortunately, only a writer is irritated by things like this; very few readers at which Harry Potter is aimed (middle-graders) will even realise the writing isn’t as good as it should be—and could have been with the help of a decent editor.

Also, while the books are for the most part extremely well plotted, I thought the plot of the second book was too much the same as the first. It wasn’t until the third book that I really started enjoying the series. Maybe the fault was mine rather than the books themselves. But when we were introduced to Professor Lupin I started wondering (as Joanne Rowling no doubt intended) if he was really who (and what) he claimed to be.

There is no doubting Joanne Rowling’s imagination. The text-book titles used at Hogwarts are highly amusing. So are the lessons. And all the professors have their own distinct personalities. The Harry Potter books are indeed doing what Enid Blyton did in the fifties: encouraging children to read—and doing it so much better. With books for young people becoming increasingly shorter, many people are surprised that there are so many children in the world willing to read such long books. It isn’t surprising to me. I still insist the main reason why children weren’t reading is that they weren’t being given the kind of books they like. Children, just like adults, want to escape their boring every-day lives when they pick up a book of fiction. Even more than adults, they want—no need—books that stretch their imaginations, allow them to be someone powerful and important, if only for a few hours. The Harry Potter books give them this, making them laugh one minute and chilling their spines the next.

Any adult who remembers what reaching the end of a book was like as a child will understand why young people aren’t fazed by the length of the books. The end of a book is like a death to a child. I remember all too clearly the horrible pain in my chest, and wondering why something that was “only a story” should make me feel so bad. I used to rail at the publisher and the writer for not making the book longer. I thought, strangely, that if only the book had been longer it would stop the pain. I never said anything because I thought I was weird to feel this way. I wasn’t. While not all children will feel bereavement on reaching the end of a book, it is, I understand, a common experience.

I have now read the fourth Harry Potter book. At first I found it a little slow, but was soon drawn into the story. I’m extremely bemused by all the anti-Harry Potter nonsense. For goodness’ sake, it’s only a story! People who see evil in something as harmless as a fantasy story must look into their own hearts. It takes one to know one, they say. It very often takes one to imagine one, too.

Followers of this movement would do better spending their time doing real good (raising money for a charitable cause, for instance) instead of wasting it doing harm.

10 January 2002

I have just read the list of the “most frequently challenged books in 2000”. It’s absolutely unbelievable that the Harry Potter series heads the list!

  1. Harry Potter series, by J K Rowling, for occult/Satanism and antifamily themes.
  2. The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier, for violence and offensive language.
  3. Alice series, by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor, for sexual content.
  4. Killing Mr. Griffin by Lois Duncan, for violence and sexual content.
  5. Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck, for using offensive language, racism, and violence.
  6. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou, for being too explicit in the book’s portrayal of rape and other sexual abuse.
  7. Fallen Angels by Walter Dean Myers, for offensive language, racism, and violence.
  8. Scary Stories series, by Alvin Schwartz, for violence and occult themes.
  9. The Terrorist by Caroline Cooney, for negatively portraying the Islamic religion and Arabs.
  10. The Giver by Lois Lowry, for being sexually explicit, having occult themes, violence.

I doubt the John Steinbeck book is for young readers, but many of the others are.

My reaction to this list is:

  • Why isn't the His Dark Materials trilogy on it? After all, this series features a war with God, who doesn’t exactly come out looking like the good guy!
  • Harry Potter at Number 1 makes the whole list look like a farce. There isn’t anything remotely like Satanism in the whole series! However, people could justifiably accuse His Dark Materials of anti-religious themes. Parents anxious for their children to ask absolutely no questions about the Christian doctrine being drummed into them should definitely not let them read it.
  • Have those accusing the Harry Potter books of being “anti-family” actually read any of them? Either they haven’t or they are unbelievably dimwitted.

Like the Narnia series, the Harry Potter books are about the battle of good against evil—with good always prevailing. Both series have witches in them and every child (every well-adjusted one, anyway) knows there is no such person as a witch. Those preaching against the Harry Potter books, however, could spread to many vulnerable minds (those of their own poor children, for a start) the idea that witches do exist. Children have a tendency to believe that their parents know what they’re talking about, rather than that (as in this case) they are complete idiots.

Calling yourself a witch doesn’t mean you can stop your neighbour’s hens laying, kill another by putting a curse on him, or anything else regarded as sorcery. You might just as well call yourself an eagle and try to fly like one.

Take a good look at people who complain that the Harry Potter books are evil, by the way. Do they look as though they know how to laugh? Frankly, from what I’ve seen of them on television, they look as though the mere idea would crack their faces in two! I’ve never seen such a sour-faced lot in my entire life. Thank goodness all Christians aren’t like them. Real Christians are far more interested in spreading the word of God’s love for us and reinforcing the attempts of Jesus to get us to love one another as we would like others to love us, and to treat each other as we would like to be treated, rather than bashing poor harmless Harrry Potter, and suggesting that Rowling is encouraging children to worship the Devil (who isn’t even mentioned in the books). No sensible Minister of Religion is going to waste his energies ranting about Harry Potter when there is real evil out there from which to save his parishioners.

And incidentally, I was brought up a Catholic. I can think of very few organisations more bigoted than the Catholic Church. That is, until now. (Fortunately the Catholic Church has relaxed a lot since I was a child, but there’s still a lot of work to be done.)

When you look at the Harry Potter books, incidentally, they (like many fantasy stories) have a lot in common with the Bible, particularly the New Testament, where Jesus cured the sick and even brought the dead back to life. We might call it performing miracles, but it could just as easily be called magic. All the good sorcerers in fantasy books, including those in the Harry Potter books, are really allegories of Christ, who fought the Devil to save the world just as Harry Potter fights Voldemort, who (whether or not Joanne Rowling intended it) is an allegory for Satan.

Everybody is asking the reason for the Harry Potter phenomenon. The answer is staring us in the face. Children love fantasy but for a long time have been starved of it. Publishers have just not been publishing it. They insist, instead, on “realistic, contemporary” stories, which always seem to feature dysfunctional family settings. For a very long time The Chronicles of Narnia have been the only fantasy titles consistently in print. Suddenly children are given what they want. And believe me they want wizards and magic. When I couldn’t get this type of book for a boy of 11 in the mid-eighties (all I found were Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising sequence and Ursula Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea and its sequels) the boy turned in disgust to fantasy for adults, in which wizards and sorcery abounded, and of which there was a huge choice. Alas, Matthew never returned to children’s books. I felt this was a shame because the best children’s books are better written than any books for adults.

I think, perhaps, the rot was already setting in when I was looking for fantasy for Matthew. By this I mean that publishers were already reverting to the Victorian concept that books for the young should have some sort of moral. While it’s bad enough to bore child readers to the point where they stop reading (which is what has been happening) it’s positively criminal to load their fiction with deliberately hidden adult agenda. Sometimes it’s not even hidden but blatantly flaunted. If publishers (and writers) want to preach to the young or teach them how to cope with being too fat or too thin, with their parents’ divorce, a teenage pregnancy, drug addiction—and any other problems besetting today’s young people—then they should do it in non-fiction, not in something whose only purpose should be to entertain.

So, boys and girls (and parents too) enjoy the Harry Potter books and share them with all your friends. Only don’t forget there are actually better fantasy titles out there. Have at look at my own suggestions. You could even start by trying my Quest for Earthlight series. The first book is The Obsidian Quest and the whole trilogy has now been published by Mundania Press’s Hard Shell imprint.

Read the reviews I’ve received so far for The Obsidian Quest.

I love reading what other writers have to say about Harry Potter. In an interview with Jean Ure, the people at ACHUKA asked the author, “What do you see as the most and the least positive aspects of contemporary children's literature/publishing?” She replied: “I think perhaps the least positive aspect is the unseemly haste with which publishers jump aboard the latest bandwagon … let's all try to find another Harry Potter! Look for a Nick Sharratt clone for our covers! Flood the market with third-rate fantasy! I suppose the most positive aspect is that even in this age of technology, children’s books are still thriving.”

Is there anybody out there who can point me in the direction of all these imitations of Harry Potter? I know many avid readers clamouring for them, but if they’re available they’re certainly not visible to us! It took publishers ages to start making the books of established writers of fantasy for children available again, never mind work from new writers, who are presumably the subject of the dig about “third-rate” fantasy.

15 May 2001
Hmm. Somebody has just answered my challenge and sent me Warriors of Alavna by N M Browne as an example of bad fantasy being published in the wake of the success of Harry Potter. I stand corrected. If this is a valid example of what publishers are publishing from new writers, then it is indeed unbelievably bad. I finished it only with a great deal of effort. I also showed it to several other writers. They were all aghast that it managed to get published. If the editor had bothered to do her job properly, of course, Ms Browne may actually have landed up with a very good book. I became so tired of reading sentences such as “She was very afraid.” when I wanted to feel her fear rather than just read about it. Anyway, since elsewhere on this web site I encourage young readers to write to the publisher of a book that they didn’t enjoy, I have decided to practise what I preach. Here’s the letter I wrote to Bloomsbury. While this letter definitely won’t receive a reply (I’m sorry now I didn’t challenge the editor to have the courage to answer it J) I’m quite sure any letters from young readers would.

17 December 2001
Today I saw the movie of the first Harry Potter book. It’s two and a half hours long and I have trouble staying awake during any TV programme that’s longer than an hour. Sometimes even an hour is too much. I therefore made sure to book my seat for a morning session. A few days ago I heard from a friend that she was reading the book (borrowed from her grandson) and was having trouble getting through it “because it is so wordy”. Hmm. This friend usually reads adult best-sellers. But she is right. In the movie, without clumsy sentences and unnecessary details to wade through, you can concentrate on the plot.

The movie starts with a prologue showing Dumbledore and Hagrid unwillingly consigning baby Harry to the care of his nasty aunt and uncle by leaving him on their doorstep. It’s a much better beginning than that of the book, which many young people found hard going. The movie contains so many well-known television actors, all giving superb performances. And of course the setting, all larger than life as it were, is so stunning. If I watched the movie on TV I might feel the same way I felt about The Phantom Menace, which seemed all special effects and very little story—even less story than the rest of the Star Wars series, which had little enough. But I don’t think so. Nobody can accuse Joanne Rowling of not giving her readers plenty of story. Tight plotting (seconded only, perhaps, by the type of humour that appeals to children) is Rowling’s biggest asset. However, in cutting Quirrell’s protection on the Stone in the movie, Columbus removed Harry’s reason for assuming Snape was threatening Quirrell to get at the Stone, and also removed any justification for the presence of a mountain troll on school grounds. I sincerely hope they didn’t change the title of the film for American audiences. That change just doesn’t make sense. A sorcerer’s stone can be anything and do anything, but the Philosopher’s Stone serves only one purpose. It annoys me intensely that American publishers of books for children make changes in books by non-American writers because they consider American children won’t understand. It’s downright insulting.

I had to see the movie by myself; my husband was interested in seeing it only if some of his friends wanted to see it. However, I’m quite sure he’d have enjoyed it as much as I did. Next Saturday, however, we are going to see the first Lord of the Rings movie and I’m afraid I expect Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone to pale in comparison.

27 December 2001 And The Fellowship of the Ring did indeed overshadow the Harry Potter movie. See it yourself to discover why. It had its disappointments, of course, because a lot had to be left out, making the story move at a spanking pace that someone who hadn’t read the book might have trouble following. I personally felt that Galadriel’s (truncated) speech when Frodo offered her the ring was spoiled by too many Hollywood effects. When Galadriel became “tall beyond measurement” she looked more frightening to me than “beautiful beyond enduring” and the change in her voice (it went deep and masculine) detracted from the beauty of the words Tolkien gave her. Other movie-goers, however, might think the movie version of this scene an improvement. It’s mostly a matter of taste. However, I doubt Tolkien fans will disagree with the verdict that Peter Jackson did as good a job as it was possible for a movie-maker to do on a book that until now has been judged impossible to do justice to on film. Until Jackson came along, that is. It isn’t possible, of course, for a film to do full justice to one of Tolkien’s greatest strengths: the beauty of his language. This was why I was annoyed when overdone Hollywood effects spoiled the lovely dialogue.

9 January 2003
On Monday (6 January) we saw The Two Towers. I don’t think I enjoyed it as much as the first film, most likely because it encompasses the part of the book that bored me—the war at Helm’s Deep. I also made the mistake of flicking through the beginning of the book that morning, to see where the Ents came in, which meant the fact that Jackson changed the way the Hobbits met the Ents annoyed me. My husband Roger complained that the Ents seemed so small with the forest trees dwarfing them. But of course they would. Tolkien described Treebeard as being about 15 feet tall and one would expect forest trees to be many times this height. However, I don’t think we could complain about Treebeard himself, although Tolkien did describe his arms as being smooth rather than rough like bark. Roger also expected there to be more Ents. However, Treebeard did tell the Hobbits Ents were endangered—that many had been lulled into turning into trees.

(See also Is there Life After Harry Potter?)

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