In Defense of J.K. Rowling
Please note: I am studying abroad in London at the moment, which means two things: My essays will be much less frequent, and all page numbers cited in my essays until mid-May are from the UK editions of the books.
So I gather that I’ve gained something of a reputation for negativity around here. And to be fair, I have been critical of quite a few things. What has drawn the most ire is being critical of some beloved characters (though I would point out that I never criticize them as characters, only as people, meaning I love reading about them, I just wouldn’t be friends with them). I have also criticized the movies, and I make no addendum to that. However, the one thing I have NEVER criticized, and never will, is J.K. Rowling’s writing.
Now, does that mean that the books are flawless? Well, no. Before you exit this window in a fit of rage, hear me out. Nothing is ever perfect. Perhaps Jo used one too many ellipses in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix when she should have ended a sentence. Perhaps I don’t like what she did with a particular character or ship. I will likely address some of these things in a future article that will doubtlessly draw the ire of hundreds. But these are all absolutely minuscule issues that we are able to pick apart because, on the whole, the series is so good. We’d never criticize the books for one-dimensional characters or a feeble plot or anything like that.
However, in the group of fans I hang out with (New York City’s the Group That Shall Not Be Named, which may not be a perfect cross-section of the fandom but gives me a generally good idea), a few outrageous claims are being made that two of the books are poorly written. And this is where I put my foot down. Say what you want about characters or ships or anti-feminism, but NEVER condemn Jo’s writing. I reread the books every summer (meaning I’ve read them 12 times), and every single time, I get pulled in by her writing even though I can recite passages word-perfect and finish those enormous books in only a few sittings. That can in no way be construed as poor writing.
And so I present to you “In Defense of Jo Rowling.”
Complaint 1: CAPS LOCK HARRY and the Order of the Phoenix
The first complaint I often hear is this: Harry spent all of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix angsting, and Caps Lock Harry was supremely annoying to read about.
Now, I have a simple preface to my argument: Book 5 is by far my least favorite in the series. And that’s for a completely different reason, which I will also explore in a later article. The nutshell version is that we spent almost 900 pages in suspense, only to find out that Harry has to kill Voldemort. [sarcasm]Gee, who saw that coming?[/sarcasm]
However, after 12 reads, I have still not had a problem with Caps Lock Harry. Why is that? Because he is only in Caps Lock mode for four pages. That’s right, the only parts of the entire 870-page book that Harry uses Caps Lock is his tantrum when he first arrives at Grimmauld Place and him raging at Dumbledore after Sirius’s death. Don’t believe me? I challenge you to leaf through your books and find another entire page where he’s in all caps.
The latter instance (pages 726 and 727) is Harry’s emotional breakdown after he just saw his godfather, the closest thing he’s ever had to a parent, get murdered. I think one would have to be completely heartless to begrudge him this expression of sorrow.
That makes the former instance, when Harry is yelling at Ron and Hermione, the only real instance where Caps Lock Harry emerges (pages 63 and 64). And even if something is annoying to read about, two pages in the grand scheme of things is not that much.
Now, admittedly, he is rather irritable and short-tempered throughout much of the book. And I will even overlook the obvious excuse of Voldemort being inside his head (though that would put anyone in a bad mood, I should think).
Place yourselves in Harry’s shoes for a minute. You were orphaned at one and spent ten miserable years with the awful Dursleys. You have been attacked twice by the guy who murdered your parents. You have just watched a fellow student being murdered in cold blood, were then tortured, fought for your life, and narrowly escaped the mass murderer who is at large once again and won’t rest until you’re dead. As a thanks for all that, you have been kept completely in the dark staying with the miserable Dursleys while all your friends were partying it up together. And now the entire government is conspiring against you, you are being tortured in detention every night, and half of your school has turned against you because they believe you to be a psycho. Now think honestly: Would any of you have reacted any better than Harry does? Absolutely not.
The truth is, after everything Harry has been through, he was LONG overdue for some angsting. In fact, I’d say it’s something of a miracle he hasn’t cracked before this. There are essays from people far more learned than I am, analyzing how Harry should have post-traumatic stress disorder or whatnot. I’m just saying that Harry actually handled the whole thing rather well.
In fact, it just wouldn’t have been realistic if, after all Harry had been through, he just kept on being happy and friendly and mellow. That’s the beauty of Jo’s characters, that they all behave in realistic ways. Harry had to go through an angsty phase, and we should all be grateful that it only lasts a year. And frankly, there isn’t as much angsting in the book as people make there out to be, so it’s never bothered me.
I was talking this over with my friends, and one brought up a rather interesting point: Harry should have started angsting before Book 5, because that would have been more realistic. I had to think about that one for a minute. Well, yes, it would have been more realistic that way. However, as readers, we don’t want a protagonist who’s completely realistic.
As readers, we want to read about a character to whom we can relate, who’s flawed and three-dimensional. However, we also want him to be slightly better than us. We don’t want to read about a saint, but we want to read about a character who’s just a tiny bit more inherently good than us. Percy Jackson may be brash and sometimes resentful, but he is more compassionate than most of us are.
And this brings us to Harry. Yes, Harry is flawed, he is rash, occasionally unintelligent, sometimes unobjective. In other words, he’s human. However, he also refuses to use Dark magic and is absolutely horrified when he casts Sectumsempra on Draco. He uses the Imperius Curse with great reluctance and refuses to use the Killing Curse even against Voldemort. He is a better person than most of us, and therefore handles the difficulties of his life better than we would. But even the best of people reach a breaking point, and I think it’s perfectly acceptable that Harry reached his in Order of the Phoenix.
Complaint 2: Harry Potter and the Deathly Dull Camping Trip
This complaint is far more prevalent than the previous one, perhaps because we have had four additional years to make our peace with Book 5, but I think it’s because people expected something from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows that just couldn’t be.
The complaint is this: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was just one very long and very dull camping trip that took forever and accomplished nothing until the climax.
And again, this surprised me, because I have never had a problem with this. Why have I no complaint about this? The reason is twofold: First, Jo’s writing is so captivating, I could read chapters on what the trio has for breakfast and I still would doubtless be unable to tear myself away. But more so, it’s because that camping trip is just one small part of a phenomenal story.
Rebuttal 1: Expectations vs. Reality
Again, I think a large part of the resentment toward Book 7 comes from the fact that expectations weren’t just sky-high; they were in outer space. In 784 pages, Jo was supposed to do the following things:
- Have the trio somehow find the Horcruxes, somehow figure out how to destroy them, and somehow actually destroy them
- Reveal Snape’s loyalties once and for all, tying them back to everything he’s ever said or done in a way that makes sense
- Reveal the Marauders’ entire backstory, which some fans took to mean writing the details of their entire time at Hogwarts
- Reveal what happened on the day Voldemort attacked Harry – and if the bajillion theories are to be believed, the entire cast of Harry Potter characters was present that night.
- Tie up every single subplot, revealing the fate of every single character and every single secret in the books
- Have Voldemort somehow defeated in a way that was convincing
- Kill off all the bad guys
- Kill off many of the good guys to ensure that we were kept sobbing the entire time
- Reveal the inner workings of wands, ghosts, death, politics, portraits, Horcruxes, Animagi, Metamorphmagi, time, Polyjuice Potion, etc.
- Have everyone living at the end coupled up in very romantic ways
- Tie everything up in a neat little bow that would leave several hundred million readers satisfied and reveal everything that happened to every minor character for the rest of their lives
And that isn’t even a comprehensive list of what was expected from Jo in this last book. I simply shudder to think of the pressure the poor lady was under. Now, how did she do?
On the whole, rather well. No, we didn’t get the extensive Marauders backstory, nor did we find out anything exciting about the night Voldemort attacked the Potters, nor did we satisfactorily find out where our characters end up in the future (even I can’t defend the abysmal epilogue). A few very small loose ends were left remaining. And there is a contingent of fans who will never forgive Jo for leaving out what they wanted in the last book and who view the camping trip as something extraneous put in the book instead of what they wanted there.
However, even if Deathly Hallows didn’t have absolutely everything I wanted (coughNevilleLunacough), it came pretty darn close. And instead of what I might have put in, Jo wrote it in a better way. For no one else could have given us the things Jo gave us in the last book. Just a reminder of the highlights: “The Prince’s Tale.” Always. “The Forest Again.” The horrors of Malfoy Manor and Bathilda Bagshot. The heartbreakingly beautiful visit to Godric’s Hollow. The heart-wrenching death of Dobby. The trajectory of Slytherin’s locket, from Regulus and Kreacher all the way to Umbridge. The epic Battle of Hogwarts. Molly Weasley cursing out Bellatrix. And much, much, much more.
Rebuttal 2: By the Numbers
Bearing all this in mind, I still hear the cries, “But that camping trip took forever! They were just camping for half the book! It was so dull and pointless!”
So I went to investigate, flipping through a copy of Deathly Hallows. And guess what? That’s not even close.
The trio is only camping in Chapters 14, 15, half of 16, 18, 19, and 22. In other words, the camping only lasts for five and a half chapters, out of 36 total! If we look at page numbers, they are camping for less than 90 pages, out of 600 (UK version, not counting the epilogue)! So doing a bit of math, we find that the camping trip is only one-seventh of the book!
But even that number is misleading, because there is plenty of stuff happening even during the camping chapters! Chapters 15 and 22 reveal to us, via the goblins and Potterwatch, respectively, what is going on in the outside world. I think we all wanted to hear about Neville and the Weasleys and so forth just as much as the trio did! Chapter 18 gives us backstory in the form of The Life and Lies of Albus Dumbledore, so there isn’t really any mention of camping there. And Chapter 19 is “The Silver Doe,” which includes things like finding Gryffindor’s sword and destroying a Horcrux again, not just reading about them sitting in a tent.
So in reality, the story keeps right on moving. We get a small bit of the trio sitting around and plotting courses of action. However, no one objected to that when it happened in the Gryffindor common room or at breakfast in the Great Hall, so there should really be no objection here just because there’s a change of scenery.
So why, then, does this camping trip infuriate readers so much? The answer to that is simple.
Rebuttal 3: Because Jo Rowling Is Brilliant
As Harry Potter fans, the one thing we are more used to than anything else is Jo tugging on our heartstrings. I personally had never cried while reading a book until Dumbledore died. And if any of you didn’t cry when Dobby died, you have no soul and I say this having deeply disliked the elf for the entire series. I won’t even get into the latter third of Deathly Hallows. Between Fred’s death, “The Prince’s Tale,” and “The Forest Again,” I just sobbed through the last 300 pages like my heart was breaking. Not a single person I know made it through Deathly Hallows without crying.
So we know that Jo can make us cry with her writing. And we commend her for it because being able to manipulate our emotions like that is evidence of truly great writing. But what nobody seems to realize is that, with the camping trip, she’s doing the exact same thing.
And here is the crux of this essay: Jo doesn’t just make us feel for the characters; she makes us feel what they’re feeling. When Harry is heartbroken over Dobby’s death, so are we, even if we never liked him. And logically, when Harry is angry and frustrated, so are we.
It is a mark of Jo’s extraordinary skill that she makes a camping trip of a few chapters feel like it’s never-ending, making us feel angry and impatient and frustrated about it. Because that’s how the characters are feeling. The trio all feel like they’ve been camping forever with nothing happening. They’re all frustrated and irritable at the lack of results. Jo is making us empathize with the characters, and we don’t even realize it! She is just that good.
If you, like me, have never had issue with either of these things, then good for you! But now you at least have some counterarguments at your disposal for the next time someone brings it up. If, however, you have been irked by either one of these issues, I hope you realize now that you feel that way because Jo meant for you to. When Harry is sad, so are we. When Harry is jubilant, so are we. And therefore, when Harry is angry, so are we. It’s just not fair to take it out on Jo.
And let us never again criticize Jo’s writing. Jo, you nearly had us all fooled, but now I’m onto you! You really are the most brilliant writer of the age.