Last week I saw the eighth and final Harry Potter film “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2“. I strongly recommend you go and see it – this is one of the many official posters…
Having now seen all of them – and read all of the books, yes, despite being an adult – I wanted to stop for a minute and think about what makes Harry Potter so appealing.
No matter the language you read Harry Potter in, the love of language is evident.
From the character names which so neatly fit the personalities to the place names, the background research into meaning is evident (witness the straight forward Madame Sprout the herbology teacher, or the more complex traitorous Malfoys – meaning bad faith in Norman French). Hogwarts itself sounds unpleasant and is beautifully translated in the French version to “Poulards” – a “poule” being both a chicken and a spot, and the “lard” element retaining the hoggish flavour of bacon.
The film vocabulary is beautiful too – from the bright simplicity and dodgy CGI of the first two films, the lights of Christmas and the darkness, mists and pounding music of the later films, Harry’s journey of growing up and his rites of passage are also articulated in a clear but entertaining way.
For me, it is the beauty of the words that draw the reader in. But what keeps them there?
2) A fantastical world
There are very few children these days who board a train and disappear to a school world without returning to their parents at the end of the day – boarding school itself is fantastical to the majority.
Throw in brooms, spells, a castle, and fantastical devices (mirror of Erised, time turners), animals (grindylows, boggarts, hippogriffs, not to mention the more mundane pet owls that deliver the post…) and you have an amazingly attractive world. Enid Blyton with magic and less racism.
It’ll be interesting to see if a love of Harry Potter moves into a love of wider sci fi and fantasy in Harry’s generation kids.
The brilliant Mark Greene at the London Institute of Contemporary Christianity has blogged on the enduring theme of self-sacrificial love in the Harry Potter books, citing not just Lily Potter’s sacrifice for Harry (making him “the boy who lived”) but also Ron sacrificing himself during the chess game in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, Snape’s journey, as well as Harry’s own game changing action in the last film/ book.
He mentions too Dumbledore in the context of the father figure raising his son for death (rather like God in the bible). But he doesn’t mention Dumbledore’s own self-sacrifice – saving Draco Malfoy from becoming a murderer by instructing Snape to take control at the critical moment, even though it speeds his own death.
4) Gender Equality -yes, even here
The Don’t Conform Transform blog has produced a neat overview of why the characters, and particularly the female characters in Harry Potter are different from the classical supporting role character roles allocated to women in other books and films.
Given JK Rowling was basically told to hide the fact that she was a woman in order not to alienate readers when the first book was published, this is a massive achievement, and another thing to love the series for.
5) Growing up
I read the first Harry Potter book quite late, in 1999. I loved it so much, I bought a limited edition version for my then boyfriend and was one of the sad people up at midnight buying the Goblet of Fire (although in my defence, as a twenty-something it was at a station WH Smith at the end of a night out in London!).
Throughout the books, I’ve been Harry’s generation (more specifically I’ve been Hermione, as I imagine most girls are, particularly those that were a bit too clever and not the prettiest, though I’d hope for a bit better than to end up with Ron).
But in the last couple of films, I’ve felt a change in myself. It is probably a facet of having a baby, you sort of take on a universal sense of motherhood.
In any case, I found that I was watching Harry, Hermione and Ron and worrying about them rather than cheering them on as they faced more and more dangerous situations.
And when a Weasley died (and I’m shocked that I can’t remember which – I had to use my outsourced-to-Google remote internet brain to check that it was Fred), I didn’t feel it as the loss of a friend as I felt it was in the book, but the loss of a child and the horror for the parents of having to carry on anyway.
Just as in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, I found that I cried at what felt like inappropriate moments. For me, it is not the battle that triggers it, but the sure and certain knowledge in the preparations that there will be death to follow. The scenes preparing for the defence of Hogwarts, Professor McGonagall’s tiny moment of joy when she finally gets to do the “Piertotum Locomotor“ spell bringing the Hogwarts’ statues to life, those moments made me cry. I hadn’t realised how much until I had to wash the mascara off afterwards!
And there was a moment in the slightly comical 19 years later coda when sensible-haircut Ginny and the others appeared, I turned to my friend and said “you do realise that’s us”. Because like it or not, in a couple of years or so, it is.
So it’s not just those that were 10 or 11 when Harry Potter and Philosopher’s Stone came up that have grown up with Harry Potter. While some of the books are a bit long, and as Mark Kermode pointed out in his review it did sometimes seem like Bloomsbury were afraid the magic would be lost if an editor were to prune a little, JK Rowling’s novels have been part of life – little islands of escapism, by turns enchanting and disturbing, encouraging reading and inspiring writing.
If you’re having withdrawal symptoms, I recommend Rick Riordan‘s Percy Jackson series – don’t be put off by the name similarity, the USA setting or the truly dreadful film adaptation of the first book “Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief”, if you want to learn your Greek mythology and be thoroughly thrilled and entertained this is a great place to go next. There’s a 5-book series already complete and the second of the next series is due out this October.
And don’t forget, in September, there’s www.pottermore.com too…