Commentary on Harry Potter (first SIX books- reread prior to #7)

I’ve been rereading the entire Harry Potter series for the past four months in anticipation of Deathly Hallows. I’ve tried to read more critically, from a writer’s viewpoint, but it’s hard to be dispassionate. As I read, I sought to answer the intoxicatingly addictive Harry Potter phenomenon. A million writers, scholarly ones too, must be trying to replicate the magic. What I really wanted to work out was J.K. Rowling’s style and verve. Here goes:

Harry Potter & the Philosopher’s Stone (Book 1):
J.K. Rowling’s most glaringly obvious gift is her ability to invest the reader completely in her characters. We LOVE these people, even from the outset. Who could resist an orphaned boy, marked for death, left with unbearably nasty relatives? He’s our modern day Oliver Twist. Chapter one, ‘The Boy Who Lived’, signals an enchanting opening. How did this baby survive? Why is he special? Who are those odd people leaving him on the doorstep? Soon we get Hagrid and the friends, followed by a wealth of sites and sounds.

Which leads me to Rowling’s second talent: inventions, imagination, and setting. We see this new world through the eyes of Harry; we’re with him on the journey, wandering through the wonders. We’re not really in limited third person; we’re inside Harry (a skill that would be difficult without superlative character development).

Rowling’s third aptitude lies in plotting a mystery, an unfamiliar genre as I rarely read mysteries. I’m aware that mystery requires precise plotting and this can, at times, make the story can feel a bit contrived, but the plot certainly moves forward here. One keeps wanting to know the secrets, keeps thinking like Harry. Even when he’s wrong, we are startled alongside him.

Rowling’s structural ability lies in her execution of dialogue and pacing. The dialogue is excellent, both believable and succinct. Sentence length is varied, but can sometimes become exceptionally long, with many commas, untypical of children’s books. I felt, many times, as if Rowling were just talking. And while literary critics might condemn this informal style, as a reader, it’s engaging.

The final thing that I noticed, as I tried to suspend my entertainment, was that Rowling MUST have dreamed this whole thing up for years. There are so many hidden clues, and red herrings, that it’s intricately intoxicating. There are clues that propel the particular story plot as well as minute mentions of things for future books: hints that the Weasley twins have a way to get out of castle (Book 3 = map), Harry has feeling Snape can read minds (Book 5 = Occlumency), Sirius Black’s motorbike (Book 3 = Harry’s godfather). Dumbledore’s dialogue is minimalist - to say the least. But when he speaks, he is a wealth of foreshadowing. If Dumbledore says something, you better believe it’s going to be important later.

Still, all this doesn’t really explain why the world’s so obsessed. I listened to the audio version of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone with nine classes of sixth graders over three years. I never tired of it, and even after the first movie came out, the students never tired of it (some credit must also go to the extraordinary voices created by Grammy winner Jim Dale). After rereading all six novels, I’m still at a loss to explain. Perhaps J.K. Rowling is really a witch.

My favorite scenes from Book 1: Hagrid telling Harry he’s a wizard, Harry entranced by the Mirror of Erised, and Hagrid giving Harry the photo album of his parents….

Harry Potter & the Chamber of Secrets (Book 2): I must first assert that this is my least favorite of the books. It so closely followed the same mystery arc as book one, I consider it somewhat contrived and occasionally off point. I didn’t like the three new characters: Dobby, Aragog & Gilderoy Lockhart (though I doubt we’re meant to like the latter).

However, by book two, we are totally invested in several characters, especially the three friends. We know that logic and a cool head drive Hermione. Her thirst for knowledge is unmatched. We know that Ron, though a bit immature, is driven by loyalty and a quest to prove himself. His observations, though flippant, usually come true. Harry is emotionally driven; his lot in life has already marked him (as we learn so poignantly in Book 5). He’s empathetic and intuitive; bravery is not an option as his inquisitive nature, his thirst for understanding, trumps any fear he might secretly harbor.

The first stylistic element I noted was the use of cliffhanger chapter endings (which become even greater, as book cliffhanger endings, by Book 4). Imagine the kid whose parent tells him, “Only one chapter.” Millions of flashlights grown at the thought.

I've also observed that dialogue is used to move the plot forward. The characters speak the observable, so that we may learn alongside them. Additionally, the shrewd dialogue has a comedic effect, calming the intense plotting and suspense.

Along with repeating the themes of friendship and cooperation from Book 1, Rowling introduces the theme of prejudice with the nasty term of mudblood, akin to our own “N” word. This theme remains through the series, later to be repeated in S.P.E.W. She also begins to develop the pattern of Harry being predestined; readers wonder if he’s just in the wrong place at the wrong time or marked by fate. This theme will prove huge later.

Once again hints, red herrings, and foreshadowing abound as future books reveal: werewolves, a vanishing cabinet, mind-reading, and where the flirtations between Ron & Hermione are headed… concepts ever so slightly mentioned here.

My favorite scenes from Book 2: the introduction of the Burrow, Harry’s trumping of Lucius Malfoy to win Dobby’s freedom, Fawkes assistance in the chamber…

Harry Potter & the Prisoner of Azkaban (Book 3):This is my favorite book of the six for it offers some hope to the emptiness in Harry’s life. I LOVED Sirius Black from the start, instinctively knowing there was more to him. Was that Rowling’s intent?

Here I easily noticed JK Rowling’s use of narrative misdirection with the ‘overheard conversation.’ I realize she’s been doing this the whole time, but it’s more blatantly used here. So many people are murmuring about Sirius Black, it’s easy to use this device. In addition to using overheard dialogue, Rowling, once again, uses comedic dialogue to squelch the intensity of the plot. The comedic dialogue also assists in our, even further, character investment. We like them, and identify with them more completely, when they’re comical and witty.

Though we‘re already invested in Harry, Hermione, & Ron, we begin to invest in other characters like Ginny & Neville; they’ve been sidekicks through many adventures. Rowling gives them a bit more dialogue and development. Wise move, as introducing too many characters in the first two books might have detracted from our attachment to the special three.

I also found the suspense of this novel so great, I forgot to ask inner questions; I just had to keep reading. The plot was more intricate, showing both maturity in her plot development skills and the reader’s maturing interests. I question if she did this intentionally, as her plot prowess seems to intensify with each book. Some might argue that she’s just becoming a better writer, but I think she’s advancing her reader’s skills (I am, as she is, a teacher after all).

I also began to notice a few plot holes with this one. One instance: trolls are hired to protect the painting of the Fat Lady, but trolls are described as dumb and mean in Sorcerer’s Stone. Later we’ll learn that Snape is adept at reading minds, yet he can’t tell that Crouch is under the imperius curse? And, why doesn’t Lupin tell Dumbledore that Black is an animagus when they all still think he’s a killer who’s after Harry? Lupin’s explanation, once given, is weak. Throughout the six books, there are a few inconsistencies, but they're certainly minimal when you consider the scope.

Imagine this, little name-dropping hints are still happening: Merpeople, Cedric, Grindylows, the Quidditch World Cup…

My favorite scenes from Book 3: Harry meets his godfather, Harry’s increasing skill as a wizard - conjuring a Patronus, Hagrid becoming a professor, the theory of ‘time-turning’, the introduction of Professor Trelawney, the Dementors, Professor Lupin and (of course) Sirius Black…

Harry Potter & the Goblet of Fire (Book 4): After Chamber of Secrets, this is my least favorite. I know it’s the favorite of many and I get that it begins a new, more intense structural form, but I felt it was the most manufactured of the bunch. I realize this was necessary to set up the concluding three books; I just have an aversion to the way the structure takes away from the plot.

This is the first time we begin the story away from Privet Drive, a flag to tell us things are going to be different. The rising actions Rowling creates in this book are methodical, almost like steps along a plot line. The tasks in the Triwizard tournament are the most obvious of these steps. I’m not certain this was a first-rate plan as it contributes to the feel of contrived plotting.

Character development is furthered for both Lord Voldmort, a flat plain-evil villain to this point, and Peter Pettigrew. The humor has turned more adultish, she’s maturing all of the characters. The interactions between the prepubescent characters at the dance are especially spot on.

I should also bring up how Rowling steers the reader. By now, we’ve inferred that omens of things to come almost always have a resolution. Rowling has an uncanny knack for hanging hints and loosening ends to make us think they are more than they really are. All the while, she subtly uses understatement to lead us away from real clues. On this critical look I felt like a real fool for having missed so many clues that seemed to be almost hitting the reader over the head. I guess her plot pace is just so intense; we easily miss things on the first read.

There are also longer, more developed, descriptions in this book. This, once again, makes me question reader or writer growth. Sometimes these large chunks of description can seem overdone; critics have argued against her adverb usage and her overindulgence on topics not necessarily relevant to the plot. Although I do see the lengthiness on some sections, I also enjoy the cunning within them. There’s usually some character or scene development contained that will later serve to assist the reader. At the very least, the descriptive sections are still entertaining.

More future inklings: Room of Requirement, Snape knowing more when he arrived at Hogwarts than many 7th year students, Fleur eyeing Bill, and that, oh-so-distinctive “Gleam of Triumph”

My favorite scenes from Book 4: Quidditch World Cup, Hermione & Victor Krum romance, Yule Ball, Harry giving money to Weasley twins so it can be turned for good…

Harry Potter & the Order of the Phoenix (Book 5):
It must be noted that this is my second favorite of the six books. Once again it involves Sirius, so one can easily assume my weakness. Some teens have told me they disliked this book due to what they term “Harry’s Emo Attitude.” My reply was that adults could better see the realism in this characterization, having been removed from teen angst for some time. They just rolled their eyes at me.

There’s improved character development of Severus Snape and Sirius Black in this one. This is, once again, smartly held for five books, as developing too many characters too quickly would have diverted attention and focus. Now, as we learn about Snape and Sirius, we aren’t still gleaning character traits for others. We already know them well.

Five books of thorough Harry Potter character development allow the reader to live inside of Harry, so that when we get to the final grief stricken scenes, it takes minimal effort to assist the reader in feeling Harry’s pain. The scene with Harry sitting by the lake, remembering Sirius, is one of Rowling's best. It’s so pure in emotion, not overly stated, just raw and open. I also treasured Harry’s discussing his loss with Luna, not Hermione or Ron. Another skill Rowling exhibits is her instinctive understanding of human behavior. It’s many times considerably easier to discuss our pain with an outsider rather than discuss it with those we love. While it would have been the ‘norm’ to have Hermione and Ron help Harry through his grief, as they try to do, it’s so much more effective with Luna.

Thematically we learn, through Harry’s eyes, that good and evil are not easily defined. There’s a blurring of the good guys (Order of the Phoenix). Harry’s dad was boastful; Sirius almost killed Snape, Mundungus is a thief, Mad-Eye’s a drinker, and Dumbledore’s own brother, Aberforth, has an unnamed problem with goats. Even wise and omniscient Dumbledore is flawed, not telling Harry sooner about the prophecy, denying Harry the information that might have kept him from being lured by Voldemort.

I did find the plot of this one a bit too swiftly executed, funny since this is the longest book; it created rough transitions between sections and chapters. I’d not observed this is past books. And upon looking back, I don’t feel the others had this issue. I think there was so much ‘set up’ in this book, it was just harder to exact smooth transitioning.

This book shifted point of view a bit. We’re not always with Harry; it’s not only his third person point of view. We’re more able to glimpse what’s happening on the fringe, able to see that other characters have their own storyline running concurrently.

And that teen angst that so easily turned off my teenage friends? Well, I hope they’ll be able to look back one day and see what a brilliant feat Rowling accomplished in this book. She took Harry from an angry, self-absorbed adolescent to a thoughtful and enlightened young man in 870 pages.

Hints Again: The clues are almost overwhelming at #12 Grimmauld Place.

My favorite scenes from Book 5: Opening with Dudley and the Dementors (sounds like a rock & roll band), the Weasley twins exit from Hogwarts, the fight at the ministry, Dumbledore’s tears when he tells Harry of the prophecy, the creation of the DA …

Harry Potter & the Half Blood Prince (Book 6): This book begins securely in the muggle world. By the end, it’s still not apparent why JK Rowling chose to do this. I’d speculate that it might be functional for Deathly Hallows, but she could also be trying to tie the wizard world to the muggle one in an effort to make us consider war’s implications: a political statement, maybe? Considering the political theme later in the book (government can’t be trusted) I feel this may have been her real intent.

Once again the characters are watertight. In five books we have grown to know them like our own children; instinctively we watch, and they perform. It’s a choreographed foxtrot that will be studied for years to come. Snape is developing into a multidimensional force. At points we even feel some empathy for Voldemort, at least we learn how he got to his perverted state. And the relationships between the, now pubescent, young adults is once again behaviorally enlightened.

I noticed the dialogue, remained fantastic in form and kept the plot moving quickly with minimal wording. Rowling would have her characters make these little, off-hand remarks that created detailed visual images for the reader. I caught myself several times on the verge of screaming, “Ah, Ha!” But, Rowling’s hint dropping is not as subtle as it appears because the plot is moving us so quickly. Upon initial observation one must mull whether a hint is really a hint; only during the reread, knowing the final outcome, does one see these elephants standing around the room.

In this book, Rowling pulls a rabbit out of her hat. For five books we’ve watched Harry jump to conclusions and act on instinct only to watch him crash and burn based on those presumptions. In typical Harry form, he continues this behavior only to have Rowling sucker-punch us, seems this time Harry’s accurate in his presumptions. This twist on her traditional plot line has a great effect on readers who expect Harry to be ‘duped’ once again. I wonder if she’ll go back to the original form in Deathly Hallows?

I additionally noticed that she continues to end chapters well, poignantly, and quirkily. There’s always a great deal of foreshadowing that there is more to come. It’ll be sad to read the Deathly Hallows epilogue, knowing she’s hinted nothing further.

Unresolved Hints or Red Herrings: Petunia or Dudley’s hidden magic, stopper in death/draught of livng death, the 12 uses of dragon’s blood, vampires, smells of cabbage, socks, Arthurian heir to Gryffindor, Pettigrew’s life debt, Snape’s reality, Lily’s green eyes and sacrifice, AND THAT gleam of triumph ...

My favorite scenes from Book 6: the entire Spinner’s End chapter, the build-up of the couple’s relationships, Harry’s interactions with Scrimgeour, Fawkes song …

So here are my conclusions on the magical writing style of JK Rowling:

Characterization: This is JK Rowling’s forte’ and the thing I find most intriguing about the books. Subtle, small statements say so much about the principles of not only the characters, but also the author. Dumbledore’s introduction is authoritative and quirky from the start. Harry’s bravery is never questioned, Hagrid’s devotion, Hemione’s intelligence, … That’s the thing; the characters stay spot-on throughout. Yet, the characters develop and grow, they’re more than we initially thought. Rowling’s insights into human behavior, she must be a keen observer, are wonderfully instinctual. Even though the story is told in third person we feel like we’re in Harry’s head, making us believe ourselves first person.

Plot Development through Dialogue: Rowling uses her expertly developed characters and their conversations to shoot the plot forward. Inconspicuous, restrained and believeable, the dialogue between the characters alerts readers to details and setting as well as assists with suspense building through exclamations, outbursts and pausing. She deftly misdirects her characters, and us along with them, during think-alouds and overheard conversations. Character dialogue also provides comedic release when the plot threatens to overwhelm.

Foreshadowing, Cliffhangers & Dangling Hints: Rowling’s chapter endings are wonderful. They have this quirky feel, making us smile knowingly and long for more. Many times she ends with a cliffhanger that sometimes turns out to lead somewhere and other times hits a brick wall. There are so many hints; a reader’s head doesn’t know where to turn.

Themes: The universal themes of friendship, cooperation, and love are intriguing, but it’s the indistinct themes of defining good versus evil, having a fated destiny, the battle for life and death, that really stand out. Rowling is never preachy (well maybe a bit with the love theme). Her readers are given concrete examples, through those character’s actions again, of which traits are life affirming.

Suspension of Disbelief: This is an interesting line of thought because several of my family members are not Harry Potter fans (Gasp! there really are a few of them out there). I think maybe they are the type of readers who have difficulty with this concept, especially in the fantastical sense. If one considers the sales of these books, it would be silly to assume that only fantasy genre readers were buying them. When I’m reading Harry Potter, I never consider anything unbelievable, never once enters my mind. I’m so wrapped up in the story development, everything is possible; Rowling’s own imagination is so detailed I’m IN that world.

Use of British terminology: I LOVE the Britishness of the stories (spotted dick, treacle tart, prefect, wotcher, Yorkshire pudding) and just the little nuanced saying that she, I’m sure, just speaks naturally. You can check British terms out at the Harry Potter Lexicon.

Word choice: By now I should also mention Rowling’s skill at choosing words. She uses an inventive form of Latin to name the spells, causing readers with even the slightest knowledge of Latin based languages, to get the drift of each spell’s intent. Her character naming is more than marvelous. To name them all here would be daunting. You can also check out name origins at the Harry Potter Lexicon.

I’m certain that I will never write anything as remarkable as Rowling’s series. I doubt there are any in this lifetime that will match her universal appeal and I’m indebted for the hours I’ve spent with Harry and Co. Her critics will continue to blast her over various highbrow, reject the populace, idiosyncrasies. Us commoners? Well, we’ll just keep smiling.

Apologies to Ms. Rowling for my ramblings. I just had this nice little blog...
Photo Credit to Mary GrandPre, Harry Potter illustrator extraordinaire!
© 2007-2009 Cheryl Vanatti
Bookmark and Share