Will the real Harry Potter please stand up?

The following is a critique of the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling, and a proposed replacement for books 6 and 7, believe it or not, from the world of fan fiction. Edit: Note, the proposed replacements are available for free, in HTML and PDF.

Spoiler Warning: I won’t go out of my way to reveal things, but I’m not avoiding it either.

There is a long-running game show called To Tell the Truth, where a panel of celebrities receives a brief description of a notable but obscure person, and then questions three people to determine which them is the person in question, and which are impostors. At the end of the show the host would say, “Will the real [whoever it is] please stand up?” Unfortunately, the Harry Potter in J.K. Rowlings’s books should remain seated.

Consider the setup: Harry Potter is a wizard who, as an infant, withstood the universally-fatal killing curse Avada Kedavra (because his mother’s love protected him). He is prophesied to defeat Voldemort, the most powerful dark wizard in modern times, perhaps in history. He has numerous powerful friends, and every opportunity to develop into a world-class wizard who actually has a shot at fulfilling the prophecy.

Harry Potter and the False Identity

Now consider the impostor presented in the books and movies: as a sixth and even seventh year, he is seemingly still dependent on Expelliarmus and other second and third year spells when confronting death eaters. It’s true the majority of his Defense Against the Dark Arts instructors have been useless, but that’s another strike against him/Rowling: from a narrative standpoint, Rowling should have come up with some way for him to learn.

Harry compares poorly to his father. James Potter and his friends created the Marauder’s Map. Where is Harry’s (or Hermione’s) similar achievement?

Harry compares even more poorly to Snape. As a sixth and seventh year, Snape (the Half-Blood Prince) improved on his Potions textbook and invented spells. Again, Harry has no equivalent achievement.

Harry compares least favorably to Dumbledore and Voldemort. In the battle at the end of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Vodemort and Dumbledore show what truly capable wizards can do, and it is laughably beyond what Harry and his comrades have mastered. The books make no mention of a Wizard’s College beyond Hogwarts, but there must be one because the spells Dumbledore and Voldemort do, they obviously aren’t teaching at Hogwarts.

You Call This a Story?

There are other glaring weaknesses to the books besides Harry’s (and his friends’) lack of development after about the third year. The introduction in book 6 of the concept of Horcruxes is late in the narrative, especially given that one of them (Tom Riddle’s diary) is introduced but not identified in book 2. With the large number of Horcruxes to be retrieved, book 7 was almost guaranteed to feel rushed as the characters hurry to clean up Rowling’s mess.

At the same time that it feels rushed, book 7 feels slow. The interminable camping trip that fills the middle third of the book is awkward and dull.

The death and resurrection plot point is too obviously a Christian metaphor.

The battle between McGonagall and Snape again demonstrates stunning difference between Harry (or any of his friends) and a competent wizard.

The justification for Snape’s change of heart is unsupported, out of left field, and ultimately doesn’t fit with his previous treatment of Harry. Snape dislikes Harry because of his similarity to his father, James Potter, who mistreated Snape while they were students at Hogwarts, but wouldn’t Snape also like Harry because of his similarity to his mother, whom Snape loved? There is no logic to it, and it rings false.

The battle of Hogwarts is ridiculous — if Death Eaters were that easy to kill, why were they ever a threat to begin with? Later, Molly Weasley’s battle with Bellatrix Lestrange makes this point again. Unless Mrs. Weasley’s favorite hobby is dueling, why is she any sort of match for a seasoned Death Eater. Isn’t the whole point of dark magic that it’s more powerful than normal magic (or why use it?) and therefore the good and noble protagonists must be that much better than their evil antagonists to overcome them?

Finally Harry’s ultimate victory is simple deus ex machina. The less said about it the better

The Real Harry Potter

Now for the risky  part: the proposed replacement. They are called Harry Potter and the Veil of Mystery, and Harry Potter and the Ring of Reduction. The author goes by the name Semprini. I’m not sure where the canonical version resides, but you can find the books:

These books surpass Rowling’s unfortunate efforts in nearly every way, in some ways by a great margin. In non-spoiler terms:

  • The explanation for Harry’s survival as an infant is slightly different, but consistent, and serves as the foundation for the rest of the books.
  • Harry’s power (and his friends’) is shown to grown believably to a level where he is a credible threat to Voldemort.
  • The prophecy, in particular the phrase, “…he will have power that the Dark Lord knows not…” is very nicely fulfilled.
  • Hermione especially demonstrates more and more advanced spells as the books progress.
  • The action is better.
  • The books are more fun.
  • The Death Eaters are a more capable threat.
  • The explanation for Snape’s treatment of Harry makes much more sense, and serves as a major plot element through HPatRoR.
  • Story elements from several of Rowling’s previous books are dealt with more satisfactorily in these books than in Rowling’s own 6th and 7th books.
  • The writing is very serviceable. The pacing is good, the story is convincing, there are too many exciting moments to count.
  • The author’s friends, serving as editors, did a good job of minimizing any glaring grammatical issues. My only significant complaint is the repeated use of subjective pronouns where objectives should have been: “I know you weren’t training Neville and I with the  idea that you’d be using us this soon.” A few awkward phrases are used too often. A minor complaint is that Hagrid’s accent seems too thick.

That said, the books aren’t perfect. They’re extremely long, albeit well paced and engaging. They tend to be dialog-heavy. Some of the plot elements are heavy-handed or preachy. But the overall result is far superior to Rowling’s books, and it’s a shame that the movies won’t be based on these books instead.

Spoiler

Finally, a caveat. The books propose a slightly different explanation for how Harry survived the killing curse as an infant: his mother’s love invoked an alternate form of magic, based on love itself. Once Harry realizes this and begins to use the “power of love” his magical abilities begin to grow dramatically. This serves as the foundation for both books, and it can be a bit off-putting, but it’s used consistently: the friends have to overcome their shyness/reservations/discomfort to develop an enhanced sense of closeness and warmth to use the new magic (Ron has the hardest time of it), and the friends’ budding romances are portrayed in some detail.

The first time I read the books, I had to make a conscious decision that I was going to accept the “power of love” element, but the second time it came easily.

The impact of the books on me was notable: as the characters (Harry in particular) focused on their sense of closeness to each other, I found myself feeling closer to my friends and loved ones. It’s not often that a book has that kind of impact.

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One thought on “Will the real Harry Potter please stand up?

  1. steve

    Honestly, I basically agree with everything you wrote.
    Still, I have no favorites between the original and Semprini’s version.
    I’d also notice you left out the third(8th) book entirely.
    I liked semprini’s version. It had a really good pace and even though it’s over 1000 pages each, it was hard to put down.

    however:
    – awful lot of dialog
    i don’t need every joke explained to those in the book who don’t understand it
    I don’t want to read literally over a page on how much they enjoy being together
    I don’t want to read six pages on wizard politics, i seriously found myself skipping entire pages at one point.

    -These books should have been about 750-800 pages each

    Also, i noticed that they act american….
    they don’t call eachother mate and such….
    the other seemed to have forgot that they’re british

    Reply

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