Thursday, August 06, 2009

Harry Potter thoughts

Prompted by seeing the movie last week, I have been re-reading the Harry Potter books, from Goblet of Fire onwards. I don’t own the first and second ones because I don’t think they’re very good, and I know the Prisoner of Azkaban really well, hence why starting from book number 4.

On this re-read I’ve noticed something about JK Rowling’s writing style, namely that she doesn’t waste anything. Every single sentence and event in the book, even those seemingly innocent of meaning or throwaway, is important. All will move the story along, tell you more about the characters and their relationships or lay the groundwork for a later event or revelation. It’s a very tight method of writing and I would guess that if I’d picked up on this on the first read I’d have been able to guess some of the outcomes and plot developments.

For example, in the Goblet of Fire there are several mentions of a beetle in the vicinity of key conversations. This beetle later turns out to be Rita Skeeter eavesdropping on folks.
In the Order of the Phoenix there is mention of Kreacher nicking bits and pieces from Black house and hoarding them. Among these trophies is a locket (or ring? Can’t remember which right now), I’m pretty sure this turns out to be a Horcrux in book #7.
In the Half Blood Prince there is mention of Tonks being very depressed and her morphing abilities not working. Later on Dumbledore explains to Harry that an emotional upheaval or unreciprocated love can cause a witch or wizard to lose their abilities temporarily. Later on we find out that Tonks is in love with Lupin who feels that it isn’t fair for her to get involved with a werewolf.

This makes for a very thorough and very controlled method of writing, but I think loses some of world building aspects that make long running series such a delight. For example, if Rita Skeeter wasn’t an animagus there wouldn’t have been mention beetles at any point during the books. If the locket (or ring) wasn’t a Horcrux we wouldn’t have known what Kreacher was hoarding, or we may not have been told he was hoarding anything. If Tonks wasn’t into Lupin we wouldn’t know about the effects of a broken heart on magic users.

I think this is a shame, for we don't get to see the wider picture of the wizarding world. Granted, we do get a pretty comprehensive look, but bear with me - Beetles wouldn’t exist. Bezoars wouldn’t have been introduced in the potions lesson in the Half Blood Prince if Harry hadn’t needed to cure Ron in Slughorn’s study. Don’t get me wrong, I like the way everything links in, I love the way Rowling builds up on previous events and features, but I wish there was more.

What other effects does a wizard or witch’s emotional state have on magic? Are there any other animals in Hogwarts that aren’t really people or aren’t used in Care of Magical Creatures lessons or to help the heroes escape? What other important heirlooms did Sirius (or any of the other families) have? What else are we missing from this world?

I guess this is a minor criticism in the grand scheme of things, there are other problems in her writing which bother me more, (the heterocentricity of it all, the disdain of muggle life), but right now it’s the most pressing of them.

What do other fans think? Am I picking and choosing examples to suit my argument? Am I talking bollocks? What do you all think of her writing style? Answers on an electronic postcard please.


Lord Runolfr said...

I've only read Philosopher's Stone, myself. It kinda convinced me not to bother reading the others. Various reasons, among them being that Harry does everything wrong with regard to the Stone, but still manages to succeed by dumb luck.


Saranga said...

Well, the first two books are pretty awful. Her writing does mature over the series (along with the characters and the plot).
I adore the last book, maybe because I'm a sucker for the final epic battle scene.

Having said all that, the comic you linked to does sum it all rather well!

Bookwormwithanattitude said...

How does he do everything wrong? He tries to get the teacher's help, when he can't, he and his friends go after it themselves.

He doesn't succeed through dumb luck, he succeeds because he's brave and unselfish. That's a pretty big theme in most fantasy literature and does not a Mary Sue make. He succeeded because a.) he didn't want to use the Stone for personal gain, he wanted more than anything to get it the hell away from Voldemort (which pretty much anyone with good motives would want, I mean evil guy is about to use the stone to take over the world,immortality and riches can take a back seat) and because his mother died for him, and gave him her protection of love. The power of love is a pretty big (and valid) theme in all the books. Harry succeeded because he was brave and persevered, not through dumb luck. (though that's what Voldy attributes in to, in typical villian fashion)

Sorry, don't get me started on Harry Potter, I'll go on forever. It's a huge part of my childhood, and I still adore all the books to this day.

As for the point made by the post- I don't think the world building is any less valid because it plays into the plot- I don't even know if when JK first mentioned the bezeor in book one she even was planning to use it in book six- though maybe she did. Seems mind boggling to me. I am also impressed by all the details she puts in.

And there's lots of details that don't play into the plot, for instance, the sheer amount of magical creatures, and a great deal of the info on Quidditch.

But I'm biased, so don't mind me. :)

Saranga said...

The bezoar was mentioned in book one? Ok I retract my point, I didn't read book 1 (on this run through anyway) and thought it was first mentioned in the HBP. My mistake.

the thing about the magical creatures, don't all of them get mentioned because they are in a Care of Magical lesson? Or because they've got to get rid of the gnomes in the Weasley's garden? So we get to see them around the lives of the main characters, because the main characters interact with them, but not otherwise.

Similarly for Quidditch, it's a really big deal for Harry so it plays a large part in the books. Plus there's the football analogy - Rowling is drawing paralells between their world and our world, just making it all seem so much cooler.

I know, it's a tiny tiny nitpick, and I honestly am impressed with the world building that Rowling did. I just want a bit more. It's why the Discworld books suit me so well - with 32 of them you're given so much to learn and drink in!

Bookwormwithanattitude said...

<3 Discworld. I'm getting through them, and I'm so pleased there's so many, because that means I have plenty of fun ahead of me.

Yeah, it was one of the questions Harry was supposed to answer for Snape in book 1. Hermione even refers to this when she says "You'd have known about bezeors if you listened to Snape in first year." JKR must keep crazy good notes, to be able to reference back that far.

JK's world building may not be as good as say, LotR, (I never got into those, though I may try again someday) or Discworld, but it's good enough for me. I'm not trying to oppose you on the nitpick at all, many have bought it up, I was just trying to point out it's decent.

Saranga said...

Actually I do remember Hermione saying that. Which brings me back round to my first point I think ;)
Didn't Rowling say thats he used an online fan encyclopedia to look stuff up? The same one that she stopped the collator publishing in a hardcopy format?

if you're reading Discworld, do make sure you read the YA ones after you've read the rest and do read Nation - the latest Pratchett book to be published, but not a Discworld one.

I did manage all Lord of the Rings but I don't like Tolkein's style much. Too wordy, too rambling. Overall though I thought they were good.

Bookwormwithanattitude said...

She only used it once, actually, so she could say she used it when she gave the fansite award. She admitted this in court. I recently did a post on how awesome JKR was during that whole debacle. You can clearly see how in the wrong Steve Vander Arc was if you look back at the fandom wank archives.

My post (the second half of it's about HP:

Saranga said...

I did see your post but I must have only skim read it.
I have fairly lax feelings about copyright infringement when the hurt party has earnt millions. Not to say she wasn't right to pursue it if it truly was an infringement, (and if they found in Rowling's favour I'm going to go out on a limb and say the courts were probably correct ;) but I don't have the energy to feel much sympathy either way. These things just don't interest me too much.

It's like Metallica suing teenage fans for downloading their songs for free - I have no sympathy for them because a) they don't need the money and b) I have a firmly held belief that exchanging music for free works in the favour of artists as it works as promotion. People who dowwnload stuff on the whole end up buying the really good stuff, and if they didn't download songs they'd never buy the album anyway.

Comics are a different matter - I think too many people download comics and don't ever buy the hardcopies, even if they love particular issues or collections. In a dying industry that's pretty wrong.