After reading each of the first three books I wrote that they were basically pretty good, and then pointed out some interesting problems that it seemed to me had been ignored in all the hyperpopularity and much-lovingness. This didn’t exactly make me Mr. Popular, so it is genuinely kind of a bummer to have to announce, right here up front, that I found Goblet of Fire the weakest entry in the series up to this point.
Actually, wait! Take this simple quiz first:
1. I love the Harry Potter series so much that it would make me unhappy to see it subjected to an unsympathetic analysis, especially one that indulges in overstatement in an attempt to create a humorous effect. True / False
2. I believe that Michael5000 intentionally finds fault with popular books just to be contrary, or whatever. True / False
3. I believe that Michael5000 commits a fundamental error of judgment by subjecting to analysis that which is simply not intended to be analyzed, but merely to be enjoyed. True / False
4. It is dumb to critique a children’s book from an adult perspective. True / FalseIf you answered “True” to any of the above, please skip down to “Coming Next on the Reading List,” below.
Now then. Here’s Why:
1 – This is a book – a children’s book – in which a character discovers that her society runs on an unacknowledged system of often abusive slave labor. Upset by this, she tries to do something about it. Her efforts are vaguely ridiculous, and the other characters tell her to lighten up, slaves like being slaves. So she lightens up, and the story line is dropped. Excuse me? What the hell is that?
Now, visitors from the future tell me that this issue is picked up again in subsequent volumes, and my God, I certainly hope so. Within the Goblet text, though, the matter just quietly fades away.
2 – Adult fans of the series like to talk about how fully imagined and complete the HP world is. Except it really isn’t. And as I get further into this epic, it’s increasingly disappointing to have so little basic coherence in the realm of the wizards. The nature of magic, for instance, is brazenly made up on the fly. Mr. Potter’s bacon is saved in this episode because, when two wands that share a hair or feather from the same creature are used against each other, there’s this cancelling-out effect that also envelopes the combatants in an impenetrable shell. What? Really? Why? Well, the why is obvious: because Harry needs to survive his fight. His survival feels less impressive, though, when his author-god is ad-libbing the laws of nature for his personal benefit.
And it’s not just the rules of magic. While there are references backwards to people, places, creatures, institutions, and social norms that were introduced in earlier books, new features of the world are also introduced higgledy-piggledy as needed. Never is there a sense that Harry’s life is taking place in the context of a broader world, unless you count the one liner of “everybody’s afraid that Lord Voldemort is coming back!” as a broader world.
Now this lack of a fully realized literary ecology doesn’t make the books bad. Not by any means. But it does dumb them down, and it makes them considerably less interesting to read. The pleasure of predicting what might happen next is absent, because what happens next is going to be completely arbitrary. It's not a fatal flaw, but the lack of a realized world certainly separates the Potter books from the top tier of fantasy writing, even fantasy writing for children.
2a – A trivial aside, but actually a pretty good example of the problem I've been nattering on about: have you ever noticed that Hogwarts teaches nothing but magic? True, the kids are expected to read (about magic) and write (about magic), but they get no training whatsoever in mathematics, literature, social studies, or the history or technology of their partners in humanity, the Muggles. They actively shun the formal knowledge system of the Muggles – “science” – and seem doggedly unaware that it is in many respects the equal of or superior to their own abilities. Hogwarts is, in other words, a training ground for incredibly powerful idiots. Terrific.
2a(i): Observation: Voldemort brought a wand to take on Harry Potter. A more clever villain would have brought a wand, and a gun.
3 – The soothing rhythm is getting a little too soothing. Harry has a wacky misadventure during the end of his summer with his foster parents, he goes to school, some incredibly destructive force is leveled against him, and he ultimately escapes through some new loophole in the nature of magic. A villain is revealed at seeming random from the roster of secondary characters, and this clears up the strange events that have been happening lately. Then there are the annual goodbyes. I wonder what will happen in the next book? Oh wait, I already know.
4 – Professor Snape, whom we are encouraged to loathe because he has greasy hair, disparages Harry as a student who sees himself as above the rules, who does whatever the hell he wants, and whom is never made accountable for behavior that would get any other student kicked right out of the institution without further ado. Snape is entirely correct. Harry’s at least an essentially decent kid, though, whereas his pal Ron is just kind of a jackass. Really, why is Hermione hanging out with these slackers?
5 – At the climax of Goblet, Voldemort makes a gloating speech the length of which would embarrass even the most loquacious James Bond villain. Well, OK. But then, few pages later, his henchman does the exact same thing. With this much exposition, why not give up the pretence of paragraphs and just start using bullet points?
Oh, sure, it’s basically all right. It’s certainly no worse than most of the young adult fantasy books on the shelves, and it’s a damn sight better than many of ‘em. Rowling continues to impress me with the clarity of her sentence-level writing, which I thought made a step up from Volume III to Volume IV. This was the first of the Harry Potters that made me laugh out loud a few times at clever moments.
There is also a nice little scene when Harry or Ron or somebody has thrown a piece of toast out into the school’s lake, which we know to be populated by magical creatures. After floating for a few seconds, the toast gets snatched under by a tentacle of some unidentified creature. It’s a nice moment. These few sentences, almost uniquely within the HP text, are not directly harnessed to furthering the plot. And that, J.K., is how you move towards constructing a real fictive universe: it needs to operate on its own terms, and to contain, if only by implication, elements beyond the things that happen to or that happen because of the central characters.
There are a few remarks scattered in Goblet of Fire where it is hard to tell whether they might be sly asides intended to amuse all those grown-ups reading the book, chapter by chapter, through a long series of bedtimes. In a merman village: Harry sped on, staring around, and soon the dwellings became more numerous; there were gardens of weed around some of them. Dude. Dumbledore, on embarrassing family connections: "My own brother, Aberforth, was prosecuted for practicing inappropriate charms on a goat." Um. Cough, cough.
Well. I quite enjoyed the first chapter of Goblet, which introduces and manages to round out rather nicely a vignette involving a Muggle whose fate will turn out to be intertwined with the unfolding of the main plot. This introductory gambit broke up the rhythm a bit, but it was a short reprieve; I nurture hope that there might be more tinkering with the formula in the last three installments..
The other nice thing about Goblet? It front-loaded the Quidditch.
But Seriously, Folks
It’s 2011. Either you’ve read the Harry Potter books, and you have your own well-formed opinion of their merit, or if you haven’t. At this stage, for those of voting age, I haven’t found a lot of value added in reading the books over watching the movies – although the movies, too, rather blur into each other with the relentless rhythm of the Hogwarts school year. There’s a cultural literacy issue at stake, though, so at a minimum you ought to read HP I and watch a few of the films. If Volumes V, VI, or VII pan out to be especially amazing, I’ll be sure to let you know.
Coming Next on the Reading List
Well, it’s supposed to be Pietra Rivoli’s The Travels of a T-shirt in the Global Economy, but I’m deep in the queue for a limited number of copies of that one. Nabakov’s Pnin will likely follow HPIV in jumping its place in line. I’ve heard it’s nowhere near as good as Lolita! But then, what is? After that, there’s something called A Primate’s Memoir. And about then I’ll be 2/3 of the way through the Reading List!