Monday, 10 February 2014

I solemnly swear that I am up to no good

In furthering my having spoken about retreating into books, I thought it was about time I covered this. The thing is despite however much I love certain series above others, they’re not always what I automatically go to. Recently, having burned myself out with too much heavy going Malazan in the shape of Ian C. Esslemont’s Novels of the Malazan Empire series (I’ve got Blood and Bone to read when I feel up to it again), I went back to my safety net of “switch brain off and enjoy” books, the most notable of which being J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, which I re-read in the space of a week.

(Image from

The fact is as much as I’d like to say that a good old reliable doorstop of a tome is the way to go, it isn’t always. Sometimes thinking about concentrating on a book that lengthy (and particularly if it’s a heavy going one such as the fantasy I usually read) is tiring in itself, let alone attempting to actually pick it up and read it. However, if I have absolutely nothing to read then I go ever so slightly stir-fry crazy so I have a few series and individual books that I first read when much younger that I return to at times like this. Typically they are the sort that sit awkwardly in the not-quite-mature-adult-but-not-really-for-young-teenagers-either area, and they serve as easy time-passing when I’m not up to anything more demanding.

Some other examples include Elizabeth Goudge’s The Little White Horse, Jenny Nimmo’s The Snow Spider Trilogy, and Peter S Beagle’s The Last Unicorn.

One of the joys of that list and the Harry Potter books themselves is that given the number of times I read them through my teenage years, they’re even readable on days when my short term memory isn’t playing ball, because I probably know most of them word for word by now.
I thought they deserved a post of their own, mostly because they are a subject I am just a little bit touchy about. I’m not your stereotypical rabid fanatic who can’t handle any criticism of the books – there are plenty of valid ones and I’ve offered some myself in the past. You’ll never hear me stand up and say Rowling’s stories are the best thing ever contributed to literature because I don’t believe that to be true.
I’m also well aware that the series by its very nature is not going to be plenty of peoples cup of tea, and that’s completely fine too. It would be boring were we all alike. Personally I have a lot more time for the criticism of people who’ve actually attempted to read the books than I do those who just sneer for the sake of it, but I never claimed I was perfect.
(Did I say I wasn't a rabid fan? Whoops. This Marauder's Map dress is the lovely handiwork of BabeBoutique's Ebay shop!)
However, I get sick of feeling that I have to re-argue my status as a highly intelligent human being because I like the Harry Potter books. Thoroughly sick and tired of the look on people’s faces which clearly bespeaks “You like something this childish, clearly you have the intellectual capacity of a child. Pity, I thought you were smart.”
And there was me thinking that personal taste was about just that – personal taste – and not an immediate marker of intelligence or worth. Silly me.
So, here’s my case for why I like the series. I don’t expect to change the opinion of anyone who doesn’t, and more to the point I don’t actually want to. However, you should never cast aspersions unless you’re prepared to hear their rebuttal.
The first thing to bear in mind is that when I initially read the series I was a part of the original target audience. When the last book was released I was 17 coming up 18, much the same as the core characters. Whilst acknowledging all the other brilliant books I was reading throughout my adolescence, it wouldn’t be untrue to say I essentially grew up with the series. For me, part of its appeal is that it’s a very true coming-of-age – the settings and the scenarios may be entirely fantastical but the human elements are very true to life. The themes are criticised for their simplicity, but regardless they are themes I responded to and continue to respond to as an adult. Despite plenty who’ve expressed the opinion, it doesn’t actually make me a na├»ve person – it’s just an expression of the things I hold to be important.
For a person who has always loved language, I appreciate the way this is used (sometimes not overtly) and the interweaving of Latin, Greek and French influences in the vocalisation of spells. There’s a lovely usage of Victorian flower language in the first book which without knowledge of the same passes easily as an unobtrusive piece of dialogue. It’s a tiny little glimpse of foreshadowing you are never intended to see until after the ending, and when you do it’s hard not to appreciate how clever it is. Things like this don’t make a book, but they’re something I really appreciate nonetheless and they make me smile when I see them.
One of the principle criticisms I hear of the books is their lack of intelligence, and that just tends to make me roll my eyes and decline to comment. On the face of it they’re a series of children’s fantasy books (and I expect that’s where this sort of comment comes from), but there’s a lot more going on beneath the surface including some conscious mirroring across generations and the Macbeth-ian question of the effect of prophecy. There are nods littered all over to the likes of Chaucer and Aeschylus, to the folklore not only of Britain but of wider Europe and beyond. If you’re going to throw the question of lack of intelligence in a story for young people about, leave it where it belongs in the pages of The Twilight Saga.
The crucial nail on the head point for me was that while I was at secondary school, I was a prodigiously academic and bookish child who loved to learn and definitely had some slight “know-it-all” tendencies. I had an overbite which was later corrected by braces, and I had an even bigger and wilder mane of hair than I have today. Interestingly, some of that is how Rowling describes herself, admitting that the character of Hermione Granger is an exaggeration of herself as a school girl.
(Originally included in the two disc edition of Deathly Hallows Part 2 "The Women of Harry Potter" makes an interesting watch.)
I’m sure most people say this of themselves, but as a further point I was far from an attractive teenager. My other half says differently having seen an awful annual school photo my Dad still has at home, but then he’s biased and probably also aware that he’s too tall to sleep comfortably on our sofa.
With the popularity of the books and the release of the first film, suddenly there was a widely-known pop culture reference to a character that was just like me. Not only is Hermione bright and bookish and herself the owner of a wild mane of hair, but she gets to be a heroine without ever having to be raving beauty. A rare thing indeed.
The comparison grew more amusing with age, as a school friend later told my parents that by 14 I’d mastered a facial expression (often turned on both him and another friend) that was pretty much the silent equivalent of Emma Watson’s despairing question in the first film - “Honestly, don’t you two read?”
Did any of this make the five years of bullying any better? No. It never stopped a single unkind word, but it did make me feel a little bit better in myself. It was a small and constant encouragement that although I might have been weird in the context of my peers, it wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. I didn’t understand it fully at the time, but looking back now the books freed me from the expectations of those around me in a lot of small ways which helped to define the person I became.
That’s why I’m a little defensive on the subject of the Harry Potter books. In questioning my intelligence as a fan of the books, you’re questioning something which had a very powerful and positive effect on me as an adolescent and in some ways questioning a part of who I am now. It might sound over the top, but then I’m not really given to feeling that passion and emotional connection with anything is something to be ashamed of.
When I watched the speeches at the premiere of the final Deathly Hallows film, I don't mind admitting there were some happy tears when J.K. Rowling closed her thoughts with "The stories we love best do live in us forever, so whether you come back by the page of the big screen Hogwarts will always be there to welcome you home."
Ultimately I’m touchy because I have a lot to thank Rowling for.
Book by book she helped a little girl with a crippling lack of confidence find out that despite her bookish and intelligent nature, she had every bit a capacity for magic as anyone else.
Mischief managed.

Anybody else a fan of the Harry Potter books? Fan or not, I’m happy to hear opinions on this post, as well as to hear if anyone else has these sorts of “switch off” books or films that they keep returning to?

Wishing you all many spoons xxx


  1. I don't know who you've been talking to. The book series, in general, Harry Potter is loved and will be continued to be loved. There's nothing vapid or childish about it. I think it's the silliest and immature thing for a person to judge a person's intelligence or taste negatively for something they like. I guess it's just a lack of understanding or respect. All That's a given.

    For example,I've read the first book of the Malazan Book of the Fallen, Ididn't like it. Or to be more precise, I just didn't care about anything going on in that book. That was because Erikson just didn't write compelling character.Honestly, there really were none. I don't care enough to read on, even if they do get better as most people say. Fans have gotten on my case for saying .Some have even acted like elite assholes.

    Just as I won't judge anyone an idiot for not reading classics like Moby Dick, A Tale of Two Cities, or Paradise Lost.

    1. I don't know where I was going with that. Sorry for the rant. I just don't take it too seriously.

  2. No, it makes sense. Personal taste is exactly that, and shouldn't be used as a litmus test of intelligence. As for Malazan, even as a big fan I can admit they are very much "marmite" books. You gave the first one a try and it didn't do it for you, that's all any of us can do with anything. I'm sorry to hear fellow fans have been idiotic about it.

    1. Thank you for understanding. I'm not generalizing every fan of this series.That would be a stupid thing to think. It's understandable why some fans would act in such a way.

      I will admit, there are probably very good qualities that I'll be missing out on. I hear it's complex, subtle foreshadowing, and thematically deep. If something brings a personjoy, I don't see the need to ruin or agrue about it.

      There's a latin phrase, De gustibus non est disputandum. It translate to "In the matter of tastes, there can be no dispute." It means that there is no right nor wrong when it comes to people's opnions. I'm not saying that discussion an opinion becomes pointless. That's an entirely different matter.

    2. As long as it remains a well behaved discussion and doesn't descend into mudslinging I think it always has a place. I shall be keeping that phrase for future reference though, thank you! :-)

  3. I'm very similar to Hermione, too... I also found the books liberating. I love reading the Harry Potter books, and one of the things I love about them is their layers - if my brain isn't working well, then I can enjoy the surface story. If I want to be engaged without getting too serious, I can see the life lessons in prejudice, love, friendship, self-acceptance, etc. If my brain wants a workout, I can see the deeper meanings and references in the books, to other pieces of literature and to historical periods such as the Haulocost.

    It's great to escape into a fantasy world where you forget your problems and feel at home. Books were a better home for me than the house I grew up in; they were often a safe place for me to retreat to. Now that I've moved to a place of my own choosing, I don't need books as much - but I'm still the bookworm who is in the midst of reading several books at once! (Although sometimes that's due to brain fog... forgetting that I already have a book or two on the go...)

    Anyway, reading is a break from the problems of life... and when you're too unwell to go on a holiday or attend a party like most people can, why not read instead?

    1. I don't think I could have said it better myself Jasmine! :) x