|Now that the dust has settled on ”Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows,” Stephen King reflects on why no review did it justice, and whether kids (and their grown-ups) will ever read the same way again
And so now the hurly-burly’s done, the battle’s lost and won — the Battle of Hogwarts, that is — and all the secrets are out of the Sorting Hat. Those who bet Harry Potter would die lost their money; the boy who lived turned out to be exactly that. And if you think that’s a spoiler at this late date, you were never much of a Potter fan to begin with. The outrage over the early reviews (Mary Carole McCauley of The Baltimore Sun, Michiko Kakutani of The New York Times) has faded…although the sour taste lingers for many fans.
It lingers for me, too, although it doesn’t have anything to do with the ultimately silly concept of ”spoilers,” or the ethics of jumping the book’s pub date. The prepublication vow of omertà was, after all, always a thing concocted by publishers Bloomsbury and Scholastic, and not — so far as I know — a part of either the British Magna Carta or the U.S. Constitution. Nor does Jo Rowling’s impassioned protest (”I am staggered that some American newspapers have decided to publish…reviews in complete disregard of the wishes of literally millions of readers, particularly children…”) cut much ice with me. These books ceased to be specifically for children halfway through the series; by Goblet of Fire, Rowling was writing for everyone, and knew it.
The clearest sign of how adult the books had become by the conclusion arrives — and splendidly — in Deathly Hallows, when Mrs. Weasley sees the odious Bellatrix Lestrange trying to finish off Ginny with a Killing Curse. ”NOT MY DAUGHTER, YOU BITCH!” she cries. It’s the most shocking bitch in recent fiction; since there’s virtually no cursing (of the linguistic kind, anyway) in the Potter books, this one hits home with almost fatal force. It is totally correct in its context — perfect, really — but it is also a quintessentially adult response to a child’s peril.
The problem with the advance reviews — and those that followed in the first post-publication days — is one that has dogged Rowling’s magnum opus ever since book 4 (Goblet of Fire), after the series had become a worldwide phenomenon. Due to the Kremlin-like secrecy surrounding the books, all reviews since 2000 or so have been strictly shoot-from-the-lip. The reviewers themselves were often great — Ms. Kakutani ain’t exactly chopped liver — but the very popularity of the books has often undone even the best intentions of the best critical writers. In their hurry to churn out column inches, and thus remain members of good standing in the Church of What’s Happening Now, very few of the Potter reviewers have said anything worth remembering. Most of this microwaved critical mush sees Harry — not to mention his friends and his adventures — in only two ways: sociologically (”Harry Potter: Boon or Childhood Disease?”) or economically (”Harry Potter and the Chamber of Discount Pricing”). They take a perfunctory wave at things like plot and language, but do little more…and really, how can they? When you have only four days to read a 750-page book, then write an 1,100-word review on it, how much time do you have to really enjoy the book? To think about the book? Jo Rowling set out a sumptuous seven-course meal, carefully prepared, beautifully cooked, and lovingly served out. The kids and adults who fell in love with the series (I among them) savored every mouthful, from the appetizer (Sorcerer’s Stone) to the dessert (the gorgeous epilogue of Deathly Hallows). Most reviewers, on the other hand, bolted everything down, then obligingly puked it back up half-digested on the book pages of their respective newspapers.
And because of that, very few mainstream writers, from Salon to The New York Times, have really stopped to consider what Ms. Rowling has wrought, where it came from, or what it may mean for the future. The blogs, by and large, haven’t been much better. They seem to care about who lives, who dies, and who’s tattling. Beyond that, it’s all pretty much duh. So what did happen? Where did this Ministry of Magic come from?
Well, there were straws in the wind. While the academics and bighead education critics were moaning that reading was dead and kids cared about nothing but their Xboxes, iPods, Avril Lavigne, and High School Musical, the kids they were worried about were quietly turning on to the novels of one Robert Lawrence Stine. Known in college as ”Jovial Bob” Stine, this fellow gained another nickname later in life, as — ahem — ”the Stephen King of children’s literature.” He wrote his first teen horror novel (Blind Date) in 1986, years before the advent of Pottermania…but soon you couldn’t glance at a USA Today best-seller list without seeing three or four of his paperbacks bobbing around in the top 50.
These books drew almost no critical attention — to the best of my knowledge, Michiko Kakutani never reviewed Who Killed the Homecoming Queen? — but the kids gave them plenty of attention, and R.L. Stine rode a wave of kid popularity, partly fueled by the fledgling Internet, to become perhaps the best-selling children’s author of the 20th century. Like Rowling, he was a Scholastic author, and I have no doubt that Stine’s success was one of the reasons Scholastic took a chance on a young and unknown British writer in the first place. He’s largely unknown and uncredited…but of course John the Baptist never got the same press as Jesus either.
Rowling has been far more successful, critically as well as financially, because the Potter books grew as they went along. That, I think, is their great secret (and not so secret at that; to understand the point visually, buy a ticket to Order of the Phoenix and check out former cutie Ron Weasley towering over Harry and Hermione). R.L. Stine’s kids are kids forever, and the kids who enjoyed their adventures grew out of them, as inevitably as they outgrew their childhood Nikes. Jo Rowling’s kids grew up…and the audience grew up with them.
This wouldn’t have mattered so much if she’d been a lousy writer, but she wasn’t — she was and is an incredibly gifted novelist. While some of the blogs and the mainstream media have mentioned that Rowling’s ambition kept pace with the skyrocketing popularity of her books, they have largely overlooked the fact that her talent also grew. Talent is never static, it’s always growing or dying, and the short form on Rowling is this: She was far better than R.L. Stine (an adequate but flavorless writer) when she started, but by the time she penned the final line of Deathly Hallows (”All was well.”), she had become one of the finer stylists in her native country — not as good as Ian McEwan or Ruth Rendell (at least not yet), but easily the peer of Beryl Bainbridge or Martin Amis.
And, of course, there was the magic. It’s what kids want more than anything; it’s what they crave. That goes back to the Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Andersen, and good old Alice, chasing after that wascally wabbit. Kids are always looking for the Ministry of Magic, and they usually find it.
One day in my hometown of Bangor, I was walking up the street and observed a dirty-faced boy of about 3 with scabbed knees and a look of extreme concentration on his face. He was sitting on the dirt strip between the sidewalk and the asphalt. He had a stick in his hand and kept jabbing it into the dirt. ”Get down there!” he cried. ”Get down there, dammit! You can’t come out until I say the Special Word! You can’t come out until I say so!”
Several people passed by the kid without paying much attention (if any). I slowed, however, and watched as long as I could — probably because I have spent so much time telling the things inhabiting my own imagination to get back down and not come out until I say so. I was charmed by the kid’s effortless make-believe (always assuming it was make-believe, heh-heh-heh). And a couple of things occurred to me. One was that if he had been an adult, the cops would have taken him away either to the drunk tank or to our local Dreamboat Manor for a psychiatric exam. Another was that kids exhibiting paranoid-schizophrenic tendencies are simply accepted in most societies. We all understand that kids are crazy until they hit 8 or so, and we cut their groovy, anything-goes minds some slack.
This happened around 1982, while I was getting ready to write a long story about children and monsters (It), and it influenced my thinking on that novel a great deal. Even now, years later, I think of that kid — a little Minister of Magic using a dead twig for a wand — with affection, and hope he didn’t consider himself too old for Harry Potter when those books started appearing. He might have; sad to think so, but one thing J.R.R. Tolkien acknowledges that Rowling doesn’t is that sometimes — often, really — the magic goes away.
It was children whom Ms. Rowling — like her Fear Street precursor, but with considerably more skill — captivated first, demonstrating with the irrefutable logic of something like 10 bazillion books sold that kids are still perfectly willing to put aside their iPods and Game Boys and pick up a book…if the magic is there. That reading itself is magical is a thing I never doubted. I’d give a lot to know how many teenagers (and preteens) texted this message in the days following the last book’s release: DON’T CALL ME TODAY I’M READING.
The same thing probably happened with R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps books, but unlike Stine, Rowling brought adults into the reading circle, making it much larger. This is hardly a unique phenomenon, although it seems to be one associated mainly with British authors (there was Huckleberry Finn, of course, a sequel to its YA little brother Tom Sawyer). Alice in Wonderland began as a story told to 10-year-old Alice Liddell by Charles Dodgson (a.k.a. Lewis Carroll); it is now taught in college lit courses. And Watership Down, Richard Adams’ version of The Odyssey (featuring rabbits instead of humans), began as a story told to amuse the author’s preteen daughters, Juliet and Rosamond, on a long car drive. As a book, though, it was marketed as an ”adult fantasy” and became an international best-seller.
Maybe it’s the British prose. It’s hard to resist the hypnotism of those calm and sensible voices, especially when they turn to make-believe. Rowling was always part of that straightforward storytelling tradition (Peter Pan, originally a play by the Scot J.M. Barrie, is another case in point). She never loses sight of her main theme — the power of love to turn bewildered, often frightened, children into decent and responsible adults — but her writing is all about story. She’s lucid rather than luminous, but that’s okay; when she does express strong feelings, she remains their mistress without denying their truth or power. The sweetest example in Deathly Hallows comes early, with Harry remembering his childhood years in the Dursley house. ”It gave him an odd, empty feeling to remember those times,” Rowling writes. ”[I]t was like remembering a younger brother whom he had lost.” Honest; nostalgic; not sloppy. It’s a small example of the style that enabled Jo Rowling to bridge the generation gap without breaking a sweat or losing the cheerful dignity that is one of the series’ great charms.
Her characters are lively and well-drawn, her pace is impeccable, and although there are occasional continuity drops, the story as a whole hangs together almost perfectly over its 4,000-plus page length.
And she’s in full possession of that famously dry British wit, as when Ron, trying to tune in an outlaw news broadcast on his wizard radio, catches a snatch of a pop song called ”A Cauldron Full of Hot Strong Love.” Must have been some witchy version of Donna Summer doing that one. There’s also her wry send-up of the British tabloids — about which I’m sure she knows plenty — in the person of Rita Skeeter, perhaps the best name to be hung on a fictional character since those of Jonathan Swift. When Elphias Doge, the perfect magical English gentleman, calls Rita ”an interfering trout,” I felt like standing up and giving a cheer. Take that, Page Six! There’s a lot of meat on the bones of these books — good writing, honest feeling, a sweet but uncompromising view of human nature…and hard reality: NOT MY DAUGHTER, YOU BITCH! The fact that Harry attracted adults as well as children has never surprised me.
Are the books perfect? Indeed not. Some sections are too long. In Deathly Hallows, for instance, there’s an awful lot of wandering around and camping in that tent; it starts to feel like Ms. Rowling running out the clock on the school year to fit the format of the previous six books.
And sometimes she falls prey to the Robinson Crusoe syndrome. In Crusoe, whenever the marooned hero requires something, he ventures out to his ship — which has conveniently run aground on the reef surrounding his desert island — and takes what he needs from stores (in one of the most amusing continuity flubs in the history of English literature, Robinson once swims out naked…then fills his pockets). In much the same manner, whenever Harry and his friends get into a tight corner, they produce some new spell — fire, water to douse the fire, stairs that conveniently turn into a slide — and squiggle free. I accepted most of these, partly because there’s enough child in me to react gleefully rather than doubtfully (in a way, the Potter books are The Joy of Magic rather than The Joy of Cooking) but also because I understand that magic is its own thing, and probably boundless. Still, by the time the Battle of Hogwarts was reaching its climax of clumping giants, cheering portraits, and flying wizards, I almost longed for someone to pull out a good old MAC-10 and start blasting away like Rambo.
If all those creative spells — produced at the right moment like the stuff from Crusoe’s ship — were a sign of creative exhaustion, it’s the only one I saw, and that’s pretty amazing. Mostly Rowling is just having fun, knocking herself out, and when a good writer is having fun, the audience is almost always having fun too. You can take that one to the bank (and, Reader, she did).
One last thing: The bighead academics seem to think that Harry’s magic will not be strong enough to make a generation of nonreaders (especially the male half) into bookworms…but they wouldn’t be the first to underestimate Harry’s magic; just look at what happened to Lord Voldemort. And, of course, the bigheads would never have credited Harry’s influence in the first place, if the evidence hadn’t come in the form of best-seller lists. A literary hero as big as the Beatles? ”Never happen!” the bigheads would have cried. ”The traditional novel is as dead as Jacob Marley! Ask anyone who knows! Ask us, in other words!”
But reading was never dead with the kids. Au contraire, right now it’s probably healthier than the adult version, which has to cope with what seems like at least 400 boring and pretentious ”literary novels” each year. While the bigheads have been predicting (and bemoaning) the postliterate society, the kids have been supplementing their Potter with the narratives of Lemony Snicket, the adventures of teenage mastermind Artemis Fowl, Philip Pullman’s challenging His Dark Materials trilogy, the Alex Rider adventures, Peter Abrahams’ superb Ingrid Levin-Hill mysteries, the stories of those amazing traveling blue jeans. And of course we must not forget the unsinkable (if sometimes smelly) Captain Underpants. Also, how about a tip of the old tiara to R.L. Stine, Jo Rowling’s jovial John the Baptist?
I began by quoting Shakespeare; I’ll close with the Who: The kids are alright. Just how long they stay that way sort of depends on writers like J.K. Rowling, who know how to tell a good story (important) and do it without talking down (more important) or resorting to a lot of high-flown gibberish (vital). Because if the field is left to a bunch of intellectual Muggles who believe the traditional novel is dead, they’ll kill the damn thing.
It’s good make-believe I’m talking about. Known in more formal circles as the Ministry of Magic. J.K. Rowling has set the standard: It’s a high one, and God bless her for it.