Due to several friends’ insisting, I’ve been reading the Harry Potter books, which I had ceased to continue reading a few years ago when I was working in a high school. Man, these books are like crack, they’re fucking addictive. I’ve been sitting down for several hours at a time, finishing the books in a couple of sittings. At first, I was looking for a reason to dislike the books, due to their overwhelming popularity. And the fact is, they aren’t exactly great literature, and the imaginative world that Rowlings creates is nothing special compared to Tolkien or CS Lewis, or the Dark Is Rising series of childrens books. But they are undeniably compelling, and I’m trying to put my finger on what it is, exactly, that makes them so immersive.
Part of it seems to be that Rowlings has an ability to grow along with her characters, and avoids ever settling into too much habitual stereotyping. The books do, indeed, grow increasingly complex and more adult as they progress, and Rowlings inserts subtle jabs at the media and government and society at large.
Sometimes I think part of the genius and efficacy of these works is not that Rowlings is creating anything entirely new, per se. The magical universe that she draws upon has been fairly established already (giants, wizards, witches, goblins), she simply embellishes it with wonderful quirks and details. The magic that Rowlings possesses is in her ability to put everything old and new together into a comfortable and imaginative mix, to combine various elements into a fast paced narrative with plenty of plot twists to keep it surprising and engaging. At some level, the Harry Potter series is a bit like those children/teenage social books (Sweet Valley High, The Hardy Boys) that function as literary soap operas. Harry Potter, after all, is a post-post-modern creation, able to draw upon pop culture just as well as it draws upon myth and magical lore. Harry Potter is the star of the series, humble and fairly well-balanced, and we always want to see him and his Gryffindor house triumph. But by the end of the 4th book, we do get a feeling, perhaps, that Harry Potter has been too lucky and victorious in all things for his own good. Rowlings senses this, too, and in the 5th book Harry is allowed to give vent to his darker, hormone infused angst and baser aspects of character. It is this sensitive character development that sets Harry Potter series apart from most other series of anything, in that usually the first couple of books are the only ones worth reading, and the last ones are desperate affairs sucking all of their energy from the inventiveness of what came before. Harry Potter books, on the other hand, grow as they are written, they develop along with their characters and the depth of the universe they are creating. In other words, they keep getting better.
Also what seems to set them apart is their establishment in a contemporary world that feels relevant to our world now. Many fantasy books such as Lord of the Rings and The Narnia books seem to have a tendency for pure-blood and noble birth idolatry, making all of the enemies into “dark” creatures and the good characters into light haired, blue eyed people. There is none of this subconscious racism in Rowlings–in fact, she deliberately infuses her stories with side universes of slaving house elves, “pure” and “mixed blood” taunting by other students at Hogwarts, and tidbits about goblin rebellions and bigotry against werewolves and giants by the wizarding community. She never preaches about such things–simply presents them as facets of the wizarding universe, and it is an embellishment which serves to make it more real, more relatable to our own universe. And yes, she throws ethnic diversity into Hogwarts as well. But it is never in a way that feels as forced as the PCness of a Star Trek Next Generation episode, for example. It feels, well, the way it did going to college or high school. We live in increasingly ethnically diverse communities these days. We think it’s perfectly normal for a character to be named Padma or Cho, just as normal as it is to be named Ron or Percy. Rowlings ability to interject these characters and issues into her novels without making anything of it is part of the beauty of the Harry Potter series. All of the flourishes and embellishments of the imagined universe never get in the way of the story and the characters–they enhance it.