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Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone

Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone  - J.K. Rowling I'm the only person in the world with mixed feelings about the Harry Potter books. Most readers love them. There are non-readers who are indifferent to them as they are to all other books; others who go solely by the fact that they're "children's" books and therefore believe it's ridiculous for adults to read and enjoy them; and of course a legion of similarly anti-literacy folk who have decided the Harry Potter books are immoral. These people, who read and enjoy Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and stories about Merlin and King Arthur, have concluded that the Potter universe is an evil place because it has magic and witches. All righty, then.

I suppose there are readers who genuinely dislike the Harry Potter books. I haven't come across them, but they must be out there somewhere. And of course there must be readers who say they dislike them when what they mean is, they're wildly jealous that they didn't write them.

I don't belong in any of those categories. I admire the fine writing, characterization, dialogue, and world-building Rowling has done. And exactly because her writing is so good, the one flaw I've found pains me to the point that I can't read these with the pure pleasure they give so many others.

The only person I've talked to about this who's been willing to listen long enough to understand what I'm saying is the one person I know who hasn't read the books and has no plans to. He thinks I make a valid point. Everyone else I've attempted to engage on this topic has responded, "You're saying something bad about Harry Potter. You must be bad. I hate you. Please leave my home." Or words to that effect.

I'll grant you that accepting flaws in things we love is a little-taught skill in this world. It's almost as rare as seeing good qualities in those we hate. This is as true with books as it is with people, and it's tragic. I have yet to meet someone who can acknowledge the admirable qualities of books they can't stand. I don't mean genuinely bad books, the kind that will be pulped a year after they were printed (if they last that long) or that will never make it to paper in the first place not because technology is awesome but because *nobody* wants to waste the paper on these works. No, I mean books that have stood the test of time but who have as many haters as lovers.

Perfect example: Little Women. People adore this book, or they despise it.

Listen up: "Little Women" is corny, mawkish, and sentimental. It's also wise, funny, and strong. Whether you like the book or you hate it, if you can't admit that all of this is true and this can all be true at the same time about the same book, you have a serious ego problem.

You can't admit that the book you love could have anything wrong with it. ("Krinkle, krinkle, 'ittle 'tar"? Really? That's not cringe-inducing? Calling a grown woman "Marmee" isn't cringe-inducing? Having the one black child at Jo's school for boys be the best singer isn't seriously cringe-inducing?). Or else you refuse to entertain the idea that anything you hate could have anything right about it. (Marmee's advice to Meg about the difference between the flashing tempers of the March girls and the temperament of the man Meg married stands the test of time very well, as do plenty of the other observations of humanity -- when Jo laughingly admits that she's well enough to go on a carriage ride with Laurie, but not well enough to do disagreeable chores, and then karma kicks her in the arse. Which it tends to do a lot in this book.)

Put your ego aside when thinking about and discussing literature. Good books are not saints. They should be admired, enjoyed, learned from, and reread; but they should also be critically examined. And if I've done all that with the Harry Potter books and I've found something I think is a serious flaw, it would be nice to be able to discuss that, rather than be glared and yelled at (yes, both have happened, and yes, I'm still angry) because I have the unmitigated gall to find something wrong with Saint Jo.

For anyone who's still reading: I'm very uncomfortable with one aspect of the world Rowling has created. Specifically, I don't think her justification for hiding the existence of magic from the world of ordinary humans stands up well in a court of ethics.

This is a review of the first book, so I'll only go into what she says here. When Harry Potter first learns who is parents really are, Hagrid is furious at the Dursleys for not having told him anything about what he calls Harry's world. "Our world, I mean. Your world. My world. Yer parents' world."

It's terribly wrong not to have told Harry who and what he is, and who and what his parents were. Agreed.

How, then, is it all right to hide what is, after all, the real world from the majority of its inhabitants?

How is it all right to scorn them for not having magic while at the same time doing everything to keep them from knowing magic exists?

Don't say there's no scorn. "Muggle" is hardly a term of endearment. (Yes, I'm jumping ahead of myself and I promised I wouldn't, but "mud-blood" is nothing but an extension of the condescension contained in "Muggle.") And as for the attitude towards the mundane world, look at Hagrid -- one of the good guys, certainly, and a very appealing character:

"Although Hagrid seemed to know where he was going, he was obviously not used to getting there in an ordinary way. He got stuck in the ticket barrier on the Underground and complained loudly that the seats were too small and the trains too slow.

'I don't know how the Muggles manage without magic,' he said, as they climbed a broken-down escalator."

We manage because you won't let us do otherwise. And then you sneer at the job we do.

Let me ask you something: Do you really believe that "separate but equal" can be both? That's not how it works in the real world, and it's not how it works in Potter's world. The magical beings there are an elite minority, and they like it that way. They have the power. They're hanging on to it by force (more about that in later books), even when that puts the inhabitants of the mundane world at risk (WAY more about that in later books).

Let me ask you something else: If you read and enjoy Austen's novels in the way that many people do -- taking pleasure in imagining yourself a member of that world -- you imagine yourself as one of the genteel, right? Not one of the servants. We see very little of them, and they have miserable lives. The power situation in Austen's time was horribly imbalanced and unfair. Austen wasn't in much of a position to do anything about it; but at least she didn't have her characters brag all the time about how awesome it was to be of the land-owning class, and how pathetic those stupid servants are.

In fact, the one character I can think of who does complain about servants is Aunt Norris, and she's an out-and-out villain. Her observations on the serving class are meant to reinforce just what a nasty piece of work she is.

One person I know claimed that in the Potter universe, the magic-users keep their existence and powers a secret in order to protect themselves. That's contradicted later -- I think in book #3, in which Harry reads a textbook about how much real witches enjoy being burned at the stake because it tickles and doesn't do them any harm -- but for now I'll just point out what Hagrid says when Harry asks why the Ministry of Magic "keeps it from the Muggles that there's still witches an' wizards up an' down the country."

"Blimey, Harry, everyone'd be wantin' magic solutions to their problems. Nah, we're best left alone."

If Rowling wanted to make a universe in which a failed attempt had been made in the past to live on equal terms with the non-magic world, and that attempt had led to great suffering and many lives lost on both sides, that would be perfectly tenable. (And fascinating. Somebody, write that book. Okay, I will.) If she wanted to claim that magic-users would be persecuted by the ordinary humans, and the magicians might have the magic but the mundane world had the sheer numbers and a lot of nasty technology on their side, that would certainly work. And then I could read these books without a qualm.

Instead, she's created a world in which a ruling class cheerfully admits that they like having all the really cool stuff and they're jolly well not going to share with those foolish mortals who are so stupid, they have to struggle up broken escalators.

What troubles me even more than her making this decision (which, as I've pointed out, is not the only way to go if you want to have a world of hidden magic) is how enthusiastically her readers have embraced it. There are "No Muggles Allowed" posters and Facebook pages. Created and enjoyed by people who don't seem to realize that, just as they'd more likely be a servant than gentility in Austen's world, odds are good they'd be Muggles in Rowling's.

People who have felt odd and left out all their lives naturally embrace the idea that secretly, they're special and strong -- magical, even. I only question the idea that having wonderful abilities has to go hand in hand with lording it over those who don't. How is the Potter universe's attitude toward non-magic users any different from Malfoy's gloating over his entirely inherited monetary wealth, and sneering at Ron's poverty?

I'm very uncomfortable with the Potter universe because I don't have the ego to believe I'd be one of the special ones. I'm rereading these with my son because he doesn't remember them very well and his grandmother kindly lent us an entire hardcover library of the British editions. This journey has its pleasures, but it's the last I'll take to the Potter world. It's no place for Muggles.

UPDATE: I'm now about a hundred pages into the British edition of the last Harry Potter book, and I'm already seriously considering rereading the whole series just to have the entire, incredibly complex plot fresh in my head for once. Yes, the things that bug me philosophically about this series still bother me; but the writing is just too good for even cranky old me to resist.