The Appeal of the Wonderful Wizarding World
After selling 325 million copies in 65 languages, it is impossible to deny the success of the Harry Potter series (The New York Times). The question is, however, what makes it so special? How is this series any better than the countless others that follow the same basic plot line? While the explanation that most settle for is that it is simply better than the rest, since its release in 1997, critics have debated the appeal and what makes the wonderful wizarding world of Harry Potter so wonderful after all.
For as long as I can remember, the Harry Potter series has been held with high respect amongst my family and peers, but especially my older siblings. The first book of the series was released when my oldest sister was 14 and my brother was 12, just around the age of Harry, himself. As they grew, so did Harry, leading to a connection between themselves and the series. While Harry’s life was surely more complicated and exciting than theirs, they struggled through many of the same ordeals- Harry’s were just more interesting. Their love of Harry Potter was shared with me as I grew up going to midnight book releases, having them read me the books, and attending the movie premieres. The Harry Potter series has always been a classic in my eyes, one that I have read multiple times entirely; the kind of book that never gets old. As a worldwide phenomenon with multiple amusement parks based off of it and an entire museum housing the props and sets used in the filming of the movie, it’s popularity is undeniable. Although its appeal is no secret to me, after stumbling upon many negative reviews, I could not help but wonder why I had always thought of the series in such a positive light. Why is Harry Potter still, after all these years one of my favorite books? Why do I find it just as intriguing and page turning each time I binge read all seven books in a borderline unhealthy amount of time while others never see the appeal?
At this day in age, there is no denying that the Harry Potter series is well regarded, however, this was not always the case. The release of the first book of the series, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, was met with several very negative reviews. One particularly negative critic said,
“As a workout for the brain, reading (or being read) Harry Potter is an activity marginally less testing than watching Neighbours. And that, at least, is vaguely about real life. These are one-dimensional children’s books, Disney cartoons written in words, no more.” (Holden)
While Holden’s opinion is valid to some extent, (the Harry Potter series does not cause the reader to think and interpret heavily,) it is not entirely true. One of the most impressive things about Rowling’s work is her ability to create an alternate world, one full of magic and other inhumane possibilities, that I have been able to relate to throughout the entirety of my painfully average life.
Harry Potter and his friends suffer with the same teenage challenges that any normal teen faces: love, grades, cruel teachers, and sports; however, Harry’s challenges also include slaying dragons and saving the wizarding world from those who are evil. That being said, the excitement of Harry’s life does not make it any less human, it simply adds to its thrill. While people certainly enjoy reading about others overcoming the same adversity they are facing, Rowling is able to exemplify this in a different way. She is able to take simple problems, such as, a character struggling with the right thing to do, and apply it to a more attention-grabbing situation. Rather than a simple story about friends learning about the parameters of the phrase “every man for himself,” Rowling teaches her readers this lesson when Harry is forced to leave his two best friends who are hurt by falling rock in a secret underground tunnel beneath their school. Instead of saving his friends, Harry decides to continue on so that he can save the rest of the school and his best friend’s little sister who was taken hostage by Lord Voldemort, the Dark Lord and epitome of evil in the wizard world. In “Disney cartoons written in words, “as Holden refers to it, the hero would be able to figure out a way to simultaneously save his friends and the school, but Harry has to make the choice. He chooses to leave his friends for the greater good, and while they are eventually saved by someone who is not Harry, this is unbeknownst to the reader until much later, making the lesson all the same. So, while Holden is right in saying that the series is not particularly thought provoking, Rowling’s work still challenges the reader, forcing them to think about an issue that they could very well be facing in their lifetime, (though most likely on a lesser scale), and how they would react to it.
While Holden’s review of Harry Potter may seem harsh, he is hardly the minority in this opinion. Many of the initial reviews of the series call out J.K. Rowling for her “subpar” writing ability and dismiss the series as nothing more than a cliché. However, even as the series progressed and its popularity mounted, negative reviews continued. In 2007, Nicholas Lezard of The Guardian wrote an article about the biggest con of the Harry Potter series- the prose. He argued that while the series is “big,” it is not “clever” and demonstrated this by saying,
“Here, from page 324 of The Order of the Phoenix, to give you a typical example, are six consecutive descriptions of the way people speak. “…said Snape maliciously,” “… said Harry furiously”, “ … he said glumly”, “… said Hermione severely”, “… said Ron indignantly”, “ … said Hermione loftily”. Do I need to explain why that is such second-rate writing?” (Lezard)
Although it is hard to argue against Lezard’s point, his argument brings to light the fact that the story is not dependent on the level of writing. The critics reviewing Harry Potter do not focus on the right things. Rather than applauding the book for its ability to capture the attention of millions, they tear it apart based on its quality of writing. When I first came across reviews denouncing Harry Potter I was shocked and once I discovered that it was on the premises of J.K. Rowling’s ability to write, I was even more so. Until I read the negative reviews, the quality of writing had never crossed my mind because, to put it simply, it is irrelevant. What is important to me while I read the books is not whether Severus Snape said something “maliciously” or “spitefully” but rather the story line, and the fact that even though I know the story line by heart, when I get to a particularly exciting part, my heart still races and I read the pages with ferocious speed, unable to wait for the outcome.
In actuality, I believe that improving the level of writing would most likely have lessened the book’s appeal. Using fancy words for things that do not need to be described in an advanced fashion would not make me more impressed by the book, rather, it would be distracting and make the story less decipherable. And being as the target age group for Harry Potter is not well-written middle aged critics, it is children and young adults, this is especially true.
Despite negative reviews, the popularity of the book has continued and it has become one of the most sold series in history, as well as a household name worldwide. Yet, no matter the immensity of the success, it is difficult to find a review of Harry Potter that is entirely, or even mostly, positive. The literary hierarchy of today, or those who are publishing reviews, refuse to acknowledge the series as anything that deserves significant recognition, but the average reader has a very different opinion.
In 2007, The New York Times set out to ask “regular” readers; librarians, writers, bloggers, and even kids what they thought was the secret to the success of Harry Potter and their responses varied greatly. Orson Scott Card, author of many novels, commented that,
“The elite will read the most amazingly cliché-ridden stories, if only the manner of writing is clever enough. The general public, most particularly young readers, have no patience with such posturing. “Harry Potter” proved that a huge audience will read avidly when the story feels important and true to them. And the critics who don’t get it are revealing their own sad limitations as readers.” (The New York Times)
While Card acknowledges that Harry Potter is by no means a completely original plotline, he, unlike many of his contemporaries is able to understand the appeal of a reworked, reimagined cliché, and judge it based on more than just the quality of their spell check button.
Jacob Kogan, a seventh grader in New York City views the series in a way very similar to my own, stating,
“This series allows children to escape into a world besides their own. Children are used to being told what to do and looked down upon, so the idea of a child possessing magical powers — or any powers — excites them.” (The New York Times)
Unlike Card who is a seasoned writer, Jacob sees the story for what it is on the surface; an exciting adventure, one that no one can deny they want to be a part of, even if it is simply through the pages of a book.
Hank Green, editor in chief of EcoGeek.org had a different response when asked what he thought was the reason for the success of Harry Potter. He said,
“It’s not just that Harry’s world is so intricately woven and strewn with perfect details. It’s more than pertinent politics, universal themes and modern morals. I think we love “Harry Potter” because Harry’s universe is filled with the heavy, strong and close relationships that we genetically crave, but find it quite difficult to actually participate in these days… Or maybe I’m just an unabashed fanboy.” (The New York Times)
Green views the novel as an ideal world for us as individuals, at least in terms of relationships, whereas Jacob views it as a place to escape to, and Card views it as simply a novel that people find extremely intriguing.
Although there is no single answer to the question of what exactly makes Harry Potter so special, as demonstrated by Jacob, Card, Green, and myself, there are many possible explanations. All of us view the series as a success, but, have different explanations as to why. On the other hand, critics who think that the series is overrated tend to have a common explanation for their dislike. Although I believe a series should be judged on its content and the way it makes you feel as a reader, it is unlikely that critics will ever take this approach. Still, this brings back the original question: what makes Harry Potter so special? For me, it is the fact that every time I read the series I am filled with the same excitement as the first time I read it. But, perhaps there is no right or wrong answer to this question. Maybe it is merely opinion based, or based on the realms of your imagination. And, maybe the reasons that critics fail to see its success is because they are not focusing on what is important. They are forgetting that it is a story- it’s meant to be judged based on its content and not the way it’s written. Or, maybe, they are just lacking the imagination to see it in their own special way.
Holden, Anthony. “Why Harry Potter Doesn’t Cast a Spell over Me.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 25 June 2000. Web. 10 May 2016.
Lezard, Nicholas. “Harry Potter’s Big Con Is the Prose.” The Guardian.Guardian News and Media, 17 July 2007. Web. 10 May 2016.
The New York Times. “A Round Table on Harry Potter.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 11 Aug. 2007. Web. 10 May 2016.
I would first like to thank Professor Harris and J.K. Rowling for providing me with the materials to create this essay. If it were not for Rowling’s Harry Potter and Professor Harris’ assignment, I never would have come across the negative reviews about Harry Potter that I’ve written about in this essay. I would also like to thank Professor Harris, Jihad, Rachel, and Cassidy for peer editing my essay, providing me with feedback and helping me make my essay the best possible version of itself. Lastly I would like to thank my older siblings, Brandon and Kelly for being the reason for my Harry Potter obsession. If it weren’t for their obsession, I never would have grown to love the series in the way that I now do.
Although I thoroughly enjoyed this topic more than the one my previous essay was written about, I must say that it was much more difficult to write. I felt frustrated draft, after draft trying to get the point that I wanted to make shine through. Luckily, with the help of my peers and Professor Harris I feel that it has progressed quite a bit. As I said before, the Harry Potter series is one of my favorite, so being able to write about something so close to my heart has been a great source of joy during a difficult semester.