Wednesday, November 17, 2010
I'm Alison of Alison Can Read. I've been blogging for 5 months. I review mostly young adult literature with some middle grade books and manga.
I read my first Harry Potter book in the summer of 2000, when I was 18 years old. Up to that point, I hated the fantasy genre. Madeline L'Engle's A Wrinkle In Time was confusing and boring. I had no desire to read C.S. Lewis. There were a few exceptions, of course. I loved Roald Dahl's Matilda and Lois Lowry's The Giver. But for the most part I stuck solely to historical fiction, contemporary fiction, or historical non-fiction.
From the moment, I picked up Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, I was entranced with the series, immersed into the world of Harry and Hogwarts. I immediately picked up the second and third books and actually worked at Barnes & Noble the night of the midnight release of the fourth book in July 2000. For the next seven years, I waited with bated breath for the remaining three books to be published and now re-read the entire series every year. Since reading my first Harry Potter book, I've given fantasy a fair shot. And to my surprise I love it! Now, paranormal romance, high fantasy, and urban fantasy comprise a good percentage of my reading material.
Why is the Harry Potter series such a good introduction to the fantasy genre? Harry Potter exemplifies the best of the genre. Fantasy can transport you to another world. And I mean that almost literally. When I'm reading Harry Potter, I am immersed in the world of wizardry. Everything around me fades away. Part of me truly believes that this world actually exists. It seems entirely logical. Rowling does an incredible job of building a world that seem very much like our own, in a way. There is school, family, sports, bureaucracy. The parts that are unfamiliar are explained so well, with such detail, history, and symbolism, that the fantastical is on equal par with reality.
Fantasy is an excellent vessel for themes that are hard to get across in realistic fiction without insulting someone, or sounding extreme, depressing, or preachy. For example, government corruption is a strong theme throughout the series, yet no particular government or political party can legitimately claim the book is attacking it, since the Ministry Of Magic is not real. Deathly Hallows practically hits the reader on the head with a Christian allegory, yet it is presented in a way that doesn't make you feel as though you were reading a sermon.
In the best fantasy novels, the reader really relates to the characters, knows them as well or better than he/she knows people in real life. This is crucial to any novel, of course, but particularly important for the fantasy genre, where the characters are naturally harder to understand because they live in a world where the reader does not. The author has to work extra hard to make the characters feel just as human, just as three-dimensional as the reader. This is where J.K. Rowling truly excels. Every one of her characters are complex, flawed, real people. Harry Potter is brave, loyal, and selfless, yet also has a horrible temper, isn't unusually bright, and makes rash conclusions. Dumbledore, one of the series' heroes, is wise, brilliant, and caring, but is also cold, calculating, and arrogant. Lucius and Narcissa Malfoy seem like heartless villains, yet their love for their son ultimately saves Harry's life and thwarts Voldemort. Snape turns out to be incredibly brave, loyal, and an eternal romantic, but he is a resentful, bitter, and heartlessly cruel man
Classic good versus evil tales work better in fantasy than in realistic fiction. The stories can be more extreme than reality allows - evil is elevated to a higher level when the supernatural is involved and the hero is endowed with extra skills to defeat the bad guy. This is certainly the case in Harry Potter. With a single swipe of their wands and an incantation, the villains and the heroes can fly, torture, and kill. Mere muggle battles simply cannot compare. Rowling also does a marvelous job of showing that good versus evil is not a black and white world, something that is difficult to do in any kind of novel. In my opinion, the two most evil characters in the series are Voldemort and Delores Umbridge, and they are on different sides of the Dark Arts battle line (Bellatrix Lestrange gives Umbridge a very good run for her money, but even she has a human weakness - she's in love with Voldemort). The fantasy world reflects the very human reality that people who are arguably on the "good side" can be just as evil and cruel as the villains.
Harry Potter has earned a spot aside such venerable classics as The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia. It is a marvelously complex tale that manages to be fun and heartwarming at the same time. The series certainly worked it's magic upon me and opened my eyes to a whole new world of literary possibilities.