I am part of the generation that ‘grew up’ with the Harry Potter books. I was roughly the same age as the characters as all of the books came out and remember vividly waiting for the final installments to figure out what happened next. And while the series never meant as much to me as it did to some of my friends (it was a formative series for many people my age), I did really enjoy the books. For years I’ve been curious to revisit them as an adult. I finally took the opportunity and, before embarking on a transatlantic flight, I downloaded a Harry Potter audiobook from the library. I chose the one that I remembered as being my favorite in the series: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. After twelve hours of listening to it on planes, trains and automobiles, in airports and coffeeshops, I can say that it was, frankly, pretty incredible and much better than I even expected.
Perhaps the fact that Harry Potter is quite a good series isn’t a surprise to you. There are times when I come to what my partner and I call my ‘obvious realizations’. A recent pronouncement of mine was: ‘I was just listening to some of his music and wow, that Bruce Springsteen is a very good musician!’ My partner laughed and laughed and was like: ‘Um, yeah? That does seem to be the consensus…’ Sometimes I just forget though that certain things are quite famous because they are quite good. Of course, lots of other factors go into things becoming popular (timing, zeitgeist, etc.) and of course there are some famous things that are quite crap. And some non-famous things that are excellent (I’ve read many wonderful books that have been handmade or self-published and simply blew me away). But, sometimes, famous things ‘deserve’ to be famous because they are excellent (see: Bruce Springsteen). That’s the case, for me, with the Harry Potter books because damn, that Prisoner of Azkaban was an excellent little book! (And my favorite film of the series as well, if I remember correctly!).
I probably don’t need to tell you what Harry Potter is about. I imagine most are familiar with the premise – an English boy wizard who goes to magic school. Some of you might also be familiar too with the recent controversies with its author J.K Rowling. I’m not super up-to-date on Rowling’s personal views and public comments she’s made, but needless to say she’s a controversial figure and I have several friends who don’t read the series any longer because of her views (which I can understand). I think the separation between ‘author’ and ‘work’ is a tricky business and quite a personal one to navigate, not least because works of art (even books) are not just the product of ONE person but rather many. A film isn’t made just by a director but by its cinematographers, its lighting technicians, its actors, its sound editors. Books have editors, illustrators, etc. Anyway, I enjoyed re-visiting this particular book from childhood without really thinking too much on its author’s public profile, but, as I said, I could understand why others might not wish to.
But The Prisoner of Azkaban proved a wonderful reading experience for me and impressed me in a lot of ways: the setting, of course, is magnificent. It’s whimsical, it’s super detailed, and often full of humor and creativity. There are magical shops bristling with enchanted candies with hilarious names, a castle with paintings that talk to you, classrooms filled with bubbling cauldrons…it’s brilliant. The structure of the book is also incredible, with lots of little things that are set up earlier in the story that have major pay-offs and reveals later in the book. There are twists and turns, some of which I expected and some that I hadn’t recalled which took me by surprise. The characters are vivid and endearing (and well realized, in the case of the audiobook, by the narrator Jim Dale). It has a big heart, an emphasis on friendship, and the healing and enduring power of love (I was actually tearing up at one scene towards the end). It was also super funny at times, with little comments that made me burst out laughing, like when it’s announced that the ‘Care of Magical Creatures’ teacher has retired to ‘spend some time with his remaining limbs.’ I can see why parents would enjoy reading these books with their kids.
The main ‘con’ of the series is the titular character. This is the only real ‘flaw’ that I could see. Harry Potter himself seems like quite a boring dude, who doesn’t work particularly hard but is magically (heh heh) good at everything: a champion sports player, beloved by all the teachers, surrounded by friends and admirers, and also the famous vanquisher of the dark lord Voldemort who Harry Potter ‘defeated’ when he was only a baby. Some of the other characters are always rolling their eyes and scoffing at ‘the famous Harry Potter’ and I kind of felt on their side: everyone makes such a fuss over this guy who isn’t…that great? By contrast, his best friends Hermione and Ron are both so much more flawed, specific and lovable. I think maybe the idea was to have Harry be kind of ordinary as our ‘point of view’ character, so you could insert yourself into his mind as a sort of ‘everyman’? But this is a technique in literature that I really don’t enjoy and don’t think works very well. Paradoxically, the more specific and unique a character is, the more they become universal and we can identify with them. Harry is just a bland guy and I can’t imagine him being anyone’s ‘favorite character’ from this series.
Like I said, I’m not a Harry Potter ‘superfan’ (I’ve not read any of the newer books or seen the newer films, I don’t have any particular interest in going to Harry Potter World, etc.), but as an author I can respect that these are simply excellent children’s books and probably some of the best I’ve ever read. Such a delight!
Thanks for reading and as always have an excellent weekend! 🙂
PS Today’s Featured Image is of one to the streets – I think it’s Fossgate – in York, which has a very Harry Potter-esque vibe. York is a beautiful city (as is my city, Edinburgh, where JK Rowling wrote Harry Potter!).