Whenever I ask one of my peers if they have read the Harry Potter books, I often hear derision in their response. “That’s not my kind of book,” they say, or else: “I think all the attention is silly;” “It’s stupid that people are so obsessed about it;” and “I’m not really into fantasy or children’s books.” To distort things further, many Harry Potter apologists defend it by proclaiming how “dark” the later books became, as if an element of darkness in the story suddenly makes it better or more worthwhile. The high public visibility of the series has reduced it’s effect to trends–the fantasy trend, the popularity trend (viewed as good or bad), the “dark storytelling” trend, and so on. This is a disservice to J.K. Rowling’s fine books.
(The following discussion contains “spoilers.”)
The story of Harry Potter, told in seven separate books, is essentially a fairy tale. Like most fairy tales, there is a wondrous or magical element to the setting, though (also like most fairy tales) the setting is also familiar to us readers. The story isn’t particularly dark, either: it can be frightening and sad, but the goodness of the main characters is evident throughout as they struggle to do the right thing in each book (and mostly succeed). There is no question that their situation becomes more dire from book to book, as the evil they’re fighting gets stronger in proportion to their increasing maturity. But rather than “dark,” the books become more adult in theme and content–though never “adult” in a sexual or pornographic sense. The much-talked about deaths of several “main characters” along the way merely add a dimension of tragedy, a reminder that Harry and his friends are struggling against forces that are in fact very dangerous and cruel.
The series is a tour de force as an extended novel and a bildungsroman. J.K. Rowling did a great job of tying up loose ends from the main plot and all the sub-plots. Her theme of Love comes to full fruition in the final book with Harry’s willingness to die for his loved ones (much like his mother’s similar willingness seventeen years before–which is arguably the causal factor of the entire storyline). Though it was terribly sad that characters like Tonks and Lupin and Dobby and Fred died–I was especially stricken when Colin Creevey, the youngster who irritatingly worshipped Harry in The Goblet of Fire, died after staying to fight, even though he was underage–the tragedy was balanced by the redemption of certain other characters, such as Severus Snape.
In a literal sense, the series ended as all fairy tales do with a “happily ever after.” To be sure, I wanted more detail about Harry and Ginny, Ron and Hermione, and their children…but really, just knowing that they were still friends, still happy together, and moving on in their lives was enough to satisfy me that the hurts of Voldemort had been healed. And that was the point, wasn’t it? Harry was always just looking to be normal and happy.
Morally, the stories are very clear. The children–especially the three main characters–constantly try to do right in the face of obstacles, which take the form of temptations to selfishness, direct threats on their life, and cruel adolescent other students. Though their efforts seem at times pointless or futile, in each book they (to some degree) succeed. More importantly, Rowling avoids the literary cliche of having a “chosen one” by explaining very carefully at the end of the sixth book that it is Harry’s choice to face up to Voldemort, rather than some pre-ordained destiny. The choice is forced on him (rather unfortunately) by Voldemort’s own obsession and misunderstanding–it is the effect of an evil person rather than a supernatural event that drives events in Harry’s life. It’s worth noting that for his part, Harry consistently chooses on his own to face the enemy. He never, in the end, avoids the confrontation or gives up. The vehicle of success, redemption, and goodness throughout the series lies not in magic or destiny but in moral choices.
I mentioned earlier that the theme of the series was Love. It runs through all these larger plot points and events as the source of all good relationships, and it drives the events because of the extraordinary friendship Harry shares with his friends. Their continual success against Voldemort is directly attributable to their combined efforts, which springs from their care for one another rather than merely shared purpose. And, in the end, it is only Harry’s Loving decision to give his life for his friends that enables him to finally defeat Voldemort. Literally and figuratively, Love conquers the death, fear, and despair that Harry and his friends must face throughout the series.
Rowling also deals heavily in the theme of redemption, which surfaces quietly in the early books–think how Sirius redeems his dark, evil family through his service and friendship to Harry–and becomes inescapable in the last. With the exception of Voldemort himself (and his particularly evil henchmen), every “bad” character to some measure redeems himself–Malfoy, a bully with a particular hatred of Harry, has the grace in the end to turn his back (however halfheartedly) on Voldemort, and to quietly allow Harry to save his life. Percy Weasley, who disowned his family to serve his own ambition, apologizes and returns to their side in the final battle. We learn that Dumbledore, perhaps the most staunchly good character of the entire book, was in fact tempted by Dark Magic early in his life, though he obviously repented early enough to discover Voldemort and set up his demise. But it is in Professor Snape’s story that we see the most redemption: the touching and powerful tale of a man who loved Lily so much that he could protect and aid her son even though that son looked like his father, the man Snape (perhaps) hated most in the world.
Although not revealed until later in the series, it becomes clear from Snape’s interactions with Dumbledore (seen in the memories he gave Harry immediately prior to his death) that much of his cruelty at Hogwarts was an act to lend verisimilitude to his allegiance with the Death Eaters–he shows his real colors when he corrects one of his portrait-henchmen at Hogwarts from using the equivalent of a racist epithet: “don’t use that word [“mudblood”]!” Also, he aids Harry throughout the series: early on by attempting to foil the curse of an unseen enemy during a quidditch game; then by trying to teach Harry the difficult art of Occlumency; and especially in the last book by sending his patronus to the wood to lead Harry to Gryffindor’s sword. Snape was a bitter, lonely young man, desperate to fit in and be liked, a tremendously competent wizard, and for all of these reasons sorely tempted by Dark Magic–a near perfect prospect for the Death Eaters. Yet he was redeemed by his love of Harry’s mother to the point of fighting thanklessly throughout the entire series to protect her son and defeat Voldemort.
The Harry Potter books are ultimately ennobling. They teach, entertainingly, that doing the right thing, sticking together with friends, and confronting evil when necessary will lead to a “happily ever after.” But the stories are much richer than a tale of good triumphing over evil. Each one is a cleverly constructed mystery novel, wherein the mundane details the characters’ lives (which are intriguing because we come to love the characters so much) conceal vital clues to the overarching problem of the novel, and many characters are not what they seem–an example of this is the case of Sirius Black in The Prisoner of Azkaban. Each book by itself is also a bildungsroman, like (as already mentioned) the entire series, in which Harry, Ron, and Hermione (and to a lesser extent Neville, Ginny, and Luna) grow up and become more complete persons. Indeed, part of their attraction to us as characters is their endearing and familiar adolescent struggle to like themselves, to gain friends, to fit in, and to succeed. Finally, by embedding the magical world in our own, Rowling has also added witty, amusing, and sometimes devastating satire.
Great literature addresses the great questions of humanity, such as why we exist, what we should do, and how we can be happy. Rowling has offered a compelling answer to these questions through the Harry Potter books. Along the way, she has crafted seven exciting stories that are introspective, funny, tragic, affirming, and ennobling. Her books, though perhaps not as profound, yet stand comparison to The Chronicles of Narnia, and The Lord of the Rings. They are a valuable addition to the canon of English books, and they deserve better than a reduction to “children’s literature,” “young adult literature,” “fantasy literature,” “popular literature,” or any other kind of sub-category. They are simply Literature (with a capital “L”).