By nature I tend to avoid books and movies with a lot of hype associated with them, because the bigger the hype the greater the magnitude of disappointment in a large number of cases. So I was quite judgmental about the Harry Potter series when I first heard about it in June / July 2000 and I kept wondering what it was all about. When my dear friend Vishy tried hard to get me to read a Harry Potter, I was staunch in my refusal, going more by my brother Koke’s word about Harry Potter being like Enid Blyton’s novels. Not that I disliked Enid Blyton as a kid, but as a 21 year-old I did not want to be caught with a kids’ book in hand.
So when I had to start a train journey from Hyderabad to Kolkata aboard the Falaknuma Express in May 2001, I was quite surprised to see myself picking up a Harry Potter. I had no clue what the first book in the series was, but looking at the descriptions on the back flap I figured Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone had to be it. It was a decision that I wouldn’t regret. By the end of that trip I had finished reading Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (book 4) and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (book 2) as well. To say that I was addicted would be an understatement.
After getting back to Bangalore I got myself a copy of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (book 3) and finished that. Then began an elaborate hunt for good fan-fiction. But nothing could keep me sated till the next installment came by. I was a bit disappointed with Order of the Phoenix (book 5), and while I felt Half-Blood Prince (book 6) was a definite improvement, I was also left wondering how on earth J. K. Rowling would finish up the series with so much left to do. With trepedition I looked forward to The Deathly Hallows (book 7), and what a fitting end it was to the series!! So pleased was I with it that I went ahead and purchased Tales of Beedle the Bard.
What makes me like the series so much? I could point out several reasons:
- A really fertile imagination – Rowling comfortably rivals other fantasy writers with her world of fiction. There are several literary creations of hers to show that off:
- The game of quidditch, complete with rules, a world cup and a supporting book, Quidditch Through the Ages.
- The smooth blending of the world of magic with the world of “muggles”, as the magical folks would call them:
- The hypothetical Platform 9 3/4 at King’s Cross, acting as a train stop for transporting between the two worlds
- Use of fairy-tale concepts of magic, like flying broomsticks, magic carpets, cauldrons for potions and adding a modern spin of commercialism to them, like a Nimbus 2001 broom.
- Introducing a minister for magic to handle liaison between the two worlds
- Making the kids of the magical world go through an academic schedule similar to the kids outside – full-year terms, exams at the end of the terms and so on.
- Saying that creatures like dragons, basilisks, phoenices, goblins, centaurs, elves and merpeople exist in the magical world. This kind of writing provides rich fodder to kids’ imaginations.
- Great play of words
- Avada Kedavara – Interesting how abracadabra and cadaver could be changed into a curse
- Diagon Alley, Knockturn Alley
- Voldemort, meaning “flight of death” for the villain’s name, though Rowling claims the name wasn’t intended to have a meaning.
- Malfoy, meaning “bad faith” as a name for the villain’s lackey.
- A werewolf called Remus Lupin
- A person called Sirius Black, who can transform himself into a dog
- Spellotape – much like cellotape, except that it is magical
- Pensieve – from pensive, something where all your thoughts go in.
- Rubeus Hagrid – based on Hagrid Rubes, or “Giant of the jewels”, a kind giant in Greek mythology who was framed by Zeus for murder and banished from Mount Olympus, but allowed to stay and take care of animals. Rowling claims that the name is derived from “hagridden”
- The *very* witty writing style.
- Poking fun at the arbitrary values in the FPS system of measurement using the concept of galleons, sickles and knuts (1 galleon = 17 sickles, 1 sickle = 29 knuts)
- Some really funny dialogue, like the ones involving Kreacher, the mocking by Severus Snape and the bickering between Ron and Hermione.
- The motto of Hogwarts was “Draco Dormiens Nunquam Titillandus”, meaning “Never tickle a sleeping dragon”.
The plots are simple, yet engaging. I will try to summarize them without letting out too many spoilers:
- Philosopher’s Stone
This book was called Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone in the US because the American editors felt that the use of “Philosopher” in the title would misrepresent the contents of the book to children. Being the story that introduces it all, this novel has a special place in the hearts of most fans. The plot was straightforward – there is an attempted robbery where the thieves try to get a highly desirable object – the Philosopher’s stone. This could be the elixir of life for Voldemort, hence every attempt is made by Harry and his friends to foil the plot thereby delaying Voldemort’s return to power. The novel did set about highlighting those traits in people that would become cornerstones of the series.
- Chamber of Secrets
The theme here was certainly more innovative than Philosopher’s Stone. Mysterious messages show up everywhere in the school and people keep getting petrified. Harry keeps hearing mysterious voices and then he discovers that there may be a monster locked up in an unknown Chamber of Secrets. The book then proceeds to show Harry beating the odds to emerge triumphant. It also shows how brilliant Voldemort was and highlights class discrimination in the wizard world. Watch out for the anagram at the end of the novel – it is particularly intuitive.
- Prisoner of Azkaban
This is the book where Harry breaks free off the pack. He displays mastery over an extremely advanced form of magic and shows that when it comes to dark magic, he is better than most at defending against it. There is no Voldemort in this book and it is slightly low on action except for the last bit. Most people liked this novel for the titular character, but I felt that Sirius Black was more of a plot device than a character of much significance.
- Goblet of Fire
The most action-filled book of the series up to that point, bested only by The Deathly Hallows. It has a lot of things happening, like the characters developing into full-blown adolescents, a full-blown sequence with a dragon, some spectacular fights with other creatures at the end, the first death explicitly portrayed, Harry honing his magical abilities further, some great plot devices and most importantly the return of Voldemort. It also leaves a few very significant open ends (like a glint in Dumbledore’s eyes) that don’t get resolved till the very end of the series. And then it leaves the gates open for fans arguing what the romantic coupling in the novels should be.
- Order of the Phoenix
This is one depressing novel. It wasn’t a bad novel – it was just gloomy. Everything that could go wrong with Harry goes wrong, starting from nobody believing his story about Voldemort’s return, to a really sadistic teacher at school, to losing a dear one to coping with anger issues accompanying his age, to encountering romantic frustration. And given that it was longer than Goblet of Fire, it felt like a let-down when the climactic scene didn’t show much of a battle between Harry and Voldemort. Of course, that was compensated by a more competent wizard battling Voldemort. But nevertheless, this book was a let-down. This was also the book where “the prophecy” was revealed, in fairly ambiguous terms, if I might add.
- Half-Blood Prince
After the gloom of Order of the Phoenix, I was hoping that this book would lift my spirits. It did, though the end left me rather stunned. Luckily this novel did not have Harry brooding too much over the killed character from Order of the Phoenix. One of the key aspects here was some back-story for Voldemort, to help Harry and us readers understand his psyche. True to form Rowling killed off another character, but this was a character who had truly been central to the plot up to this point. I wasn’t able to wrap my head around how Rowling would be able to tie up all the lose ends in the last book. Statistically only 2/7 of Harry’s battle had been won and his most powerful ally was lost.
- Deathly Hallows
It is a testament to Rowling’s exceptional skill that she managed to tie up ALL loose ends in this novel. And what really took the cake was the whole aspect of the Deathly Hallows and Dumbledore’s back-story. More than anything else this was a tale of redemption. Several characters, major and minor found forgiveness and redemption and their stories received closure here. All in all the entire journey was well worth its wait.
Rowling’s writing style is so captivating that even the most mundane of sequences have the quality of an absolute page-turner. Though the books are all titled Harry Potter and something, each book shows what can be achieved by teamwork – Harry is never the smartest wizard, but he has a conviction and determination that is so desired in a hero, Hermione is most often the brains behind the operations (though Harry tends to overrule Hermione’s logical outlook of things) and Ron is all about heart. Also, each book chronicles one year in the life of the characters, so the characters grow with the series.
If there is one criticism that must be leveled at Rowling it is that she is an unmitigated disaster at the romantic aspects of the series. A common topic of discussion all over the internet during the first 5 novels was how the romantic pairings would work out. Fans were vertically split between Harry-Hermione vs. Ron-Hermione. Both camps were convinced that there was enough evidence for their “ship” to win out and ship wars ranged from dignified to vitriolic. Eventually one relationship triumphed, which most people could live with since it was the author’s prerogative. But the manner in which a new relationship was foisted on Harry by suddenly having a character pitched as “his equal” left a lot to be desired. More importantly the romantic interactions in Half Blood Prince and Deathly Hallows seemed extremely awkward and forced, almost as though Rowling felt obliged to include something romantic, but had no idea how and would much rather be concentrating on the main plot. But this must be the sole blemish in a remarkable series.
One thing that I will be grateful to Rowling forever is that she has given the kids of today something really good to read with contemporary settings. A lot of children today shun books for video games and movies and in that process, they really miss out on the undiluted thrill of turning through the pages of a book. Her books showcase very simple concepts like the values of love, kindness, forgiveness, courage, redemption and loyalty. They also highlight several issues in society like class distinctions, belief in superiority by birth, blind faith, presenting illusions of safety when things are not quite hunky-dory and so on.
I am waiting for Aikataan to grow up a bit so that he can start reading – books like these are bound to unlock a child’s imagination.