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the weakest but still stronger than the opposition
on 3 February 2009
I was disappointed at a first reading of Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince. Mainly because not a lot seemed to happen: the magical number of seven books had to be filled, but you got the feeling that this one had little raison d'etre. At the end of Phoenix everything seemed to be in place for a final showdown between Harry and Voldemort, but pretexts are found for putting it off, and too many of the pages (mercifully fewer than in Phoenix) are filled with unnecessary back story which JKR could have written in her sleep - or fans could have written for her - while key characters like Ron, Hermione and Hagrid are left with almost nothing to do and nowhere to go.
Perhaps most infuriating of all, a key character for whom we had felt more and more interest and sympathy in books 1-5, wondering which way he would eventually jump, turned out to be unequivocally a bad guy. How boring is that? I trust and hope that this isn't Rowling's final word on Professor ... (supply name), but for the moment, things don't look good.
Still, with the tremendous pressure on her to deliver, I feel nothing but sympathy for JK Rowling, and would defend her to the last against the snide army of reviewers (some of whom can't even spell) who are keen to lump her together with cynical purveyors of dumbed-down mass culture, just because her books have made her a lot of money. May I remind everyone who calls the Harry Potter books production-line bestsellers that the first book in the series almost didn't find a publisher and became a success by word of mouth, not hype. The Harry Potter books fall into the same category as The Lord of the Rings and Watership Down as the work of true individuals who have reached deep down inside themselves to produce their visions, not just glanced around at what the crowd seems to want. It is for this very reason, I like to think, that they have struck such a tremendous chord - and it is for this reason, too, that the intellectual establishment hates them so much; it has staked its credibility on cheering on the end of western civilisation, and can't stomach popular art that is neither superficial nor despairing - that takes a moral line and carries a message of hope.
Look at how Rowling constantly deepens and toughens her moral outlook - even mighty Dumbledore's strength fails him, he meets disaster because he trusts too much, but the fact that he fails doesn't make him wrong.
And the sheer exhilaration of the way she plays with her material, so that points raised in the earlier books find new explanations or are seen in a new light, and you can never be sure whether it's pre-planned or she's having second thoughts and improvising, like a supremely talented jazz musician - this is something that emerges more clearly with repeated readings.
If horror is your thing, if all-action story-board-like adventure is your thing, even if perfection is your thing, go elsewhere. But if you want true, unique, individual creativity that doesn't mind wearing its flaws on its sleeve, stick with Harry Potter.
POSTSCRIPT AFTER READING HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS: Well, what do you know, she fooled me completely!! Not that I'm hard to fool. This highly satisfactory last episode upholds everything good I've said about J.K. Rowling here and negates the bad: going through book 6 again, especially the opening chapter, after reading book 7 leaves you awed at the author's sheer cleverness. Professor ***** is the hero!