Wednesday, September 19, 2012

In defence of Harry Potter

This link was recently posted on my Facebook wall.  I promised a blogged response, so here it is.  I suggest you read the linked article before this post, as I will be responding to the points made in the article.

First, the character of Harry is criticised for not being that good at anything except for flying and the patronus charm.  This is inaccurate.  While being academically average, Harry is good at Defence Against the Dark Arts in general, not just one charm.  The suggestion that he is only good at the patronus charm because he learnt it earlier than usual is weak, as evidence from Dumbledore's Army scenes, and the rest of books 6 and 7, suggest that he was more successful with this charm than his peers.  The author also overlooks the fact that Harry is exceptionally brave.  His bravery is probably his strongest character trait.
The author is unhappy that Harry, while not being good at much, is "touted by others as being a wonderful and excellent wizard for no discernible reason".  Two points in response to this.  Firstly, the times he is praised by many people are the times when he has done something particularly good, such as killing a basilisk, evading a dragon or escaping from Voldemort.  Secondly, a lot of the hype placed on Harry throughout the series is because he (admittedly unknowingly) caused first downfall.  It's the standard response to a saviour-hero.  Nothing that unusual, and certainly not Harry's fault.
The article says that most things that happen to Harry are due to others, and not his own skill.  This is simply incorrect.  Some things are due to the skill of others (usually Hermione or Dumbledore), but plenty of things are not.  Such as: fighting off Quirrell, killing the basilisk, driving off dementors several times, evading the Hungarian Horntail, escaping Voldemort in the graveyard, getting out of the Department of Mysteries with Hermione unconscious, Ron temporarily insane, and Neville and Ginny injured..the list goes on.  Again, many of these things come down to Harry's bravery.
Harry is then criticised for not trying hard enough in the Triwizard Tournament, and for needing help to get through it.  It should be noted that both Viktor Krum and Fleur Delacour, the strongest wizard and witch from their respective schools, needed help from their mentors.  Harry is about three years younger than them and probably gets no more help than them.
Then comes a classic issue: angry-Harry in book 5.  I've said before that, given Harry's circumstances, a little anger is not unexpected and maybe even reasonable.  He acts like a normal teenager would.  The author of the article acknowledges this, but argues that Harry is not a normal teenager.  However, the author gives no reason for this argument, but simply goes on to criticise Rowling's writing - a separate issue that gives no evidence to the debate over Harry's anger.  Hence, there is no argument that Harry is not a normal teenager. I would like to point out that (a) I don't happen to think he is a normal teenager, but the article gives no evidence for claiming that he isn't, and (b) I don't think he is sufficiently abnormal to be immune to anger!

So, that's Harry defended.  He's by no means perfect, nor is he good at many things other than flying, DADA and being brave - but since when did he have to be?  He's not my favourite character, but the accusations levelled at him in the article are unfounded.

Next, the article moves on to criticise JKR's writing.  The series is critisied for the first few books being more black-and-white with respect to 'goodies and baddies', and then introducing more grey areas in later books. The author of the article seems to find this unconvincing.  Personally, I have always found this to make a lot of sense, because, we must remember, the story is told almost entirely from Harry's point of view (in fact, in books 1-3, other than the opening chapter in which he is 1 year old, only about 10 lines are not from his point of view).  Harry is initially just a kid.  He's young.  Like most children of his age, he sees things in quite a black and white way.  Therefore it makes sense for him to see 'goodies and baddies' as fairly black and white characters in the first few books.  It should also be noted that, even when he's older, Harry is not the most logical of people and tends to jump to conclusions and hold strong grudges.  He is not a particularly good judge of character.
The comment about Hogwarts alumni objecting to the banning of quidditch by Umbridge is just baffling.  There is no indication of alumni getting involved at Hogwarts for any reason, and even if they did, by this time Hogwarts was ministry-run, under the guidance of Umbridge - I very much doubt that any alumni could have done anything about the ban.
The comments about Harry's father aren't much better - they're understandable but, like much of the article, not based on canonical fact. Yes, Harry finds out bad stuff about his dad as he grows up - but there are still people who defend his dad as generally a good guy (e.g. Remus Lupin and Sirius Black).  The revelations about Harry's dad are part of the theme of Fatherhood that runs throughout the series, and help to flesh out James' character.  That's the purpose that the author doesn't seem to notice.

Next we have the plot points that allegedly don't make sense.  Firstly, the author questions that lots of Beauxbatons and Durmstrang students come to Hogwarts for a whole year for only one to compete in the Triwizard Tournament.  Two points in defence of this.  One - this is not a normal school system; no doubt they do things differently to muggle schools.  Two - this was the first Triwizard Tournament for over 200 years.  It was a massive deal.  I'm not surprised people risked a year of education for the chance to compete.
Next, the author has some questions about the prophecy which "doesn't really mean anything" - this is a crude and exaggerated way of putting it, though not entirely inaccurate, but shows a misunderstanding.  The prophecy means several things when heard in its entirety.  The interesting thing about it is that it is not a perfect prediction of the future - it doesn't bind Harry to killing Voldemort.  However, because Voldemort chooses to follow the prophecy, the two of them will eventually meet and one will die - but because of Voldemort's choices, not because of some fatalistic prophecy.  This is all explained at the end of book five.  Anyway, the authors' questions about the prophecy, and my answers, are:
So why exactly did Dumbledore and everyone keep that from Harry?  Firstly, it's Dumbledore, not everyone else - the rest of the Order don't seem to know what the prophecy is, they're just following Dumbledore's instructions.  Secondly, they don't really seem to be keeping it from Harry - Harry never really asks about it until after he's heard it.  Thirdly, if Dumbledore does keep things from Harry, it is because, as Dumbledore explains, he doesn't think Harry is ready to hear everything yet.
Why did it matter so much to make sure Voldemort didn't hear the end of it?  Because the end of the prophecy explains why Voldemort couldn't kill Harry, which is exactly what Voldemort was trying to find out.  It's delaying tactics.
If it was really that big of a deal, why couldn’t the good guys destroy the recording held at the Ministry of Magic?  The authority to do this would lie with the Ministry, who didn't believe Voldemort had returned and, even if they did, did not know the contents of the prophecy.  From their point of view, they had no reason to destroy it.
Another set of questions related to the plot: At the end of Book 5, didn't Dumbledore promise not to keep things from Harry anymore? So why did he immediately start keeping things from Harry in Book 6 about the Horcruxes? Why drag out that whole plot/discussion throughout the course of the book when he could have sat Harry down and explained things in one go?
Dumbledore kept information from Harry for two reasons.  One is explained in book six (Harry even asks this question!) - Dumbledore told Harry everything he knew for certain; from then on, it was guesswork.  The second is that Dumbledore was a master schemer.  He kept information from people all the time, you could argue he even sacrificed people for the long-term goal of killing Voldemort.  Dumbledore's character is possibly the most interesting of the lot.  Remember the whole 'greater good' thing from his youth?  I reckon he carried elements of that on through his life.

Nearly at the end now...the author disagrees with JKRs handling of deaths.  Firstly that of Sirius because it wasn't dramatic and poignant.  I fail to see how it isn't both of these.  It's in the middle of a big wizard battle, he's killed by his own cousin, having come to rescue his godson - that's pretty dramatic.  As for poignancy, I think, and I think many fans would agree, that it's one of the hardest-hitting parts of the series.  Secondly, Lupin and Tonks.  Here I have to concede the point.  I actually think the story would have been better if Tonks had lived, and I do think that Lupin should have had an 'on-screen' death (though I can see the attraction of the brutality of having it off-screen).

Next, we have the accusation of JKR being inconsistent.  The examples used are 'Why don't wizards always apparate instead of using other methods of transport?' and 'Why don't they use time-turners and veritaserum more?'.  The apparition question is answered several times in the books - not all wizards can apparate, not all wizards like apparition, apparition is risky (splinching).  Time-turners are so dangerous as to be practically illegal.  The question shouldn't be 'why they don't use them more?', but 'how was Hermione allowed to use one?' - this was clearly an exceptional situation for an exceptional witch.  Veritaserum?  To be honest, I don't know.  This may well be a plot hole.  But in a story this complex, plot holes are guaranteed to appear occasionally.  Having said that, I am sure JKR would be able to answer this question, given the amount of background information she knows.  In fact, a quick internet search reveals this quote from JKR on the very first hit:
Veritaserum works best upon the unsuspecting, the vulnerable and those insufficiently skilled (in one way or another) to protect themselves against it. Barty Crouch had been attacked before the potion was given to him and was still very groggy, otherwise he could have employed a range of measures against the Potion – he might have sealed his own throat and faked a declaration of innocence, transformed the Potion into something else before it touched his lips, or employed Occlumency against its effects. In other words, just like every other kind of magic within the books, Veritaserum is not infallible. As some wizards can prevent themselves being affected, and others cannot, it is an unfair and unreliable tool to use at a trial.

Sirius might have volunteered to take the potion had he been given the chance, but he was never offered it. Mr. Crouch senior, power mad and increasingly unjust in the way he was treating suspects, threw him into Azkaban on the (admittedly rather convincing) testimony of many eyewitnesses. The sad fact is that even if Sirius had told the truth under the influence of the Potion, Mr. Crouch could still have insisted that he was using trickery to render himself immune to it.

So that's that settled.

The final criticism in the article is of the length of the last four books. The author cynically suggests that this was because editors didn't want to drive away the by-then very successful writer that Rowling was. No evidence for this. And, to be fair, the books are awesome. I'd rather the first three be longer than the last four shorter.

So there we go.  My defence of the Harry Potter series against whoever it was who wrote that article.


Susie B said...

I thought Tonks and Lupin's deaths were written quite cleverly in a way - Harry's just been in the midst of battle and in a hall filled with the dead, injured and those mourning - it would be really overwhelming. I reckon having that much suddenly hit you would make it hard for the reality to sink in, and your immediate perspective would be of it all being surreal and not quite genuine. And of course, although Harry did know them well, he's also being bombarded with the sheer number of others that have died or suffered. So I thought it was rather a good addition to the ways of writing different ways of encountering death.

Unknown said...

Yeah I see what you mean, and I kind of agree - it is a bit more realistic, there's no way Harry would personally witness all the deaths of his friends.
But at the same time I think it's a shame Lupin's death didn't get a bit more page time!