I know this series has been talked up quite a bit over the years, so I won’t go into a huge amount of detail here. I’m writing this largely as an example of another modern juvenile fantasy body of work to which I compare other modern fantasy works. (The argument that L.M. Boston’s works from not the previous generation but that of the children’s grandparents is weakly valid, if librarians are trying to get kids to read but the kids want books with characters “like them”. The Narnia and Little House books still seem to be going strong, however.)
Just in case anyone missed the media coverage of the books, the movies and the attempts at banning both: the Harry Potter books are about a boy who survived an attack from the most powerful wizard in the world, which killed both Harry’s parents when he was only a year old. Dumbledore, head of the wizarding school in the UK and general all around powerful respected wizard, decided to leave Harry with the Dursleys, a family comprised of his mother’s sister, Petunia, Petunia’s husband Vernon and their horrid son, Dudley. (Trust me, Dumbledore’s reasoning is sound.) The Dursleys, a non-magical family, do not treat Harry terribly well, locking him in a broom closet at night, cramming him into Dudley’s outsized cast off clothing and sending him off to their batty old cat-loving neighbor, Mrs. Figg, whenever anything remotely pleasant is planned for Dudley. Shortly before Harry’s eleventh birthday, he begins to receive letters from an unknown school, Hogwarts, informing him he has a place there as of September first. All this is a mystery to Harry, as he has no idea what his heritage is.
Mystified, Harry sets off for this new and magical1 world, wand and owl in hand, hoping he’ll do well and not realizing he’s already well known as the “Boy who Lived”. Over the course of the next seven years he learns about his own past and that of his family, and the ins and outs of spellcasting and Quidditch (think soccer played on flying broomsticks, with not one but three flying “balls”) More importantly, however, he fends off several attacks by the biggest wickedest strongest wizard the magical world has ever known–so nasty that people avoid even saying his name aloud: Voldemort, usually referred to as “He Who Must Not Be Named”. These encounters begin indirectly, with Voldemort a bodiless spirit of sorts controlling one of the teachers and end with Harry and Voldemort confronting one another directly. The boarding school environment may be more familiar to older residents of the UK, and fans of Tom Brown’s School Days style literature; while it may have been mildly perplexing to Americans–there were a few moments which left me scratching my head–American kids seem to have figured it out reasonably well or at least accepted it and moved on.
…and well, for the rest you’ll just have to read the books themselves–for the very impatient: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Harry Potter and the Half-blood Prince, and Harry Potter and the Botched Volleyball Serve…er, Endless Camping Trip…no, no, no, wait: it’s Harry Potter and the Deadly Red Herrings…sorry, Deathly Hallows.
To sum up for those who’ve not been following either the series or the debate about same: This series is both wildly popular and widely challenged, often for the exact same reasons, largely to do with Christianity (at least in the United States). Just to answer one question I’ve heard: no, you can’t learn functional magic from these books, as Rowling makes it clear that without innate talent, all the wand-waving you’re capable of will produce no more than a pleasant breeze and some upper arm development. I’d say that rather the books are about friendship, facing your fears, getting a good and appropriate education, discovering your heritage, and fighting what you believe to be wrong.
On the plus side, Rowling manages to work all those concepts comparatively seamlessly into the series. On the minus, well, kindly I’ll say that she wrote faster than she could solve or unravel problematic plot devices and potential discrepancies. This was most noticeable for me in the last three books; though it may sound odd for a series that totals over 3,000 pages, it seems to me that Rowling was trying to cram too much plot into too short a span.On the plus side (and this is important to me), Rowling allows the characters to change and mature over the years the books cover. Harry matures from a little boy, eager for sweets, to a young man who is, while not quite done maturing, now ready to face what is perhaps the most frightening thing any of us will ever do: his own death, and even go to it willingly to save his friends pain. (For those who’ve not read the series: no, he doesn’t die.) On the minus, I’ve found some of the plot points to be just a trifle implausible, but that’s been discussed at greater length and ability elsewhere.
The short version of all that is they’re worth reading, though I expect the series’ popularity will continue to wane as the movies drift off into DVD and cable network lands. I’m not sure if they’re sturdy enough to pass the test of time that, say, the Narnia books have; they’re enjoyable fiction, but may not have the depth of inner meaning that allows books to last for decades. If they get kids to read, wonderful. If some of the child fans go on to investigate the “real” mythological underpinnings and underlying books from which Rowling derived her inspiration, even better. That’s as much as I could hope.
1in a couple of senses of the term