Books -

Likely a small category… but I do read, on occasion

Follow-up to the last post… perhaps I am approaching the issue from too American a perspective. The time here in Oxford has shed fascinating light onto Britain’s unique system of government. Unlike the U.S., The United Kingdom has no written constitution. It is a constitutional monarchy, governed by a parliamentary democracy. Many of the rights codified in the U.S. Constitution from free speech to gender and racial equality are just as valid here as in the States, but written down nowhere. Instead, convention dictates much of the government’s function, enforceable only by morality and each political party watching the others’ moves. The net effect, in my opinion is a mixed bag. It becomes very difficult to know the rules of the game, since the courts are no longer the final arbiters of justice (oh yeah, no judicial review either. again, by convention). But just because that is the way in the U.S., is that really the best way to do things? Unlike the States, the unelected judges (and “Supreme Court” of Britain’s Law Lords) are not absolute and unaccountable. They cannot overturn statutes with binding authority (though this is changing in recent times, especially with regards to the European Court of Justice).

What does all this have to do with Harry Potter? Maybe nothing. But maybe it’s a real world illustration of an American/British cultural divide on how, and by what conventions, authority figures govern themselves. It’s nice to think Rowling’s characters are the products of societal differences rather than sloppy storytelling. But hey, whatever makes me feel better about obsessively reading a children’s book! Right?

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Midnight on release of the latest Harry Potter book ended up being a decently important day for British bookstores, though I suspect booksellers the world over are giggling at having to worry about fire safety maximum occupancies. A weekend-quality night’s rest and several meals later, I am only about a third through it, but reentering Ms. Rowling’s altered version of England reminded me of something that has always bugged me about these books.

Her characters behave illogically. Not to suggest real people behave much better, but I find myself frequently bothered with how implausibly the adults in her stories act. When I say that, I am first reminded of how illogically other fictional characters, even from galaxies far, far away, are at times. Second to hit me is the nagging escape route that always comes up: Harry Potter is a children’s book! I’ll address each in turn.

True though it may be that fictional characters often behave with less tact and logic than the average real village idiot might, Harry’s world seems to be held together by authority figures with little apparent regard for the “big picture” issues facing them. I don’t think I’m giving anything away to say that Voldemort, the overarching villain, has made clear over five volumes his willingness to do whatever it takes to return to power; the very start of the series began with the murder of Harry’s parents before his eyes. Yet every book finds Dumbledore relying on Harry to save the day. Adult wizards all over the country refuse to call Voldemort by his name because it’s just too scary to think about – give me a break! They start secret societies with quaint passwords to search him out, rather than banding the entire wizarding community to out him (I guess that would only take ONE book though, wouldn’t it). And, presumably because the sequel dictates it, wizard parents from all over continue to send their children to Hogwarts in the midst of chaos that seems to escalate with every book. At least to me, the most bothersome fallacy, but most understandable from the author’s perspective: the Muggle world is always kept at arms length (and with absurd success). Book Six makes clear in the first chapter that the British Prime Minister is aware of the magical world’s existence. Yet he has no problem letting people die and havoc wreak? Even if one gives fantasy the greatest benefit of the doubt and assume magic can trump technology every single time, that guns and surveillance cameras and friggin’ handcuffs could be outdone any wandless magic users, the way Rowling segregates the “magical” story from any consequences in the Muggle world holds water like a sieve. And if otherwise ordinary Muggles have the potential to learn magic, as Hermione proves, shouldn’t everyone have the chance to learn to defend themselves from Voldemort? Shouldn’t the Prime Minister be pulling back the curtain and demanding the tools for his people to protect themselves? And why aren’t humanitarian wizards and witches doing it themselves, teaching Muggles to protect themselves and recruiting new fighters for the cause?

The answer is probably what most readers would be screaming at me right about now. Harry Potter is a children’s book. It’s telling a simple story about a boy and his scar, not trying to tackle complex issues that arise out of the author’s sloppy writing. That is true, but as the stories get darker and the death toll rises, Rowling has an obligation not only to her many adult fans to provide a coherent plot not filled with ocean-sized plot holes, but also to the youngest children that will be entering Harry’s progressively gruesome world. The world of Book Six is not the same world as that of Book One. Kids are going to have conversations with their parents about what happens to Sirius Black in Book Five and Cedric in Book Four, and I can already feel a more grown-up outcome brewing in Book Six.

My point is that Harry Potter’s world is carelessly written in parts. It is painfully obvious that certain aspects of the universe – the unfolding relationship of Harry and Voldemort is a dance I’m sure Rowling has had choreographed since about Book Two. But other areas, where common sense would tell Dumbledore to stop keeping Harry in the dark about his destiny and start protecting him, the complete lack of plausibility jars me out of the story.

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