Harry Potter and the Secondary World

I went to watch the latest Harry Potter the other night, and it was alright. I’m not a massive fan of either the books or films, both of which I regard as readable and watchable, but nothing much more. Whilst JK Rowling (and the filmmakers) have a grasp of big events and the occasional clever moment, there’s something missing that I couldn’t put my finger on until now.

I think Harry Potter is one of the first examples (there have been others since) of 21st Century literature. It’s a perfect example of this new generation of fiction that makes low demands on an audience and readership and favours events and rigid exposition over warmth and heart.

Don’t get me wrong, I think Harry Potter is a fairly big achievement, seven books, soon to be eight huge films and all manner of merchandise to boot, there has to be something there. But I don’t think what’s there is quite the same as Rowling wants to achieve.

Fantasy is about building a world. A completely true statement to an extent. However, the problem most fantasy writers, and sci-fi writers as well, seem to come across is far too much focus on this world-building aspect. Writing maps, biographies, histories, drawing pictures of places is not writing a fictional book. It’s creating a game world. A world in which people can speculate, imagine and play. Tolkien describes the concept of world building below:

“What really happens is that the story-maker proves a successful ‘sub-creator’. He makes a Secondary World which your mind can enter. Inside it, what he relates is ‘true’: it accords with the laws of that world. You therefore believe it, while you are, as it were, inside. The moment disbelief arises, the spell is broken; the magic, or rather art, has failed. You are then out in the Primary World again, looking at the little abortive Secondary World from outside.”

This idea can become a little obsessive for fantasy writers, but a lot of them, Rowling included, miss the point.

Take for instance, one of the minor villains of Tolkien, Gollum, or as he’s originally called ‘Smeagol’. Tolkien, an English language professor has deep set origins for his characters names, for instance Sméagol” bears strong resemblance to Old English smēaġan, a verb meaning “to ponder”. For people who are not scholars, this isn’t something that strikes you too much. If you are an expert (like Tolkien) in the use of Old English then you may notice this similarity, but it would not detract from the overall enjoyment of the story.

This is where Harry Potter comes in. Take one of the minor villains of the story, Dolores Umbridge. Recognise that surname? It’s identical, in pronunciation (if not spelling) to umbrage, a word that means:

1.offense; annoyance; displeasure: to feel umbrage at a social snub; to give umbrage to someone; to take umbrage at someone’s rudeness.
2.the slightest indication or vaguest feeling of suspicion, doubt, hostility, or the like.

And that’s essentially her character in one fell swoop.

And that’s not the only character who Rowling does this too, what about Harry’s Godfather, Sirius Black? Who turns into a Black dog. Sirius was Icarius’ faithful dog, who was changed into a star. Pretty much predicates exactly what happens to the character in the books. Other characters have closely written names, Hagrid is haggard, Snape snaps at the children, Cornelious Fudge fudges things.

Now look back at that Tolkien quote, where he talks about bringing our minds into this Secondary World. The one thing that detracts from a story is anything reminding us of the existence of this Primary World, it brings people out of the story and reminds them that they are reading fiction. Rowling’s problem in the books is that so many things have reference to things in our world, that don’t require it. I’m not arguing that a pen has to be something completely different in the Harry Potter world (because it does, after all take place in a vague side universe alongside our own, and events bleed together). But do we really need the main villain to be named after the French, “vol-de-mort” meaning “flight from death” (meaning literally escaping death). Literally naming your characters exactly what they are like is not world building, it’s lazy writing.

Structure is also something that modern fantasy seems to be confused about. Lord of the Rings is deceptively simple. There’s an evil ring, and it needs to be thrown into a big volcano. Simple. Harry Potter? There’s an evil wizard, and he’s split his soul into seven pieces and hidden them all in different places, so we’ve got to find these seven pieces of his soul and destroy them. That, to me, doesn’t sound like literature. It doesn’t sound like a story. You know what it sounds most like to me?

A video game.

There’s 21st century literature for you. A new post-millenium fantasy/sci-fi structure. No need for simple plots. Why not just write your role-playing game down on a piece of paper and have at it with levels, and bosses. Harry Potter has severely structured stories. Every single book is almost identical. Harry starts a new school year (even the story set outside of the school takes place within one school year, more or less) with Harry starting off simple and happy, learning new spells and tricks and new characters. Along the way he has minor battles and takes part in mini-games of Quidditch whilst mystery upon mystery piles up until, ta-da the final boss rears it’s head and Harry uses all these new skills he’s learnt in this book to defeat it. Then there’s the mandatory cut-scene in which Dumbledore explains everything (even after he dies, this still happens).

This isn’t classic fantasy structure. This is a Playstation game.

And maybe this isn’t a bad thing. Maybe this is just what the audience of today demands, the kind of level based structure where your characters grow stronger, learn new skills and gain new items like they’ve just gained a hell of a lot of XP. Is this what we, the audience demand? Are these stories not Rowling’s fault at all, but an audience reared on serialised gaming, where they can log in to a whole fantasy world and live out their own story one chapter at a time. Did they bring this on?

It’s hard to say. I can certainly understand how an audience raised on these stories would fall in love with the Harry Potter series, even if they shy away from other copycats but maybe publishers should, instead of trying in vain to please people, show us something new. Do something dramatic. Don’t let an elderly man with a penchant for being quirky, explain everything. That’s called telling. And that’s writer’s rule number one.

Let’s be honest here, Rowling’s series isn’t the only one to subscribe to videogame rules of engagement. There’s plenty of soft targets out there, Dan Brown & Laurel K Hamilton, stand up and take a bow. But when you go back and look at Lord of the Rings, or even The Hobbit, you get a feeling that sometimes genre fiction can be so much more than an angsty, partially sighted, orphaned, bullied, scarred, uneducated boy who lives in a cupboard under a staircase completing a video game.

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