Thursday, July 12, 2007

Rereading Potter

Like millions of other people, I'm looking forward to the two new Harry Potter releases, the film this week, and the book next. Galena and I have been rereading the entire series in preparation: I finished The Order of the Phoenix last night, and when my allergies got me up at 1:00 am, managed to make about 100 pages of my way into The Halfblood Prince.

It's interesting rereading the series. Even though I enjoyed Rowlings' work, when the first Potter books came out, and were widely compared with Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia, I was insulted by the comparison. "Fifty years from now," I said to anyone who was interested, "people will be asking 'Harry who?', but they'll still be reading Narnia." I still think that the Chronicles will last longer than Harry Potter, but my opinion about Harry Potter has become somewhat more nuanced.

Lots of people have pointed out that the plots have become darker, and in that way, more interesting. But Rowlings' character development has also been better than I expected it to be. Harry isn't all good, any more than his parents were: he's moody, he doesn't trust his friends, he gets angry, and at one point he uses an illegal cruciatus curse. Lots of characters who are on the "right side" are still unpleasant people, and in that way, it's a good deal like real life. Harry's disturbing trip through Snape's pensieve, or his misplaced attempt to "save" Sirius at the Ministry of Magic, were not what I expected – and are therefore more interesting than I expected.

Still, there are aspects to the books which have disturbed me this time around. I don't like the way that the characters – all the characters – lie so casually. For a book which revolves around the fight between good and evil, it's not always clear to me what Rowling sees as the difference between the two. I'm not complaining, of course, that the characters are themselves ambiguous and complex. Jane Austen's novels portrayed complex characters with very mixed motives – but the narrator's moral perspective is always clear: Emma Woodhouse is portrayed sympathetically, but the narrator leaves you no doubt as to her failings. But I don't get the same sense from Rowling that she's quite as clear about the moral problems with many of Harry's actions. If the narrator judges them at all, it is from a distance, and almost as an afterthought.

Perhaps I'm misjudging here: I've only read the books twice, after all, and it'll be another couple weeks before I can read the last one. But I get the impression that Rowlings' somewhat muddy moral perspective reflects, not surprisingly, the muddy waters of the 21st century in which she (and all of us) must wade.

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