So for my blog’s birthday week this year, we’re exploring the wizarding world of Harry Potter, that magnificent series of seven books by JK Rowling that has held so many of us enthralled since the late 90s. With 500 million copies sold, the Harry Potter series is the most successful book series of all time, with the first book in the series clocking in at 120 million copies alone.
Where the hell do I begin with this?! The series needs no introduction, that’s for sure – and I’m not even going to try to provide one! I’m going to proceed with the assumption that anybody reading this is familiar with the story and the characters, as otherwise I’d probably be here all week on this one blog…
The story follows the put-upon orphan Harry Potter, as we move from his life full of drudgery with his aunt and uncle, through his discovery that he is, in fact, a wizard, and the start of his life at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. In the wizarding world, Harry is quite the celebrity, as the one who caused the downfall of the Dark wizard Lord Voldemort when he was only one year old. Nobody knows quite how that happened, though Harry was left with a lightning-bolt shaped scar on his forehead.
As we follow Harry’s discovery of the world he previously knew nothing about, we learn about the world at the same pace Harry does. Critically, the story is told from Harry’s point of view almost exclusively, allowing certain information to be kept from us until necessary. Most importantly, we don’t understand what it means that Harry has that peculiar scar on his forehead until we get to the final book of the series.
Along the way, though, we learn about the magical world and encounter some of the many peculiarities. One of the most entertaining aspects of the series is comparing and contrasting the magical world with our own, and seeing all of the various substitutes for things that wizards have come up with. A lot of this is shown to us through Harry’s best friend Ron Weasley, who comes from a long line of wizards. As a native to the world, we’re guided through a lot of the more mundane aspects of life at Hogwarts through him. The pair are also friends with Hermione Granger, who was born to non-magical parents but has read every scrap of information that she can find about magic, providing another vector for information to us, the reader.
However, learning about the magical world in general comes somewhat secondary to learning about the mystery surrounding Harry’s life, and the events surrounding his parents’ deaths. As the series develops, we get more information, building up an irresistible puzzle that is only finally solved at the conclusion of the series. Additionally, the series is notable for growing at a pace with its audience, so the 11-year-old who picked up the first book would have matured into an adult by the time of the seventh book, and the storyline grows correspondingly darker and more mature as a result.
The first three books, while getting progressively darker, nevertheless have something of a lighthearted tone as they start out. I think it’s quite clear to see that, despite the quite fearsome imagery that is described, say, during the Forbidden Forest or the final encounter with Professor Quirrell, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone is a children’s book. The story is fairly timeless, as we follow this neglected child in his Cinderella-like transformation into a famous wizard, and see him move from a miserable existence to actually enjoying himself and his life among the wizarding community. It’s quite light-hearted, full of gloriously British humour, with bags of adventure and excitement thrown in. While it quite obviously is part of something larger, it’s also one of the more satisfyingly-complete stories in the whole saga.
As can be expected, book two then begins to delve a little bit deeper into the wizarding world, as we see the dark underbelly of things like House Elves, and begin to explore the more shady side of life when we learn about the so-called purity of magical blood. Turns out, the magical community is a lot more bigoted and prejudiced than the first book would have us believe. Of course, there’s still plenty of humour along the way, and despite it all, there’s still a happy ending.
To my mind, it isn’t until the oppressive atmosphere of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban that we begin to feel like this isn’t a series of books that is meant purely for children. We still get the comical descriptions of the Dursleys, and plenty more besides, but this is the story where things begin to turn a little dark. The Dementors being physical manifestations of depression is quite a chilling idea, and having these hooded figures with rotting flesh gliding around the school as protection against the notorious mass-murderer Sirius Black leads to quite a grim picture. However, this book is also my absolute favourite of the series. Harry learns so much about his own past, and there’s more than just that abstract sense of “I’m a wizard, I belong here” – instead, Harry feels that pull in the same way that we do, being by now quite invested in the series. Having that connection to his past, first with Lupin, and then with Sirius, it’s the first time that I think we get the sense of really feeling quite at home in this alternative world.
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire begins to change everything. It blows the landscape open by introducing the concept of magical education outside of Hogwarts, to say nothing of providing the central turning point of the series by seeing the return of Lord Voldemort to a physical body. The books kept getting longer, and book five is by far the longest of the series. Continuing the theme of expanding the wizarding world outside of one London street and a boarding school, we get to visit both the main centre of magical healing in the UK, and the Ministry of Magic itself. Even book four managed to confine itself, for the majority of the story, to the school; I could be wrong, but I do believe that Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix has more of its action take place outside of Hogwarts than does within those walls. The storyline, by this point, has gotten pretty huge, but at the same time, we begin to get some significant answers to questions that have been in the background for a while now. While, after five books, A Song of Ice and Fire has gotten so unwieldy as to be ridiculous, Rowling manages here to both refine the story that she’s telling while allowing it that expansion room – the result is nothing short of spectacular, and it continually baffles me how people can say these books are no good.
The final pair of books feel, somehow, the most adult of the series. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince shows our intrepid hero engaging in some fairly heavy stuff at this point, as Dumbledore begins to really hone him into the weapon that he needs him to be. We also continue that theme of getting answers, as we learn a great deal about Lord Voldemort’s past in an effort to find his weaknesses. We’ve now had six books that have managed to tell a phenomenally detailed, well-constructed and, to top it all, thrilling adventure story that proves, at this point, to basically be one long story split across six books.
If it can be said that the wheels came off this story anywhere, I feel that it is with Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Up to this point, as I said, the story is wonderfully linear, despite its epic scope, and you can look back from book six and see quite clearly how things weren’t so much set up, but have just come to be, with a sort of realistic inevitability that is the envy of any author seeking to produce a series of books like this. But then we have the final book, and right away we’re thrown into a story where wandlore is suddenly much more important than we have been given to believe, and an in-universe fairy story is almost the crux of the whole plot.
Now, I’m not trying to say that I dislike book seven – despite it having almost a completely different feeling to it, and there being some ropey parts in the middle where the plot slows down as the heroes try to decide what their first move ought to be, it still manages to provide quite a good closure to the previous six books. I just find myself wishing that we’d been better-prepared for it, somehow, you know? If only Ron had had some cause to compare an adventure to “one of those old Beedle stories”, or if Ollivander had expounded a little more on “the wand chooses the wizard”. It would have helped, I feel, these elements to have felt a little less like they’re tacked-on as a plot device to bring about the resolution to the series.
We do get some element of the importance of wands during the fourth book, when we learn that brother wands will refuse to fight one another. We also know that both Ron and Neville never had much luck with their hand-me-down wands. But the whole thing about ownership and allegiance seems a little too out-of-the-blue somehow. If only Ollivander had said, back in his shop, something along the lines of “your wand will give you its allegiance, though it can switch that allegiance if lost in battle”. I don’t know, but something… The fact that wand lore is so important in the final battle just feels too abrupt, and – dare I say – convenient.
I should hasten to say, however, that I don’t think the ideas of wand lore, or the Beedle stories, are bad. I just think we ought to have had some hint sooner. The idea of horcruxes was given to us in book two, after all – we just didn’t recognise it for what it was. Having merely “the wand chooses the wizard” being the setup for the finale just needs to have been further explored beforehand, in my view, for it to not feel tacked-on.
But hey, I’m just a guy on the internet…
I feel as though I’m beginning to sound too harsh here. The problem, for me, is that the story has been so well-crafted, with such believable characters, and such a phenomenal sense of realism that, perhaps inevitably, we have come to expect such great things from it. The laws of this magical universe have always allowed for things to make sense, as much as you can say a work of fantasy can do so. The plot, while not obvious from the outset, makes sense when you look back on it from the conclusion.
I’ve read these books so often now, they’re really very much like old friends to me, and re-reading them always feels like something of an event for me. The first five books feel as well-known as the back of my hand, whereas the final two, being a little more recently published, are a little fresher to me. Being so familiar with the storyline, I enjoy reading the books to revel in the details, and ponder all manner of what-if situations – something that tends to rankle with my wife, who is herself a much bigger fan of the franchise than I am! I suppose it’s a problem with the richness of the universe JK Rowling has produced, though – with this much depth, the questions get correspondingly more in-depth. I mean, do Scottish students attending Hogwarts really need to travel to King’s Cross to take the train to Scotland?
I’m just so much of a fan of these books, that I suppose it’s inevitable that I’ll end up picking on these tiny details, and wanting to know more!