Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Harry Potter -- One Year Later

How the time has flown -- already it's been a year since Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows hit the shelves. It was a time of particular excitement because it was going to be the very last one, the final time for Harry Potter fans the world round to gather in eager anticipation of a brand new volume in the adventures of the boy wizard. The last time for big themed parties at libraries and bookstores, and generally the last time that we would reach this fevered pitch of anticipation, because after this there would be no more.

Now, a year later, a certain amount of the excitement has worn off and we can begin to look back at the Harry Potter phenomenon with a degree of perspective and ask just what was its significance. Some things are obvious, such as the record-breaking sales statistics that catapaulted a relatively obscure single mother into the ranks of the world's richest women. Others are more debatable, particularly when one begins to move into questions of quality and literary merit.

There can be no question about the Harry Potter books being engaging, for they were books that children read willingly, even begged to be able to read. Children who had previously regarded reading as an onerous chore had come to look upon the Harry Potter books with eager anticipation, and upon acquiring them would even read them multiple times to capture every nuance of the often intricate plotting. The Harry Potter books also crossed generations in a way seldom seen for children's literature, with adults reading with the same eagerness as their younger counterparts. Although some grown-ups were chary of being seen to read a children's book and would take off the dust jacket of the hardcover or wrap paper around the paperback to hide it, a surprising number of adults proudly showed off their choice of reading matter.

The Harry Potter books also broke new ground in terms of the substance of children's books. It had previously been regarded as a given that children would not read large books, and many authors had to deal with longer books being broken into multiple parts to keep them within what were regarded as hard limits on length. But when Harry Potter And The Goblet Of Fire weighed in at nearly twice the usual length for a children's book and young people still devoured it by the crateload, publishers began to re-evaluate their assumptions.

The Harry Potter books also broke new ground by allowing the storylines to grow with the characters. Many children's fantasy series feature relatively static characters who face the same sorts of challenges in book after book. Even if the characters' achievements and losses from earlier books carry through into later ones, the types of problems they face generally remain at the same age level. By contrast, Harry Potter and his friends face ever escalating problems in each book, delving into steadily deeper issues of good and evil. In the first few books, the dichotomy is simple enough to almost seem simplistic -- Voldemort is evil because he's evil, and that's that. Harry being downtrodden and suddenly discovering that he's a star is treated as pretty much a plot device, and left at that.

But by the fourth book, we begin to move into more complicated territory, in which Rowling begins to plumb the nature of love and loyalty, themes that will run throughout the remainder of the series and prove to be the foundations of the most powerful magic of all. Even the character of Voldemort becomes more complex and nuanced, and we begin to see more human motivations for his fall into depravity, moving him beyond the menace that is a menace because it's a menace.

However, we may question whether we are seeing a lasting phenomenon. Will we continue to see new children take up the Harry Potter books with the same eagerness now that there are no further volumes to whet our appetite and encourage us to re-read the earlier ones in order to be ready to catch all the subtleties of the latest installment?

Skeptical critics have pointed out that the Harry Potter books really don't break that much new ground in terms of storytelling, and that much of their storytelling is merely the artful rearranging of standard tropes. Yet the tropes are often so common for the simple fact that they speak to deep and basic things within us, with the resonance of the familiar. And truth be told, many of the greats of literature have made their place in the canon by works that are in fact derivative of various precursors now remembered only by specialists. For instance, every educated person in the Western world knows Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, yet only a few dedicated scholars recall such authors as Arthur Brooke, William Painter or Matteo Bandello, all of whom wrote earlier versions of the doomed couple's romance. Shakespeare's genius lay in changing the theme and impact of his story, taking what had previously been a condemnation of youthful refusal to listen to the advice of elders and turned it into a story of the redemptive power of young love.

In the final reckoning we will only know whether the Harry Potter books have lasting literary merit when they have lasted. Which means we need to wait a few decades and see if new generations of children take up the series with the same delight, or if they come to regard it as a stodgy old thing only their parents and grandparents would want to read.

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