Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Not So Happy Days at Hogwarts: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

As most of the civilized (?) world knows, J.K. Rowling's children's novel Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince went on sale in English-speaking countries at 12:01 AM on Saturday, July 16, 2005. This is the sixth installment in Rowling's 7-volume series featuring the young wizard Harry Potter. The Potter novels have been an enormous success, and the first four have been turned into films. The latest, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, is currently in production and debuts later this year.

It seems as if everyone has an opinion about Harry Potter, from elementary school kids (in favor) to Pope Benedict XVI (opposed). Quite a few people are less than enthusastic about all the marketing hype that surrounded the release of the most recent book in the series, suggesting that the objective was less to make the book available to all young English-speaking readers at the same time and more about boosting sales. Anyone who is plugged into any kind of media was swamped with "Harry Potter is about to be released" stories for weeks before July 16th, including descriptions of Amazon.com's immense pre-release sales (more the 750, 000 copies at $16.99 apiece), the security precautions surrounding delivery of the books to stores, the inadvertent (?) early sales of 11 (!) copies by a store in western Canada, Harry Potter costume parties at bookstores on the night of the impending release, and an unauthorized early translation in China. It all got to be almost as annoying and exhausting as a USA presidential campaign. Anyway, July 16th finally came, kids did or did not show up at 12:01 AM to buy their copies of the book, and kids did or not did get their copies delivered as promised by Amazon and other stores. (Amazon promised to refund the money of those who ordered the book in advance by a certain date and didn't get delivery on July 16th as advertised.) Then the fans settled down to read, and the news coverage shifted to reviews by fans and then professional critics. Is Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince another commercial success? Obviously. Did most of the kid readers like it? Yes, most of them did, although some were disappointed. Is Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince a masterpiece of children's literature? Well, the jury is still out on that. In my opinion, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, like the previous Harry Potter novels, is fun to read but no masterpiece, and, unlike the Pope, I have actually read them.

And yes, I broke down and actually bought a copy of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince instead of waiting for it to come to my local library, although I had vowed I wouldn't do it. Well-- it was 95 degrees in the shade where I live, I really needed a pick-me-up, and the relentless "which major character dies in this novel?" hype finally got to me. I had a theory, you see, and I wanted to know if it was correct. (It was.) So, here are my impressions of J.K. Rowling's latest phenomenon, and it contains spoilers, so if you don't want to know, you'd better stop here.

In Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Harry is sixteen going on seventeen (Oops! Sounds like Rogers and Hammerstein.) and about to start his sixth and penultimate year at Hogwarts School for Wizards. He scored well enough on his O-levels (Oops! OWLS.) to continue his studies as he hoped to do and is anticipating his A-levels (NEWTS) in his final year and thinking about careers. Unfortunately, unlike most school kids, Harry has other things on his mind, as well, because the evil Lord Voldemort, who murdered Harry's parents and tried to kill infant Harry, too, leaving him with a lightning-shaped scar on his brow, is well and truly back and creating evil and chaos wherever he goes. (Harry survived the murderous attack, which rebounded on Voldemort and nearly destroyed him, making Harry the most famous orphan wizard of all time.) This uproar has even penetrated the Muggle (non-wizard) world, and the novel starts with a briefing of the Muggle prime minister by the new Minister of Magic. (And yes, Tony Blair was asked about this by the media and replied in the proper diplomatic spirit.)

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince proceeds as a bizarre mix of high school hijinks and desperate measures to fight the spreading power of the evil forces of Lord Voldemort. Harry, whose attempts to convince his classmates and the Ministry of Magic that Voldemort had survived and was regaining power had been ridiculed in the previous couple of books, has been vindicated, but now comes the difficult and dangerous task of trying to stop (= kill) Voldemort before he returns the favor. So, one minute Harry is doing his homework or playing Quidditch (what one writer has described as polo on broomsticks), and the next minute he is meeting with the Headmaster of Hogwarts and powerful wizard Albus Dumbledore to learn more about Voldemort and determine how to defeat him. It is really disconcerting to make a quick cut from Ron Weasely (Harry's best friend) discovering the joys of snogging (Brit-speak for making out) to exploring the past of Lord Voldemort in search of clues to how he maintains his power. Apparently this doesn't bother youthful readers, but I found it very unsettling, as if Frodo Baggins and Sam Gamgee had taken a night off from trying to destroy the Ring to go out drinking and give rein to their raging hormones.

Anyway, if you stick it all out, you find that Lord Voldemort has rendered himself nearly immortal by hiding bits of his soul in objects called Horcruxes, and Harry and Dumbledore must find and destroy these soul repositories in order to make Voldemort vulnerable to being killed. They have some limited success (two of seven horcruxes destroyed), but while the duo is trying (unsuccessfully, it turns out) to destroy a third horcrux, a plot to attack Hogtwarts is going forward, leading to the Death-eaters invading the school. An exhausted Dumbledore is killed by the loathsome Professor Severus Snape, whom he trusted and Harry hated, and at the end of the book Harry and his young friends Ron, Hermione, and Ginny are left to carry on the fight alone. At least, Harry is resolved to fight on, and by this time everyone knows that the other three will follow.

Will Harry Potter defeat Lord Voldemort in the end? (The final book is due to be released in two years.) No one knows, and J.K. Rowling isn't saying. Many young readers were shocked when some of the characters in the novels were killed (Cedric Diggory, a student, in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire [Book 4] and Harry's godfather Sirius Black in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix [Book 5]), and all these same readers know that it has been prophesied that either Harry Potter or Lord Voldemort is fated to destroy the other. Rowling has fulfilled her promise to keep Harry alive until Book 7 (This is hardly a surprise. I doubt if many people would pay to read The Late Harry Potter and the Triumph of Evil!) , but she has been mum on the subject of whether Harry will still be standing at the end of the final installment of the series. The fans will just have to hold onto their patience and wait for the last book to be published, and the Potter opponents can rejoice that Rowling insists that Book 7 will really be the last.

The thing is, the Harry Potter novels, including the most recent one, are really entertaining stories. At their best (and they are really uneven) they are page-turners in the mode of Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code, but when they lag, they really lag. Book 5, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, was a bloated 800+ pages long, and even the new one is a more than slightly obese 652 pages. It is somewhat astonishing that kids will devour these porkers in a matter of hours and read them over and over, but they do, and that's a fact. And Harry has a lot of adult fans, as well, but the books are not as easy for adults to enjoy, because they really are written for children, and much of what goes on is both boring and unappealing to adults. On the one hand, it is easy for adults to enjoy and appreciate the clever names of people and places, such as Cornelius Fudge, the weak-willed former Minister of Magic, or the amazing wizard-mall called Diagon Alley (= diagonally). And one meeets just about every magical or mythical creature imaginable, from centaurs (bitchy and hostile) to basilisks (poisonous and petrifying) to zombies (menacing and hungry). Devices such as port-keys, floo powder, and horcruxes are inventive and engaging, and creatures like dementors (emotional bloodsuckers) are properly frightening. When Harry achieves his first successful patronus charm (his symbol of protection is a stag, as was his father's), one is riveted. When the villainous Dolores Umbridge forces Harry to write his punishment lines in his own blood, one can only be impressed by Rowling's evil imagination. On the other hand, the references to snot, vomit, and other bodily wastes that kids find hilarious are tedious at best for adults, not to mention the boy- and girlfriend troubles, the snogging, the cramming for exams, the Quidditch descriptions, etc. I think that most adult readers would find that Harry's anguished resolve to keep feeding Dumbledore the contents of the basin that holds a horcrux even though Dumbledore is in agony is a better indicator of Harry's maturity than the rise in his testosterone level. What the kids think may be quite different, of course.

I don't claim to be an expert on children's literature, although I have many childhood favorites, from Tolkien and C.S Lewis to Edward Eager's Half Magic series to Arthur Ransome's Swallows and Amazons to Eleanor M. Jewett's The Hidden Treasure of Glaston. What those books share, and Harry Potter lacks, is a consistent adult language and perspective, even though the books are intended for, and much loved, by children. There is no difference between the language used by C.S. Lewis in the Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and that of his Perelandra trilogy for adults. True, Harry Potter suffers during the course of the Rowling novels, but his suffering is rather trivial compared to that of Andrew Wiggin in Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game. And perhaps I'm wrong about this, but it seems to me that children of all ages can appreciate the genuine masterpieces of children's literature, whether they read them themselves or are being read to, while the later Harry Potter books seem alien and almost unreachable to the young kids who are just discovering the Potter books. Conversely, all the adolescent angst aside, an adult can appreciate Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince better than the first Potter novels.

And that's why I have reservations about calling these books masterpieces of children's literature, even though I am just as happy as the next person to know that kids out there are actually reading something, not just goggling in front of the tube or the computer monitor. And I hope that many of these young readers will find the great children's works and enjoy them, even though they are not as jazzed up and snazzy as Harry Potter. And I, for my sins, will most likely buy the final Harry Potter novel when it appears instead of waiting for it to reach the public library. I may be critical, but that doesn't mean I'm not hooked.