Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
Since its inception in 1997, much hype has accrued around the Harry Potter series, the creation of a single mother who had not previously published a thing. Her avowed plan is to write a series of seven books which will come to a close when Harry Potter finishes school. Children's books seldom get the kind of attention these books have received, so I picked up the first one with a kind of detached curiosity.
I've now read the second and third for sheer fun and to see how the story is developing, and I've no doubt I'll read the rest as they appear. Rowling's plotting and characters -- her ability to drop hints, misdirect one's concerns and then pull a switcheroo, her fun with language -- are all masterful, and the books are just terrific fun to read. Few authors, whether nominally adults' or children's writers, juggle plot and invention with this kind of energy.
Joanna Rowling has revived a lineage with these books, reawakened a tradition that had dried up and slunk away in embarrassment sometime after 1972 when Judy Blume published Are you there, God? It's me Margaret. Before that time it was accepted that "young adult" books should be fanciful and fun, vehicles of entertainment and possibly a little moralizing as a very secondary theme. Suddenly the market was flooded with problem books. First-crush stories, first-period stories, my-parents-are-getting-a-divorce books. Serious, therapeutic literature for the adolescent, with nary a unicorn or a spaceship in sight until, attaining adult status, one was again permitted to indulge one's fancy at the science fiction and fantasy shelves. The Harry Potter books mark the return of a welcome gleam of fantasy in this world, if sales figures are to be believed.
Rowling has been compared to C.S. Lewis, but I think that's off the mark. Her entertaining mixture of magic and realism is in direct descent from E. Nesbit, who published The Five Children and It, The Phoenix and the Carpet and The Story of the Amulet between 1902 and 1906. The message: Magic makes some things much more interesting but also causes its own problems. Nesbit's child characters are not pathetic orphans, but are ordinary, generally well-intentioned London kids. Their father away on empire-building business and their mother unwell, they are freer than most of their peers to go out and explore, and their encounters with magical creatures or mysterious artifacts led them into many tricky situations and adventures.
Nesbit was a Fabian socialist; the only implied message is that, on the whole, it's better to be kind and thoughtful than selfish and mean. C.S. Lewis's Narnia books, on the other hand -- published in the 1950s -- embed an entire story of fall and redemption, a theological cosmology in which the birth, life and death of Narnia are a Christian allegory of our own world. Rowling is not trying to do anything like that; Harry Potter is much more akin to Nesbit's London family than to the children who become kings and queens in Narnia.
Harry Potter is in an even more compelling situation than Nesbit's characters. He is an orphan, and he's forced to live with the Dursleys, his incredibly awful uncle, aunt and cousin. Part of the compelling oddness of the Potter books is that this household is both the setting for some great low-comedy material and an ongoing source of pain for Harry. At the Dursleys' he's treated as an untouchable, so he can hardly believe his luck when (after much tribulation) he gets a letter when he's ten, saying he's really a wizard and is expected to start school at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry in September. Even after that he's still obliged to spend most of his summer vacations with the Dursleys, who shift from complete denial of the world of wizardry to fear and hatred of it and him.
His experiences in the Muggle household ("muggles" are mundane, non-magical humans) provide a counterpoint to his absorbing life at the wizarding school. The attraction of this whole theme is evident; anyone who has felt misunderstood and hard done by at home is likely to feel the pull of a plot in which the hero really is different, smarter and more powerful than the people who are, temporarily, oppressing him.
One of the plot engines that drives all three books is Harry's piecing together of what happened to his wizard parents and why they were killed -- and by whom -- when he was a baby. It's a source of darkness in the books, too, anchoring them down from floating away on a merry wind of magic and invention. At Hogwarts, Harry makes friends, gets a place on the Gryffindor Quidditch team -- a complicated tag-dodgeball game played on flying broomsticks -- and has some wonderful times, but he also has to cope with angers and resentments left over from his father's schooldays as well as with the meanness and trickery of some of his contemporaries. At the end of the third and current volume we're beginning to get a better idea of things that went on at Hogwarts in Harry's parents' time, but the full picture of how Harry's life will be affected by this unfinished business is still to come.
Rowling is also having fun with the grand British tradition of the school story. If E. Nesbit is one of her literary forebears, Enid Blyton is another -- but an updated Blyton with none of the implied racism that has made her books unwelcome in school libraries in recent years. The Potter books are notably timeless, free of any cultural reference that would pin them down to any particular decade, but we only have to notice that the girls at the school are not weaklings, that without any fuss some of the characters are not white, to know this is not Enid Blyton territory any more.
The whole school story background is, however, intensely British. A big boarding school with houses, a headmaster, Quidditch teams and the rest is a huge assumption. In North America will Rowling have a larger readership among adults -- who have intuited that whole British public school system from their reading -- than among children for whom it's a completely alien setting? Or will children assume the school itself is just part of the fantastic side of the story? It would be interesting to know.
At the end of Prisoner of Azkaban, Harry is 13 years old, and Rowling will soon have to deal with the adolescence of her main characters. Traditionally the school story, the pubescent fantasy, is fantasy partly because the whole entanglement and anxiety of sex is left out. Nobody in Nesbit has an adolescent crush; nobody in Blyton worries about their physiological changes; in Lewis, becoming adult is practically wicked: Susan is excluded from the final apotheosis of Narnia because she has grown up and is concerned with adult things. But at Hogwarts, Percy Weasley is already being teased for having a girlfriend and Hermione has had a passing crush on Gilderoy Lockhart -- I think it's entirely possible Rowling may be able to take it all in stride.
Criticism has been made that the three books share too similar a plot arc, and there's some truth to that. Each book encompasses a school year, and in each, Harry and his friends must cope with some crisis which only they can handle. Perhaps Joanna Rowling will vary this, but perhaps not: it's a successful formula, and children like the solidity of such a reliable framework especially when the stories are roller coasters of unexpected plot twists and turns -- and in the latest book Rowling has created a plot of greater complexity and depth than before, so there's the possibility the books will get even better as the series progresses.
Overlooking a bit of repetitiveness may be the price we pay as adults for indulging in children's books. Rowling's books have very few other reminders to the adult reader that they are straying into children's territory -- she doesn't moralize or talk down or put in jokes which are a nudge to other adults over the children's heads. This is just good, entertaining storytelling.