When Stephen King was given his award in 2003 for distinguished contributions to American letters, Harold Bloom wrote a vicious, histrionic rejoinder to the decision. Bloom perhaps never sounded so much like New Criterion sith lord Roger Kimball as when he railed against what appeared to him as the degradation of all literature everywhere at the hands of King and J.K. Rowling. He made special mention of the similarities between the authors, dwelling icily on King’s New York Times review of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire wherein King (an outspoken advocate for the young wizard) suggested that when young Rowling readers have outgrown that series they might consider giving his work a try.
Now one might wonder where Harold Bloom, who once authored a novel called The Flight to Lucifer: A Gnostic Fantasy, gets off criticizing anybody’s desire to either write or consume what amounts to escapist fantasy of dubious literary quality. But instead, let’s move on and note that 2003 also saw the release of the fifth book in the Potter series, Order of the Phoenix, which at 872 dark and dreary pages was the most widely criticized novel of the Potter franchise. Too much darkness, critics said, too much bloodshed, and way too many words. In short, and many quipped exactly this, people were worried that J.K. Rowling had become Stephen King.
Indeed, in stature if not in style, Rowling has surpassed King. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, the penultimate offering in the projected seven-volume series, has shattered first-day sales records (records set, not incidentally, by Order of the Phoenix two years ago). How many people even know that the final installment of King’s seven volume opus, The Dark Tower, was supposed to make the jump from hardcover to paperback this week, but got pushed back to November instead? (An aside-King’s Wolves of the Calla is practically a meta-Potter book, structured and paced in a style modeled explicitly on Rowling; the King tome’s table of contents also borrows the exact typeface which is the hallmark of the Potter books. My research suggests I am the first person to have noticed, or at any rate commented in print, on the typeface-sharing.)
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, at 652 pages, is better than 200 pages shorter than Order of the Phoenix, though still twice as long as the first book in the series. The war against the evil Lord Voldemort and his band of followers, the Death Eaters, is dragging along without accomplishing much. The Death Eaters are hard to identify, see, because they live among regular everyday wizards and only make themselves known during occasional spectacular acts of violence, which occur without warning and harm innocent people. Then the Death Eaters are gone into the night as suddenly as they’ve appeared, leaving behind only their skull-and-snake logo as a declaration of responsibility and triumph. The Ministry of Magic, though working overtime to catch the real Death Eaters, is also preoccupied with saving public face; they issue inane lists of precautionary steps citizens can take to protect themselves, they try to court Harry Potter (fully recovered from the character defamation he suffered at the hands of self-same Ministry in book five) as a celebrity endorsement for their program, and they occasionally arrest innocent people to appear as if they’re accomplishing something.
Is this starting to sound familiar yet?
No doubt, this thing (that for ease of reference I’ll just call the political thread) finds itself much more developed in Half-Blood Prince than in previous installments. Poor Ron Weasley scans the obit pages of the Daily Prophet looking for familiar names, hiding his fear behind a much thicker hide of morbidity and bitterness than readers will be accustomed to seeing from him. No surprise why. The magical clock at his parents’ house which tells the location and condition of each family member now has all nine of its hands pointed at "mortal peril" all the time.
In a series of private sessions spread throughout the school year (and thus the length of the novel), Hogwarts headmaster Dumbledore and rumored "Chosen One" Harry view memories in the Pensieve (a magical device into which you can load and screen memories which have been physically copied from the person who experienced them) that trace the transformation of the young wizard Tom Riddle into the murderous outlaw and rumored Osama-doppelganger Lord Voldemort (imagine the Vader-biopics which comprised the most recent Star Wars trilogy, but mercifully condensed and actually enjoyable).
But none of this is to say that the political thread is new to the series. Harry’s friend Hermione Granger became politically radicalized in Goblet of Fire when she learned that house-elves, all-purpose servants for the wizard world’s higher classes, are uncompensated for their work and bound to service by wizard magic. Though she hasn’t made much headway among the cowed and obedient house-elves, and has been largely mocked by her peers for her commitment to elf liberation, she has remained outspoken on the subject for three books running now and shows little sign of giving up the good fight.
As early as the third book, when the titular Prisoner of Azkaban was eventually revealed to be the wrongly-imprisoned Sirius Black, Rowling made it clear that the authorities of the wizarding world were fallible. Indeed, the knowledge of Black’s innocence was never made public and though free he remained an outlaw, frequently vilified in the press as a bloodthirsty lunatic on the lam. Again, in the fifth book, the central problem was a question of belief. Harry claimed to have witnessed Voldemort’s return to power; the Ministry of Magic disputed his claim and ran a relentless smear campaign, marshalling the easily swayed Daily Prophet to the cause of circulating disinformation. That made an unlikely ally of fellow-student Luna Lovegood, whose father publishes an alternative paper called The Quibbler. Derided and mocked as a conspiracy rag, The Quibbler proved the only paper willing to give credence to Harry’s claim; sure, they ran his story amidst assorted Weekly World News-style ravings, but by the end of book five the rest of the wizarding world had to come to terms with what the reader knew all along-Harry, and thus The Quibbler, were on the right track all along.
Though I’ve been told Rowling’s rather liberal in her personal politics (when she wrote the first Potter book she was a single mother on welfare in an unheated flat, after all) one would be foolish to try and glean precise real-life parallels between Potter’s world and ours. (One exception-the opening chapter of the book finds an unnamed British Prime Minister sitting in his office awaiting a phone call from an unnamed President of a far distant country whom he dislikes personally but must defer to for implied reasons.) Rowling is not using the sometimes lurid contrast between regular wizards and Death Eaters to forward an Us Vs Them attitude espoused by liberal and conservative hawks alike. Nor is she using the easy cover of cartoonish magic to undermine the blind "patriotism" force-fed to millions of children with her own subversive agenda. I’m tempted to wish she had done this, or even to criticize her for not having done thi, but the over-explication of politics has a way of killing all the fun in stories, usually with little political gain gained for the sacrifice.
Where Rowling succeeds is in capturing the spirit rather than the letter of life in these troubled times. It’s bourgeois, Eurocentric life, for the most part, but it’s life at that, and worth at least as much attention as she gives it. Through the eyes of the now-teenage students at Hogwarts, Rowling explores or at least broaches some arresting, difficult questions. The recent bombing at King’s Cross station, where a plaque designates the fictional 9 Platform where Hogwarts students catch their magic express train to school, should have us all asking what it means when a "war" which exists only in the minds of those fighting it (on either side) and is largely considered in abstract terms suddenly and briefly becomes real and close to home? How are people supposed to feel at such times? How are they we- – supposed to react? (I’ll give you a hint-shooting Brazilian citizens at tube platforms is not the answer to any of those questions.)
Harry and company are luckier than we are inasmuch as the Death Eater/wizard opposition is a much clearer case of good versus evil than we were gifted with in our world. To be sure, Harry had to garner heaps of evidence to prove the existence of a threat his government preferred to deny; a striking inversion of our current situation where every time another Bush administration gaffe or scandal is reported the threat level jumps. And yet, despite the more clarified scenario, Harry takes a more nuanced position than one might expect. Vigilantly anti-Death Eater, Harry nonetheless refuses to shill for the Ministry, whose governmental mismanagement and propaganda he finds objectionable. He stands by Dumbledore, portrayed as well-intentioned and infinitely just, though admittedly something less than perfect; in short, the legitimate authority par excellence.
I’ll say this for the Ministry of Magic, ineffectual as they tend to be, and sleazy as they can get, at least they’re trying. I won’t hazard guesses as to whether this is a reflection or inversion of how British citizens perceive their government to be handling the war on terror, but it’s certainly more than I can say for the Bush administration. Reading Harry Potter, the infighting amongst factions of good guys concerns the most effective means of achieving an understood and necessary goal. It is in this way that the books vary farthest from the state of our world. Accordingly, if one were looking to explain the runaway popularity of the Potter series among grownups (for reasons other than fine storytelling and a pinch of luck) this would be the place to start looking.
Consider this tirade of Dumbledore’s, delivered late in the book: "Harry! Don’t you see? Voldemort himself created his worst enemy, just as tyrants everywhere do! Have you any idea how much tyrants fear the people they oppress? All of them realize that, one day, amongst their many victims, there is sure to be one who rises against them and strikes back! Voldemort is no different!" This may seem a basic notion, but there’s something to be said for using primary colors to make fundamental illustrations, and I’ll add that it seems a finer lesson for children to be taking to heart than most anything else they’re likely to come across in their pleasure reading. Moreover, it exemplifies one of Rowling’s strengths as a writer: the ability to articulate philosophical truisms in forthright and unpretentious terms without breaking the stride of the plot-driven narrative.
First and foremost, these are fantasy novels that borrow productively from the mystery genre, which is another way of saying that they are stories. Really good stories. That’s more than can be said for Harold Bloom’s Flight to Lucifer, which one Amazon.com amateur reviewer called "low quality fantasy" with "no thought at allgiven to characterization or euphony of language," and "cast in the mythological prose of a Dungeons and Dragons enthusiast." (I’ve only sampled Bloom’s book, but it was enough to verify everything the Amazon reviewer claimed.)
When Shakespeare said "the play’s the thing," he meant that while we might be edified by Hamlet’s existential traumas, we are at least as interested to see who will make it out of Act V alive, and how. When Stephen King was in his heyday, writing novels like The Stand and The Shining and The Eyes of the Dragon, people read them neither for their literary-aesthetic qualities, nor because he was willing to write a gorier, more involved death scene than most any popular writer before or since. They read the books because the stories were intricate and amazing, fully immersive experiences that left you dizzied and hungry for more. This is why everyone stopped paying attention to his Dark Tower series, because it stopped making any sense and so the charm wore off. Likewise, this explains why only about nine people have ever read Harold Bloom’s novel, at least six of whom found it so pretentious and shallow that they bothered to post warnings about it on the internet.
Rowling, unlike either King or Bloom, is mid-heyday right now. She’s on the top of her game, and, coincidentally, on top of the world too. That makes her a lot luckier than most writers, but no less deserving. This is popular fiction at its finest, and there’s nothing more you could ask these novels to do. Here’s hoping she can get that last manuscript finished before the wave crests.
JUSTIN TAYLOR is a writer living in Franklin, TN. He can be reached at http://www.justindtaylor.net/