Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Harry Potter's Bookshelf by John Granger

book cover

Harry Potter's Bookshelf:
The Great Books Behind the Hogwarts Adventures
by John Granger

Trade Paperback: 336 pages
Publisher: Berkley
First Released: 2009

Source: Unrequested review copy from the publisher.

Back Cover Description:
Harry Potter. The name conjures up J.K. Rowling's wondrous world of magic that has captured the imaginations of millions on both the printed page and the silver screen with bestselling novels and blockbuster films. The true magic found in this children's fantasy series lies not only in its appeal to people of all ages but in its connection to the greater world of classic literature.

Harry Potter's Bookshelf: The Great Books Behind the Hogwarts Adventures explores the literary landscape of themes and genres J.K. Rowling artfully wove throughout her novels-and the influential authors and stories that inspired her. From Jane Austen's Emma and Charles Dickens's class struggles, through the gothic romances of Dracula and Frankenstein and the detective mysteries of Dorothy L. Sayers, to the dramatic alchemy of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and William Shakespeare, Rowling cast a powerful spell with the great books of English literature that transformed the story of a young wizard into a worldwide pop culture phenomenon.

I've never read the Harry Potter novels. However, I've read "dissect famous English literature to see how they work" books before and found them fascinating, so I was interested when I got this unrequested review copy in the mail. The author based his selection of comparison books on books mentioned by J.K. Rowling in interviews or simply by their strong similarities to her novels on certain points. He didn't get his information directly from Rowling and sometimes even argued against her claims that certain books didn't influence her novels.

You don't need to have read Harry Potter or any of the other books mentioned to get a lot out of this book. The author explained enough about each scene or overall story in question that the reader could follow his point. In fact, the focus in the first half was primarily on other books followed by an explanation of how the technique just explored was used in Harry Potter. The last half of the book focused more on the Harry Potter novels, though, and I probably would have more deeply grasped his points if I had read the series.

Harry Potter's Bookshelf had four parts. Part One explored "the surface meaning"--the genre of the Harry Potter series, why that setting, etc. Part Two explored "the moral meaning"--what books were similar in how the moral message was delivered and what that message was. Part Thee explored "the allegorical meaning"--the satire and allegory in the Harry Potter novels. Part Four explored "the mythic or anagogical meaning"--the hero's journey, the alchemical formula to the story structure, etc.

Part Four was, er, weird. I've never even heard of some of the things he claimed are traditional Christian symbols or beliefs. In fact, the author completely misrepresented what the Bible (and C.S. Lewis) says about Logos by quoting only part of the whole (which would have clearly shown his conclusion was wrong). If you decide to read this book, I'd recommend skipping Part Four or at least reading the author's claims with a large dose of skepticism.

The author assumed the reader had read all of the Harry Potter books and so revealed some major spoilers (though little I hadn't already overheard other people say about the novels). Overall, Harry Potter's Bookshelf was an easy read and, except for the last section, easy to follow. If you're interested in exploring genre rules, point of view tricks, symbolism, etc. in English literature, you'll probably find this book interesting.

If you've read this book, what do you think about it? I'd be honored if you wrote your own opinion of the book in the comments.

Excerpt from Chapter One
Narrative Drive and Genre: Why We Keep Turning the Pages
Harry Potter as a Dickens Orphan and the Hero in a Sayers Mystery

In this literary companion to Harry Potter I'm attempting Olympian multitasking, as we descend layer by layer from the surface meaning down to the more profound depths of Harry Potter. Starting at the surface, we're obliged to be clear about what specific tools Ms. Rowling chose to tell her story because her decisions about how to move the plot along, the voice in which to tell the story, as well as the stage setting for the drama determine in large part how much any reader will be engaged enough to read the book. As counterpoint to that discussion, I'll talk about other authors and the books in which they made similar decisions, immersing us in English literature via Harry Potter.

To begin, let's talk about what genre the Potter novels fall into. It turns out they don't have one. Believe it or not, there are at least ten different types of stories being told in the Harry Potter novels. If it hadn't been confirmed by reporters and biographers, I would suspect Ms. Rowling's surname was a cryptonym, as are so many of her characters' names. Her books are a gathering together of schoolboy stories, hero's journey epics, alchemical drama, manners-and-morals fiction, satire, gothic romance, detective mysteries, adventure tales, coming-of-age novels, and Christian fantasy.

So how do we know where to start? Well, one easy way is to figure out what keeps you turning the pages. Literature professors call this the narrative drive, but you can think of it as the novel's conveyor belt. When we think about Harry and his adventures, what is it that moves us along from page to page to learn how the story turns out?

Despite our fascination with Hermione's love choices (Ron or Harry?), the Potter epic is not the boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, lovers-unite romance formula. It's also not a hero's epic: We are not caught up in mythic history, as we are in the Aeneid and The Lord of the Rings, in which we travel along to learn Aeneas's and Frodo's fates and their ultimate destinations.

No comments: