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Monday, October 17, 2005

Thousands of Pages of Potter and Loving It

I've been putting away one Harry Potter book per film release for the past few years and enjoying each book more than the last. About a month ago, in anticipation of the release of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, I began reading the mammoth tome that describes Harry's fourth year at Hogwarts. What immediately struck me was the substantially darker tone and the transformation of Dumbledore into a character less like Santa Claus and more like Gandalf. The book was well-done and thankfully (relatively) free of Quidditch. The book, of course, ends dark and the next book, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (because this time I couldn't wait another year or more) picks up right where it left off - Harry's situation progressing from bad to worse.

I sped through the fifth book enjoying more than anything else the way Rowling grows her characters. The series opens dealing with kids, but by the end of Order of the Phoenix, Harry and company are on the fast road to adulthood, firmly believing they are already there, but still making the kind of rash and impulsive decisions that we all make as teenagers. Of course, none of us have the kinds of problems that Harry has nor the means of solving them. Still this provides a layer of depth to Rowling's writing that I was not at all expecting when I picked up the first book and read it over the course of several hours on a Thanksgiving afternoon. She does a fine job turning Harry into a confused, angry, and possibly dangerous young man who wants nothing more than to be normal but who must shoulder a burden far beyond what anyone would want a kid to have to handle.

It is not just Harry's maturation process that makes the series so interesting to me, however, but rather his relationships with and discoveries about the older wizards who seem increasingly human the older Harry gets. This is a natural phenomenon that kids experience as they grow older and their parents, teachers and other adults around them lose some of their grandeur, and once again Rowling handles it well. Especially fine is her portrayal of Severus Snape, the spooky potions professor we all love to hate. This guy clearly despises Harry and never misses an opportunity to viciously run him down, and yet just as Harry and his friends, time and again know he's surely evil, he does something that saves Harry's neck and yet still finds time to sneer at Harry just as cruelly as before.

Rowling's ability to undercut expectations is, for me, a large part of why these books are so fun. The early books are enchanting, mysterious, yet rather predictable. They all end with Dumbledore patiently explaining The Moral of the Story to Harry and what he should have learned, but as Harry and his friends grow up, the universe in which they live expands, becoming increasingly complicated, nuanced, and more dangerous to the point that not even Dumbledore can adequately explain everything to Harry other than Dumbledore's own mistakes and failures. Dumbledore, Sirius Black, Mrs. Weasely, Hagrid, Harry's dead father, all of the adults to whom he has looked up through his life in the wizarding world emerge tarnished, slightly smaller, yet infinitely more human. And of course none of them are able to provide all of the advice and answers to the big questions that Harry so desperately wants and needs. Rowling's ability to capture this painful aspect of growing up so poignantly and believably is, more than anything else, why I immediately began reading Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince as soon as I finished book five.

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