(Image from absolutevanilla.blogspot.com)
The fact is as much as I’d like to say that a good old reliable doorstop of a tome is the way to go, it isn’t always. Sometimes thinking about concentrating on a book that lengthy (and particularly if it’s a heavy going one such as the fantasy I usually read) is tiring in itself, let alone attempting to actually pick it up and read it. However, if I have absolutely nothing to read then I go ever so slightly stir-fry crazy so I have a few series and individual books that I first read when much younger that I return to at times like this. Typically they are the sort that sit awkwardly in the not-quite-mature-adult-but-not-really-for-young-teenagers-either area, and they serve as easy time-passing when I’m not up to anything more demanding.
Some other examples include Elizabeth Goudge’s The Little White Horse, Jenny Nimmo’s The Snow Spider Trilogy, and Peter S Beagle’s The Last Unicorn.
One of the joys of that list and the Harry Potter books themselves is that given the number of times I read them through my teenage years, they’re even readable on days when my short term memory isn’t playing ball, because I probably know most of them word for word by now.
I thought they deserved a post of their own, mostly because they are a subject I am just a little bit touchy about. I’m not your stereotypical rabid fanatic who can’t handle any criticism of the books – there are plenty of valid ones and I’ve offered some myself in the past. You’ll never hear me stand up and say Rowling’s stories are the best thing ever contributed to literature because I don’t believe that to be true.
I’m also well aware that the series by its very nature is not going to be plenty of peoples cup of tea, and that’s completely fine too. It would be boring were we all alike. Personally I have a lot more time for the criticism of people who’ve actually attempted to read the books than I do those who just sneer for the sake of it, but I never claimed I was perfect.
(Did I say I wasn't a rabid fan? Whoops. This Marauder's Map dress is the lovely handiwork of BabeBoutique's Ebay shop!)
However, I get sick of feeling that I have to re-argue my status as a highly intelligent human being because I like the Harry Potter books. Thoroughly sick and tired of the look on people’s faces which clearly bespeaks “You like something this childish, clearly you have the intellectual capacity of a child. Pity, I thought you were smart.”
And there was me thinking that personal taste was about just that – personal taste – and not an immediate marker of intelligence or worth. Silly me.
So, here’s my case for why I like the series. I don’t expect to change the opinion of anyone who doesn’t, and more to the point I don’t actually want to. However, you should never cast aspersions unless you’re prepared to hear their rebuttal.
The first thing to bear in mind is that when I initially read the series I was a part of the original target audience. When the last book was released I was 17 coming up 18, much the same as the core characters. Whilst acknowledging all the other brilliant books I was reading throughout my adolescence, it wouldn’t be untrue to say I essentially grew up with the series. For me, part of its appeal is that it’s a very true coming-of-age – the settings and the scenarios may be entirely fantastical but the human elements are very true to life. The themes are criticised for their simplicity, but regardless they are themes I responded to and continue to respond to as an adult. Despite plenty who’ve expressed the opinion, it doesn’t actually make me a naïve person – it’s just an expression of the things I hold to be important.
For a person who has always loved language, I appreciate the way this is used (sometimes not overtly) and the interweaving of Latin, Greek and French influences in the vocalisation of spells. There’s a lovely usage of Victorian flower language in the first book which without knowledge of the same passes easily as an unobtrusive piece of dialogue. It’s a tiny little glimpse of foreshadowing you are never intended to see until after the ending, and when you do it’s hard not to appreciate how clever it is. Things like this don’t make a book, but they’re something I really appreciate nonetheless and they make me smile when I see them.
One of the principle criticisms I hear of the books is their lack of intelligence, and that just tends to make me roll my eyes and decline to comment. On the face of it they’re a series of children’s fantasy books (and I expect that’s where this sort of comment comes from), but there’s a lot more going on beneath the surface including some conscious mirroring across generations and the Macbeth-ian question of the effect of prophecy. There are nods littered all over to the likes of Chaucer and Aeschylus, to the folklore not only of Britain but of wider Europe and beyond. If you’re going to throw the question of lack of intelligence in a story for young people about, leave it where it belongs in the pages of The Twilight Saga.
The crucial nail on the head point for me was that while I was at secondary school, I was a prodigiously academic and bookish child who loved to learn and definitely had some slight “know-it-all” tendencies. I had an overbite which was later corrected by braces, and I had an even bigger and wilder mane of hair than I have today. Interestingly, some of that is how Rowling describes herself, admitting that the character of Hermione Granger is an exaggeration of herself as a school girl.
(Originally included in the two disc edition of Deathly Hallows Part 2 "The Women of Harry Potter" makes an interesting watch.)
I’m sure most people say this of themselves, but as a further point I was far from an attractive teenager. My other half says differently having seen an awful annual school photo my Dad still has at home, but then he’s biased and probably also aware that he’s too tall to sleep comfortably on our sofa.
With the popularity of the books and the release of the first film, suddenly there was a widely-known pop culture reference to a character that was just like me. Not only is Hermione bright and bookish and herself the owner of a wild mane of hair, but she gets to be a heroine without ever having to be raving beauty. A rare thing indeed.
The comparison grew more amusing with age, as a school friend later told my parents that by 14 I’d mastered a facial expression (often turned on both him and another friend) that was pretty much the silent equivalent of Emma Watson’s despairing question in the first film - “Honestly, don’t you two read?”
Did any of this make the five years of bullying any better? No. It never stopped a single unkind word, but it did make me feel a little bit better in myself. It was a small and constant encouragement that although I might have been weird in the context of my peers, it wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. I didn’t understand it fully at the time, but looking back now the books freed me from the expectations of those around me in a lot of small ways which helped to define the person I became.
That’s why I’m a little defensive on the subject of the Harry Potter books. In questioning my intelligence as a fan of the books, you’re questioning something which had a very powerful and positive effect on me as an adolescent and in some ways questioning a part of who I am now. It might sound over the top, but then I’m not really given to feeling that passion and emotional connection with anything is something to be ashamed of.
When I watched the speeches at the premiere of the final Deathly Hallows film, I don't mind admitting there were some happy tears when J.K. Rowling closed her thoughts with "The stories we love best do live in us forever, so whether you come back by the page of the big screen Hogwarts will always be there to welcome you home."
Ultimately I’m touchy because I have a lot to thank Rowling for.
Book by book she helped a little girl with a crippling lack of confidence find out that despite her bookish and intelligent nature, she had every bit a capacity for magic as anyone else.
Anybody else a fan of the Harry Potter books? Fan or not, I’m happy to hear opinions on this post, as well as to hear if anyone else has these sorts of “switch off” books or films that they keep returning to?
Wishing you all many spoons xxx