Tinker, tailor, author, wizard

Christopher Hitchens is quite right in considering the Harry Potter novels, not in the fantasy genre, but in the tradition of British boarding-school novels.

He just didn't go far enough ... to notice precisely which boarding-school novels Rowling's series has come to echo.

Twists tangle "Harry"

by Jerome Weeks
June 23, 2003
The Dallas Morning News

A predictable mistake that moviemakers have made in adapting the Harry Potter books has been Hollywood bloat.

Part of the appeal of J. K. Rowling's original book was its British cozyness -- look at the plodding, old Ford Anglia the boys fly around in. This made the magic more amusing; it gave it charm. As much as Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone was an adventure about wizards, it was a wry spoof of boarding schools and stuffy British home life.

Hogwarts might have been full of Sorting Hats and centaurs, but it was still identifiable as the kind of dusty educational institution similar to the hilarious Llanabba Castle School, Wales, in Evelyn Waugh's Decline and Fall. The movieland Hogwarts, however, soared like a cathedral crossed with a Saturn 5, and every cavernous nook was crammed with digitalized giants and ghosts.

As her projected septology has continued, Ms. Rowling herself has greatly expanded her fictional universe, even as her books have exploded in popularity. Her fifth novel, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, was released after midnight Saturday as the biggest event in publishing history.

But unlike Hollywood, which just cranks up the size and gadgetry -- recall what the movies did to James Bond -- Ms. Rowling has been complicating things. In Phoenix, Potter's world lurches toward outright war as Voldemort assembles his evil army, and Ms. Rowling has stuffed in more creatures and plot twists.

Sometimes, too many. At 870 pages, Phoenix feels about 150 pages too long. Ms. Rowling would not be the first megaselling novelist to need a strong editor. What's more, every scene, it seems, must end with an ominous turn. Obviously, this is used for narrative suspense, but it comes to feel mechanical, a predictable prodding.

Still, it's her inventiveness that is Ms. Rowling's chief talent -- that and her ability to darken this fairy-tale world. As everyone must know, someone dies in Phoenix -- a more significant figure than the one who died in Goblet of Fire. And Harry himself, while still good-natured, now acts more like a typical teenage male, resentful and sarcastic and baffled by girls.

But as this world has expanded -- from just one wizard prep school to several competing schools plus giants in the Alps and an entire Ministry of Magic -- it has also changed. Ms. Rowling has happily borrowed bits from various sources along the way, but originally, Harry Potter was something of a Luke Skywalker hero: young orphan discovers he has special powers and must lead the battle against a dark lord.

Star Wars, however, ultimately follows an American myth: Rebel upstarts defeat an empire. The Harry Potter books have been increasingly following a more British narrative. Strip away all of the magic and monsters, and consider: We're at a British prep school, and there's a colossal but secretive struggle going on, one that involves government bureaucracies and one that might break out into open war. It has even come inside the school, pitting different teachers and students against each other. But often, they don't even know who is on which side. So there are spies and turncoats, and the struggle is often advanced through disguises, clues and long-range schemes.

In other words, Harry is caught in the Cold War, schoolboy world of John le Carre's espionage novels (Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy; The Honourable Schoolboy and even Murder of Quality) -- particularly in the way le Carre has used the history of the infamous Cambridge University spy ring of Kim Philby, Anthony Burgess et al.

That is why Harry's universe has seemed darker and more threatening lately -- and more worrisome to parents. It's not a character's death or Harry going through puberty. It's because Harry is in a world of moles, secret recruiters and teachers with hidden agendas.

He's being schooled about deceit and betrayal and fanaticism.

[It would certainly be interesting if someone made a Harry Potter film that took an Ipcress File or Alec Guinness/BBC/Smiley's People approach to the Rowling books. After all, the Len Deighton and le Carre novels and TV series were once known as the "anti-James Bond" for their quiet, tense, dark, understated feel for espionage (and the spy thriller). Consider just this coincidence/similarity: Harry Palmer (the agent Michael Caine plays in the films) as a grown-up version of Harry Potter. Potter/Palmer. Both of them even wear nerdy black glass frames].

copyright, 2003, The Dallas Morning News

August 13, 2007 9:07 AM | | Comments (3)



I thought Hitchens' review was rambling and had no point. I couldn't tell if he liked the book or hated it. But then, that's the way it is with him, isn't it?

Oh, I'm not recommending anyone read the whole Rowling oeuvre. Sweet Jebus, no. It really does get thuddingly predictable/mechanical 'round about Book 4. I'd suggest reading the first one, then skipping quite a few, maybe trying Book 4 or 5, and then heading straight for the end -- which, I confess, I haven't read yet myself. But even in Books 5 & 6, Rowling has to summarize so much, filling in the back story for anyone who hasn't kept up, that you needn't really plow through all of 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6.

Book 6, by the way, is the one that's clearly influenced by 9/11 and the London subway bombings -- the sense of tension and double-dealing that I point out in Book 5 as a Cold War echo gets rapidly updated into the huddled, frightened citizens of Book 6, fearful of attacks, fearful of the Ministry of Magic's own possible corruption or ineffectuality when it comes to, ah, homeland security.

All right, I'm one of maybe five people in the entire world who haven't read this series yet. *sigh* I swear I'll get around to it yet. This definitely made me more interested in moving it up the stack in priority, though! Very neat analysis.


Best of the Vault


Pat Barker, Frankenstein, Cass Sunstein on the internet, Samuel Johnson, Thrillers, Denis Johnson, Alan Furst, Caryl Phillips, Richard Flanagan, George Saunders, Michael Harvey, Larry McMurtry, Harry Potter and more ...


Big D between the sheets -- Dallas in fiction


Reviewing the state of reviewing


9/11 as a novel: Why?


How can critics say the things they do? And why does anyone pay attention? It's the issue of authority.

The disappearing book pages:  

Papers are cutting book coverage for little reason

Thrillers and Lists:  

Noir favorites, who makes the cut and why



About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by book/daddy published on August 13, 2007 9:07 AM.

Updating was the previous entry in this blog.

Future fears in flyover country is the next entry in this blog.

Find recent content on the main index or look in the archives to find all content.

Creative Commons License
This weblog is licensed under a Creative Commons License.