I recently reread the Harry Potter series, and it left me with a lot of conflicting and confusing feelings. I usually don’t like talking about myself much, but I’m going to do exactly that in this post, and try (and probably fail) to unravel my thoughts articulately.
First, some background: I grew up with Harry, I was pretty much the same age as him when each book came out, and I was obsessed with the series as a teenager. I would spend most of my internet time visiting Harry Potter fan sites and reading fanfiction, I was a fixture in the Mugglenet.com chatroom, and I constantly speculated on what would happen next with my friends. I even started a fan magazine in my hometown, and ended up becoming somewhat famous locally as the authority on Harry Potter stuff. I was pretty proud of this at first, but towards the end of school, I got kind of tired of it defining my identity so much.
Naturally, when I went to college (where everyone reinvents themselves), I didn’t really mention Harry Potter to anyone, and I certainly didn’t reread it. (I still ended up winning second place in a Harry Potter themed trivia tournament, but it wasn’t the main thing people knew about me.) I was a bit embarrassed about how much it had defined me previously, and although I was still fond of it, I mostly tried to forget about it.
Anyway, it had been seven years since I’d read a Harry Potter book, and I was finally ready to reread them without all the identity baggage (or so I thought).
I was pleasantly surprised by the first book (Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone) – it was whimsical, engaging, and witty, and that also meant I wasn’t just delusional as a kid for liking it so much. It’s written in a somewhat different style from the other books; for example, I think it’s the only book that features scenes where Harry is present, but the scene is not told from his point of view (Ron and Hermione dealing with his broomstick trying to buck him off during a Quidditch match).
It took me a few weeks to read the second book (Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets), since it was always my least favourite of the first few. To my continuing surprise, I found it a pretty great read as well. The sense of whimsy isn’t as prevalent anymore, sure, there are flying cars and giant spiders and such, but people are actually in danger throughout the book and the whole school is paranoid. This makes the book’s atmosphere much more uncomfortable. Sorcerer’s Stone‘s plot is mostly driven by Harry and his friends’ curiosity – there’s no real sense of urgency except at the very end. It’s driven by a sense of discovery, not paranoia. In Chamber of Secrets,People in the wizarding world are consistently mean to Harry for the first time.
After this, I read the remaining five books pretty quickly. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, the third book, was always my favourite when I was younger, possibly because it introduced us to the wider wizarding world beyond Hogwarts – Hogsmeade, Azkaban, and expanded the mythology and history significantly with werewolves, Animagi, and a lot of new wizarding classes. I was also fascinating by the Marauders (they seemed so much more fun than Harry and his friends). I’m not sure if it remains my favourite after the reread – I certainly enjoyed it for all those reasons, but it continued the “paranoia” trend (Harry and everyone else around him is constantly afraid of Sirius, and that drives most things in the story).
I’ve been focusing on the paranoia so much because that was one of the things that bothered me about the series during this reread. There seems to be a severe lack of regular, decent, friendly people in the wizarding world – people are far too easily swayed by public opinion and peer pressure, and everyone seems far too proactive about doing the wrong thing. This is sort of addressed in the fourth book, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire – Cedric Diggory is all of those things, and of course, he ends up dead for it.
I actually enjoyed Goblet of Fire much more than I remembered, despite the continuing darkness (and starting the tradition of ending each book with the death of someone we like a lot). This is probably the book that Harry seems happiest in; he has a godfather that he can correspond with, he’s having a lot of mostly harmless adventures (even if they are scary in the moment), and puberty opens up a whole new world to him (although that feeling is only fun in retrospect). I also liked the further expansion of the world – more wizarding schools, learning more about house elves, merfolk, veela, and other non-human magical creatures.
Book five, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, was my other favourite when I was younger, and I had pretty mixed feelings about this one. I used to like it primarily because it focused a lot more on the Marauders, I think. Most of it was much more relaxed than the previous books (Voldemort is back, but other than that, there’s not a huge obvious threat hanging over Harry). It’s the first book since Sorcerer’s Stone to be driven by Harry’s own initiative – he leads Dumbledore’s Army, he researches what Voldemort’s looking for.
This is where Harry starts growing up enough to both be pretty unpleasant himself, and to notice all the adults around him being inconsistent and making mistakes. Sirius is too caught up in his own feelings about his house and his plight to actually do what he wants to do and help the Order, Dumbledore ignores Harry without considering what impact it would have on him, Umbridge continues the tradition of the wizarding world filled with pretty unpleasant people, even if they are not Death Eaters. Harry doesn’t ask enough questions, starts yelling at people when he’s mad, and generally is much less trusting than usual. I found it hard to be sympathetic to anyone in this book – my favourite characters were Fred and George Weasley.
Book six – I wasn’t very happy with Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince when I first read it, because I thought the concept of Horcruxes came out of nowhere, and all the focus on romance seemed misplaced, and how could Dumbledore die? None of these seemed to matter on the reread – Horcruxes made perfect sense with all the information we knew about Voldemort so far, hormonal teenagers are pretty realistic/amusing, and I wasn’t all that attached to Dumbledore anymore. I rather enjoyed the titular “Half Blood Prince” (Snape is easily the most compelling character in the series), and Malfoy’s humanisation was a welcome relief.
I had never reread Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, since it came out just before I went to college, so I was most interested in my reaction to it. I remembered nothing but a vague feeling of disappointment. Unlike most of the other books, which I got a lot more from this time around, I ended up actually disliking this book. The Deathly Hallows did come out of nowhere and seemed mostly irrelevant to the story, the constant focus on Dumbledore was really annoying and also seemed mostly irrelevant (yes, he’s not perfect, let’s move on), the Hermione-Ron romance should have never happened (even J.K. Rowling admits that!), and the lack of Hogwarts changed the tone of the book significantly, and not in a good way. The ending where Harry has to die but he gets to live because of love seemed really Doctor Who-ish (what’s with British media and the power of love trumping everything?) and terrible. The plot was also pretty implausible, even by Harry Potter standards – Harry and his friends escape from three of the most heavily guarded places in the wizarding world (Gringotts, the Ministry of Magic, Death Eater headquarters) through pure luck. The only thing I actually liked was Snape’s story (although I wish it wasn’t fueled by everlasting love).
One of the other main things that irritated me about the series as a whole was the house system and the treatment of Slytherin. First of all, sorting people by personality seems like a terrible idea – giving young, impressionable people less of a chance to deal with and learn from people with differing ideals. Slytherin in particular is treated as “evil”; almost everyone in it is cowardly and horrible (even the ones with redeeming qualities like Snape, Slughorn and Malfoy are all pretty unpleasant). If Gryffindor can have smart people (Hermione) and ambitious people (Percy) and even cowardly people (Peter Pettigrew), why can’t Slytherin have a few decent people? What’s the point of sorting? No wonder the wizarding world seems so prejudiced.
Okay this is long enough, but one last thing: I don’t want to give off the impression that I didn’t enjoy my reread – I did. Well, I was a bit annoyed by the last book, but I still like the series a lot, and I probably wouldn’t be so hard on it if I wasn’t so prone to over-analysing it and I could view it as just another book series – but I don’t think I’ve gotten to that point yet.