Friday, July 24, 2009
Let's start this at the beginning. It was 2004. No it wasn't. I have a terrible memory for dates. Or even years. Don't trust a single word I say about the when, because I've either forgotten and confused or flat out lying. Anyway, it was some time after the whole Harry Potter craze (back when the craze was still about the books) had erupted. And like all crazes, this one too had antagonized me simply because everyone else seemed to love the little boy wizard and his broomstick. Odd I would be so aggressively anti Potter, because I have always loved fantasy. Even before I read adult or young adult fantasy, or even KNEW fantasy existed beyond the strictly-meant-for-preteens books I read as a child, I loved the IDEA of fantasy . So anyway, one night between 2004 and 2007, I was at my grandparents, bored and restless. I couldn't watch television of course, because the little angel would hear the wisps of the tendrils of sound and that would just ruin his education and career. I mean come on people, it's a child's future we're talking about here! I had nothing to read, unless of course I wanted to know the inner workings of the Uzbek novels of the blurgh! period, generally categorized in the library under the "suicidally depressing" category. Oh, and there was this book the little prince had brought home from school so that he could rip it up in one of his periodic fits of rage and his mom would have to buy a new copy as replacement. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. I knew nothing about Harry Potter, didn't know this was the second book and actively hated the hoopla around the series. I picked up the book, partly to spite it, partly to fall asleep at the third page.
Now I know, according to the rule of the cliched narrative, at this point I am to give a significant pause and say how the book wowed and amazed me and blew me away.
The book wowed and amazed me and blew me away. It really did. It was strange. I have seldom categorized books as unputdownable. This one was. Now don't get me wrong. At no point was I under the impression that I was reading one of the classics. I didn't (and still don't) consider Rowling to be a literary great. Maybe someday, but not now. So what was in that book that made my look up, bleary eyed and exhausted , eight hours after I picked it up and realize that I had finished the book in one go? Where was all my cynicism, and antagonism towards 'fads'? Rowling had weaved a world of magic, an imperfect, rough-around-the-edges world, but one that had the curious ability to transport me to it, warts and all. I SAW platform 9 and 3/4. I FELT the terror when the basilisk bared its fangs. I HEARD the whimpering voice of Pettigrew as he desperately went from character to character, begging for mercy. I was buying what Rowling was selling, and buying it in spades. I tracked down the other three books that were already out, and devoured them. I appreciated how the books started out as cheery fairy tales with horror-lite woven into them, but grew progressively darker as the series progressed. Yes, sometimes it was infuriating. Rowling's completely arbitrary magic system (point and wave, boys, and whoosh! happens) and her habit of introducing characters and artifacts that were strictly meant for single use only were head scratching and infuriating. But still I read on. I read on when the fifth book arrived, and couldn't afford to buy the sixth, so borrowed the book (something i rarely do). And yes, the seventh book was predictable, but can you blame Rowling? After a billion rabid fans dissect and analyze and pour over the preceding six chapters of the saga, no eventuality is left out of consideration.
Rowling has had her share of detractors. While the critics were all praise, at least for the initial set of books, criticism grew, as it always does, with the series' explosion in popularity. Even as the last four books went on to become the fastest selling books in history, some literary critics chose to heap scorn upon Harry, calling the books "derivative","ridden with cliches", "written for people whose imaginative lives are confined to TV cartoons, and the exaggerated mirror-worlds of soaps, reality TV and celebrity gossip".
I have more respect for critics than most people. I am a fan, a true fan of movie critic Roger Ebert, and I do believe that sometimes the mass audience is just plain wrong about the merits about any work of art, and it takes a true student, a true lover of said art, a critic to be exact, to tell us what is good and bad. But I also believe that sometimes critics so gleefully focus on the negative, maybe for effect, maybe because it irks them that the audience chooses to elevate flawed creations over better-crafted, more perfect ones, that they forget why people love to experience the arts. Is Harry Potter derivative? certainly. Rowling has cribbed from a vast landscape of literature, from Tolkein to Twain, to create her world of wizards and muggles. But she has done so with care, she has done so expertly and she has done so with a love for her own creation that shines through to create something that , even as a cocktail of borrowed ideas, is truly unique. True, there is no poetry in Rowling's language. She does not weave words like some authors do, words that seem to take a life of their own to enter your mind and set off little sparks of ideas and imagination . When she tries, she fails and the end result is pure, unadulterated pap. Her words are bricks, unremarkable and dull in themselves, and yes, sometimes cliched, but she uses them to create what is there in her own mind, and take you on a ride through HER imagination. So Diagon Alley comes alive and bustling with fantastic creatures, similar and yet distinct from the bustling markets of Ankh Morpork. So the halls of Hogwarts, stolen from so many other school stories by Blyton and Wodehouse become her own, with their looming Gothic architecture and portraits that have lives of their own. And Harry, Ron and Hermoine become more than the troubled jock, the stuffy brain and the good-natured comic sidekick to become creations and flesh and blood with an unique team dynamic. Snape evolves from being the antagonist, to the cool, brooding anti-hero in a black, to finally becoming a real man, with a history and a reason for his actions. Dumbledore is revealed to be more than a roguish headmaster or a godlike being with superpowers, he is a general who makes mistakes and is not above using a troubled boy to win a war. Harry Potter starts out as school stories and fantasy stories with all the stock character sets, but evolves with its readers. Rowling has made mistakes along the way, but Hogwarts hasn't missed a step.