• Gregory Loselle

Harry Potter and the more-accurate title

So life continues, the Coronavirus rages on, and I've come to treasure my retreat nightly--and sometimes also in the afternoons--into the world of Harry Potter. Outside of the boredom of home isolation, the escape into a colorful and dramatic fictional world has been anodyne. I'm not entirely engaged, however: the books are occasionally a rough ride, for one reason or another, and whether or not it's fair to fault the author for the flaws I'm dwelling on, it's also true that no book is without some complications for the reader--a reader who reads, as promised, critically. I'm finding myself confirmed in the hunch that Rowling wrote quickly and up to the standard of finishing her works for their dramatic--which is to say narrative--integrity, but left other aspects (aspect which a more demanding editor or a slower authorial pace might have remedied) to take care of themselves. No matter: entertainment is all, here--if Rowling left us with some rough spots, all the better for our consideration after the cover is closed and the book is returned to the shelf.

So about those flaws, exactly. One of my observations is that some elements in each book seem to run away with the author to the extent that they distract from the plot as we eventually come to know it. Unlike a fictional red herring--the staple of mystery fiction (and the Potter books are, at heart, mysteries, in the tradition of Agatha Christie--at least until the final volume of the series, where loose ends from the previous books are the central concern, a mystery device itself, if applied eventually to the whole series), it seems that some issues come close to running away with their respective books. This happened so frequently that we're left with being able to designate a major fictional concern for each of the volumes in the ongoing sequence..

So let's get to it, in the order of the series:

  • Harry Potter and the Cardboard Characters. This is my ongoing criticism of the first two books: the characters are pasteboard-deep and are used as plot devices to power a simple story--and all is revealed at the end. However, speaking of the ending, where the Philosopher's Stone magically--that is to say, without explanation--appears at a crucial moment in Harry's pocket, where it had previously not been--we could also call this one Harry Potter and the Improbable Ending.

  • Harry Potter and the Freudian Issue. This is a book in which Harry, for much of the action, spends his time wondering why, exactly, he has such an affinity with Voldemort. His history is one thing (dealt with explicitly later, as a way of deepening Neville Longbottom's character, when he muses in the fifth and sixth books that Neville could just as easily have been The Boy Who Lived), but also whether he might be The Heir of Slytherin referred to in a mysterious inscription. Though his parents figure prominently in the story, their absence in Harry's life raises parallel issues--Dumbledore as a father-figure, for instance (or is it Snape, in the image of Freud's punishing father? is Draco Malfoy, then--gasp!--a near-relation?). In either case, Harry defeats a large phallic symbol (nowhere else in world literature, that I know of, is a basilisk described as a serpent)* in a subconsciously womb-like cave with the use of a sword (oh, sweet Jesus!) inherited from the founder of his true Hogwarts house, and thereby restores his patrimony and his place in the universe as a son of his true father in Heaven. (And that is another thing entirely, of course. But what's that bird overhead, shedding grace all around--a phoenix, you say?)

  • Harry Potter and the Makeshift Plot. So named because the invention of the time-spinner--which could have been used to eliminate any threat from Tom Riddle back when Tom Riddle was Tom Riddle, come to think of it) leads to a longer book by half, in which the threat to Harry, as in the first two books, is dispatched in 20 or so chapters, but we still have to tie up loose ends, with the help of a device which not only transports us back in time, but also saves Rowling from having to conclude her plot neatly and without recourse to magical do-overs. We could also call it Harry Potter and The Rounded Characters, since this is the first book in which, seemingly goaded by her expanding conception of the action and its narrative requirements, the author writes so that Harry and the other characters emerge, for the first time--and after several hundreds of flat-reacting pages--into genuine self-consciousness.

  • Harry Potter and the Author Who Didn't Learn Her Lesson In the Last Book. See

an earlier entry for my thoughts on the complications and flaws of this volume in the series. That said, this is perhaps the most energetically entertaining of the Potter books, where any one of its set-pieces--thw Quiddich World Cup, the Tri-Wizard Tournament, the resurrection of Voldemort--could have been the centerpiece for a novel of its own. Alternately, this book could also be called Harry Potter and the Anger-Management Issue, since his sudden problems with rage--however much we sympathize--are the recurring motif, elevated to plot element, which spurs the story on. Were int not for Harry's repeated outbursts (an uncharacteristic and unattractive change in his character) much of the development of this book would be without purpose. (We educators might also want to dub it Harry Potter Defeats Right-Wing Education Reform, which is the subject of another entry, but leave that there.)

  • Harry Potter and the Substitute Family. With the reformation of the Order of the Phoenix, Harry at last acquires the family he never had, if not the stable home environment he deserves. Nevermind that his godfather is a tough-acting but soft and failed Slytherin whose shadowy brother was once a death-eater, and that the house--which we somehow always know will be his patrimony--comes with shrieking, angry portraits who chew him out about not being worthy (the Freudian family romance continues....). Harry is protected in this book, first to last, by others sworn to protect him.

And that will do for the moment--I'm only approaching the middle of the sixth book, as I read, and already glancing around, apprehensively, for what I'll occupy myself with once the cycle is finished. More on this later.

*Correction: it has been pointed out to me that the basilisk is described by Pliny the Elder as a serpent. A little further research confirms that it is described in T.H. White's translation of The Bestiary (from which I've taught) as the king of serpents. Oddly, in that source it shares a Latin name with Sirius Black's late brother, a former death-eater. I stand corrected, and I confess the source of my error: the entry from White is accompanied by this illustration.

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©2019 by Gregory Loselle

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