ADVENT CALENDAR ’15: Rereading Harry Potter

Harry PotterThen: I was late to the party with Harry Potter; Goblet of Fire came out in my final year of primary school and I’d never read any of them. They were disapproved of in my home; there was a considerable backlash from conservative Christians over the book’s ‘temptation of children to black magic’ and therefore, unexamined, my parents had banned it (this despite my mother’s favourite novel being Lord of the Rings, which she had given me to read aged nine.) Sometime during my first year of secondary school I decided I wanted to read them (though it wasn’t quite the juggernaut that it later became so this wasn’t entirely out of peer pressure, and more out of curiosity at a title I had seen around a good deal) and the easiest way to do it without parental notice was from the library. In fact, I didn’t read Philosopher’s Stone but listen to it, in its excellent audiobook form read by Stephen Fry. which I snuck out below parental notice amongst a pile of detective mysteries and epic fantasy hardbacks.

I was a very quick convert to the series. Along with the rest of my generation, I was completely absorbed into the world of Hogwarts, and sped through the rest of the series. My friend and I went to the weekend previews of the first film (a week before general release), queuing up with lines of people in costume. My parents, resigned to the fact that I had already read four of the books and there wasn’t much they could do about it, bought a tract on the subject from the local Christian bookshop. When they had done with it, I snuck it out of their bedroom (for it had, ironically, somehow become as contraband as the Harry Potter books themselves) and skim-read it. It came down on the side of Harry Potter being harmless, and distinguished between magic-in-fiction and real life, which as a fan of Gandalf, my mother should have already known. And so I was left to it.

I loved Harry Potter for two reasons: firstly, the maturing of the characters and books that was pretty well in line with my own aging (give or take a few years or so). When we saw the final film at a midnight screening, the entire audience (all early twenties like us) stood up and applauded at the end–it felt like the final closing of an era. Secondly: the encyclopedic detail with which Rowling created her world. It was a world I dearly wanted to escape to (and I am not the only one still waiting for my Hogwarts letter), and the richness of every little thing stuffed into the seams of the novel were addictive. When I say encyclopedic, I mean literally: at one point I endeavored to create an exhaustive encyclopedia of every single person, thing, place and spell mentioned in the books (this was pre-internet-fandom which did the job for me several years later, and pre-Pottermore, which is sort of a legitimized version.) I even wrote fan-fiction, a short story entitled Harry Potter and the Sword of Light which I sent to J.K. Rowling. Sadly, it’s completely vanished on some long-lost floppy disc somewhere (remember them?), but I dimly recall that it involved a great deal of fussing about on Diagon Alley and portkeys in the Divination tower. And presumably a sword. When the next book came out a year later, and killed off a pupil with my surname, I was convinced it had been taken from my letter to her (having said in interview that she often took names from her fan-mail.)

Now: Philosopher’s Stone is not one of the volumes I have ever returned to–I’ve reread several, primarily Prisoner of Azkaban–and its also my least favourite film. On coming back to read it, I had anticipated finding it childish; several of my contemporaries suggested I would, and were you to place it besides Deathly Hallows the difference would be enormous.

Philosopher’s Stone is not childish, however. It is simple and direct, but never childish. It’s striking to see Rowling’s completely comfortable and streamlined prose, compared to the lengthier approach she takes later, and what stood out to me on re-reading was how many times iconic moments are rendered in a single paragraph. The story is still as dense in detail as I remembered (I have often found that opening books in series seem oddly light when returning to them, as they have yet to accumulate lore as they continue – Harry Potter is an exception, and I really believe the tales of how much of this Rowling had completely planned out.) To deepen this, I read it in concert with the read-a-long on Pottermore that grants access to occasional nuggests of new information; my borderline-autistic need for encyclopedic documentation re-arose in full force.

Likewise, her opening chapters with the Dursleys have taken on a completely different light. Largely forgotten as the preface to the magical world that follows, this time round I had new appreciation from the sharply satirical nature it takes, and the everyday monstrosity of the Dursleys. Perhaps its something about age; despite their clear villainy, it’s somehow easier to understand their need for picket-fence normality in the face of the wildness of whatever else lies outside.

That said, nothing has changed. I still want to run away to Hogwarts, and I’m still waiting for my letter. When embarking on this re-reads challenge, I was worried about how many of these books might prove to be a massive disappointment to me, and ruin my childhood memories (this happens frequently to me with films; watching Willow and Legend past the age of 20 was thoroughly galling), but Harry Potter at least doesn’t fail the test.

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