Joanne Kathleen Rowling is a literary genius. Nothing like her Harry Potter series has ever before appeared in the annals of classical children’s literature. In standard literary terms alone her huge, seven-volume, comic novel is as extraordinary as J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings; and, unlike Tolkien’s magnum opus, it contains a great many active, robust, feisty major characters who are female. The likelihood is that it will be alive and well centuries after all of us have left this earth.
As students with sound literary training have known from the start, Rowling blends fantasy and realism brilliantly, incorporating features of fairy tale, myth, legend, fable, and epic seamlessly to create a magical experience for readers. Her plots are wondrous — so full of surprises, so replete with risks and dangers, that previously reluctant male readers are carried away, riveted.
Her enormous cast of characters—see especially the Harry Potter Lexicon — almost beggars belief, not simply because her protagonists are uniquely rounded and memorable, but because so many relatively minor characters have distinctive qualities that make them immediately recognisable even when all they do is flit past or — like Myrtle — endlessly repeat one or two characteristic actions.
Each major setting — 4 Privet Drive, the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, Diagon Alley, the Burrow, 12 Grimmauld Place — is vividly present. Linguistically —as translations of the series into Ancient Greek, Latin, Welsh, Parsi, Russian, Hebrew, Hungarian, and goodness knows how many other recondite languages demonstrate — the books are not merely resonant, but preternaturally clever.
PhD theses are likely to be written on the nomenclature: for a start, Dolores Umbridge (a hubristic sad sack), Horace Slughorn, Lucius and Narcissa Malfoy, Remus Lupin, Filius Flitwick, Stan Shunpike, Cornelius Fudge, Bellatrix Lestrange, Mad-Eye Moody, Minerva McGonagall, Sirius Black (not Aldebaran Raven), Godric Gryffindor, and Hogwarts (a flower, meaning lily; the reverse of the hideous creature the wart-hog).
Puns, witticisms, and multi-faceted allusions abound. In Volume 4, for example, Durmstrang, a Magical Institute, features prominently. Its star athlete, Viktor Krum, who is Bulgarian, has a Germanic manner of speech punctuated by words like ‘vas’ or ‘vat’. The allusion is to the Sturm und Drang literary movement linked with Goethe and Schiller. In Volumes 5, 6, and 7, an idea explored in Oscar Wilde’s compelling fairy tale, “The Fisherman and his Soul”, is fleshed out and elaborated with Rowling’s unique imaginative flair. The Wilde idea — directly linked with the conception of Voldemort — is that a human being cannot detach himself from his own soul without being destroyed.
More unusual still: just as Harry Potter himself moves, volume by volume, from childhood to young adulthood — from age 11 to age 17 — so does the style and subject matter of each book become increasingly complex, adult, and sophisticated (in the positive sense of this word).
Early on, for the sake of verisimilitude and also for the sake of young readers who need unambiguous signals, baddies and goodies are clearly distinguished. Later, as the characters and devoted readers age, it becomes harder to be certain about figures whose motives, impulses, and aims are much harder to read.
Pre-pubescent children from the age of eight upwards who manage the first four volumes with relative ease — whether they pore over them themselves, or whether these volumes are read aloud to them — cannot and should not be expected to handle the darkness of Books 5, 6, and 7 without significant pedagogical input from responsible parents, teachers, and relatives.
Even then, these latter volumes are likely to be over their heads: scary and in key respects incomprehensible. At a local showing of the movie Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, which corresponds with Volume 5, I warned a young father sitting next to me (a stranger) that the one-year-old on his lap would probably be scared half to death by it. He was sceptical; but when — roughly midway through — she began to cry and hide her eyes, he took her out. When he did not return, his wife also left the theatre.
Thematically, the Potter series is very demanding. It is deep (many well-intentioned adults just “don’t get it”), relying — in postmodernist terminology — on a “sub-text” anchored in Old and New Testament wisdom and major works of adult literature, from Sophocles and Aeschylus to Dante to Shakespeare and beyond. The framing quotations for Volume 7 come from The Libation Bearers, by Aeschylus, and a Christian meditation on death by William Penn called More Fruits of Solitude. Ancient ideas about honour, nobility, glory, and self-sacrifice underlie its every twist and turn.
As Jeff Presberg has trenchantly observed elsewhere in MercatorNet, it is fundamentally “about” the Order of Love. The title of my own reflection, taken verbatim from a line in Volume 7, p. 266, marking the Dumbledore family’s grave site, was originally Matthew 6: 21.
Among the large moral issues explored — eg, the nature of friendship, the proper exercise of authority, bigotry and the most chilling species of tribalism and clubbyness, the inevitability of betrayal in life on earth, the ripple effects of ignorance, incomplete knowledge, and poor judgment, and the claims of innocence versus the temptation to opt for power, status, and total control — none is more fascinating than the increasingly subtle and complex matter of genuine versus fraudulent authority.
It simply is not true, as rigidly proud or fearful souls without literary talent or knowledge have maintained, that Harry and his closest companions do not “respect” authority. They circumvent rules and regulations, as Antigone and many of her living heirs have done, for the sake of a higher good. Instinctively, they spot key differences between adults in senior positions who can be trusted and those who — in crucial respects — cannot be.
Here is an early, germane interchange in Book 7, witnessed by Ron Weasley and other members of his family, between a pompous, influential, shrewd, semi-deluded bureaucrat named Rufus Scrimgeour—the most recent head of the Ministry for Magic—and Harry Potter. Among other things, it reveals JKR’s mastery of dialogue, her impeccable timing, and her characteristically vigorous humour:
“‘You go too far!’ shouted Scrimgeour, standing up; Harry jumped to his feet too. Scrimgeour limped towards Harry and jabbed him hard in the chest with the point of his wand: it singed a hole in Harry’s T-shirt like a cigarette.
“‘Oi,’ said Ron, jumping up and raising his own wand, but Harry said, ‘No! Do you want to give him an excuse to arrest us?’
“‘Remembered you’re not at school, have you?’ said Scrimgeour, breathing hard into Harry’s face. “Remembered that I am not Dumbledore, who forgave your insolence and insubordination? You may wear that scar like a crown, Potter, but it is not up to a seventeen-year-old boy to tell me how to do my job! It’s time you learned some respect!’
“‘It’s time you earned it,’ said Harry.”
Especially in this final volume, when they no longer have Albus Dumbledore — an exemplary teacher by vocation — to help and support them, Harry and his closest friends, Ron and Hermione, disappoint, frustrate, and confuse one another. This, Rowling clearly suggests, is what happens in life even to formidably brave, highly intelligent, heroically decent people whose love for one another is bedrock.
Like his father, James, Harry Potter clearly believes that it is a matter of honour to trust one’s friends; yet there are times when their utter bewilderment about what it is best to do exceeds his own. Often, in the midst of grave crises, he has NO plan. Slowly, strategies for overcoming evil evolve in him. Heart and mind, united in Harry, unite with the fundamentally reliable minds and hearts of his followers in Dumbledore’s Army.
There is more to be said about Rowling’s moral vocabulary than a brief reflection, by its nature, can disclose. For the time being, one observation will have to suffice. In the darker volumes, the word “loathing” appears at critical junctures. It is linked, and sometimes synonymous, with the words “revulsion” and “hatred”. One telling example is the look on the face of Severus Snape when he uses the Adava Kedavra spell on Dumbledore near the end of Volume 6. What this look means, we don’t fully know until the final section of Volume 7 unfurls.
Nowhere does Rowling say directly, either in this volume of her novel or any other, that the only legitimate object of self-hatred for human beings is our own sins. But it would be surprising if she were not on intimate terms with the beautiful medieval hymn, Come Down, O Love Divine. It encapsulates her deepest implicit message — on burning ardour and the most profound needs of the human soul. And like the series in its entirety, it harmoniously transcends the more usual barriers of time and culture.