In a Very Small Club

There’s a Far Side cartoon which features this vast, empty hall. In the corner of the frame, three people stand, chatting. A banner hangs above them that reads “People Who Didn’t Like Dances With Wolves Convention”.

This is the way I feel about Harry Potter. I grew up on Tolkein and C. S. Lewis, among others, so I approached him with an open mind. I’ve given the first book a couple tries, and tossed it scornfully aside after 100 pages. I’ve found the writing mediocre, but more importantly, totally unoriginal.

I’ve subsequently watched the movies, and recognized a who’s-who of historial and popular mythology: people wearing pointy hats riding brooms, three-headed dogs, baselisks, hippogryphs, magical mirrors, magic wands, philosophers’ stones (is that apostrophe placed correctly?), dragons eggs, centaurs, homoerotic tension, flying cars, crystal balls–the list of hackneyed devices goes on and on. Break out your Dungeons & Dragons Monster Manual and you can check off every one.

Everything old is new again, I suppose. Millions of kids who have grown up without this pantheon of creatures and creations are getting it in one, super-intense dose.

Above all else, I’m moved by art that’s original. For example, I’m enjoying Cory Doctorow’s Someone Goes to Town, Someone Leaves Town, in part because the protagonist was borne of the union of an island and a washing machine. Maybe he lifted that from some other book, but rest assured that it’s more obscure than the Divine Comedy.

By the way, I spent a good 10 minutes searching for that Far Side cartoon. If anybody has a copy, and can scan it or otherwise send it to me in digital form, you’ll have my undying thanks and, if you want it, a Microsoft t-shirt I got at Gnomedex that’s kind of small on me.

UPDATE: Hurray for Andrea, who found the comic in Google’s wonderful, wonderful cache.


  1. You think you feel isolated? I happen to believe the Lord Of The Rings movies rank among the worst films of all time.

  2. Darren: I agree, I don’t think the HP books are spectacular, though I”ve only read the first (may read the others if I’m bored). After reading a lot of D&D stuff, it just seems a bit tame. I guessed that it was a basilisk pretty quick, to the surprise of my girlfriend 😉

    Anon: Really? Worst movies of all time? You can not like them, sure, but to think that they’re really that bad means you have a personal vendetta against them. Are they worse than “Debbie Does Akron, Ohio?” Carrot Top’s famous “Chairman of the board?”

  3. there is this other cliche where adults always say things like, “Back when I was a kid…” and, “Things were different back when…”

    i have a feeling that when Darren’s parents were watching him read the C.S. Lewis books, they were thinking, “Back when we were young, we used to read the Bible. Kids these days ain’t got no taste.”

  4. JD: Point taken, but at least C.S. Lewis’s work is allegorical, which is more than I can say for Harry Potter. And, in light of my reference to Cory Doctorow’s new book, I don’t think my disdain is only inspired by nostalgia for the fiction of my youth.

    Andrea: Sweet, thanks for that. Want the t-shirt?

  5. I agree that there is a lot of recycling going on in the Harry Potter books, but that’s what I find interesting. I like putting my academic geek hat on and picking out the Greek mythology and wondering whether or how a particular character will be adapted.

    I also agree that there are all sorts of examples of better writing in the world, but, it is exciting to follow a story that so many people are following.

    I think the collective reading is why so many people are in the Harry camp. Humans like stories, and we like continuing stories. So I might pop in to the DLHPS for a sip of cola, but I’d just as easily go out for a butterbeer with the Potter-heads.

  6. I am sorry my URL messed up this page.

    Darren: Sure, thanks. What does the shirt look like?

  7. I, too, find the Potter books pretty pedestrian. I think I wrote something on it, but I’m too damn lazy to look it up.

    They’re poorly plotted (I mean, please: they’ve an entire staff of powerful wizards and they can’t find a frickin’ BASELISK under the school? to name but one example), the characters are flat, and there’s little warmth to them.

    I compare them to the two series that I remember from my growing years, the Chronicles of Narnia and the Chronicles of Prydain, and HP suffers quite badly.

  8. I think the point for JK Rowling was not to write something “as good as” CS Lewis or the Tolkein books. The point was to write something escapist and whimsical for children. That’s CHILDREN, folks. _NOT_ the people who’ve grown up fiddling with dice and monsters in their parents’ basements.

    Nobody’s trying to say that Harry Potter is great literature, any more than I would say Harold and the Purple Crayon is a seminal work on hallucinatory drugs. It’s simply a ripping yarn that beats the snot out of the Goosebumps series.

  9. Sue: See, I don’t think it’s a ripping yarn at all. A ripping yarn ought to grab an assailable reader in the first hundred pages. I gave it two tries, and put the book down both times.

    And, for the record, it’s not literary snobbiness, because I dig, for example, Steven King.

  10. Whether you like HP or not, they’re getting kids to read in a big way. And for that, I have no problems with the Harry Potter phenomenon.

    As some of the commenters have written here, these books are not written with the adult in mind (and hence does fall into repetition and simple construction). Yes, HP has grown a substantial adult reader base — but is this the same reader base that would pick up a copy of the Iliad or Ulysses?

  11. Also, funnily enough, the JK Rowling is true to the history of English witchcraft, in that the witches and wizards in her books have familiars. It’s not just a D&D convention; in early modern England, the witch was identified by her relationship with a familiar (usually a small dog, cat, toad, mouse, etc).

  12. I’m thrice cursed. I detest Harry Potter (yawwn…sold it at a yard sale), Lord of the Rings, and the Star Wars series. I’m afraid to leave the house. When other adults ask me about the latest HP installment (they tend to have that manic look about them), or what I thought of the damned Sith, I just nod enthusiastically and scan for the nearest exit. Lest they find me out.

  13. Luke Skywalker, Harry Potter, Paul Atreides of Dune, et al. are the heroes of our most popular modern day myth. They have a power and a destiny that they are unaware of, and they tend to be orphaned. Each involves simple good and evil, which the protagonists must face, and there is an aspect of revenge. They are the chosen one, and their opponent is closely linked to them. In the end its all about boys becoming men and choosing a path. I think this is a large part of the Harry Potter phenomenon. Its the story as much as how well or poorly its told.

  14. ” I’ve found the writing mediocre, but more importantly, totally unoriginal. ”

    Can I join your club? No one in this household understands me. I’m feel alone… so, alone.

    In all seriousness, I think what has made Rowling such a success is her ability to create captivating characters that people can easily identify with. Everything else is a rip-off of some other source but the relationships in her books are easy for me to understand how children would sympathize. Who hasn’t felt like Harry at some point in their lives? Okay, maybe Prince Harry hasn’t ever felt that way but you get the point.

  15. Looks like the DLHPS club is bigger than you thought. I’ll join so I can vent a bit here too.

    First of all, they are kids books, and it saddens me that adults find them so fulfilling. I guess it speaks much to the level of education, or more likely just the level of mental exertion that people prefer.

    I actually disagree with the original criticism that they are unoriginal, I thought the whole magic/muggle dichotomy and its details were rather clever. The idea of a magical other-world is a rehash, but you could also argue that the Chronicles of Narnia wardrobe is just a rehash of Alice’s rabbit-hole. And why invent a new monster instead of a familiar baselisk or whatever? I would argue that the books do a good job of mixing up cultural and literary cliches into a new-yet-familiar world. Just look at the layout curse that has been cast on this page of criticism.

    Regarding wizards not finding the resident evil, just think of the US intelligence agencies pre-9/11. But I don’t wish to argue individual plot point, because I generally agree the stories are weak. They all seem to revolve around some unknowable twist, deus ex machina, that gets revealed to the lucky protagonists. There seems to be no reward for hard work, only chosen ones–kinda the way HP is quiddich champion. Some might argue I’m being grumpy and that’s the way the world actually happens, but I don’t think so.

    And even though HP is the chosen one, he is not one of Campbell’s 1000 faces. Star Wars was probably written (badly) to follow the hero’s journey; HP was not and it shows. However, in trying to stereotype the good-kid-vs-bullies, HP comes close, but not in any way that I find heroic. Similarly, all the other characters are flat, no emotional, intellectual, nor spiritual development.

    Another thing that bothered me was good vs. evil emphasis. In HP’s world everyone has a label and behaves accordingly, there are no reasons given and no one seeking to understand. Again, one could argue I’m a romantic to believe it is otherwise in reality.

    For the record, I read the 1st 4 HP books several years ago, and all of Narnia and Tolkein when I was younger. Like others I find those stories more compelling, though I’d have to reread Narnia to see if it stands up to my critical adult mind.

  16. So, who cares what books they are, so long as the kids are reading, eh? Bullocks! If that’s the case, why not give them a copy of Playboy so they can read the articles? Give your kids copies of ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’ to read, then the other Naria books. Same reading level, a helluva lot better. If they get more advanced, go with ‘The Hobbit’ then ‘The Lord of the Rings.’ Forget this drek like Potter.

  17. His mother was a washing machine, sure, but wasn’t his father a mountain, not an island?

    Let’s see… you just saw “The Island,” you wrote about Hans Island, and there’s the Pender Island connection.

    Amazing story in any event, and bravo Cory for making it free.

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