If you ask me what I think of J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, my answer will likely depend on what day you ask me. Some days I’ll say I liked it; some days I’ll hate it. In all honesty, however, my feelings towards Harry Potter are best described as “confused,” because there are a lot of things I really like about the series and a lot of things I really hate. All things considered, I usually wind up mostly ambivalent towards Rowling’s best-known work.
One of my biggest problems with the Harry Potter series is the lack of a consistent tone. The stories get gradually darker until about halfway through the series, at which point she abruptly changes her target audience from children to teenagers. As one might imagine if one gives this even a small amount of thought, this shift may have worked in the context of a series that’s still being written, but it’s quite harmful to the longevity of a series.
Whether a conscious decision or not, Rowling’s tone-shift allowed her to keep up with a generation of fans who were growing ever nearer to adulthood; the stories became darker as their target audience grew older. Having a story grow with the age of its initial fanbase is an interesting idea. To my knowledge, no one else has tried this, and there’s a very good reason for that; it’s because it’s a short-sighted move. When future generations start reading these stories from the beginning, they’re not going to wait a year before starting the next book; they’re going to start as soon as they can get their hands on it. The consequence of this is that when the tone changes mid-series, those who’ve become invested in the tone of the first three books will be jarred out of that investment.
Many stories grow darker as they progress, but this is almost never a conscious decision, and it is therefore a gradual process. In such cases the target audience doesn’t change. In Harry Potter, the change happens on a dime around the end of Book Four, alienating anyone who enjoyed the previous three books. It is therefore possible to divide the Harry Potter series into three distinct groups: the children’s books (consisting of the first three books); those directed at an older audience (consisting of the last three books); and book four, an outlier in that either audience might enjoy it equally (though not so thoroughly as they might their own division).
I feel Rowling’s decision to change her books’ audience to have been ill-conceived, not least because many adults enjoyed best the first three books. I also feel the quality of the series peaked with Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets and then began to decline sharply with Order of the Phoenix.
Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone
The first book in the series was, in my opinion, really good. Colourful characters, an enjoyable tone with sufficient darkness, and an interesting world-within-a-world all made The Philosopher’s Stone a really good children’s book for both kids and adults. Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry was, at this point in the series, a fantastic—if not altogether original—setting. It’s the little details at which Rowling excels, from the floating candles to the food on the table to the frankly ridiculous games her characters enjoy. That’s not to say there weren’t problems, but they weren’t at all noticeable unless one was searching for them.
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
My favourite out of the books in the series was the second, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, because I consider it to be the best-structured of the seven books, with all its compelling sub-plots coming together in the climax. All the first book’s strengths remain, as well as a greater sense of stakes, an unforgettable Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher, and an even better climax with the hero of the story fighting a giant snake with an ancient sword.
Sadly this is also where some of the big problems started. Harry’s treatment of the house-elf Dobby carries some unpleasant implications, as does Rowling’s decision to use comedically the idea of a slave being forced by his masters to inflict self-harm. Harry tricking Lucius Malfoy into freeing Dobby at the end was, on the surface, a good scene, but the implication that it is a reward for his help rather than an act in defence of his rights tainted it somewhat.
Despite my mixed feelings about the books and films, the Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets video game is a masterpiece.
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
Prisoner of Azkaban, unsurprisingly, was also really good, considered by many to be the best of the series. It certainly introduces some of the most interesting characters. My favourite part is the Marauders’ backstory, told by said interesting characters. And who could forget the dementors? The climax, in spite of the typically mental time-travel logic, was also great.
Unfortunately Prizoner of Azkaban’s quality suffers somewhat as a result of its context concerning the later books in the series. You see, the first three books are essentially stand-alone stories, whereas the last four tell a continuous story divided only by the summer holiday. The problem with this is that Prisoner of Azkaban doesn’t really serve that much of a purpose when it comes to serving the greater story. All it really does is introduce some great new characters… who won’t really have much to do with the plot henceforth. In fact, apart from Wormtail resurrecting Voldemort in the following book, these characters all die without having contributed much.
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
Goblet of Fire is where the series starts to go off, although much of it is enjoyable. Things like the Unforgivable Curses are introduced here, which makes me wonder whether Rowling hadn’t thought them up till this point; this would prove to be the beginning in a series of ideas that she should have introduced earlier than she did. This is not to say that the book wasn’t a fun read, but the problems with this one were more noticeable than any problems with the previous three.
Among a number of other problems I won’t get into, Goblet of Fire also saw the return of Dobby, which I will elaborate on later in this article. The climax, although by no means terrible, did end in somewhat of a deus ex machina that could have been prevented by a brief Mad-Eye Moody lecture on Priori Incantatem. I didn’t think Amos Diggory casting a vaguely similar spell on Harry’s wand at the beginning to show it was possible was enough to excuse this.
Of course, this was the one in which Voldemort returned, and here was where the more-or-less episodic nature of the books changed to a more epic style, something I think worked against the books in the end.
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
Order of the Phoenix was my least-favourite of the series. In spite of its status as the longest, so far as I could tell it was mostly filler. Luna Lovegood is introduced out of bloody nowhere and, despite her being a likeable character, it would have been nice to know she existed at least a book or two before she suddenly became important. This fifth book serves almost as the “calm before the storm,” but the consequence is that said calm isn’t especially interesting.
The Death of Sirius
The only thing of note that happens in Order of the Phoenix is that Sirius dies at the end, having done very little in the story, all told. His death scene is a bit confusing where the “Veil” is concerned, and the character of Bellatrix (the one who kills him) had only been properly introduced several pages ago.
Another problem is that everyone in the story has, with this fifth book, become inexplicably stupid. Every decision they make is so thick-headed that it’s hard not to hate Harry for everything that goes wrong, particularly as he causes the death of a character far more interesting than himself.
The prophecy that is revealed at the end of the book seemed like it might be leading to a great twist at the end of the series, but it didn’t. Aside from this, I found the half-poetic nature of it slightly irritating; it’s far from the best-written prophecy I’ve read. Aside from its composition, the prophecy reveals at once too much and too little in many of the wrong ways, making it difficult to care about many of the dangers Harry will face in later books.
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
Half-Blood Prince was better than Order of the Phoenix—way better. Dumbledore taking Harry under his wing was a breath of fresh air after the great deal of nothing in the previous book. Most of the sub-plots were interesting, particularly Harry and Dumbledore searching various memories for clues about the horcruxes and unearthing Voldemort’s fascinating backstory in the process. Especially when compared with Order of the Phoenix, Half-blood Prince was compelling, and of the later books it’s quite possibly the best.
The problems with this one are relatively small compared to those of the fifth book. The trend of putting Harry’s importance above the lives of all others continues, summed up with the line, “Your blood is far more precious than mine,” and it becomes annoying at times.
Ron and Hermione
Then there are the people who said that Harry, and not Ron, should have ended up with Hermione. I really hate agreeing with these people (especially after the idiotic “Zu-tara” relation-shipping craze), but in this case they were actually right! Ginny isn’t a character; she’s a prop. In fact, the only female character with whom Harry has a real friendship is Hermione. Aside from that, the Ron of these later books has increasingly become an unlikeable asshole, especially as he mocks Hermione for actually having a moral compass and seems to betray Harry at every opportunity. As much as I hate agreeing with “shippers” like this, Harry and Hermione really should have ended up together, and Ron should have been left at the mercy of some dementors or something!
But again I must say that these problems don’t prevent Half-Blood Prince from being an enjoyable read. The plot is compelling enough, the backstory is interesting, and the death at the end is far better-handled than the previous one.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
As I said in an article on the worst book I’ve ever read, I tend to lose respect for modern authors who employ the tired device of killing a main character’s pet. J. K. Rowling begins Deathly Hallows, the grand finale, by doing just that. As I’ve said before, it’s predictable, manipulative, and requires no skill to pull off. I also can’t help but wonder how this would have gone over with the audience of the earlier books.
A Fun Read
Fortunately, Deathly Hallows has more plot than Order of the Phoenix and Half-Blood Prince put together, and most of the time it’s a fun and compelling read in spite of its flaws. As usual, the best parts are the backstory, whether it’s learning about Dumbledore’s history with Grindelwald or seeing Snape’s childhood through his memories. By far my favourite part was the Tale of the Three Brothers, a children’s fable of the Wizarding World. It’s in little stories like this that Rowling’s talent really shines, and I loved how the tale payed homage to Chaucer’s The Pardoner’s Tale.
There are, in my opinion, a lot of things to like about this final volume. Deathly Hallows is very different from Order of the Phoenix in that where the fifth book has one or two really big things wrong with it, the seventh novel has many much smaller problems. I would say that, along with a great deal more things happening, Deathly Hallows has the most individual things wrong with it of any of the books. By Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the genre is completely detached from that of the first book.
I mentioned earlier the manipulative death of Hedwig the owl, but she is far from the only death in this bloodiest of the series. This wouldn’t be a problem if the deaths were even a tenth of what might be considered Boromir-quality, but they make Rowling seem rather lazy. She uses the deaths of background characters as a way to get an emotional response without doing much work. Some of these background props, despite serving little purpose to the plot, are markedly more interesting than the main characters, and the story gets less interesting as each leaves it.
Rowling’s background characters are props—colourful and entertaining props, but props nonetheless. Still she treats them as though they warrant proper character status. This would be all well and good had they sufficient impact on more important characters, but even Fred Weasley’s death impacts Ron far less than it should. In fact, I would go so far as to suggest that the Ron Weasley before his brother’s death is the same one we see mere hours afterward. Indeed, with a history like Ron’s, I’m surprised it didn’t lead to his betraying Harry again.
Killed to Compensate
There’s a bit in Order of the Phoenix where Ron’s father, Arthur Weasley, almost dies. Originally Rowling had intended to kill him off, but she decided to spare him for various reasons. To “compensate,” she decided to kill off Remus and Nymphadora near the end of the last book. Alright; to “compensate”? This sort of thinking should not be what drives a story. In most cases, characters should be killed off either to drive the development of other characters (as with Boromir), to move the plot forward (as with Boromir), or to drive home a point (as with Thorin, Kíli, and Fíli). Dumbledore’s death in Half-Blood Prince was the best in the series because it had a clear impact on the plot.
“I’ve Always Thought…”
It is in this book that we finally learn about Dumbledore’s dark past with the evil wizard Grindelwald. Rowling later revealed in an interview…
“I always thought of Dumbledore as gay. Dumbledore fell in love with Grindelwald, and that that added to his horror when Grindelwald showed himself to be what he was.”
Then you should have included that in the book! That would have been awesome! Seriously, even ignoring that this might have made her massive readership more accepting of people’s differences, the relationship’s romantic nature would have made Dumbledore all the more interesting as a character. I cannot imagine why she chose not to put this in the book, but the decision deprives his character of that depth.
I also thought the character of Severus Snape, arguably Rowling’s best character, was wasted somewhat. As with many of Rowling’s best characters, you never learn Severus’s true motivations until after he’s dead—something that has become repetitive by this point. The problem with waiting till a character’s died is that by the time you find out what motivated them, they can no longer directly impact the plot. Perhaps this would be alright occasionally, but Rowling has made a habit of it.
Begging for a Twist
Speaking of characters being wasted, there’s Neville Longbottom to think about. This goes beyond Neville just being an interesting character who wasn’t used much; that’s all normal for these stories. When I spoke of Order of the Phoenix, I said that the prophecy seemed to be leading to a great twist. Well, that’s because there were two people who fit the criteria to be the Chosen One: Harry Potter and Neville Longbottom. When Neville pulled the sword out of the hat, I thought that finally that seed would bear fruit, but all Neville did was behead one horcrux—not bad, but I feel it was a missed opportunity to defy expectations. Instead, Harry returned from the dead and killed Voldemort himself as a contrived christ-figure.
Goblet of Fire onward, Harry has never gotten past a book’s climax without an unexpected deus ex machina saving his arse at the last minute, and I had hoped that he would, in the final battle, finally win due to his own strengths. Imagine my disappointment when, as I just mentioned, Harry comes back from the dead and I have no idea why!
The return of Gandalf in The Two Towers was explained well enough that I wasn’t confused. The explanation for Harry Potter’s unlikely survival, on the other hand, is both convoluted and non-existent. I would love it if someone could explain it to me, because I have absolutely no idea what was going on in that chapter. And why is Harry given the choice of whether to return to life or to board some spirit-train and die? Either he is dead or he isn’t!
The Unforgivable Curses
A less serious problem, yet one that irritated me a great deal, was that Rowling has made a huge deal of Harry being forced to use the three Unforgivable Curses over the course of the series. In Order of the Phoenix, following Sirius’s death, Harry tries to use the Cruciatus curse on Bellatrix Lestrange. In this book, a big deal is made of his using the Imperius curse for the first time, and then the Cruciatus—this time successfully. It all seemed to be building up to the final duel, where Harry would of course be forced to use the final curse, Avada Kedavra, on Voldemort… except that he didn’t! All this buildup goes nowhere, and Harry just shouts, “Expelliarmus!” which does the job, for some reason. I found this thoroughly unsatisfying.
The Flaw in the Plan
Another problem I have with Deathly Hallows is that Dumbledore seemingly had an unbeatable plan, and everything proceeded according to that plan. All the examples are in this last book. Somehow he knew how every character would react to every situation that he somehow knew would befall them. This makes the climax quite a let-down as there was no way Voldemort could have been victorious. To worsen matters, almost every important sub-plot is abandoned on the spot the moment Voldemort dies by his own curse.
Had Neville turned out to be the chosen one or if the end of the story had been more like BBC’s Merlin, I could have forgiven almost all of the problems with this series. But the ending the author gave us was nothing special and gave no new meaning to any prior events.
Epilogue: Nineteen Years Later
I stand by what I said; Deathly Hallows is a fun read despite its flaws. The saccharine epilogue, however, is notoriously stupid! Everyone makes fun of this bit, and they’re entirely justified in doing so. The way-too-perfect future that Rowling’s surviving characters enjoy feels especially out of place after having just seen almost every interesting character slaughtered only a few pages ago. Who married whom and how many kids they had is not the sort of thing that belongs in the epilogue; that’s what an appendix is for.
Slavery Isn’t Funny!
I said earlier that the inconsistent tone was one of my biggest problems with the series. Well, my biggest problem with it is Rowling’s attempt to play slavery for laughs. For all the good things about Chamber of Secrets, the one big problem was the house-elf Dobby. House-elves are creatures permanently enslaved to their wizard masters. They have virtually no rights and may be abused without consequence; it’s basically like what the Americans did little more than a century ago, only it’s supposedly going on right under our noses in the nineties—because that’s funny, right?
Unlike when the Americans had slaves, in Rowling’s world of “childlike wonder” there has never been a single witch or wizard to question the rightness of owning house-elves as lifelong slaves to be beaten at one’s leisure—not even the great Harry Potter, who stopped at freeing just one. There were always people fighting to end American slavery, but not in the Wizarding World—the world Rowling sets so far apart from the abuse of the Dursleys.
The Society for the Protection of Elfish Welfare
The only character who thinks there might be something wrong with this is the muggle-born Hermione, and it’s made perfectly clear she’s the only person who’s ever had any problem with the way house elves are treated… ever! The fact that she’s essentially an outsider, having not been born to wizards, is used to imply that she’s naïve—that things are more complicated in the magical world. To any normal person reading this, Hermione is the heroine here, trying to organize the Society for the Protection of Elfish Welfare (S.P.E.W.).
Everyone—from her classmates to the author herself—reacts to S.P.E.W. with mild amusement, because we’re meant to believe she’s taking the issue too seriously—as though this were some laughable grass-roots “save-the-wheat grass!” crusade or a protest against the violence in wizard’s chess. Even the acronym “S.P.E.W.” is a bloody joke, because the idea that slavery is wrong is something to laugh at, apparently! But it’s slavery—SLAVERY!
“They Like Being Enslaved”
But what does the ever-compassionate Hagrid have to say about all this?
“It would be doing them an unkindness, Hermione. It’s in their nature to look after humans; that’s what they like, see. You’d be making them unhappy to take away their work, and insulting them if you tried to pay them!”
Yes, the house-elves are indeed as happy with their lot as a plantation-owner would have had you believe his slaves were. As Ron succinctly put it, “they like being enslaved!” Even our “hero” Harry Potter owns a slave, and no one bats a bloody eye. If the sorcerers in Merlin were as repulsive as the wizards in Harry Potter, then I’d be firmly on Uther’s side!
When I think about the books’ portrayal of slavery, I cannot help but be shocked that I don’t hate the series. I think, however, that the author simply didn’t think through the implications of anything she wrote; she had no idea what she was doing when it came to these issues. Rowling claims to have had the series planned out from the beginning, and I honestly don’t believe her. I think she had a rough outline, but there’s so little continuity between the first books and the later ones that I feel sure that this plan changed suddenly when she was halfway through the series.
The Potential for Greatness
In each of the seven books there were some great moments; even Order of the Phoenix had the Room of Requirement. Even as the end of the story drew near, I think the series had the potential for greatness, but I feel it fell short of what it could have been. Still, the first three books were, for the most part, really good—a part of me wishes she’d stopped at three.
In the end, I’m ambivalent towards the Harry Potter series. I don’t much like it, but I don’t dislike it either. I just think it’s something to be learned from—perhaps as a cautionary tale.