J. K. Rowling

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J. K. Rowling World Literature Analysis

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It is always difficult to explain why particular books sometimes break out of their own restricted market to become cultural phenomena of a different order, but certain aspects of the Harry Potter series did lend themselves very readily to that process. Most books that become such near-universal subjects of conversation, which even people who never read books feel compelled to read, are individual volumes, whose internal stories are complete before their external stories begin, such as Dan Brown’s best-selling novel The Da Vinci Code (2003). Sequels and segmental series very often follow, but they can rarely be anything more than hollow imitations and formulaic recyclings. Rowling’s series, by contrast, was always planned as a seven-volume set that would evolve toward a single ultimate climax. It was, therefore, able to build on its medium-term success far more spectacularly than any previous breakthrough enterprise. In order to do so, though, it had to break the existing mold of children’s publication in more than one way.

Children’s publishing is usually organized according to the age ranges of its readers, so that a series of books marketed for nine-to twelve-year-olds will stay within that range. If the series has an eleven-year-old central character, that character will usually remain eleven throughout the series (even if, as in the case of Richmal Crompton’s William, the series extends over decades of background history). Rowling always intended to track her hero from the aftermath of his eleventh birthday to the aftermath of his seventeenth, marching across the marketing categories from the nine-to-twelve range to the summit of the “young adult” slot. Initially, the plan was for the target audience to grow older at the same rate, but Rowling was unable to deliver a book every year, so contemporary eleven-year-old readers of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone were twenty-one by the time that Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows appeared. This proved no inhibition to readers eager to follow the series to its conclusion.

Because the Harry Potter saga was an evolving rather than a segmental series, the endings of its first six volumes could be no more than subclimaxes, whose magnitude had to be carefully orchestrated to produce a crescendo effect. Such careful escalation is not easy to achieve; the pressure of melodramatic inflation propels most fantasy series to apocalyptic conclusions in three volumes. Rowling planned for it by carefully reducing her archvillain, Voldemort, to near-impotence as a result of his first, already-distant encounter with Harry, so that his gradual recovery of his powers within the texts is carefully matched to Harry’s slowly accumulated knowledge and maturity. By the time Voldemort is ready to make his bid to take over the clandestine society of magically talented individuals, which would automatically give him absolute power over the world of nonmagical “muggles,” Harry has enough wisdom, capability, and support from his friends to take him on, with one of those one-in-a-million chances of winning that so frequently come off in melodramatic fiction.

In spite of this ingenious adjustment, there would have been no scope for Rowling to increase the magnitude of the individual hazards that Harry has to face in the seven volumes had she not been able to shatter the limits of diplomatic constraint formerly applied to children’s fiction; seven escalating degrees of threat could hardly stop short of extremes of violence not normally tolerated in children’s fiction. In this respect, Rowling benefited considerably from the new license granted in the wake of a 1990’s boom in children’s horror fiction spearheaded by the work of R. L. Stine. This boom had helped transform Rowling’s American publisher, Scholastic, from...

(This entire section contains 2860 words.)

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a staid publisher of didactic aids into a trendsetter. Rowling was able to show such restraint in the early volumes that the death of Harry’s mentor, Albus Dumbledore, came as a genuine shock in the sixth volume, but it still secured the plausibility of the awful possibility that Harry might have to sacrifice his own life to stop Voldemort in the seventh. The reality of that possibility proved enormously valuable in maintaining the taut dramatic tension of the seventh volume.

The license borrowed from the children’s horror boom not only enabled Rowling to create some genuinely scary monsters to serve as minor adversaries in contriving her preliminary subclimaxes but also enabled her to develop another device crucial to the series’ melodramatic inflation. The early volumes all have a strong mystery component, in which it is profoundly unclear—to Harry and his readers alike—who his potential allies and covert enemies are. In some instances, as with Sirius Black, who is initially represented as a lethal adversary but turns out to be a key ally, such confusions are firmly resolved, but in many instances the uncertainties linger. One of the most remarkable features of the series is its continual blurring of moral boundaries.

Even Voldemort, the series’ epitome of evil, is depicted as a victim of awkward circumstance, and several of his faithful lieutenants prove capable of good deeds, or at least of crucial hesitation in doing evil. The chief subvillain, Severus Snape, is especially ambiguous in this regard. On the other hand, few of Harry’s allies are without their darker side, mostly in a less explicit fashion than Remus Lupin, who suffers under a lycanthropic curse. The fact that the apparently saintly Albus Dumbledore has his own moral weakness is ingeniously put to use in explaining why he is extremely reluctant to tell Harry everything he knows, thus prolonging all manner of mysteries. The intricacy of the series’ play with moral judgments was unprecedented in children’s fiction, although it did stop short of testing the ultimate taboo; Harry’s dead mother remains whiter than white, the true agent of his salvation in the first and final challenges.

The handling of the series’ mystery component is the author’s greatest achievement. Each of the first six books has two levels of mystery; there are puzzles which have to be solved in order to bring about the subclimax and denouement of that particular volume, and there are puzzles whose solution will not become clear until the end of the entire series. The puzzles of the second sort are required to accumulate, occasionally being refreshed or recomplicated, a process that puts a heavy strain on writer and reader alike. The fact that the “deathly hallows” vital to the understanding of the whole do not make their debut until halfway through the final volume suggests that crucial authorial improvisations were still taking place at that point, but the materials of mystery built up in the early volumes are never wasted. Loose ends and tantalizing hints left dangling at the end of the first and subsequent volumes were conscientiously and productively integrated into the weave of the seventh, a remarkable achievement, given the density of the subplots and the complexity of the overall scheme.

One of the effects of this double layering of mystery was to greatly inflate the length of the later volumes of the series, producing page counts in volume 4 (636 pages) and volume 5 (766 pages) that would previously have been considered unthinkable for children’s literature. Volume 7, at 606 pages, seemed very modest by comparison, given that it covered far more narrative ground than either of those predecessors. Volumes 4 and 5, however, are hybrid texts in a sense that volumes 6 and 7 are not, and their hybrid status reflects the transition that the series underwent as it crossed the boundary between age-range marketing categories. In the first four volumes, the melodramatic plots are secondary to other narrative material, celebrating the essential coziness of the boarding school environment to which Harry has been removed from an utterly wretched home life. From then on, however, the joys of friendship and playing sports are gradually and painfully displaced by clandestine guerrilla warfare; in volume seven, Hogwarts Academy no longer functions as a school but as Armageddon’s last redoubt. The fact that it does so effectively is a testament to the skill with which Rowling handled the series’ development and metamorphosis.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

First published: Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, 1997

Type of work: Novel

In the first novel in the series, Harry learns that he has inherited magical powers and begins his education at Hogwarts Academy, where he makes friends and makes his first attempt to thwart the ambitions of his nemesis, Voldemort.

At the beginning of the novel, Harry Potter is living in a cupboard under the stairs, suffering appalling maltreatment at the hands of the Dursley family, to whose care he was confided as an infant following the death of his parents; his mother was Mrs. Dursley’s sister. On his eleventh birthday, however, it is revealed to him, despite the Dursleys’ best efforts, that he has inherited magical abilities and is scheduled for education in wizardry at Hogwarts Academy, a key pillar of the British magical community, which lives in strict covert isolation from untalented “muggles.” This message is delivered by the intimidating Hagrid, who lives on the school grounds on the edge of a Forbidden Forest. Hagrid, who is fascinated by all manner of magical creatures, becomes Harry’s first fast friend.

Having obtained essential equipment from the magical mall in Diagon Alley, Harry catches the Hogwarts Express from platform nine and three-quarters at King’s Cross Station and is carried away to his new life. He finds that his reputation has preceded him to Hogwarts. While still preconscious in his cradle, he survived a magical assault by the infamous dark wizard Voldemort (whose name is so terrible in its effects that only Harry and Hogwarts’ headmaster, Albus Dumbledore, dare pronounce it), deflecting a killing spell back upon its sender and reducing Voldemort to helplessness. Despite the resentment generated by this reputation among the children of Voldemort’s former sympathizers—including fellow pupil Draco Malfoy and the disciplinarian teacher Severus Snape—Harry finds life at Hogwarts idyllic and makes two more firm friends in the bookish Hermione Granger and the hapless but willing Ron Weasley.

Initially, the only strong evidence of Harry’s talent is provided on the sports field, where he becomes an expert player of quidditch, a game played on flying broomsticks. Voldemort, however, is in hiding at Hogwarts, beginning to recover his powers and enthusiastic to get rid of his nemesis. Voldemort also wants to get hold of the philosopher’s stone, which was entrusted by the famous alchemist Nicholas Flamel to Dumbledore. With the aid of Hermione and Ron, and encouragement from Dumbledore and Hagrid, Harry contrives to thwart Voldemort’s ambition in a tense climax, but he realizes that he is engaged in a contest that is likely to be long and desperate.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

First published: 1999

Type of work: Novel

Harry faces tougher challenges in his third year at Hogwarts Academy, when the infamous Sirius Black breaks out of Azkaban Prison and may be planning to kill him.

Having further penetrated the mysteries of Hogwarts Academy, where Voldemort had once been a pupil under the name of Tom Riddle in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Harry faces sterner challenges in his third year at the school. The infamous Sirius Black has escaped from Azkaban—the magical prison to which Voldemort’s key supporters, the Death-Eaters, were sent when his first campaign was thwarted—and is rumored to be making his way to the school in order to kill Harry.

Harry begins to realize that the matter is more complicated when he has a terrifying encounter with a Dementor—one of the hideous, soul-sucking entities which guard the prison—on the Hogwarts Express. Even Dumbledore seems to doubt his testimony in this regard but is determined to keep him safe, with the aid of Remus Lupin, the new teacher of Defense Against the Dark Arts (a post with a remarkably high turnover). Harry has further trouble with both Severus Snape and Draco Malfoy, and his situation is further complicated when Hagrid becomes distraught after one of his unruly protégés, the hippogriff Buckbeak, is condemned to be put down.

It transpires that Sirius Black is actually Harry’s nearest living relative and staunchest defender, having once been part of a group of friends with Harry’s father and Remus Lupin, whose affliction with lycanthropy the group had striven to protect. The true enemy and cause of Harry’s troubles is, as always, Voldemort, who has subverted Azkaban and now has the Dementors at his beck and call. Harry is able to call upon the aid of the Marauder’s Map, which allows the locations of the academy’s inhabitants to be determined, as well as a time-bending watch, but he, Hermione, and Ron are tested to the limit of their strength and ingenuity by the quest to save Sirius and Buckbeak and to thwart Voldemort’s plans for a third time.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

First published: 2003

Type of work: Novel

Life becomes more difficult for fifteen-year-old Harry, when a bureaucrat from the Ministry of Magic institutes a reign of persecution at Hogwarts Academy and the battle against Voldemort intensifies.

Having confronted Voldemort in person for the first time at the end of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, unexpectedly surviving a second attempt to destroy him, Harry is in an awkward position at the beginning of the fifth volume in the series. The government of the hidden magical world, the Ministry of Magic, run by the bumbling Cornelius Fudge, refuses to admit that Voldemort is alive and has branded Harry a liar for asserting the opposite.

Harry’s adult supporters form the secret Order of the Phoenix to prepare for the impending war against Voldemort, but Harry’s safe refuge at Hogwarts is undermined when the ministry appoints one of its most officious bureaucrats, Dolores Umbridge, to overhaul its educational standards. Umbridge also turns out to be a sadist, inflicting painful punishments on Harry when he persists in his assertions.

When Defense Against the Dark Arts is dropped from the curriculum on Umbridge’s orders, Harry begins teaching the subject as best he can to a group of dissident students he calls Dumbledore’s Army. When his scheme is discovered and he is threatened with expulsion, this label enables Dumbledore to take responsibility instead. However, the headmaster’s subsequent sacking results in Umbridge being installed as High Inquisitor of Hogwarts, instituting a reign of persecution.

This time, Voldemort’s proximal target is not located at Hogarts but in the vaults of the Ministry of Magic, where a prophecy concerning his mysterious and potentially fatal relationship with Harry is secured. Hagrid’s crucial relationships with various fantastic creatures and his giant kinfolk prove crucial in permitting Harry, Hermione, and Ron to get out of Hogwarts in time to join the Order of the Phoenix in a pitched battle within the ministry. Although the Order of the Phoenix suffers serious fatalities, the ministry’s official position becomes untenable, and the battle against Voldemort becomes a matter of open warfare.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

First published: 2007

Type of work: Novel

In the last volume of the series, Harry engages in his final battle against Voldemort, a fight that turns out to be more complicated than Harry imagined.

Following another deeply troubled year at Hogwarts, described in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, at the end of which Dumbledore is killed by the ever-deceptive Severus Snape, Harry begins the final volume of the series in hiding. When the spell that has kept him safe until his seventeenth birthday expires, he and his helpers are immediately attacked by Voldemort, suffering casualties.

Unable to return to Hogwarts, Harry is forced to go on the run with Ron and Hermione, hunting desperately for the “horcruxes” that contain fragments of Voldemort’s soul and thus maintain his invulnerability. The search for the horcruxes is complicated when Harry learns of the existence of another set of magical objects—the “deathly hallows”—which might also be vital to the settlement of the final battle. Voldemort is unable to give his complete attention to the quest to kill Harry because he is searching for one of the hallows: an undefeatable wand.

Uncertain as to whether to give priority to the remaining horcruxes or the hallows, Harry continues to evade death, albeit narrowly, until he is forced to return to Hogwarts in order to complete his search. The castle housing Hogwarts Academy then becomes the last fortress holding out against Voldemort’s rise to power, subject to intensive siege and violent bombardment.

The remnants of Dumbledore’s Army and the Order of the Phoenix mount a heroic defense of Hogwarts in the attempt to win Harry enough time to finish his quest, suffering heavy casualties in the process. The conflict reaches the limit of desperation when it becomes evident that Harry harbors one of the fragments of Voldemort’s soul in his own flesh. It appears that Harry cannot kill his enemy without sacrificing himself in the process, but that sacrifice might also make Voldemort invincible.

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