Friday, June 22, 2012

Why Harry Potter is a Terrible Series


In modern fantasy fiction, there are essentially two prototypes of approach; that of Lord of the Rings and that of Narnia.  Not that every work will copy one of these or be like one or the other or any other generalization that pedants will feel the need to scold me for, but that there's two basic, classic approaches to fantasy worlds.

The Narnian approach is simple, and usually followed by children's books.  There's some hidden land of fantasy magic, it gets discovered, and you go on a fun tour through your imagination.  It's almost an extended dream sequence.  There's trolls and goblins and witches and elves and fairies and satyrs and... and it goes on.  The magical creatures are there because they are magical creatures and this is a magical world.  Nothing is really supposed to make sense, so much as present a fun escape from boring reality.  The narrative space of the story is just a big bag for holding mythical creatures.  It's fun.  You're supposed to feel wonder at all the incredible surroundings, and not really think about why Medusa moved to New England and why no one has called the cops for missing persons.

It's pleasant, and there's nothing wrong with it.


The other approach was largely introduced by Tolkien, and that is of world-building.  The author completely reinvents the world.  Different continents, different history, different cultures, etc.  If there are magical creatures, they were put in the mythical country when the ancient warlock Grumgould raised them to battle against the forces of light, they were driven underground by the king's armies, and the townsfolk still fear them.  Point is, everything has a place, and is supposed to make sense, and is supposed to fit together.  You are supposed to ask why Medusa moved to New England, because the author has a very clever backstory that he will introduce slowly and subtly throughout the books.

This is typically aimed more at adults, and is considered more sophisticated, probably because it can go wrong.  It's supposed to make sense, and if it doesn't then it is bad.

Harry Potter is a terrible series because the author took the first type of fantasy and forced it to be the second type.

Basically, Harry Potter was first conceived as a children's book, and as such fits the Narnian mold perfectly.  Harry learns he's a wizard, goes to a school full of wizards, and is filled with amazement and wonder at all the magic around him.  There are ghosts in the school because ghosts are magical and the school is magical.  The stairs move because they're magic stairs in a magic school.  Centaurs live in the woods because they're magic in a magic woods in a magic school.  Hogwarts is again just a big bag for holding magical stuff.  It's not supposed to make sense.  The reader, through the blank of Harry Potter, is supposed to escape and journey through strange things and meet strange creatures and have fun.  If you smile while imagining a flying motorcycle, then the book has done its job.

If the series had stayed there, it would have been fine.  It would have been a silly and fun story about love and courage and friendship.

But as the readership grew up, the author did something novel, which was she instead wrote later books for the 15-year-olds who read her first books when they were 10-year-olds.  And it kept creeping up.  Most of the people waiting in line for the later books were in college.  Because the audience kept getting older, the novels tried to become more mature, and so ended up shoving Hogwarts in to a serious world-building-type fantasy where it was never intended to be.

It then invites serious fantasy readers to appraise Harry Potter at a deeper level, where it has no hope of standing.

That is why it is bad.
College of Malicious Architecture

Example:
Q: "Why do the stairs in the school move around?"
A: "Because they're magic stairs in a magic school."
Q: "But why did they make the stairs to purposefully inconvenience everyone inside the school?  Why do they not magically stop the stairs from moving, and why did anyone ever make stairs to magically make kids late to class in the first place?  That doesn't seem like an intelligible design feature in the top school in the world.  It does absolutely no good and a great deal of bad.  At the best, you can say the stairs are mildly annoying; but then considering how totally senseless their existence and operation and how much easier it would be to not have moving stairs, it really seems like the stairs were an intentionally malicious invention.  Who made them, why did he do this in the first place, did he get fired, why haven't they fixed it?"

That's just the stairs.  That's just one page of the first book.  A single simple example that I made up while writing this.  I could list a dozen more things, but I will stick to the stairs.

Now, the first book was a kids' book and the stairs move because it's fun.  And maybe it isn't fair to apply an adult-book lens to the first books.  But the stairs still move in later books!  Because they moved in the first book.  And that isn't even the problem!  If some brilliant wizard decides to fix the stairs in place in a later book, the later book is an adult book, and so is supposed to present a consistent history to everything.  What reason is given for the wizard doing that now and only now?  Why didn't the wizard do that twenty years ago, before the events of the story?  Why (in the later book) did they build these stupid stairs at all?

That's why it's bad.  She made a world where she didn't have to make sense, so it didn't.  Then she tried to force the world to make sense, and it still doesn't.  She removed the "it's for children" excuse she rightfully had at first, and was left with a world of characters who have no conception of their own universe.  The masters of the school have first years late to class the entire first month every year because of moving stairs and never bother to think "wait a minute... there's no reason for stairs to move at all!"

For more trashing of Harry Potter, please see the links below:
The Sorting Hat is a Jerk
Harry Potter and the Sorcerers Who Don't Understand Magic
Harry Potter and the Council of Rejects
Actually, the World is Split in to Good People and Death Eaters
The Ending that Would Have Made Harry Potter

19 comments:

Anonymous said...

I'm going to assume you've read Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality. I'd say the material is interesting enough where it's fun to apply world-building principles to the series.

RosieP said...

[quote]If the series had stayed there, it would have been fine. It would have been a silly and fun story about love and courage and friendship.[/quote]


Then the HARRY POTTER series would have been stuck in a one-note style. Harry Potter and his friends cannot remain 11-12 years old forever. Even the characters from the NARNIA series had no choice but to grow up.

I have no problem with what J.K. Rowling had attempted to do. I think she did it with some success. But her attempts were not always perfect.

Davis said...

You are right. I´ve tried to read the first book, but found it too silly at my 19 years old. Then, found hard to believe that this silliness could be tampered in the following (and more "mature") books. And I was right. In the books OR the movies, HP is just an overrated, senseless and childish fantasy story.

leostation Fact said...

The problem really is there is absolutely no originality in her stories. She rips off fantasy that's come before, repackages and markets the bejesus out of it...and makes millions. It's a great example of our modern dumbed-down culture where a fraud like Rowling can be such a "success" peddling such brainless tripe. What a sorry state of affairs.

Anonymous said...

Welcome to literally everything written ever. There are people who try to be totally original, and then nobody can understand what the hell they wrote.

Oh and maybe spend less time insulting writers and more time maybe developing YOUR OWN writing, as you clearly want to do, and then maybe you wouldn't be such a miserable specimen of a human being since you'd actually be accomplishing something.

And no, this isn't who you think it is, LEO. It's no one who's ever spoken to you before. I just have better things to do than have you follow me around for years DEMANDING that I kiss your ass. Ta.

Unknown said...

What you on about?!!!! Harry Potter is the best thing that ever happened to us. How dare you!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said...

Harry potter is great
Harry needs to grow up, he cant stay 11 years old for the entire series plus it would get boring after 3 books of that happy evrything is prfect bullshit

TomerF said...

What the writer of the article says is that the books fail to grow up properly.

TomerF said...

I dunno. I still like Harry Potter, while I also understand what you're saying and I think I kind of agree with it, except that it makes the Harry Potter universe bad. Dunno, maybe I'm ludicrously biased, maybe I'm a manchild, maybe I'm just outright dumb. But I still like Harry Potter. And I had trouble with LotR, where it took me about two years to get to a bit after the hobbits left Dale with Aragorn. I don't know. Maybe I have awful taste. But at least as of now that's the way it is for me.

Spottedfeather said...

Harry Potter is NOT fantasy.

Juan Pablo Gonzalez said...

Then what is it? historical fiction?

Anonymous said...

I agree that Harry Potter has terrible world building, but your conception of what world building is a little skewed, I think.
The main goal of world building is to make a story believable and immersive. Good world building doesn't necessarily need to be crazy complex; It simply stems from setting rules and following them. This isn't a great example, but I could create a world where there are fish living in the sky. Even if there's no origin, if I set rules for myself that they swim just like fish in water do and suck clouds in through their gills for food, all we have to do is follow those rules always and write around them, and the world building is sufficient for storytelling. The whys are optional if you want them to be- you can get into it if you want and it can add a lot to a story, but it's not crucial. You can still have structure without it, and both C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien have these fundamental consistencies in their worlds, even if Tolkien's is more extensive.
The biggest reason that J. K. Rowling's world building is bad is that she never set any rules for her world or her magic system or anything- seems to me that it's all spur-of-the-moment stuff, and it's built around plot convenience. Having magic stairs would be fine, even if they didn't make sense logically, as long as there were set rules for magic that the stairs followed.

Reece said...

Admittedly the stair example is one of my weaker points about Harry Potter. I think so far my strongest case was in my more recent post, What Do Wizards Even Do.

Your point about anything going if the rules are followed is well-taken, and actually reminds me of the excellent novel Ring of Truth by David Lake.

I think my point here isn't that the stairs don't follow rules. Even granting they do, the character motivations don't make any sense. Someone had to build the stairs. Characters in Harry Potter often act as though they just don't understand magic, or have any awareness of their own world, and the professors of the school not stopping the stairs violates the basic rule of common sense.

So while it is true the magic worldbuilding is bad, it's also bad that the characters are totally oblivious to their own surroundings.

Anonymous said...

whoever reads this will get raped

Reece said...

Here I am, reading it.

Bokonon said...

I think the design of Quidditch is a major problem that is also ok in a children's book, but falls apart when you try to look at it in a way that is consistent. Sure, the point is to make Harry an unusually important first yes student. Unfortunately, since the game can really only end when the Snitch is caught (outside of teams agreeing to end the match) AND the value of the Snitch is 15x that of a goal, the rest of the game seems rather pointless. It actually resembles the types of imaginary sporting events I'd create as a child (I had one which utilized a bouncing golf ball on my sidewalk. I was Olympic champion).

Anonymous said...

Harry Potter is a great series, it’s my favourite book. When it was needed J.K. Rowling brought sadness that was enough to make me cry, but why? By reading every book I built a bond with the characters. You said why do the stairs move, because it’s magic, everything about Hogwarts is magical, mystical and whimsical, the stairs were built by the founders, with the rest of hogwarts. Their is rules for magic too, search them ( Hermione mentioned them is the 7th book. Jk Rowling did not copy her world from someone else, she created it and it grew to be one of the best franchises ever, it made more than a billion dollars to J.K. Rowling, she could be swimming in gold if she had not donated the money to charity.

Reece said...

The characters are mostly fine. But there are far more recognizably-bad books that also have well-developed characters you form a bond with. Writing relatable characters is an important part of good writing, but it's not the only part of good writing.

Another part of good writing is to have characters interact with their world in ways that imply they understand their own universe.

I realize the stairs are magical. I was never questioning the means of locomotion, as if I was confused on whether they ran on steam or electricity.

I use the stairs only as a simple and readily available example of how the story, which begins as a whimsical fantasy, is later crippled in its attempts to mature due to how it opens.

Why do the stairs move? As you said: "everything about Hogwarts is magical, mystical and whimsical"

This makes sense in the first book, because it's a book written for ten-year-olds. The purpose of the entire first half of Book 1 is to delight the readers with images of a magical school. Nothing makes sense because it's not supposed to.

The later books, like Book 7 as you mention, do want to make sense, and try to introduce laws of magic and explain why the wizarding world is as it is. They want to paint a world, different from ours, but one real enough we could step into it.

So, within the context of Book 7, where there are laws of magic, where Dumbledore accidentally killed his own sister in a wizard duel, where Voldemort was the abandoned child of a rich muggle and wretched hateful witch mother born out of a love charm, where people are being tortured to death in cellars, where wizards can fracture their souls with murder and store the pieces in magical objects, where Neville Longbottoms' parents are locked inside of an insane asylum after the terrible results of a torture curse, and where also mystical, magical, whimsical stairs at the fanciful magical school, why did the headmasters in charge of building Hogwarts decide to waste a single breath of effort to enchant the stairs so that they randomly move around, doing nothing more than inconveniencing the students and making all the first-years become terribly lost and late to class?

I understand they move by magic, and that it's whimsical.

Why did the guy who built the school decide to use his magic powers to make students tardy to class? What was his though process?

I admit the stairs point isn't the strongest point. This particular post is the one that comes up when people search for Harry Potter criticism, but I think I've made much stronger criticisms in other posts.

So here's another, stronger criticism: why are there so many ways for wizards to get around?

A wizard can take a magical train, fly on a broom, instantly teleport with flu powder, instantly teleport with a port key, take the magical bus, or instantly teleport by Aparating.

There are three distinct ways to instantly teleport to anywhere on the planet... and also a bus to help wizards get around? And also a train to carry them to and from school? And also they have to learn to ride brooms?

The reason these all exist in the same society can only be explained in terms of the author not planning out how it would affect her world that already included a magical train, flu powder, and a knight bus, if also every adult wizard was capable of instantly teleporting to anywhere in the world using only his or her mind.

Each form of transportation is introduced for the "magical whimsy" effect; but now we have a universe where wizards would lay railroad tracks hundreds of miles across England, wasting resources and potentially exposing the wizard children to Muggle eyes, when they can also instantly teleport all the students to Hogsmeade by saying a word and throwing a pinch of powder.

In summary: yes, it's whimsical magic, and it hobbles the later books when they attempt to mature beyond the original audience.