It's arguable that the Harry Potter series is the single most influential pop culture franchise since Star Wars. What started off as an unlikely hit from an unknown author turned into a media juggernaut that continues to defy expectations to this day. Recently, I noticed that the original 7 novels are free for Kindle Unlimited subscribers, and since The Cursed Child pt 1 will be released at the end of July, I figured what the hell, might as well reread the lot of them. And since I'm the pedantic sort, I'm recording my thoughts in blog format for all three of you that actually read the damn things.
It's been well over a decade since I read the whole series in one sitting, and it's amazing the sort of perspective you gain over time. The Sorcerer's Stone, for instance, was one of my favorite books as a child. I bought a copy at a book fair not long after the series made its way stateside, and I read that thing until it fell apart sometime in middle school. I haven't touched it since, or at least I hadn't til last week. It's a remarkably quick read. Took me a little over 2 hours. This wasn't because it was short, though it certainly was one of the shorter entries in the series, but because it was clearly written for children. The prose was simple and easy to digest. There weren't any scenes that really drew me to linger over them, savoring every word. Part of this might have been because of distant familiarity, but mostly because it really was a fairly straightforward children's book. Certainly darker than the adventures of Clifford the Big Red Dog, but decidedly less so than, say, the Animorphs. It presented some ideas that would have been plenty complex for a child struggling to cope with things like death, but nothing that my adult self had any trouble digesting. None the less, it was a charming and entertaining read, and its honest and straightforward nature were refreshing.
The trend continued with Chamber of Secrets, though Rowling's storytelling had improved markedly by this point. You begin to get a sense of the wider world beyond Hogwarts and Diagon Alley, and ideas that were mentioned in passing become more fully fleshed out. Conversations seem to flow more naturally, and the action more fluid. The second book in the series also introduces more grit into the world. We're introduced to the concept of prejudice against witches and wizards born to Muggle parents, for instance. None the less, Chamber of Secrets is still remarkably light and carefree compared to later entries in the series.
Prisoner of Azkaban is where things really start to get dark. Elements of horror begin to creep into the series with the frankly creepy as hell dementors and an entire prison guarded by them. We also learn that the Ministry of Magic is a lot less benevolent than one might have originally thought; Hagrid's stay at Azkaban in the previous book becomes a lot more disturbing when you realize that he was condemned to spend weeks without a single shred of happiness simply because the Minister of Magic wanted to save face. We're also faced with the idea that Harry isn't the perfectly noble soul he was portrayed as earlier on in the series. When he hears the story of what happened to his parents, and how Sirius Black allegedly betrayed them, we see his very real rage, and he even contemplates wanting to kill him. And while his saving Wormtail's life might seem like an altruistic act at first, his willingness to subject him to the Dementor's Kiss, aka the removal of his soul from his body, is arguably worse.
From here on out, the books are clearly no longer written with children in mind. The stories become progressively darker and grittier. Morality becomes a lot murkier, as the characters are forced to take actions that, earlier in the series, they would have unquestionably considered evil. Harry himself uses two Unforgivable Curses, and his allies urge him to kill in battle rather than merely disarm. The Ministry of Magic is shown to be hidebound, prejudiced, and corrupt, and a shocking number of people are willing to go along with atrocities once Voldemort takes over because taking a stand means risking their lives and the lives of their families. This is heavy stuff, a far cry from trying to get past Fluffy.
And yet, that sense of whimsy never quite gets beaten out by the terror and the bloodshed. The world of Harry Potter is still very magical. Even in its darkest moments, the reader is never brought to total despair. Rowling is one of the few writers to master the art of making the audience truly feel the pain of a character's loss. GRRM, for all his fame for A Song of Ice and Fire, never really lets the audience invest in any one character, because we know there's a decent chance they're going to die horribly later on down the road. Rowling is not afraid to kill important characters, but she builds a bond between them and the reader first, and she doesn't spend them carelessly.
I was surprised to find out just how deeply the criticism of the Harry Potter books runs in the literary world. The Harry Potter books are far from perfect, and I personally think The Half-Blood Prince and Deathly Hallows would have been better if Rowling's editor had kept a tighter leash on her, but the disdain among the literati is shocking. Because Harry is basically a decent kid and Voldemort is unquestionably evil, they accuse the morality of the stories of being too black and white. Because the prose is easy to understand and doesn't waste time with unnecessarily flowery language, they say it lacks style. Some accuse the books of being far too conservative, or too liberal. Just about every critic with an ax to grind and an agenda to push has taken potshots at the Harry Potter novels, and most of their complaints are baseless. If ever there was a series that illustrates the gulf between the literary elite and the general public, it's Harry Potter.
I can't imagine what it must be like to be an adult who tries to read Harry Potter for the first time. So pervasive is its influence in pop culture that it's impossible not to pick up at least some of the basics by osmosis, but taking that first step into the wizarding world must be a shock to the system. None the less, if you've never read the books, I highly recommend giving it a go. And if you have read the books and have Kindle Unlimited, now's a good time to read through them again, before The Cursed Child hits shelves.