About 3 months ago, I decided on a whim, to re-read one of my favourite books from the Harry Potter series, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. I had first read the book when I was 9 years old and subsequently have been rereading it whenever I get spurts of free time or when I find I don’t have anything to read at that moment. This most recent spate of reading the book was preceded by a rather long spate (a few years) of not reading it.
I was surprised by the fact that I was just as enchanted by the book and the series as I was 12 years ago. I caught myself smiling on the train ride to college as I ambled through the Weasley twins giving Harry the Marauders Map. I cleverly hid the book during a particularly dull college lecture so I could finish off ‘Professor Trelawney’s Prediction’. During the time I allotted to studying college texts, I ferociously devoured the remaining chapters. Suffice it to say, I was hooked.
So what is it that makes it so real? Why am I unable to react to any other book series the way I reacted to Harry Potter? And why is it that I enjoy rereading the series so much? Well, the way I see it, the narrative strikes a gentle balance between:
a) supplying the reader with large bouts of knowledge about the wizarding world and gradually revealing Harry’s personal history
b) making it relatable and fun for the reader to read, by introducing characters both relatable and complex and delineating various incidents and happenings.
Firstly, the Harry Potter series is an example of knowledge production. Rowling uses myths, legends and folklore from around the world, to engineer an entire world with its own myths, legends and folklore. She has constructed a world which parallels with the “real” world, a non-magical space in which us readers reside. However, this magical Other space shares a lot of detail with its non-magical counterpart: politics of race, class, gender, government issues and what not. It’s the Otherness, newness and the dissimilarities of the magical wizarding world, with its intricate detail, that make it the most interesting. “Although the wizarding world seems to be the shadowside of the Muggle, mimicking its concerns, bureaucratic structure and weaknesses, it is actually represented as more concrete than the culture whose discourse, traditions and customs it mirrors”, writes Katie Behr.
By making the wizarding world a location of social, political, historical and economic significance, Rowling ensures that the vastness and complexity of the narrative swells up. With the series being largely Eurocentric in its details, she foregrounds the wizarding world of England in her narrative. Readers are made aware of snippets of information regarding the international wizarding community, a way of showing the sheer scale of this world. And it is through the third person omniscient narration, focusing mostly on Harry, that provides a vital gateway to this world.
The Ministry of Magic
More importantly, the narrative shows the convoluted and tenuous natures of knowledge systems, power, control, authority, bureaucracy, stereotypes, prejudices, morality, ethics, history, gender, race and class. Rowling also creates hierarchies between the Muggleborns and the Purebloods, also incorporating the marginalized and less privileged members of the community, the house-elves. The books are good examples of how the presence or absence of knowledge, specifically within the walls of her books, affects characters and their reactions. Taking the Prisoner of Azkaban as an example, the moment where Sirius Black is revealed is innocent and Peter Pettigrew a perpetrator dramatically changes the situation. The public perceptions of both these characters as well as public history (Sirius as a traitor to the Potters; Pettigrew as a hero who died tragically) undergo a change as their personal histories come to light.
Secondly, Rowling manages to create characters, both endearing and sinister, both good and evil, both knowable and unknowable. Though the battle against Voldemort stands for the larger battle between good and evil, characters themselves aren’t always written in black or white. Though Snape’s past and his history with Lily did appear a tad predictable, Snape’s character is a small example of how a character can be both knowable and unknowable. With Rita Skeeter, Rowling shows the sensationalist nature of journalism. Hermione continues to remain my favourite character after all these years. Alyssa Rosenberg names Hermione Granger as “the greatest and most progressive popular romantic heroine of a generation”. Her intellect, her wit, her sense of morality and ethics, these are things that make her an inspiration, a feminine character that’s remained unmatched in the books I’ve read. She is a great example of ‘girl power’, of a woman being fiercely independent, intelligent, and assertive. Ever since I started reading the books, I’ve always wanted to be like her.
Emma Watson as Hermione Granger
A lot of things wouldn’t have been easy or possible for me without the Harry Potter books. Harry Potter kept me company during those lonely childhood years. It made the experience of school endurable in moments when I felt the loneliest. When the stiff and restraining world of school and academics would take its toll, Harry Potter would be the perfect antidote, providing me an escape when I needed one. It coincidentally, nurtured my creativity as well. Since Harry Potter merchandise and memorabilia was too expensive, only sold in USA and Europe and therefore completely unattainable, I’d make my own artifacts from the series. I made a replica of the Marauder’s Map when I was 12, a near-exact facsimile of the original shown in the Azkaban movie.
The version of the Marauder’s Map made by me when I was 12
But more importantly, it’s primarily Rowling’s narrative and wild imagination that helped me develop an interest in writing and taught me how to put pen to paper. The series helmed and nurtured my love for English Literature, a subject I’m proud to say that I’ve earned a BA degree in.
Rosenberg brings up another point regarding the Potter films. “…Hermione has never been as vibrant on screen as she was on the page. Emma Watson’s fine, but she’s not my Hermione. Watson’s too pretty, too fashionable, not quite as awkward as the Hermione who lives in my mind. The tweaks to her characterization are a perfect example of the basic problem with the movies: they nail down the details of the books in a way that subverts the inventive experience of reading, even as they revisit the basic events and characters of the books. The movies take the characters out of my hands, so sweaty with tension during my midnight read of Deathly Hallows that they stained the hard cover. They condense Rowling’s stories, trim details. And even more importantly, they’re almost too exact, creating a definitive visual version of people and events that on the page we were free to interpret for ourselves.”
Discovering how Spellotape is the magical equivalent of Cellotape, and how the Knight Bus and the Floo Network are the wizarding world’s ways of public transportation, how Hippogriffs, dragons, Thresthrals are some of the fauna populating the wizarding world, couldn’t be more thrilling for me. The act of reading is what makes the wizarding world real, tangible and believable. With the act of watching it on-screen, the beauty of individual interpretation vanishes, thereby making the films less believable. The journey from word to image, though not easy, strives hard to recreate but loses the flavor and the punch of J. K. Rowling’s writing. Though both mediums foreground Harry’s adventures in particular, the films edit out the minutiae and the tiniest of elements of this fictional world, elements that add to its believability.
Recently, a three movie Harry Potter spin-off was announced based on Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. I don’t take to franchise films too well. Though the Potter films were hollow and weak, it was Prisoner of Azkaban in particular that was finely honed. Like any other franchise film, the idea of a three-film Potter spin-off seems extraneous and inconsequential, appearing as an attempt to make more money from the franchise. No matter how much I love the series, unless the spin-off films are exceptionally executed, I don’t think I’m going to watch them in theatres (I’m probably in the minority with this).
Harry Potter has changed me in so many ways and has taught me loads. This books series, along with Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events (which also deserves a post all to itself), nourished me when I was growing up. It takes enormous talent to write a series like this, and J. K. Rowling has always been and will continue to be one of my inspirations. The fact that it will always seem real to me is why I love it. Harry Potter has made my childhood and I would love nothing more than to introduce it to another person and have it make their childhood as well.