Harry Potter and the Retrospective, Part 1


If my discussion of the Harry Potter novels seemed to alternate between praise and criticism, that’s probably a fair reflections of my feelings. I enjoy the books, and even came to respect J.K. Rowling’s talents as a writer. I can understand why the series became so popular. At the same time, I can’t recall ever having read a work and been so impressed by some aspects of the writing but so frustrated by other aspects. A few small problems prevent the Harry Potter from truly fulfilling its promise.

Harry Potter and the Lack of World-Building

I’ve never entirely accepted the haphazard approach to world-building in the Harry Potter series. The books never clearly lay out the rules of the wizarding world, so I never entirely understood how everything fits together. I feel like the series introduced many magical “tricks” or “gimmicks” without accepting or even understanding the consequences for other parts of the story. Just to list a few examples:

  • Why don’t the wizards have stockpiles of Felix Felicis to help them during crises, such as the final battle against Voldemort in Deathly Hallows?
  • Why doesn’t the wizarding world take extra security precautions against Polyjuice Potion or the Imperius Curse?
  • Why doesn’t Hermione consider using the Time-Turner to go back in time to prevent Voldemort’s rise, Dumbledore’s death, or any of the bad things that have happened ever?
  • Why didn’t Voldemort or his minions try to use the Vanishing Cabinet in the Room of Requirement to sneak into Hogwarts before Half-Blood Prince?
Too bad there's no spell that could have increased their chances of survival...
Too bad there’s no spell that could have increased their chances of survival…

In short, if such useful magical devices or potions truly existed, I can’t imagine that wizards would use them so sparingly. These things should have consequences and affect how people in the story behave. Unfortunately the books just don’t make the case.

I forgave some of these plot holes and contrivances in Sorcerer’s Stone because that book had a more whimsical tone and featured Harry at a very young age. It made sense that he – and the narrative – might not explain all the rules of the wizarding world. However, in the later books, Harry learns more about the wizarding world. The narrative spends more time on plot details and world-building. Yet, I felt this sometimes retroactively undermined the world-building by coming up with explanations that don’t truly resolve the problem.

For example, in Half-Blood Prince, the Ministry of Magic warns against Death Eaters using Polyjuice Potion to impersonate other wizards. On the one hand, it’s good to see the series recognize the consequences of something it introduced way back in the second book. On the other hand, it begs the question of why the Ministry took no precautions before Voldemort’s return. As seen in Chamber of Secrets, it was relatively easy for Hermione to brew Polyjuice Potion. Barty Crouch, Jr. impersonated an Auror for an entire year and nobody caught him. So why don’t wizards use Polyjuice Potion regularly to impersonate other people? How does the Ministry prevent rampant identity theft? Half-Blood Prince suggests Rowling was aware of the problem, but the solution came too late to fully accept.

Harry Potter and the Expository Ending

There’s a lot of exposition in the Harry Potter books, especially near the end. Almost every book contains a scene in which the villain explains his plan, and then another scene in which a professor – usually Dumbledore – contextualizes the events of the book. In other words, the villain would connect the dots for Harry and then Dumbledore would tell him how they fit into the larger story. For example, at the end of Order of the Phoenix, the Death Eaters tell Harry about the prophecy and Voldemort’s plan to trick him into coming to the Ministry to retrieve it. Afterwards, Dumbledore recapitulates the death of Harry’s parents (yet again!) and Harry’s first five years at Hogwarts, adding new details he’d kept hidden from Harry in light of the prophecy.

So, Harry, here's what really happened...
So, Harry, here’s what really happened…

One of the most important rules in storytelling is to “show, not tell.” If something vital happens in the plot, it’s generally better to show it rather than have two characters sitting around discussing it. Showing events firsthand allows readers to develop their own impressions and interpretations. By contrast, relying on a character to explain those events forces an interpretation onto the reader as we see the events only through that character’s eyes.

I suspect Rowling relied so heavily on exposition because she limits readers to Harry’s point of view throughout the series. With a few exceptions, we only know what Harry knows and see what Harry sees. I generally like this approach because it creates the sense that we are accompanying Harry as he grows up. But it does limit the storytelling possibilities. Harry only experiences part of the overall story and understands even less. Like most kids, he needs an adult to help him make sense of everything.

However, I think Rowling could have reduced the series’ reliance on info dumps by integrating the major reveals more closely with the plot. For example, in Order of the Phoenix, she found a clever way to let Harry observe Voldemort through Legilimency. Harry would sometimes receive visions, which allowed readers to witness Voldemort’s actions without changing the point of view character. It’s certainly a better approach than simply having Voldemort or one of his henchmen summarize those events later on.

Next week, I conclude with a retrospective on what the Harry Potter series got right…

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