Friday, April 29, 2011

The Reading List: "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire"

I have finished the fourth installment of the hyper-popular and much-loved children’s heptilogy. I do not know if “heptilogy” is a real word, mind you. The spellchecker is pushing me for “herpetology,” which is not completely inappropriate given the volume of snakes and their genetic kin discussed in the Harry Potter books, but it is not really the idea I’m after. Maybe it would just be best to say “seven-volume epic.” But let's not get bogged down.

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.

Here’s Why:

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 / False
If 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?

But, But…

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!


Melissa said...

I agree with most of your points, though I still enjoyed the series. I do have to say that the books get less formulaic with regard to the school year pacing. And good versus bad gets a little less black and white, which seems natural, since the kids are growing older and starting to realize (to quote one of my favorite movies, Zero Effect): "It's not good guys and bad guys. It's just a bunch of...of...guys."

PB said...

There are several fair points here - I, too, was originally bothered by #1, and can hardly deny #3, 4, and 5. But a two-part response to #2:
1) You're absolutely right that especially in the first four books, the deus ex machina factor, in the form of random new magical elements, plays a prominent role in saving Harry, and that will continue somewhat in later books. It doesn't bother me too much because a) she remains internally consistent when she does it (in my opinion, brilliantly so in book 3) and b) these new magical factoids end up being crucial for the last 3 books. If you look at them as individual books, it's a bit of a crutch; from the perspective of a full series, it's a little better.

2) I think the fact that Hogwarts teaches nothing but magic is extremely (and unfortunately) realistic. The central theme of the books is wizards ruling over vs. living alongside normal people. When we consider that wizards are a group that for hundreds, even thousands of years has believed themselves superior due to their special powers, is it surprising that they wouldn't teach "Muggle" science or history? Did white Americans in the 1800s, or even mid 1900s, learn African-American or Native American history? Do you think the British children learned about Indian history or culture fifty years ago? Muggle inventions absolutely are beginning to rival the magical world, and there are wizards who find that fascinating, but it is hardly surprising that a society that has been so long dominant, and through the power of magic retains the power to remain so, has largely ignored the developments of others.

Keep in mind, also, that school is really about teaching people how to think, along with certain necessary skills - the accompanying knowledge is a useful extra. Hogwarts seems to (attempt to) do this, even if it's with different subjects. Potions is about logic and precision (note that Snape sets a logic puzzle to protect the Philosopher's Stone in Book 1), for example. Moody cries for "constant vigilance" - don't we teach our kids the same idea with their online presence and persona? History of Magic is a history class, and Harry's star subject of Defense Against the Dark Arts is about being able to think on your feet (at least when it's taught well - this is emphasized more in the later books, I realize).

Ok, now I've written far too much on this, but I think it is a crucial theme of the books, and one Rowling portrays realistically, even if she doesn't expand on it to the same level of an Ayn Rand (thank God!).

Bridget B. said...

LOL - I just think they're fun, but I do appreciate that a) you're reading them for cultural literacy and b) you're bothering to think about them. They do have problems, but it's interesting that they get darker and bit more grey instead of black/white as the characters age - and as JK Rowlings offspring got older.

Michael5000 said...

PB's thinking about 'em harder than I am....

Rebel said...

Dang - I wrote a fairly detailed response but blogger ate it - I'll comment one by one.

First - I'm feeling personally discriminated against by your quiz... but I'm going to comment anyway.

Rebel said...

1. So a teenaged girl single-handedly overturning a system of slavery that had existed for hundreds if not thousands of years would have been more realistic? She's young, inexperienced and idealistic, she tried to make a difference, she failed, she moved on. I find this extremely plausible.

Rebel said...

2. I don't understand what you mean about the world being made up on the fly, we regularly see a spell introduced in one context and then used again in the climax of the story. (like the patronus charm used in book three, he learned it from his teacher, and then it was how he defeated the dementors).

In this episode, we do see evidence of the wider world - the Quiddich world cup for example, and the death eater's attack on the muggle camp-ground owners. We see the ministry for magic and the auror squad.

And the spell that protects Harry at the end is a mutation of the prior-incantatum spell that's used earlier, yes there's a bit of literary cheating in making it work here... but it's not completely out of the blue. When Olivander gives Harry the wand he does indicate that it has the same core as Voldemort's and there's pretty heavy foreshadowing that at some point that's going to mean something.

Rebel said...

2a - I call the bathroom card on this one. How many books show the main character using the toilet, brushing their teeth, showering, putting on deodorant and clipping their toe-nails? The amount of pages devoted to these activities is grossly out of proportion to the amount of times that our heroes must of necessity spend on them. Does that mean that they never go to the bathroom?

So while we don't see the characters studying reading, writing or arithmetic, that doesn't mean that these subjects are not incorporated into their normal coursework.

and 2a(i) - While Voldemort might have gotten a lucky shot off, a quick 'protego' charm would have rendered the gun ineffective. And like, seriously the gun laws in England are significantly more restrictive, do you really think anyone would have sold a guy who looks like Voldemort a gun? ;)

Rebel said...

3 - I don't know what loophole you're talking about here, and I'm not sure what you mean by the villian being picked at random. Much like in the comic-book world of Superman - there are a lot of bad guys out there.

Rebel said...

4 & 5 I'm not really going to argue with you about. Although I don't really see how either of these points make the book weak. The kids are teenagers, one of whom with a traumatic background that might lead to a bit more acting out than normal. And the bad guy speeches are required. It's the law of super-villains.