Another Perspective

Harry Potter, Crypto-Conservative

J.K. Rowling is not a hack, and should not be treated like one.

By 7.28.09

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In an essay for the New York Post published on the opening weekend of the film Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Kyle Smith thumped the teenage wizard and his creator more than either deserved. "Is there any children's writer more dismissive of morals?" he asked sneeringly of J.K. Rowling. Having followed the careers of the better-known students at Hogwarts as closely as the rest of us, Smith concluded that, "A Rowling kid starts learning at an early age that principles are adjustable depending on convenience."

"Rowling ignores ethics to the point of encouraging dishonorable behavior," Smith continued. He was particularly irate because Harry spends the new movie "cheating out of a textbook that has all the answers written in the margins." Worse, says Smith, "his punishment for this is . . . nothing."

The obvious first impulse is to tell Smith to lighten up, but the case he makes is interesting even though things fly apart; the center cannot hold.

Consider, for example, Smith's assertion that J.K. Rowling's writing is "dreary." By that he means that her characters are one-dimensional, and her exposition of plot points happens in paragraph-heavy dialogue when Harry and his friends brief each other on events. Certainly Rowling does not have William Goldman's Princess Bride touch ("Let me explain. No, there is too much.  Let me sum up…"). But few people have Goldman's touch. And several prominent critics, including thriller writer Stephen King, count themselves among her fans. Moreover, Rowling's craftsmanship has grown. She writes with more assurance now than she did seven books ago, when her first Harry Potter story became a publishing sensation.

In other words, J.K. Rowling is not a hack, and should not be treated like one.

Smith thinks Harry Potter goes unpunished for using an annotated textbook. That tells me he paid no attention to Harry's angst, and missed the significance of what happens to Harry's mentor when the teenager solves a mystery central to the new film. Punishment can come in various forms. That some Hogwarts faculty members treat Harry with kid gloves does not mean his opponents do.

Moreover, as a friend with more time in academia observes, Smith's indignation is disproportionate to anything Harry actually does. Smith scorns the whole market for used textbooks.

Movie-goers may remember that at the start of the Potions class where Harry and his friend Ron vie with each other for books, Harry claims the only advanced edition by dint of quicker reflexes; he does not then know that the textbook includes notes made by a former student.

To suggest that Rowling's characters are amoral, Smith must ignore things like a conversation in Half-Blood Prince between Harry and Hermione, after each accuses the other of casting furtive spells to affect the outcome of a quidditch match. Had Rowling been cheerleading for untrammeled power, she would not have had Hermione defend her own conduct by making a distinction between practices and games.

That is a weak argument, as Smith would doubtless point out, but it also shows allegedly amoral wizards appealing explicitly to moral justification for their actions. Yet Smith is unwilling to grant any quarter:

"If the Potter books are about nothing except childish good vs. childish evil (and they are), then they amount to a cosmic quidditch match," he says. "There's not a lot of suspense about who will win, why they should, or what it all means." Consequently, "All the pleasure for the reader is in the how -- the vacuous, disposable, inconsequential how," Smith declares.

Shall we parse that assertion? Smith concedes that the Harry Potter stories please many people; his argument is that those pleasures are trivial. Pay too much attention to doings at Hogwarts, he implies, and you'll be sorry. 

In an echo of the song lyric about how "Some people claim that there's a woman to blame," Smith faults J.K. Rowling for giving Harry Potter a small-scale rather than epic life. This is not a Harry to sit astride a horse, encouraging men to battle on St. Crispin's or any other day. Perhaps the scar on his head is not prominent enough? Smith also accuses Harry and his young friends of amorality. In any normal calculus, that would be an adult failing, yet by a curious irony, the evils that Harry confronts are "childish" -- or so says Smith, anyway. The adults with whom Harry interacts do not think of Harry's adventures that way. 

If using some Rowling characters to defend others seems too much of a stretch, we can turn instead to J.R.R. Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings" trilogy. His characters wipe hers off the board in any fantasy chess match, but there are lessons to be learned when you take both stories on their own terms.

Think, for example, about Galadriel and Hermione as played by actresses Cate Blanchett and Emma Watson: Galadriel is an elf queen who knows her epoch is passing; of course she makes more of an impression than Hermione, a young woman still wrestling with her own insecurities. That Frodo the Hobbit is more fully developed than Harry Potter is also not surprising. Anyone with the fate of the world on his shoulders has more to worry about than a boy whose biggest decision is to stop running from and start chasing the wizard who killed his parents.

That said, it is uncharitable to punish Rowling for setting her sights lower than Tolkien, or to assert, as Smith does, that whimsical creations and narrative pull are "all Rowling offers," because "the Potter tales are built on nothing."

Message owl to Mr. Smith: You forgave L. Frank Baum for the flying monkeys in The Wizard of Oz, and praised Willy Wonka for a "near-biblical" treatment of sin. Don't overplay your hand here. Ignore Rowling's prep school setting, fantastic animals, and turbocharged brooms. Look past goofy Ron and wonderfully quirky Luna: The Harry Potter stories grapple with loyalty, honor, and injustice, in entertaining ways that make surprising numbers of younger children think.

J.K. Rowling's work, far from being dreary or dangerous, has merit. Despite his youth and his status as "the chosen one," Harry is not one of those characters that blur the lines between fantasy and reality for politicians. Had J.K. Rowling written exclusively about the boy wizard and his wand, I'd worry about her lessons for our president and his teleprompter, but Rowling never narrows her focus that much. As Ron and Hermione remind their friend near the end of the current movie, "you need us."

One might even call those plucky students and their allies "conservative" in the best sense of the word. Rowling's good guys have no desire to oppress the "Muggle-born" or treat the Ministry of Magic with contempt. They revere Hogwarts traditions even when sometimes breaking them. The bad guys, on the other hand, are caste- and race-conscious wizards. From Voldemort on down, they comprise a band of evildoers bent on tyrannizing other people  -- and that redounds to Rowling's credit.

I prefer broadswords to wands myself, but Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is a winner. Rowling owes the rest of us no apologies.

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About the Author

Patrick O'Hannigan is a writer in North Carolina.