J. K. Rowling’s first three books about boy wizard Harry Potter are masterpieces of children’s literature, fantasy literature, mystery literature, and maybe even just-plain-literature.
But then a funny thing happened. The escalating success of the series skyrocketed with the release of the third book and the franchise suddenly become a worldwide phenomenon. A desperately poor single mother who once wrote in the hope of putting food on the table was now a multi-millionaire. There was just one small problem: she had planned seven books, so there were still four to write, even though her incentive was totally gone.
Amazingly, she did manage to bang out the final four anyway. The resulting books were still excellent but could not match the artistry of the first three. They were still filled with brilliant ideas, strong characters and a clear moral vision, but they lacked her earlier storytelling mastery. In honor of the upcoming conclusion of the movie adaptation series, this week will be an epic look back at what could have been done to snap those later stories into better shape.
But let’s start by reviewing what made the first three books so great:
- Rowling’s greatest gift is her understanding of how children think, which never flags through all seven novels. Her mix of internal feelings with external interactions, which every novelist struggles to balance correctly, is absolutely perfect. She shows a very real and clear-eyed understanding of all relationships, amongst children, amongst adults, and especially between the two.
- Some critics deride the “derivativeness” of Rowling’s fantasy world, but they were missing the point. This is very intentionally a postmodern synthesis of many pre-existing mythologies into one master narrative that manages to re-create the appeal of each original myth while also slyly commenting on how we use these stories—both how they help us and how they hurt us.
- The most under-acknowledged reason for the enormous appeal of the first three books is that they are masterfully plotted “play fair” mysteries (ones in which the reader sees the necessary clues to solve the mystery, but still can’t quite figure it out). It is hard to overstate just how rare this is. There are thousands of mystery novels published every year, but most of them do not have satisfying mystery plots. None of the great hard-boiled detective novelists knew how to put a play-fair mystery together. Rowling does.
- But the mysteries aren’t merely satisfying on their own. Rowling’s true genius in the first three books is her ability to marry plot and theme into one unified whole. Like Dostoyevsky, she is tackling weighty real-world philosophical debates by transforming them into crime stories, and the solution to the crime makes a definitive statement about that moral dilemma (without quite “solving” it).
- And like Arthur Conan Doyle, who slyly promoted his progressive politics through seemingly frivolous entertainments, Rowling manages to address several large real-world evils. She does this by showing all the little ways that festering evils within a nation manifest themselves with little consequences everywhere. At a time when our “great novelists” have grown tepid about acknowledging the existence of evil, Rowling sees it and illuminates it in all its banality and complexity.
Very cool series of posts! I think the HP books get better and better with each one (book 5 is my favorite), but I love what you're doing anyway. I'm looking forward to your analysis! :)
I completely agree! Though I think part of the problem is she didn't get the ruthless editing she should have after she was famous.
I stopped reading after the third book just because the 4th looks so huge. I thought Book 1 was simply brilliant in every way.
I am very eager to hear your take on the last 4 books.
Oh, "play fair" is exactly the right way to describe what needs to take place in a mystery and how true that even the famous and widely read mystery authors don't do it well.
You are SO being copied, Matt! Tor.com is fully stealing your idea!!
Oh, well. The more people deconstructing the merrier, I guess...
Thank you for explaining why the mystery elements work so nicely. I firmly believe the books should be read before watching the movies, because the movies give away the mystery ending without adding a great deal to the story.
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