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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
July 29, 2007

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


Uncle Orson and the Deathly Hallows

This is a double review -- one for people who haven't read the book, and one for people who have.

If You Haven't Read the Last Harry Potter

There are three classes of people who haven't read the last Harry Potter novel:

1. People who haven't read any of the Harry Potter books.

2. People who read a couple of them but stopped.

3. People who have read all but the last and are going crazy because they just haven't had time to read it yet.

If you're in category three, then stop reading right now, because you don't really want to know what I'm about to say. It's not a spoiler, it's just more information that you want to have. Stop. Go away. Read nothing more in this column.

You were warned!

For people in categories 1 and 2, now that the entire series is finished, I can tell you: J.K. Rowling has created something that not only took the world by storm, but also deserves to last, to become a permanent classic of English literature, and not just as "children's fiction."

This project is, after all, Rowling's first work of fiction. She has definitely shown a learning curve as the books went on, each volume posing new challenges and letting her try out new techniques.

The first couple of books are lighter, funnier, full of silliness. They disguised a plot that was actually more sinister than some readers realized. So if you tried these books and decided they just weren't all that interesting, then I urge you to try again.

On the other hand, maybe what put you off was the fantasy -- the whole business of magic, of a world of wizards and witches right among us, but unnoticed or concealed. I remember giving my novel Seventh Son to a friend who was a noted poet, quite famous for his open-mindedness about literature. But when he gave it back, he said, "When anything can happen, it's hard to care that much what does."

The thing is, with good fantasy literature not just "anything" can happen. There are strict rules, carefully defined, about how magical powers function and on what principles (and at what cost) they can be used.

Fantasy readers are required to retain their childlike ability to look at a story with an open mind, not knowing what the rules are, and then discover them and work them out as the story progresses.

This is actually a basic function of the human mind. Every child learns how the world works through experience, precepts, and stories from infancy on. They also resolve conflicts between what people say and do. Only adults are prone to turning off this mental function and becoming so locked into their conception of "reality" that they are no longer able to see or hear anything that contradicts that vision.

Fantasy exists in large part because discovering new realities, knowing that they are not "the real world," is an exhilarating game -- one that I, at least, find far more rewarding than the standard literature-course games of "discover the symbols, decode the meanings, find the influences, detect the patriarchal-racist bias" or whatever game the professor is sponsoring.

But some people are simply unable to play; they have lost the faculty; it has atrophied, or stiffened up with age. I used to be able to bend my back so far I could touch the back of my head with my toes. I can't do that now. So I understand those who take no delight in fairy tales or fantasies. I pity you, but in truth, Harry Potter is not for you. Go back to reading stock reports or instruction manuals or whatever you do with your unfantastical mind.

If the capacity for finding new realities remains alive in you, or you want to rekindle it, then take on these seven volumes, for I can promise that, volume by volume, J.K. Rowling learns her craft and shapes her story so that, with the final book, she delivers a powerful climax that plays fair with the reader, fulfils all our reasonable expectations, surprises all but a few lucky guessers, and also says something important and true about the real world.

Even though Rowling does a superb job of reminding us of all the pertinent events in the previous volumes, I really think you'll be cheating yourself if you don't read all the earlier Harry Potter books first. That can seem a daunting task, especially if your experience of big thick books is, say, Tolstoy or Proust or (shudder) Hawthorne.

But these books fly by. Only in the third book, as Rowling began to spread her wings and let her story expand into a truly novelistic sensibility, will you find passages that become tedious, and in the later volumes she becomes far more economical, using the thickness of novel-writing to enrich the story rather than indulge every momentary whim.

Finally, by the end, the story becomes not just emotional but spiritual, not just moral but philosophical. It is, in fact, worthy of study and serious thought. But I won't afflict you with that here. Instead, pop in and see what I've written in other places.

Before the book came out, I wrote an essay about the character Snape which is also an oblique analysis of the fiction-writing technique of J.K. Rowling throughout the series. Find it online at http://www.Hatrack.com

Then you can see my back-and-forth with novelist Patrick Rothfuss in our take on the last Harry Potter novel and what it means to the culture that embraces it: http://blog.beliefnet.com/blogalogue/harry_potter/

Meanwhile, though, you won't see this book on the New York Times Bestseller List.

In the stupidest maneuver in the history of literary criticism, the NYT succumbed to the whining of the poor, poor "adult" authors during the era when the first three or four spots on the list were all occupied by Rowling's Harry Potter series.

They created a new "children's literature" list and ghettoized the Harry Potter novels there, which amounts to a footnote. So the supposed "newspaper of record" will now show the bestsellers of the year 2007 without any mention of the conclusion of the single largest publishing phenomenon in history.

This is so typical of the New York Times. If they think something shouldn't have happened, then by not reporting it, they make it so it didn't happen.

But it did. And by removing Harry Potter from its bestseller list, the New York Times reveals itself as the toady of the elitists.

And what will occupy the top of the list instead? James Patterson in a sad little collaboration, followed by a Nora Roberts thriller. Not until we get to Khaled Hosseini's A Thousand Splendid Suns do we get to a book that the NYT is likely to be proud to have on their list. And then there's Janet Evanovich, proving that she's incapable of having a new idea in Lean Mean Thirteen, followed by the latest Danielle Steele.

Wow. It's a good thing Harry Potter won't interfere with that!

But in a bit of irony almost too sweet to believe, what is the bottom book -- the one that would be bumped off if Harry Potter popped on? It's The Children of Hurin, by J.R.R. Tolkien.

You know what? I don't think Tolkien would have minded having a book of magical literature at the top of the list, even at the cost of pushing his own book off.

The elitists think they're helping themselves when they attack a book that everybody loves. I've read comments about how the Harry Potter books are "full of cliches" or "not real literature."

But as far as I can tell, this only proves that the critics who say such things are incompetent: They are no longer capable of reading as members of our culture. They are aliens; they have emigrated; they live in another world, and it's time for us to stop paying attention to them.

They don't know what "cliche" is -- or they wouldn't have uttered the cliche of saying that a work of popular literature is "full of cliches." They wouldn't recognize real creativity if it set up housekeeping under their kitchen table -- they are still calling "experimental" academic-literary novels that are trotting out the same experiments that were done by James Joyce and Virginia Woolf.

If you love the Harry Potter books, then you are part of the best of contemporary American literature, not because the books have sold so phenomenally well, but because they are so phenomenally good, and millions upon millions of people have recognized it.

If You Have Already Read Deathly Hallows

Wasn't it wonderful?

We got the book on our way home from the Outer Banks -- stopped at Outer Banks Books in Nags Head and then I began to read it aloud.

On impulse, though, I had also bought the audiobook, with Jim Dale reading. So when my wife got sleepy and I needed to drive, we quickly found the spot on the cds where I had left off, and Jim Dale took over.

Now, Dale is a pro and his reading was edited -- whenever he flubbed, it was removed from the recording and we only heard a smooth, perfect reading. So in that sense, my live reading could not possibly compare.

But I'm also a pretty good reader; I even do voices and accents, and I act the parts. So it's a tossup which was better -- having my family hear the book in my voice, or Jim Dale's.

He does a fine job, but he has quirks of his own. Particularly, his accent is one of those that doesn't just drop Rs, it replaces them with something painfully close to a W.

He also reads female voices -- or at least young female voices -- with a sort of lingering whine at the ends of sentences.

The combination means that whenever he reads Hermione saying, "Harry!" -- which she says a lot -- it comes out like baby talk: "Hawweeeeee." This is really unfortunate. In fact, I daresay Dale's reading of young women is the weakest part of his performance.

But that's just quibbling. No reader, however professional, is perfect; Dale is a master, and we're very lucky that the audiobooks of the Harry Potter series are all performed by him.

So ... we read or listened all the way home; then we spent the rest of Sunday reading and reading until we finally finished at 12:30 a.m. on Monday.

We were all wiping tears from our eyes, and had been off and on for the last two hours. Tears of sorrow, tears of relief, tears of joy. It's an ending that feels both satisfying and bittersweet.

Of course, some of us felt quite vindicated: Almost everything that I said about Snape, for instance, was borne out in the novel. And those who were debating whether or not Harry Potter would die -- well, Rowling found a perfectly logical and absolutely satisfying way to make both sides right. He paid the price, but then was allowed to return to life in order to receive true joy: To marry the woman he loved, and have children, and raise them among friends, and then watch them grow up and leave home.

My thirteen-year-old could hardly bear it -- like the girl in the Sally Forth cartoon, she felt lost without a new Harry Potter to look forward to. Her solution? To pull the first book off her shelves and prepare to start reading the series all over again.

I found myself doing something similar. Every time I got in my car for the past few days, I've been listening to the last three CDs of the audiobook. I read it aloud myself (pausing only to wipe my eyes), but now I wanted someone else to read it to me again, so I could listen and pay attention and catch every nuance.

There were a few disappointments -- my wife, for instance, had rather hoped Harry would become headmaster at Hogwarts. But then we realized that he was never much of a student, nor a scholar, and while he was a great Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher, that was at a time of urgent need, and as part of his rebellious streak.

No, the headmaster of Hogwarts should have been Hermione! But it was fine to have Neville be the only one who ended up a professor there.

Rowling walked a fine line, in those last few chapters. She carefully brought back everyone who mattered to us who was still alive -- Kreacher, Buckbeak; there was even a brief reference to Norbert the dragon. This was, in fact, an obvious case of supplying what she knew her readers would demand.

But that does not make it pandering. It is reasonable for readers to ask the author, "But what ever happened to ...?" Rowling, as author, has at least some degree of obligation to respond, and by including the answer to that question within the pages of the book, she spares herself endless tedious conversations about those characters in years to come.

She also walked a fine line with the characters she allowed to die. She had to show us that death was possible, so that the risks felt real. She actually made us cry over the death of Dobby the house-elf!

And when Lupin and Tonks were killed off right after the birth of their baby, I realized: This author thinks she can kill anybody!

But that was the point. If we hadn't learned the lesson from Dumbledore's death in the sixth book, we knew it now: Nobody was safe. So when we thought Harry was dead, we believed it.

Yet only for a moment, only for the turning of a page, for she did not want us to think she was trying to play tricks on us. She immediately showed us Harry, after he was dead, responding to the place he was in. And that chapter ended with perfect finesse, as Dumbledore gave an answer that should be emblazoned over the door of every literature class:

"Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?"

That's what the Harry Potter series did for me and for millions of others. We know it's only fiction; but the best fiction is true in many ways. It is true morally (which I discuss in greater detail on BeliefNet), it is true with a powerful internal logic, it is true in its assertions about human nature.

Above all, though, it is true because it was so powerfully created in my mind that it now lives in my memory with a vividness that the "real" world only occasionally approaches.

The elitists are such boneheads they think literature exists to be admired. Wrong. Literature exists to create memories so true and important that we allow them to become part of ourselves, shaping our future actions because we remember that once someone we admired did this, and someone we hated and feared did that.

Literature matters only to the degree that it shapes and changes human behavior by making the audience wish to be better because they read it.

It becomes importantly bad only to the degree that it entices the audience to revel in actions and memories that debase the culture that embraces it.

Next to that, questions of how one literary work influences other literary works, or how the manner of writing measures up to the tastes of some elite group are so trivial that you marvel that someone who went to college could ever think they mattered more.

Will There Be Another Harry Potter Book?

Rowling has already said she'll probably do a book of side stories and will donate the royalties to charity.

But what will she write now? Having completed a true masterpiece, what course will she follow?

Will she become a broken recluse, like J.D. Salinger, hiding from the world?

Will she pull a Johnny Carson, watch the world of literature with interest, but never return to the stage?

It's not as if she ever needs to work again in her life. So whatever she writes, it will not be for money.

Here are my predictions:

1. She will take years writing her first "adult" novel (because she probably believes what the elitists believe, that Harry Potter was somehow of a lesser breed because it was written in such a way as to include children in its audience).

When it comes out, it will be received with condescension by the critics. This will bother Rowling more than she is prepared, right now, to believe (right now she thinks she doesn't care). She will try again, and this second one will be savaged.

Now, if she returns to Hogwarts, she will feel as if it's a retreat, a mark of failure. So she will refuse all the more adamantly. She will even, perhaps, come to hate Harry Potter because she'll fear that this was "all that she was capable of."

Not until she reaches late middle age will she be able to reread her own books with enough perspective to say, "Good heavens, these books are very, very good. Yes, I was young, and there are flaws, but look what I brought off! No wonder people love these stories. And you know what? There are more stories to be told in this wizarding world. New menaces to face. Old mysteries to uncover. I'm going back, because if Harry Potter is the only kind of book that I can write well, then I'm a very lucky writer, and the world is lucky to have had me to write that kind of book."

2. She will realize right away that there's simply no reason not to continue writing Wizarding World stories right along with more mugglish literature. In fact, she will write an inventive new children's novel -- a standalone book, and not a very thick one -- and take delight in inventing new worlds and exploring new characters. She will also write children's books that have no fantasy in them. She will write about her own childhood in a dozen different disguises. And she won't care a bit that not a single one of them even comes close to Harry Potter in sales.

And then, when she feels like it, she'll go back to the Wizarding World again. It might be an adventure of the younger generation, "nineteen years later," or it might be a novel set in the era when the wizards first decided to go undercover and conceal themselves. Or it might be even earlier in history.

Rowling is too good -- she has learned too much -- it would be a waste if she let some longing to be acceptable to the boneheads at the New York Times and the various university English departments keep her from writing more novels that use all that she has learned from writing this massive work.

But whatever she does, there is this:

3. She has already written one of the enduring works of English literature. If that's all she writes in her life, except for little bits of this and that, it will be enough.

And every few years, I will pull out the first book -- perhaps in the edition that finally admits Americans are not idiots and restores "Philosopher's Stone" to the title -- and start it all over again. The way I do with Lord of the Rings, Foundation, Pride and Prejudice, and precious few other books.


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