As the Hogwarts saga reaches its seventh and final lap, it is once again feeding frenzy time for fans and critics. At the cost of calling down a thousand unforgivable curses upon my head, I admit membership to the second group. To make a clean breast of it: I liked the first four volumes, but thought the next two were unreadable. I believe that J.K. Rowling has taken fantasy fiction to a literary Mount Doom, and thrown both Frodo and the ring into the fire.
There have been two watershed moments in the history of fantasy fiction: the first in 1954-55 when J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings was published, and then in 1997, when Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone came out. Both have been literary and cultural phenomena in their own right, but less understood are the ways in which they affected the genre of fantasy fiction. This is not surprising, considering the scant critical attention paid to the protocols of the genre. Despite having a history as old as literature itself, fantasy has rarely been studied with the seriousness it deserves.
The chief reason for this is the widespread misconception that fantasy is a juvenile genre. When fantasy—along with sister genres such as horror, sci-fi and crime —was born in the periodicals of late-Victorian England, it took two distinct forms. One was straightforward juvenile fantasy, which began with Charles Kingsley’s The Water-Babies and was carried on by Frank L. Baum’s Oz books, James Barrie’s Peter Pan, and Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, which started a vogue of talking animals that peaked in A.A. Milne’s Pooh stories.
But there was also a darker vein of fantasy, which was edgy and disturbing and quite unsuitable for most children.
This was a strain which began with Poe, and passed through the hands of William Morris, Bram Stoker and the inestimable Lord Dunsany. For the first time, heroic fantasy and fairy tales were raised to a sophisticated adult level. Then, a demented letter-writing maniac called H.P. Lovecraft came along and dredged up a whole seabed full of scaly, slimy, creepy things. It was the literary equivalent of scraping one’s fingernails across a blackboard.
Then the World War happened, and after Auschwitz there could be no greater horror. Tolkien took himself to the darkness of Balin’s tomb in the mines of Moria, but could not go on. Instead, he dreamt up a shire of prelapsarian innocence, untouched by the industrial revolution, war and immigration. Good and evil were clearly demarcated, with no room for shades of grey. Evil was something outside us, and could be destroyed by throwing an expensive piece of jewellery into the fire. From that point onwards, fantasy fiction went down the path of stereotypes and easy fixes: There was no future for the likes of Mervyn Peake, whose extraordinary Gormenghast trilogy was shunned as a no-go Frankenstein’s castle.
Where does Rowling fit into all this? As far as subject matter was concerned, she did not break new ground—schools for magic have had a long and honourable history, most notably in Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea trilogy where the young mage, Ged, is taken into the School of Magic on Roke Island and taught such skills as weather control, illusions, healing, transformation, calling and so on.
Not very different from the curriculum at Hogwarts, one would think.
But whereas Le Guin’s world is spare and austere, Hogwarts revels in excess. While the faculty at Roke are named after their trades—Master Herbal, Master Namer, Master Changer— the Hogwarts teachers are flamboyantly named, and with eccentricities to match. Along with a supporting cast of ghosts, owls and house elves, they are part of the architecture which gives Hogwarts a richly Gothic theme park feel.
Not so with the students though. They are lifted straight from modern-day multicultural Britain and space-warped into a magical environment without any seat belts or protective gear.
The resultant narrative collision is handled with great skill by Rowling who manages to provide the kids with a soft landing, as if they had arrived at Malory Towers and not a bloody-minded pile with murder in its stones. Nevertheless, over time, Hogwarts grows into a comfort zone for the students who learn to get on its good side, just as they do with Hagrid’s abominable blast-ended skrewts and flobberworms.
The real danger lurks outside Hogwarts, and occasionally under it, in the manner of all good Gothic novels. The quality of Voldemort’s evil is very much like Sauron’s in LOTR: It is evil because it is different, and outside us. This is where I feel both Tolkien and Rowling let their readers down, by reducing and trivializing evil to a kind of mindless villainy, in which there is cunning, but no intelligence. That is why we would much rather read about Gollum than Saruman in Tolkien: The latter is all bluff and bluster, but it is Gollum who makes us break into prickles of horror by constantly teetering over the edge of sanity. The only character in Rowling who comes close is Severus Snape, but I guess we will have to wait till Deathly Hallows to discover his true colours.
The other disappointment in the Potter saga is the rather tame unravelling of the Harry-Voldemort tangle. This is particularly evident in parts five and six, where Rowling spends more than 1,500 pages revealing the prophecy that either Harry or Voldemort must die at the hand of the other, for neither can live while the other survives. This was pretty much evident from the beginning, and in any case, there are too many precedents—particularly in mythology—for this to pack any narrative punch. I suspect that Rowling might have yielded too much ground to her publishers in making the last two novels the loose baggy monsters that they were. One hopes that she will supply a suitably daring sleight of hand in the last book. Anything less will be a disappointment to both fans and critics.
Abhijit Gupta teaches English at Jadavpur University, Kolkata. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org