Harry Potter – Great Literature?

That’s the question being asked by Philadelphia Literature Examiner’s Peter McEllhenney. He answers, “no,” not great; but they are literature. I’m not really sure what that means. It is a very interesting article, however, assessing Rowling’s strengths and weaknesses. I wonder the extent to which Hog’s Head patrons will agree and disagree.

The question caught my attention immediately, because the first 60% of Hog’s Head Conversations contain essays which, in one way or another, answer this question, “yes” – primarily the two essays that start the volume: “The Literary Value of the Harry Potter Books,” by Colin Manlove, and “Repotting Harry Potter: Popular Lit Made Legit,” by James W. Thomas.

Rowling’s strengths, according to McEllhenney, are her storytelling (his assessment of this is spot on) and her characters (who, if not very complex, he says, at least “engage our sympathy” and “are vividly drawn.”)

Her weaknesses are her “prose style” and the oldness of her themes and insights. The first I won’t touch here; we’ve discussed it before, and you can feel free to pick it up in the comments if you’d like. The second baffles me.

Nothing new about the themes? What makes something great literature is not the same thing that makes something a great dissertation or article in an academic journal. “Newness” has got nothing to do with it. In fact, Great Books evoke the great old themes of humanity, not anything “new.” We’re talking about “ancient human desires” (Tolkien) like love’s victory over death here.

Further, I’d disagree that her “insights” into those themes are “nothing new.” She’s managed to communicate these old themes to a whole new generation of readers who’d never pick up Homer or Dante; it’s old themes in a new story. Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s first aphorism in Aids to Reflection begins:

In Philosophy equally as in Poetry, it is the highest and most useful prerogative of genius to produce the strongest impressions of novelty, while it rescues admitted truths from the neglect caused by the very circumstance of their universal admission.

I think Rowling accomplished this, and I think it puts her in the “great” category.

57 thoughts on “Harry Potter – Great Literature?

  1. Weird they’d say it’s a problem she’s got old themes. That seems perfectly natural to me.

    I don’t know what’s been said about prose style before, but for myself I’d say that her writing isn’t always technically perfect, but her storytelling is so engaging that this really doesn’t matter much.

  2. He makes some good points about Rowlings’ strengths and weaknesses. I’m not sure what he means by “literature.” Can a book not be literature?

    The best debate I’ve heard on Harry Potter as great literature was a podcast with John Granger on scriptoriumdaily.com. If I remember right, one of the podcasters said that great literature asks the big questions (e.g. “What does it mean to be human?”) and furthers these conversations. (Old themes, but making us think about them in new ways.) I rather like this description, so I think McEllhenney is doing a good thing by asking if we know anything new about love (and other themes) by the end of the series. I just disagree with his conclusion.

  3. He did a good job of describing the strengths and weaknesses of the series, but to call the books just “literature” is kind of a non-judgement. It was interesting that he thought they weren’t great like Inferno and The Iliad, but then didn’t include those books in his list of greatest books ever written. The author also created a list of worst books ever written that was interesting.

    In my opinion, Mr. McEllhenney suffurs from what many people do with literature if it’s popular then it can’t be great. This debate has been had here and John Granger has spent many radio shows/podcasts/speaking events addressing the question at length. Rowling like Dickens will just have to give here series time to hopefully break the idea that her series can handle rereading in the future.

  4. Yeah, not much to say on this that hasn’t already been said. And to compare Rowling to Homer & Dante? What! Try comparing her to Tolkien or Lewis or doesn’t he think they’re great literature either.

    Let’s have a little quiz here: Who all has read The Illiad or The Inferno for pleasure as opposed to doing it as a class assignment? And no matter whether you read either first for pleasure or for class, how many have gone back & read them over & over again?

    I read The Illiad as a kid for pleasure. I was big into Greek mythology at one time. Last time I read The Illiad, though, oh, over 30 years ago. I read parts of Inferno for an English Lit class in the mid-80’s. Haven’t read a lick of it since although I have read snippets of Purgatorio and Paradisio for classes at seminary & even that’s been ten years ago.

    The fact that Rowling takes the themes of such great classics like The Oresteia and of Dante and Dickens and Austen and Bronte et al & weaves those old themes into her work in such a way that a new generation are introduced to those themes that deal with what makes us human surely should count for something.

    But apparently not in this guy’s opinion.

    Oh, did I mention I disagree with his conclusions? 🙂

  5. With writing like this, it’s no wonder newspapers are in trouble. Whatever thinking that might have been there was edited out to make it fit.
    I read through the Divine Comedy and the Illiad every ten years or so. I’m a music teacher, not a literature person.

  6. I hate the word “literature” (better yet, “literary”) on many levels. Usually, I feel like it’s nothing more than a cheap way to call one thing “good” while something else is relegated to “tripe”, or “commercial”, or something along those lines. One of the Intro to Literature books I have to use (I don’t get to choose) actually says that “literature” deals with human themes and examines the human condition, while “commerical” fiction doesn’t.

    Bunk. 100%.

    You might be able to argue distinctions concerning how far different authors/novels dig into those subjects. But, that’s also debatable among much of what academics call “literature.” Every weakness McEllhenney assigns to Rowling has also been leveled at Don DeLillo, and he is considered the most important American author alive today by many scholars of contemporary fiction.

    And then, McEllhenney says this:

    Dumbledore repeatedly emphasizes, and Voldemort consistently mocks, the power that love gives to Harry, and Rowling is right to make love important in her stories. It’s just that we don’t know anything about love when we are done reading that we didn’t know before we started.

    This is both a cop-out and it’s disingenuous. Considering that “love” is one of the most widely discoursed themes imaginable in both imaginative and philosophical writing, it would be difficult (perhaps impossible) to really offer much that was all that radically “new” on the subject. In addition, McEllhenney is ignoring the fact that fiction works by embedding the reader in a perspective from which she finds things uncovered before her. Thus, “new” is something of a relative term, and the same is true of any insight about “love.”

    And I know space doesn’t permit McEllhenney to really develop much of his thought process, but I have to ask: What exactly is a “new” theme?

    Much of what I read in Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms isn’t all that terrifically different from what can be seen in Beowulf. And, of course, this is all relative. What he finds boring, and apparently quaint, is exactly what Travis and John Granger point to as Rowling’s power. Much of this depends on how much value a given reader assigns to “universal” themes.

    The one criticism I can at least partially sympathize with McEllhenney on is the issue of racism and prejudice. In my opinion, Rowling misses some opportunities here, especially at the end of DH. I’ve never been quite sold on Travis’s Fabian-thesis, but that’s because I don’t know much about Fabian-ism more so that it is a technical problem with his argument. I do wish Rowling’s treatment of this subject took a more active approach, or at least one that didn’t undercut itself with the ways house-elves are portrayed at the end of DH. But, I’ll also admit that this may be part of my own political instincts intruding upon my ability to read a text.

    Besides, McEllhenney dismisses Finnegan’s Wake as one of the 9 worst books ever written because “it is just too much damn work”. He also praises a series of novels by Patrick O’Brian as one of the 10 best books ever written because they address “how power corrupts and the problematic relations between men and women.”

    Yeah, those themes are sooooo new…

    And then, in yet another column, he praises Pulp Fiction for its focus on moral choice:

    So questions of moral choice run through Pulp Fiction, and morality is not just talk in the movie. The wicked are punished and the good are saved. Jackson gives up being a hit man, and stays alive. Travolta remains a killer and is killed himself. As for Willis, he rides out of the movie on a motorcycle called “Grace”.

    Except that Tarantino never leaves anything quite that simple. By jumbling the movie’s timeline, Tarantino goes to great lengths to call into question straight cause/effect. But that’s another debate.

    Why isn’t moral choice such a great theme for Rowling?

    And Dumbledore is the only compelling character in the series? No Snape? Seriously?

    I don’t often take the term “literature” as a serious discussion starter, but I will offer a critical response to McEllhenney:


  7. At least the Cubs are ahead right now & hitting the ball well. We’ve got that going for us…for now. 🙂

  8. Rowling does not have to tell us what love is. Throughout her 4100-page epic, she shows us what it is. And isn’t that what great books do–show not merely tell?

    Besides, who is anyone to tell me what life-changing insight I may or may not find in the books I read?

  9. Dave says:

    “One of the Intro to Literature books I have to use (I don’t get to choose) actually says that “literature” deals with human themes and examines the human condition, while “commerical” fiction doesn’t.

    Bunk. 100%.”

    I agree with you. And I believe that smiley you used does have its tongue sticking out … it’s just really hard to tell. 😛

    McEllhenney doesn’t name or cite anyone known to have argued either side of that much-debated question and seems to be going entirely off of his own instincts. Which is fine, I suppose, and maybe the Examiner format doesn’t allow for citation, but it raises the question as to what his credentials are in making such a judgment. That statement is not meant to attack him personally, of course; he certainly had some good analysis, even if I ultimately dissent.

    In my opinion, however, his method leaves his readers free to agree or disagree based either on their own instincts or on superior information. Hog’s Head patrons, of course, have plenty of both. 😀

  10. Lily said:

    his method leaves his readers free to agree or disagree based either on their own instincts or on superior information.

    After spending more than a decade now either studying or participating in literary debates with scholars, academics, friends, readers, and THH patrons, I’ve kind of come around to the conclusion that most literary discussions can be reduced to this sort of thing. 😉 I’ve always held a lingering suspicion that, at some point, “literary” debates really do come down to little more than individual taste — especially once everyone involved agrees on which bits of textual evidence are relevant. I don’t begrudge anyone their likes and dislikes in reading, movies, music, etc. I have opinions about what I like and think is “good” (with a total admission that I can’t always describe what “good” means).

    Mostly I look for stuff that moves me emotionally or intellectually. Other moods strike me in which I just look for something fun. I’ve read every novel Tom Clancy has written in his Jack Ryan series. I read them because they’re fun and escapist. They allow me to “get away from it all for a while.” It’s the same reason I (mostly) like the new Transformers movie. But, that doesn’t mean I think either should win any awards for artistic ability. Clancy is notorious for meticulously describing certain events to the most tedious detail, and then passing off coincidences as important plot points. In some things, he’s a downright descriptive fetishist. In other cases, he simply creates a quick little convenience to move his story from Point A to Point B.

    But, while I don’t find them especially compelling pieces of art that stick in my mind the way, say, a Li-Young Lee poem might, I do think novels like The Hunt for Red October are important for helping point to some peculiarities in American culture and its views of politics, power, and the US’s role in the world. Same thing with Transformers 2.

    As I have said on here before, these kinds of debates are important to me just to put different ideas on the table — not necessarily to convince anyone that I’m right. I have thoughts and ideas. I know you do, too. What happens when we smash them together? But, I do expect that you evidence some thought in your ideas, just you should expect of me, too.

    Maybe my earlier comment was a little too harsh, but I was a bit miffed that this article wanted to present such a sweeping conclusion without evidencing at least a coherent thought. I take this guy’s opinion to be in the same league as HP critics who condemn the books without ever having read them. In McEllhenny’s case, he may have read them, but certainly didn’t pay attention to the details, much less read with an open mind.

  11. I agree with Dave that Rowling misses her opportunity for greatness in Deathly Hallows. She simply fails to use her Christian (and other) symbolism to illuminate anything of interest. It just is not enough to walk your characters through certain allegorical steps and then end the book. The allegory has to reflect off the character to project a new and different picture.

    This does not happen in Deathly Hallows. What does Harry’s death mean in Deathly Hallows? Not really that much. He is exactly the same after as he was before. Losing a piece of Voldemort’s soul, for him, is like having a mole removing from his back. Nice, but nobody really saw it there anyway.

    Harry is just too nice. He is never has to make a hard moral choice, only uses Expelliarmus, and is never seriously tempted by anything. Right now we are reading ‘Sectumsempra’ in Half-Blood Prince. I ask you, how much better would the scene in the bathroom be if Malfoy had not tried to Crucio Harry before Harry used Sectumsempra on him?

  12. SPT, you write:

    Harry is just too nice. He is never has to make a hard moral choice, only uses Expelliarmus, and is never seriously tempted by anything.

    Hmm, I guess we didn’t read the same series.

  13. I don’t actually think the Fabian name-connection matters that much; Rowling is, practically speaking, a Fabian, whether those name-connections are accidental or whether she’s ever even heard of the group (of course she’s heard of them, but I’m making a point here). I’d dig out the quote, but I’ve got to write this quickly.

    As I’ve said before, I was more than pleased with the way Rowling concluded the social justice issues – i.e., not concluding them. Social justice was never her primary issue or motif; Harry Potter is primarily a story about the human soul. It’s one slice of the history of a hidden world, and the social justice issues are part of that world. But it was never a story about social justice, and I’m glad she didn’t attempt to wrap up any of those issues by the end. I don’t think issues as deeply-ingrained as they were in the WW can be resolved in such a short period of time.

    We see the beginnings of changing minds and pricked consciences – especially during the conversation with Griphook in DH: a moment of absolute brilliance, in my opinion. But I do agree with Dave that there were some moments in the final pages concerning house-elves she simply could have done without – the Kreacher-sandwich line, and the house-elves not using any magic in the final battle. And though Neville pulling the sword out of the hat was a good moment for him, and great symbolism, especially pairing him with Harry as the other possible “chosen one” and a “true Gryffindor,” it actually signifies that the WW (dominant society) is right concerning possessions, and the Goblins are wrong.

    SPT, it would take way too much space for me to go into it here, but I have to disagree a lot about Rowling missing her opportunity for greatness in the symbolism of DH. Just brief responses:

    The eye symbolism, expounded by John Granger; the King’s Cross scene; Harry’s death accomplishing on behalf of the entire WW what his mom’s death accomplished for him; his walk through the woods with his loved ones (a la Aslan, but even better), his willing self-sacrifice; all of these and more are not just same old steps that Rowling’s forcing her character through. It’s a really great, new, creative way of expressing these old truths.

    And I also couldn’t disagree more with the scar-horcrux/mole analogy! Of course no one else could see it; but Harry wrestles with the Voldemort-within incessantly! It’s the biggest battle of the book, and the most potent symbolism is all the soul-symbolism throughout the series. It ties to the alchemical framework, the eye-of-the-heart meaning, the Gothic meaning, and gives us a picture of the battle to be truly human.

    Harry never has to make a hard choice? Walking willingly to one’s own death is easy? And what about Harry’s own use of crucio and imperio?

    I don’t mean to lay in on really heavy and come out swinging, but I’m a little baffled by that comment!

  14. Arabella, while I wouldn’t argue Harry never faces “a hard moral choice”, I sympathize with SPT‘s general sense of Harry’s character.

    I never believe for a second that Harry is going to make a decision that leads him down the “wrong” path. And that’s okay. It’s just that I also don’t believe for a second that Harry could go down the wrong path, at least not willingly. The Deathly Hallows vs Horcruxes plotline is close to this. There’s something in Rowling’s writing of him during these pivotal moments that makes me think that Harry never has it in him to ever turn out evil. He clearly does some bad things, but never more than other good characters. He uses unforgiveable curses, but at one point McGonagall is right there with him in one instance.

    Rowling’s point is that he is most certainly not Snape — a deeply conflicted man driven to do the right thing, but not necessarily for the most savory of reasons or in the best way. Or Dumbledore — another deeply conflicted man who wants to do the right thing for the right reasons, but doesn’t always pursue the most savory methods. Harry is what neither of these men could ever be. He has the character traits to step above their flaws.

    It’s just that Rowling doesn’t always draw his character in a coherent outline. Occasionally, the narrative feels as though these moments are passed on without fully working them into the choice theme, much less Harry’s symbolic characterization.

  15. I think that’s a fair assessment, Dave, I can also sympathize with that aspect of SPT‘s comments. It does appear that Harry is “just good” (I think Rowling used those words to describe him once).

  16. Travis, point taken re: the Fabian connection.

    In terms of the social justice issues, I do wish we had seen an evolution of sorts among other characters surrounding the Trio. It’s awesome that Ron shows he’s grown to see the elves as important. But, SPEW has the opportunity to turn into a fantastic vehicle for this subplot, and it never really does anything in the books. If we had at least seen this younger generation of the WW working toward treating the elves with respect and dignity, I could accept the lack of resolution as an important statement about the perils of social stratification and change and why sometimes social gradualism is a better way to evolve than radical upheaval.

  17. Dave, yes – I wish we’d have seen better character development from the trio on this, too. The one who really gets it, in my view, and gives us good commentary on it, is Griphook.

    When they’re having that discussion about breaking into Gringotts, and Ron and Griphook get into an argument about Wizards and Goblins, Harry attempts a race-transcending (read: “color blind”) turn of the conversation to get back on topic. But Griphook won’t let it be; he makes the point that only one other character (Dobby) in the whole series makes: the war against Voldemort and social justice are not separate issues.

    Dobby sort of gets it, but he seems too … naive? … to have much to say about it other than realizing things were worse when Voldemort was in power. Dumbledore clearly gets it in his conversation with Harry at the end of Order, and he seems to understand on the whole. Hermione seems to really get it in that conversation with Griphook as well; I love the moment she embraces “Mudblood,” changing the word’s meaning and robbing it of its power.

    I’d also say that it’s not always true that social gradualism is better. But JKR certainly sets up the house-elf situation that way. I wouldn’t say the same for centaurs, goblin, or giants (and neither, it seems, would Dumbledore, who wanted Fudge to send envoys to the giants).

  18. Dave, you write:

    “I never believe for a second that Harry is going to make a decision that leads him down the “wrong” path. And that’s okay. It’s just that I also don’t believe for a second that Harry could go down the wrong path, at least not willingly.”

    I disagree. What about his poor decisions in OotP, where he makes no effort to do what he’s told to block his dreams? That certainly led him down the wrong path. And he went there willingly, because he was curious and allowed the LV desires within to rule him. Because he wouldn’t listen to Hermione, or trust Snape, Harry charged to the Ministry, Sirius died and Voldmort gained possession of him, even if he couldn’t keep it. And even in HBP he obsesses over Malfoy rather than pursuing Slughorn’s memory, resulting in a near-fatal injury for Draco.

    Harry, while he is good and we know he’ll never decide to be a Voldy-man, has made some seriously bad decisions. Just like any human boy whose pre-frontal cortex is not fully developed.

  19. Arabella, but he does those things believing that he is pursuing the better course for the right reasons. And many of his consequences are unintended. Harry doesn’t know that Sirius will die. And he gives in to LV’s legilimency not only because he’s curious, but because he suspects there is something else he needs to know, and he doesn’t fully comprehend the potential consequences.

    These weaknesses in Harry’s character are always in the form of naivete from which Harry has to learn the harsh truths of a ruthless world. There is still a certain level of innocence in Harry’s decisions here. And Harry always learns what that naivete means and what it could cost him in the future.

    But, I never get the sense that Harry could become Voldemort. For that matter, I never get the sense that Voldy could become Harry, either. As Travis said, Harry is “just good” — and I’d add that Voldemort is “just evil.” We never see Harry make the bad decision purely for his own personal gain. He always has someone else in mind, or at least a higher purpose in mind. Voldemort never seems to be after anything other than satisfying his own lusts and greed.

    I never feel that Harry could become either hero or villain. It’s always that Harry will be the Hero. He just takes seven books to learn all the requisite knowledge to be a proper hero. He’s not even an especially bad kid who grows into a better man. The flaw Harry has to overcome is just how to reign in his natural heroic tendencies to a more controlled response.

    Save everyone! Fight Evil! Stop Voldemort! Help my friends! Be loyal!

    All these have to become tempered by some kind of wisdom so that they become useful and effective. Even more crucially, it’s Rowling often paints this knowledge as one that emanates from some sort of inward genuflection on Harry’s part — he can learn how to be by examining himself in comparison/contrast to others. What is it that both ties him to and separates him from the profound figures around him?

    As, yet, another plug — this is pretty much the thesis of my essay in Hog’s Head Conversations!

  20. “it’s Rowling often paints this knowledge”

    See, typos in my posts… But, I’ve been camping for three days — one night in a driving rain storm. I have an excuse this time… 😉 Sort of…

  21. Well, Dave, I take your point. To me, one of the weaknesses of the book (and part of the knowledge that Harry is good and will be the Hero) is that he emerges from the Dursley’s in such an unrealistic, psychologically healthy manner. The first time we see a really damaged Harry is in Order, where anger building for years finally consumes him, and I’m not convinced, and never have been, that this is all do to Scarcrux acting up. The kid has serious anger issues to deal with, which in Order, he does. To me, he was the most “real to life” in that book, which is a favorite.

    Sorry about the camping and rain. That’s our common Memorial Day scenario in the Spokane region. Beautiful 4th–uh oh, we’re under a severe t-storm watch.

  22. Arabella, that’s a really good way of putting it — better than I could. And I totally sympathize with your sense of Harry vis-a-vis the Dursleys. There were times I really wanted him to start firing jinxes all over 4 Privet Drive just to show that he could control them if he wanted to — to exert some control over the situation.

    Is Rowling’s assessment of children perhaps a little too idealistic?

  23. While I can certainly see and appreciate to some extent Dave’s and SPT’s points, I still lean more toward Travis’ and Arabella’s position. Not that I won’t enjoy reading Dave’s essay.

  24. It’s late and I should be sleeping 🙂 (very tired and Monday morning is coming…no, wait, it’s here!) but one thing that occurred to me on my recent re-read of the entire series is how good Rowling is at showing goodness. That probably sounds lame, but I deeply appreciate it. Evil characters often seem easier for authors to draw/make interesting, but showing the depths of someone’s goodness…and their struggle for goodness…is much harder. I think she has done this in a very compelling way with Harry, although his character also retains some of the stock characteristics of a fairy-tale hero (and I don’t see that as a weakness).

    Hope that’s a coherent comment. Off to sleep!

  25. I agree that Harry is fairly flat as a character, and most of the time he comes off as “just good.” But sometimes he chooses badly and with the wrong motives. He doesn’t practice legilimency in spite of being told to do so by Dumbledore, Lupin, Hermione, and Snape. I think Harry knows he should be practicing, feels guilty about not practicing, and that his argument that his visions are helpful are almost more a justification of his failings than anything else. He’s choosing badly, and I think he knows it. He certainly blames himself for Sirius’ death at the end of OotP.

    It’s true that Harry doesn’t really change from his death in DH, and in that respect, his death doesn’t mean much. Rowling could have ended the story when Harry chooses to take that walk into the forest. Harry’s journey is really complete at that point. So what was his journey? In book 1 Harry seems to make exactly the same decision he makes at the end of book 7. But I Harry is a child in book 1 and an adult in book 7. In SS/PS he knew little about Voldemort, little about Dumbledore, and little about his parents. He simply chose good over evil, following his parents’ faith. By the end of book 7 he has doubted his parents, doubted Dumbledore, felt pity for Voldemort, doubted himself. He has developed his own faith and been tested in it. John Granger says he has become a pure soul. He has matured; he chooses to believe despite all of his doubts (which he didn’t have as a child).

  26. I’m wondering what “change” everyone’s looking for in Harry after his death. Should he be glowing? Able to fly? Walk through walls?

    Harry, for the first time in the entire series, knows more than even we, the readers, do. He’s got knowledge, self-understanding, understanding of Voldemort, and a supercharged courage. The point of King’s cross was that Harry finally understands.

    When Harry is standing in Dobby’s grave, Rowling says that “understanding blossomed in the darkness.” It blossomed, but it still had a lot of growing to do. Harry doesn’t finally fully know himself, Dumbledore, and Voldemort until that moment of his death.

    Re: Harry’s healty psyche – I agree with what’s been said. It’s the reason I was a big fan of Book 5 – the boy finally started acting a bit unstable.

  27. I suppose you’re right that he had to grow up, but I rather liked the sweetness and innocence of his courage in the first two books. I agree with your assessment, Travis, of his transformation in Kings’ Cross. I would add that by ridding himself of the bit of Voldemort’s soul he gains focus, self-control, ability to do non-verbal spells from under the invisibility cloak (isn’t that the payoff to the insistence on non-verbal spells in HBP), and improved accuracy. He becomes a much more powerful wizard and better fighter than he ever was before. So to say that he hasn’t changed is rather a head-scratcher.

  28. Lily Luna, you’re right! Somehow I got my timeline screwed up and thought the nvbl spells were happening before King’s Cross. But since they’re happening after, yes, that’s a good payoff for nvbls. His mind is finally free and clear enough to perform them with ease, because he’s killed the Voldemort within.

  29. Regarding the healthy psyche aspect. My husband and I find it head-scratching that WizWorld offers no help to truamatized, grieving students. Consider Cho and Harry after Cedric’s death (not to mention Harry’s graveyard torture, etc.) in GoF. And Harry’s guilt and grief over Sirius and all that happened at the Ministry in OotP. Nothing is offered to help them process these things. They’re just sent home for the summer, see you next year!

    Harry returned to Hogwarts in OotP as a very angry person for several reasons, and I believe part of it was that he was sent home to uncaring people with no helpful closure to Sirius’ death (not even a funeral) and the unbearable knowledge that he had to kill Voldemort. Have a good summer, Harry!

    And then he understandably feels betrayed when he finds he’s been kept out of the information loop, but his friends haven’t. No wonder he exploded; who wouldn’t?

    Also, while I’m at it, I don’t consider Harry’s treatment of Dudley at the beginning of OotP as bullying. What I saw at first reading and still do, is that Harry, after his experiences, was no longer intimidated by Dudley, or fearful of expressing his true feelings or confronting Dudley’s cruel behaviors. Dudley no longer had power over Harry; Harry was free. This was very healthy growth.

    Literary analyst I’m not, but I’m very cued in to emotional/psychological elements.

    And now Fullatricks wants me to be cued into giving her a good head scratch…

  30. Good point about lack of help with grieving, although no help is the old fashioned approach and the WW is old fashioned. DUmbledore does think he’s helping by making Harry tell him all about what happened in the graveyard, but then abandons and isolates Harry with no explanation, leading in part to angry Harry in OOTP. There is no reason D couldn’t have had McGonagall sit Harry down in OOTP and explain to him that they fear Voldemort implanting false images in his mind and that he should be wary of any trick that might make him think he has to go to the Ministry. At the end of OOTP D allows Harry to rant and rage, and explains the prophecy to him but doesn’t really offer any other consolation. And I’m shocked there’s no memorial service for Sirius, which could have been held for the Order and Harry, Hermione, and the Weasleys at GP. At least D doesn’t abandon him and extracts him early from Privet Drive for a summer surrounded by his surrogate family the Weasleys plus Hermione.

    Harry does taunt Dudley at the beginning of OOTP to relieve himself of some of his anger and frustration by transfering it to Dudley. However, Dudley deserves some payback for all the times he’s bullied and punched Harry and the other neighborhood children. He’s much more deserving of this payback than Snape ever was as a student (Snape wasn’t a bully as a student as far as I can tell, only later as a teacher).

  31. Unfortunately, if Dumbledore had acted rationally, then we wouldn’t have much of a story in OOTP. 🙂

  32. Travis, Certainly there is complex and interesting symbolism in Death Hallows. But what great theme does this symbolism illuminate?

    The most obvious candidate for a Great Theme in DH is love. This seems to be the key to the book. You point out that Harry gives to the Wizarding World what his mother gave to him—- a loving sacrifice that protects from evil.

    The trouble with this is that Harry is not shown to love the Wizarding World, not in any true emotional sense. Harry may be many things, but let’s face it, a Platonic Lover he is not. Love is simply not the emotion he feels as he goes to his death. He feels a sense of duty, a desire for revenge, a sense of resolute purpose and, perhaps, a sort of vague desire to protect his friends. His feelings are much closer to those of soldier than they are to those of a mother.

    Rowling can not simply say that Harry’s willingness to sacrifice himself grants protection to everyone. There has to be a reason for it. Harry’s mother’s sacrifice worked because she loved him with the deep, inherently “magical” love that we all associate with the love of a mother for her child.

    But there is no such primal archetype for Harry. Harry is a fairly shallow schoolboy who loves Quidditch and likes Ginny Weasly quite a lot. If Harry’s sacrifice had granted magical protection against Voldemort to his Firebolt then that would make sense within the rules Rowling has established.

    But the entire Wizarding World? That does not follow logically from anything in Harry’s character. The only context in which it makes sense is if Harry is Jesus.

    But you can’t simply make your action hero a Christ symbol in the last chapter. That is cheating. Perseus cannot become Jesus by fiat.

    Re difficult choices: Walking to his death is a difficult choice, but it not a particularly difficult moral choice. Sacrificing yourself for an end is difficult, but sacrificing someone else for such an end is a difficult moral choice.

    Well, not for Voldemort. But for Dumbledore anyway.

  33. SPT, up front, I’ll say I disagree that Harry has no emotional connection to the WW and is only thinking vaguely of saving his friends. But regardless, it’s what he chose to do, and real love is a willingness to choose self-sacrifice, even when one isn’t feeling like doing so. Harry gave himself up for the Wizarding World. That’s enough. It’s an act of love. Lily’s love alone did not save Harry. Had Lily lived, her love alone would not have kept him from dying. It was the act of the sacrifice, the choice to die protecting another instead of to live and save oneself. Voldemort had given the ultimatum – Harry must give himself up, or everyone dies.

    But you can’t simply make your action hero a Christ symbol in the last chapter. That is cheating.

    I would have thought the 6 symbolic death/resurrection scenes we’ve already seen would have done more than set up Harry has a Christ-figure, or at least as a person acting in a very Christ-like way. This thing was set up from the beginning, not something Rowling sprung on us at the last second.

    I’m thoroughly confused by your splitting of “difficult choice” and “difficult moral choice,” especially since you call sacrificing “someone else” a difficult moral choice. That’s actually a rather easy immoral choice to make – one that lots of people make to save themselves.

    At some point, we’re going to have to get beyond this idea that Dumbledore sacrificed Harry; Dumbledore didn’t make Harry a Horcrux.

  34. Travis, maybe one way of looking at it is that the primary and most important changes take place in Harry long before Kings Cross. In some ways, Kings Cross comes across as a reaffirmation of the faith Harry has developed in himself and in Dumbledore’s plan.

    On more than one occasion, we read that Harry knows Ron and Hermione are expecting him to be some sort of natural-born leader who would instinctively understand how to respond to pressure. But, his instincts largely fail him. It’s happened in the past, most notably with Sirius in OOTP, but never this systematically and totally. For half of DH, everything he does ends up in disaster, as he watches his friends, loved ones, and perceived foes suffer and die — and usually in his name, often directly for the purpose of saving his life.

    I don’t want Harry to glow, fly, or anything of the kind. But, I think what miles and myself are pointing out is this: It doesn’t always seem that Harry has to learn what it means to be a good person. He just has to learn how to do good things. And it’s great that Rowling shows some flaws.

    But, adopting a deconstructionist stance, to some degree she undercuts their impact. The flaws Harry obsesses over are those where his heroic tendencies are unchecked and put into hyperdrive (i.e. rushing off to “save” Sirius). But Rowling never writes Harry as a character obsessing over flaws that aren’t heroic, except in OOTP. He recognizes his anger and that it is a problem, no matter how psychologically justified it may be. In some ways OOTP is really the best character study for Harry, and one reason so many do like it — despite the fact that it is probably the darkest book in the series.

    Yet, in DH, those unsavory flaws (like throwing around UF curses) are often kind of passed over. Harry never really thinks about them, and no one really holds his feet to the fire over them. They don’t even blemish his apotheosis in the last quarter of the book. I think you could make at least a version of the following argument, and it’s due to Rowling’s almost unwavering insistence on Harry-as-good:

    one set of rules applies to Harry, and another applies to everyone else.

    I’m not sure I buy that, but I can at least see the point. I would put it this way:

    Rowling wants to write Harry as a Christ-like metaphor, but not as Christ himself. Thus, he has to be a flawed human. But, in trying to define his goodness as a distinctly human trait, she created a character with some hard-to-believe qualities in which his goodness seems to trump his flaws, no matter what.

    Maybe part of the inconsistency is that Rowling chooses a very literal death/resurrection as DH’s climax. Lily Potter’s binding love protects Harry. But, is there no sense whatsoever in which Harry unaccounted-for flaws attenuate this protection? That scene is “supernatural” by WW standards — no one has ever done it before — and it demands a supernatural explanation, like Lily’s love. But, the requisite for that supernatural event seems unaffected by Harry’s choices.

  35. Oooh, very interesting points, Dave! And this could all head in a fascinating direction.

    I think I agree with the majority of your post, particularly the deconstructionist reading. I do think Rowling undercuts her attempt at a flawed-hero with Harry by making him too good, which makes the unforgivables in DH so discordant, and the fact that there’s no reflection on them even more so.

    I think she was trying to set it up this way: he’s used two out of three UC’s; will he use the last one against Voldemort?

    Quite the opposite: he’ll give himself up to Voldemort, and then throw a disarming charm at him in the end.

    I’m just not sure that set-up had the effect she desired, because we were never let in on any internal wrestling with having (or choosing) to use Imperio and Crucio.

    But your last point really interests me. If Lily is the closest thing to a Christ figure in the series (she is; she’s almost perfect, even, and never spoken ill of in the series by anyone, except for Snape in that one angry moment), then no, Harry’s choices have nothing to do with her sacrifice for him or its lingering protection, because that’s what Christian grace is – the undeserved protection of a flawed, failing sinner who, while still wrestling with her or his own faults, dies to self to be raised to new life.

  36. SPT, this is where our opinions will diverge quite significantly! Part of the learning unveiled before Harry is that emotion is a complex issue, and it can help him or hurt him.

    At more than one juncture, I think Rowling writes Harry as a character deeply connected to his emotions — especially “love”. Maybe you could argue that Rowling’s depiction of love is a little lacking, but I can’t possibly fathom how Harry is rather unaffected by things. He deeply mourns the loss of those he cares for — most notably Dobby. Harry’s reaction to Dobby’s death is more profound for me than is his reaction to Sirius’s. And it is one of the moments of clarity in which Rowling etches Harry very sharply.

    But, it’s important to understand that Harry’s love is enmeshed with the responsibility that only he fully comes to understand with respect to everyone else. Thus, he might bury his feelings so as to take on that responsibility without leaving it in anyone else’s court — you know, a very typical male thing to do. But, he clearly loves many people around him. I often think he understands Molly and Arthur Weasley in ways their children will never be able to.

  37. Well said, Dave. I think of Fred’s death. Harry’s reflection is “the world was rent apart.” And then he wonders why the battle still rages on when the world had ended. This is gut-wrenching, emotional mourning that James W. Thomas points out comes straight from the classics.

  38. If Lily is the closest thing to a Christ figure in the series (she is; she’s almost perfect, even, and never spoken ill of in the series by anyone, except for Snape in that one angry moment), then no, Harry’s choices have nothing to do with her sacrifice for him or its lingering protection, because that’s what Christian grace is – the undeserved protection of a flawed, failing sinner who, while still wrestling with her or his own faults, dies to self to be raised to new life.

    Okay, I need help understanding one other thing then: doesn’t this bring us back around to the debate about Harry or Lily as a Christ-like metaphor versus a Christ allegory versus a straight-up modernized version of Pilgrim’s Progress?

    Here’s the postmodernist’s question: Can a character be only a Christ metaphor/symbol operating in a very material setting, and still legitimately maintain a claim to a very tangible portion of Christ’s divinity?

  39. Okay, I need help understanding one other thing then: doesn’t this bring us back around to the debate about Harry or Lily as a Christ-like metaphor versus a Christ allegory versus a straight-up modernized version of Pilgrim’s Progress?

    Yes, it does … my observation probably got me a little over-excited in the realm of how to read HP in light of theology (something I’m been thinking about as I’ve conversed with Danielle Tumminion about her upcoming book), rather than an explanation of what Rowling may have actually done and/or intended. I think Lily and Harry are both Christ-metaphors, not stand-ins for the divine Christ; though I do think it’s possible to make a pretty strong case for Lily to be almost a stand-in.

  40. Okay, I admit to two things with respect to faith of any kind:

    1)I’ve said here on THH and to Travis via email that I’m an agnostic — I just don’t know, and that bothers me;

    2)my experiences with Protestant Christianity admittedly tends toward the fire and brimstone variety. Hey, I’m from the South…

    And I will concede this:

    that’s what Christian grace is – the undeserved protection of a flawed, failing sinner who, while still wrestling with her or his own faults, dies to self to be raised to new life.

    But, my understanding is that for that grace to absolve the sinner, he/she must admit to their failings as human beings. Isn’t it at least arguable that Harry doesn’t fully account for his?

  41. Well, I could take a good amount of heat for this, but the answer to your question is both yes and no, in the Christian view of things. Yes, the human being must recognize her/his failings as a human being. The catch is that “the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked – who can know it?” [Jeremiah]. So the admission of sinfulness and the confession/repentance of sin is part of the process of faith, but the Fall was really big, and screwed us up really good, and imperfection is all any of us will see this side of eternity. So the Christian view of grace is that the provision of Christ’s cross is sufficient for the forgiveness of all sins, both known and hidden, both revealed and self-concealed/deceived.

    So, if we’re setting up the allegory: Harry’s “sin” in using Imperio and Crucio are very bad things, and one hopes that his later self-reflection caused him never to use them again, realizing they were “sin.” But those moments of weakness or even deliberate rejection of what is right does not negate grace, which is free and undeserved. In fact, the expectation is that grace – especially his eucatastrophic event in DH – would motivate future repentance and a more ethical life.

  42. So, who are you going to take heat from? 🙂

    Not me, at least. I would’ve perhaps phrased things a bit differently but agree in essentials with what you say, Travis

    Dave, I’m trying to figure out how to reconcile how one can be an agnostic and a Cubs fan.

  43. Setting aside the theological questions for a moment, I think it may be a mistake to describe Lily as perfect and flawless (and by the way there is one person in the series who does criticize her – Petunia). Snape puts her on a pedastal and worships her, so the reader does, too, and she IS a very good and kind, loving person, beautiful both inside and out. However that does not mean she does not make human mistakes and she arguably makes quite a big one when she turns her back on her best friend of 6+ years instead of continuing to engage him on the subject of the Dark Arts, continuing to try to persuade him of the wrongness of it, or even just telling him explicitly that he has to choose between them and her. She thinks he’s made a choice, but she’s making the teenage female mistake of overestimating his teenage male understanding. He never saw it as a choice. He was too busy being jealous of James to listen to her properly about Avery and Mulciber. But outside the Fat Lady’s portrait was an opportunity, when he was focused on making amends, to set forth that choice explicitly and give him a fresh opportunity to choose. Instead, like Barty Crouch dismissing devoted Winky for her mistakes “without pity in his gaze” she cuts off devoted Severus “with no pity in her voice.”

  44. Lily Luna, that’s a great bit of textual cross referencing! It sets up and reinforces some of the ways in which we’ve read Snape and Harry in comparison/contrast to each other. How could things have turned out differently if Lily had at least continued to engage Snape? Or would his feelings for have simply gotten in the way, no matter what?

    revgeorge, I’ve asked myself that same question!

  45. SPT asked “What great theme does this symbolism illuminate?” I know that love seems to be the key to the book, but I think it may serve as a pointer to a bigger theme that Travis mentioned (7-5, 9:39pm): what it means to be human, less than human, and human as we were meant to be. We explore this theme through the transformations that take place in Harry and in Voldemort. And what is it that being human revolves around, that is the key difference between Harry and Voldemort? Love.

    This is why the death/resurrection symbolism is so big in HP: self-sacrifice is the clearest way in which Love is seen. The symbolism of the hallows, horcruxes, eyes/souls, and the alchemical and gothic elements all touch on love and seem to portray it as the thing that defines us, humans. I think that when you consider the idea that God is love, the Christian symbolism makes a lot more sense as well.

  46. We have another sad interchange, rife with possiblities, between Severus and Lily’s son. During their Occlumency lessons Harry and Severus have an engaged conversation that demonstrates what their relationship could have been. But Severus couldn’t get past his clouded vision and neither could Harry, having been beaten down by this cruel man for years.

  47. i don’t see Rowlings as being in the same category as C.S. Lewis or Tolkien.

    Her stories are inviting and page-turners…my opinion.

  48. SPT said: The trouble with this is that Harry is not shown to love the Wizarding World, not in any true emotional sense. Harry may be many things, but let’s face it, a Platonic Lover he is not. Love is simply not the emotion he feels as he goes to his death.

    In my understanding, compassion is a key aspect of love. Therefore, I think it is very important that Harry does not only feel compassion for his closest friends but also for people whom he regards – at times – as ‘uncool’ (Dobby, Neville, Luna, Trelawney) and even for his foes (Dudley, Snape, Voldemort, Draco) – at least for short moments.

    Lily Luna said: However that does not mean she [Lily] does not make human mistakes and she arguably makes quite a big one when she turns her back on her best friend of 6+ years instead of continuing to engage him on the subject of the Dark Arts, continuing to try to persuade him of the wrongness of it, or even just telling him explicitly that he has to choose between them and her. She thinks he’s made a choice, but she’s making the teenage female mistake of overestimating his teenage male understanding. He never saw it as a choice. He was too busy being jealous of James to listen to her properly about Avery and Mulciber.

    It is true, Snape did not understand that he had to make a choice and he didn’t listen when Lily talked about Avery and Mulciber. But what shall you do with a friend who hates people of your kind and doesn’t listen to you? I can’t see any mistake on Lily’s part. Even after Snape called her Mudblood (after 6+ years of being best friends), he thought he could have his cake and eat it too. He avoided to make a choice by ignoring who Lily really was, and so he brought about Lily’s decision. It made him suffer, but it didn’t make him change his mind. He became a Death Eater all the same. Only after Lily had died, his feelings for her and his repentance led him to understand, little by little. That is his tragedy. I doubt Snape would have been such a compelling character if he had applied for being accepted as a Gryffindor.

  49. I know he called her a terrible name and it’s not clear that Lily did the wrong thing (which is why I said “arguably”), but he’s apologizing abjectly and they’ve been friends a very long time. Even Harry can see, as he watches Snape’s memories in The Prince’s Tale, that Snape was lashing out in his humiliation and fury that James had made him look pathetic again, made Lily rescue him (probably) again, when all he wanted was to look like a man, someone impressive whom she could see as a boyfriend, not a charity case. Snape’s fury was at James, but what he said came out as an insult to Lily. Of course Lily is upset, and has her eyes opened to what Snape is becoming. Maybe it’s unreasonable to expect her to have said to Snape, “you’ll have to choose – them or me,” and of course we wouldn’t have the story we have if she had, but I would expect a Christ-“stand in” to counter the insult with love (turn the other cheek) and a continuing dialogue.

  50. Lily Luna, I did not understand your comment as referring to Lily as a Christ figure. But from that point of view you might be right. However, I still imagine that Lily would have given Snape another chance for being friends with her again if he had changed after this occurrence.

  51. I am one of those of the opinion that the HP series is not great literature. It is charming, very likable, and a fertile ground for discussion, but it is not great. McEllhenney’s appraisal, in my opinion, is fair but doesn’t go far enough in its criticism.

    Before I explain my opinion, let me point out that I found Harry Potter far more entertaining than many of the classics. Quite frankly, the writers of the classics were horribly deprived due to the fact that they lived before Hollywood produced things like Star Wars or the Matrix and before we had comic books with the likes of Wolverine or graphic novels such as Watchmen. You got to hand it to writers like Jack London and Herman Melville for being able to write about a dog in the snow and a man chasing a whale and make that stuff powerful. But put up against kids flying around on brooms throwing curses at each other, it’s clear which one is going to be more fun.

    No serious critic would be fool enough to say Harry Potter was bad or even say it wasn’t good. Rowling is a good author and a good story teller. But calling her work truly great is another matter.

    Personally, I’d rate the HP series 8/10 in terms of literary quality. Of the last 5 book series I’ve read, I’d only class one other as being of the same quality. So, hey, that’s pretty good.

    But Rowling is not on par with C.S. Lewis, Tolkien, Le Guin, or Robert Jordan (the past decade’s most recent addition to truly great fantasy literature IMO). She’s also a step down from the likes of Lloyd Alexander, Eddings, Feist, and probably Weiss/Hickman. Yet only Lewis and Tolkien are in her category in terms of popular success and she likely beats both of them put together on that score. But when it comes to great fantasy, they are better.

    What is it that I think Rowling lacks?
    1. Epic description. Yes, JK Rowling is very detail oriented. However, she does not display equivalent skill in creating the vivid imagery that the true greats do. She’s not bad, but as McEllhenney mentioned, there aren’t really any lines that have you re-reading them to savor them for their delicious crispness.
    2. Depth of theme. It’s not that she uses old themes, it’s that she does not strike that chord of tragedy or exultation that you get from the great stories. Frodo’s journey evokes greater feelings of peril than Harry’s. You feel the bonds of friendship between Sam and Frodo much more keenly than between Ron and Harry because Tolkien explores what it costs to stand by a friend while Rowling presents friendship primarily as a resource for Harry to draw on.

    The pureblood/muggle-born theme does not share the same elements you find in great literature that explores prejudice. All the HP characters essentially start the story knowing the correct moral. They don’t really grow to believe in equality through an emotional struggle, they simply believe it from the start.

    Honestly, it would take a dissertation’s worth of writing to itemize how the themes in HP are comparatively shallowly explored when placed next to the greats. But for those who have read and appreciated the best the genre has to offer, it should be clear that they are in a league beyond what Rowling achieved.
    3. Character development. Rowling does make a point of showing that her characters change. Neville and Draco are prime examples, while Dumbledore and Snape are revealed to have a greater depth than previously suspected. But put the experience of Taran of Caer Dalben from the Prydain Cycle next to that of Harry Potter and you see difference between good and great. Merry and Pippin learn and become more on their journey than Fred and George. And if you look at the changes in Rand al’Thor, Matrim Cauthon, Egwene Al’Vere and Perrin Ayabara next to the cast of Harry Potter the difference is clear.
    4. Creativity. It took a lot of imagination to create the world of Hogwarts. But to a great extent, what she created was derivative. Her language for magic is mostly altered Latin (a frequently used mechanic). Compare that to the naming of Earthsea or the Tolkien’s invention of artificial languages, and you start to see the gap. There is history and back-story in the Potter-universe, but that pales next to the depth and breadth of Middle Earth’s entire mythology or the Ages of the Wheel of Time.

    Again, it’s not that Harry Potter isn’t very good. It’s that those works of the best fantasy literature has to offer are just that much better.

  52. Well, the thing is there is a vast chasm between Great Literature, Good Adult Literature and CHILDRENS Literatre which can be divided into the good and bad. Let us be honest, J.K Rowling’s books? Have they made you re-evaluate life or thinking, have they provided insights into the depths of humanity have they created ideologies, No! She is no Fitzgerald for sure either. And She honestly cannot compare to even Hemingway who is on the brink of great and good literature. We forget the key term is literature Not entertainment, I never mess with guys who say we love Michael Bay films for Entertainment, but saying Michael Bay is the best director for example is deriding the work of Ingmar Bergman, Jean-Luc Godard, Tarkovsky, Fellini and numerous auteurs, then is Good literature/movies as a metaphor, Stanley Kubrick , Scoursese, the Coens, Coppola, Woody Allen etc. The Same way Great literature for us is Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, SARTRE (Yes I like Sartre, So sue me!) Camus, Hemingway, Kafka, Nietzsche and so on. Good literature is Umberto Eco (Dan Brown ripped him off), Llosa, Dickens, Nabokov (Sorry to those offended), Joyce, Huxley, Orwell, Ayn Rand etc. And garbage= Twilight. Therein I end my explanation. Thank you for reading this post, (Hopefully you did not skip to here just to read the thanks you gratitude hog!)

    1. Prime example of an unhelpful non-answer, giving no useful information whatsoever, showing no thought and involving no critical analysis, not even using passable grammar; it serves solely as a way for the commenter to stroke their own ego by establishing that they are above all the fools who read children’s literature or works written for entertainment.

      P. S. Listing “Nabokov, Joyce, Orwell, Ayn Rand” as examples of good literature is like listing “Lincoln, Mandela, Gandhi, Pol Pot” as examples of good heads of state.

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