Friday, July 15, 2005

Harry's Coming - and He's Growing Up

So being the guest blogger one someone else's blog must be kind of like being asked to be the guest minister while the "real" minister is out of town. Even though you know the context of the community, you're not really quite a part of that community, either.

So today, on the eve of the release of the next-to-last Harry Potter tome, I'm going to write about the Harry Potter world and the critics who think that Harry Potter is dead.

If there's one thing that I've noticed in my years of reading, writing and being in academe, it's that any popular piece of creativity comes under heavy fire. So I suppose that I shouldn't be surprised at Erica Wagner's assertion that, for her, the magic has gone out of Harry Potter. She cites a number of problems, one being that Harry's energy is not so exuberant and full of that child-energy as the first books. The writer of one blog feels that if there's any loss of innocence - or energy - in Harry's demeanor, it's not due to publicity or marketing. Instead, what so many critics seems to forget is that for the best writers, they're not writing to the market. They're recording a history that only they know about. I've seen it time and time again, as a writer continues a story, the critics inevitibly start in: it would have been so much better if . . . . In this case, the complaint is that book five was just too long.

Now, let me see. To begin with Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (Sorceror's Stone for the U.S.) had kids reading. The next book was longer and the third was even longer. And parents and teachers rejoiced to see their kids reading these huge books! Everybody was ecstatic that kids weren't just reading little chapter books, but read "adult-sized" tomes. We were ecstatic at the world-building that Rowling was crafting so well. Adults were fascinated by the similarities to our world, but the very clever ways that Rowling addressed why us Muggles didn't know that the world of magic still existed. You know what, that takes some time and a few hundred pages to keep it going.

I can remember being part of a workshop group where someone presented a short story. Everyone was fascinated with the story, just loved it. But, it was too short. The writer agreed. He wanted to do more with the world and people he was creating. So, he used the short story as a base and spun a longer short story. Still too short. A novel. Now the critics kicked in: it was too long now. Why would people want to read that much about this world? I would hear the same thing about published pieces as well: one short story was the perfect encapsulation of a world. Another was too short. A novel was perfect. The second was better. And then the magic number was reached in the series - ACK, all hell has broken loose and the author has been devoured by marketing.

Rowling has said from the beginning that she was following Harry through school. Also from the beginning, the war between good and evil has been imminent. Harry starts out the series as an 11 year old boy. In the last book, puberty well and truly had him in its nasty little grasp, even as the Death-Eaters were beginning to regain their grasp on the wizarding world.

Far from despairing that Rowling had lost her touch with Harry, I was ecstatic that she was talented enough to let Harry be realistic, even in his fantastic world. She demonstrated an amazing skill in letting a major character, and a majorly loved character, do what the Bobbsey Twins, the Hardy Boys and the Boxcar kids never did: grow up.

"And yet I mourn Harry — the Harry I first met in 1997, before he was killed by the hype that now surrounds him."

Not only do I find this statement offensive in the context of the article . . . I also find it true.

You see, I also mourn the little kid I was at 11. And the kid I was at 7. I miss, as Erica Wagner does, the energy of those kids. And the energy of the countless kids I've known throughout my life. I miss our esteemed Andy at 17, bringing a snake from the biology room into our English class on the first day we were discussing Paradise Lost. I miss a friend's nephew, Sean, at age seven when he thought I was way cool for getting him a Robin action figure of his very own. (And he thanked me by insisting he had to be Robin for Halloween that year.)

But, that's a part of life, growing up and missing who we used to be and wondering exactly how we became who we are. I'm sure that somewhere in Rowling's mind, Harry is mourning the mostly innocent 11 year old who was so amazed at the wizarding world.

As to Wagner's complaint that the last book was too long by half, you can't please anyone. If the book had been shorter, we wouldn't have been happy with it because we wouldn't have believed some of the plot twists. The book was as long as it needed to be. Of course, I'm in love with Stephen King's It which many said was too long. But I loved the world and I wanted to know more about what was happening with each character.

I don't think Harry's dead. I don't think Rowling has let the hype turn her writer's head from the history she's faithfully recording for us. I look forward to watching Harry grow and change. And I'm so grateful that Rowling is gifted enough to capture change instead of having her head turned by success and sticking with the "energy" and "innocence" of her original books.

I think some people are just unhappy when others succeed. And when the unbridled fun of new discoveries wear off, and hints of realities start creeping in, they give up. But then, those people are only reading for escape despite all of their protests that they are serious critics who are dispassionately dissecting the work. Frankly, once they see the reality of -gasp- a "child's" book, they get frightened. One, they're forced to remember all of the other children who've grown up and are, in some way, "no more." Two, these kind of people tend to believe that children can't handle reality.

Rowling, on the other hand, knows that they can.
Dumbledore lowered his hands and surveyed Harry through his half-moon glasses.
"It is time," he said "for me to tell you what I should have told you five years ago, Harry. Please sit down. I am going to tell you everything."

Dumbledore goes on to tell Harry the details of his life just after his parents were murdered, why Dumbledore made the decisions he did. And then:
"Eleven, I told myself, was much too young to know. I had never intended to tell you when you were eleven. The knowledge would be too much at such a young age.

"I should have recognized the danger signs then. I should have asked myself why I did not feel more disturbed that you had already asked me the question to which I knew, one day, I must give a terrible answer."

You see, Rowling knew from the beginning, when Dumbledore first refused to answer Harry's questions that Harry would grow up, that she was not going to keep him in the helpless throes of childhood that plagues so many kids in children's books. From the beginning, there was that age old pitting of children against the adults who "act in the interest of the helpless" children. She warned the critics that things would not remain static and stagnant. As usual, they ignored the signs just as they ignore the intelligence of so many children and so many readers.