Deep Outside SFFH - Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror

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by J. K. Rowling
Scholastic paperback edition, September 1999
Cover art & interior illustrations by Mary Grandpre
312 pages

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*shuffles feet, mumbles, fidgets, takes a deep breath*

Oh, what the hell. I liked this book. Because of all the hype surrounding young Master Potter, I almost wanted to not like it – but I couldn’t because it is actually pretty darn good.

Also because of all that hype, you probably know the basics of the plot. As an infant, Harry is orphaned when his parents, practitioners of magic, are killed by Voldemort, a powerful and malevolent sorceror. Somehow, the wizard missed Harry, who was spirited away and left as a foundling on the doorstep of the Dursleys, his unimaginative and detestable uncle and aunt.

Harry does his best to fit in with the family, but things just seem to happen when he is around. Though not exactly mistreated, he is certainly given no affection or understanding and is left pretty much to his own devices. He lives in a little room under the stairs, and doesn’t even get birthday parties. (For his tenth birthday, the Dursleys, who pile the presents on their own fat, spoiled son, Dudley, give Harry a coat hanger and an old pair of socks.) He’s a naďve kid, but he learns fast and he doesn’t let himself be taken advantage of any more than he can help. He stands up for himself and he’s perfectly willing to insult Dudley and then run before he can be caught. Harry is not a doormat.

One night, in the middle of a storm on an isolated island, a magical messenger shows up. This is Hagrid, the gameskeeper and general go-fer of Hogwarts School for Witchcraft and Wizardry. I like Rowling’s description of the enormous Hagrid, which includes the wonderful line “…his feet in their boots were like baby dolphins.” Hagrid has some astonishing information: not only is Harry scheduled to begin school at Hogwarts, but he is himself a wizard – and wealthy (though in wizard money) into the bargain. The Dursleys have told Harry nothing about his background, because they hate and fear anything having to do with magic.

Soon enough Harry is on his way to Hogwarts. As the book puts it, “He didn’t know what he was going to – but it had to be better than what he was leaving behind.” Harry begins to learn about his heritage in the world of magic, a world that knows all about him – he is literally famous because he somehow survived Voldemort’s attack – but about which he is completely ignorant. It’s a time-honored device, because as Harry learns, so does the reader.

Once at Hogwarts, Harry does his best to keep up with his studies and to fit in. None of it easy for him, and before he knows it, he finds that he has made some enemies along with his new school friends. Plus there are sinister forces at work that seek to use Harry and perhaps even do harm to him.

Rowling’s ingenuity never flags. I think her great strength is in the arena of characterization (though she is better with males than with females), but the dialog snaps and there are plenty of plot twists. Her writing in general is colorful and fast paced. Leaving aside the Beatles-like popularity of the series, I think I can say that although we do not have a Tolkien in J.K. Rowling, we might have an E. Nesbitt. What we undoubtedly do have is someone who has struck a powerful chord among young people – and as far as I am concerned, anything that gets children to read is a Good Thing. I’m not talking Goosebumps here – the Harry Potter books are better than that. They are not cookie-cutter potboilers; there’s a lot of substance, and far more depth than you might expect. Harry isn’t perfect, and in the course of the novel, he has to face a few things about himself. But he is genuinely noble and good-hearted, and he is a delightful young hero.

A word about the whole Satanism thing. Seems to me that I never heard any similar outcry about Magic: The Gathering or Dungeons and Dragons promoting Satanism or black magic. And those were games in which the players were actively role-playing and casting spells. The Harry Potter books require nothing more than to be read – there is no similar identification with the characters, no assuming identities or active magic-making. To all my many fundamentalist readers – grow (and lighten) up. Find something more worthwhile to draw your righteous wrath. You wanna prove your Christian values? Go volunteer in a soup kitchen.

So. Harry Potter. Yeah, bite me. I like him, and I’m looking forward to reading the other books in the series.

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