Never one to shy away from stating the obvious, below I am going to examine their arguments in full, starting with Bloom. At current writing, I do not know whether I "agree" or "disagree" with either Bloom or O'Brien. Rather, I am writing this break-down as an examination, and we shall see where we stand when we arrive at the end.
Harold Bloom does not begin well when he likens the popularity of Harry Potter to that of Tolkien--something that is inexplicable and cheap, that will wane with time. Then he makes the claim (as many have, I am told) that Harry Potter is not well written.
|Harold Bloom and JRR Tolkien|
Now, if he means that the lexicon is limited and the syntax straightforward, he is right. It is a children's book, however, and the first of a series: it is to be expected that it will start simple to attract a young, wide audience.* But fair enough, I'll give him that.
If he means in terms of plot, I'm not sure I follow (no pun intended). The plot is engaging, grabbing the reader in from the first page and keeping the events fresh but relevant. I suppose he is looking for something more cerebral, like a late Henry James? A novel of manners, like Jane Austen?
As for the characterizations, I cannot see how they are simple or one-dimensional. Quite the contrary. There are layers there to Snape and Dumbledore that are communicated very well for the simpleness of the novel.
Rowling also draws from tried-and-true mythological traditions. Perhaps Bloom is looking for something revolutionary? But then, canon is a predictable cycle of action and reaction, each new literary movement a direct opposite from the one preceding it, so often the novelty of a novel (see the irony** there?) is overstated and over-represented by the juxtaposition, and truly "new" literary inventions are much rarer than first made out to be. So is Bloom disapproving of Rowling's following of the (very successful) conventional literary formula? (See * below.) It seems this is the case, when he says that Harry Potter does not posses an "authentic imaginative vision."
|I know his intentions are good, but after reading the HP essay,|
it's such a presumptuous title!
Rowling has taken 'Tom Brown's School Days' and re-seen it in the magical mirror of Tolkein (sic.).*** The resultant blend of a schoolboy ethos with a liberation from the constraints of reality-testing may read oddly to me, but is exactly what millions of children and their parents desire and welcome at this time.
Yes, okay. Well . . . so?
In what follows, I may at times indicate some of the inadequacies of "Harry Potter." But I will keep in mind that a host are reading it who simply will not read superior fare, such as Kenneth Grahame's "The Wind in the Willows" or the "Alice" books of Lewis Carroll. Is it better that they read Rowling than not read at all? Will they advance from Rowling to more difficult pleasures?
Ah, now I see. He's concerned for the youth. c;
Rowling presents two Englands, mundane and magical, divided not by social classes, but by the distinction between the "perfectly normal" (mean and selfish) and the adherents of sorcery. The sorcerers indeed seem as middle-class as the Muggles, the name the witches and wizards give to the common sort, since those addicted to magic send their sons and daughters off to Hogwarts, a Rugby school where only witchcraft and wizardry are taught. Hogwarts is presided over by Albus Dumbeldore as Headmaster, he being Rowling's version of Tolkein's (sic.)**** Gandalf. The young future sorcerers are just like any other budding Britons, only more so, sports and food being primary preoccupations.
He's absolutely right about the two Englands, something I find delightful about Harry Potter, from the first time I picked up The Sorcerer's Stone years ago. It's the typical set-up for a fairy tale, the mundane of everyday weighing heavily on the reader via the character; only too soon to disappear, we know, else we would probably put the book down and cease reading (or we'd have been reading Virginia Wolf to begin with). And yes, there is a caricature of normal people as "mean and selfish," but I see parallels there to other children's authors such as Roald Dahl and Lemony Snickett. Does the caricaturing make it unacceptable, but (and correct me if I'm wrong, really) doesn't Charles Dickins do a bit of that as well? And is the flat-out, accurate-in-all its-ugliness depiction of human depravity in stories such as Heart of Darkness acceptable?*****
The statement about those "addicted to magic" seems inaccurate, as it is clearly shown that magic is an inherited trait and not something achieved by mere wishing. Bloom says that the reasoning for Harry's being handed to the guardianship of his aunt and uncle is never disclosed by Rowling, but I've been told by those knowledgeable of the series that this is not the case. So there's some inaccuracy about the books, which, if not undoing his points, certainly throws uncertainty on his credibility. He goes on about Harry's upbringing for a while, and I gather that his issue so far has been with HP's conventionalism. So Rowling's is a sin of unoriginality.
"A born survivor, Harry holds on until the sorcerers rescue him and send him off to Hogwarts, to enter upon the glory of his schooldays." Point well made.
He admits the admirability of Harry in the climax [SPOILERS], then says, "Why read, if what you read will not enrich mind or spirit or personality?"
Now, as far as I have read, Harry Potter is not a challenging, game-changing story. But I have to protest the implication that reading it will not at all enrich mind, spirit, and personality. What is the anthropomorphic castle if not an introduction to the Gothic genre? And the Flamels' longevity coupled with Voldemort's rabid lusting for the Stone (and the blood of innocents) if not a grammary to Paradise Lost? On the contrary, I think Rowling's borrowing of these classic elements is essential to and accountable for, at the very least, some of the interest in Harry Potter, beyond action in the form of zipping brooms and hi-jinks with clever and uncomfortable spells. To the meat of the story, those things are pink fluffy frosting; they give a temporary sugar-high, no doubt, that distracts from the more substantial substance (seewhatIdidthar?) of the story; but the ingredients for a good, sturdy recipe are present underneath, and they remain when the saccharine "tricks" and "spectacle" fade. And yes, it is a recipe, in the sense that is a formula. But we follow recipes and formulas because they work.
Finally, the zinger:
I hope that my discontent is not merely a highbrow snobbery, or a nostalgia for a more literate fantasy to beguile (shall we say) intelligent children of all ages.
So, there it is: literary fantasy beguiles. It can't be worthwhile if it isn't true, or based in reality, or boring realism, or fantasy treated as realism (Henry James again?). But the same doesn't stand for The Odyssey and the Arthurian romances . . . or did the people back then just not know any better, and so are excused from providing better fare for the literary canon? Or is it only okay when it's satire, like Mark Twain? Or when it's overwhelmingly dark like The Picture of Dorian Gray?
Is our lad Harry Potter on par with the greats, worthy to take his place alongside Shakespeare and James Joyce and The Canterbury Tales? I don't think so, at least not at this point in the execution of my Harry Potter Project. But I can't see how the reading of it is worthless and without merit entirely.
And I think "common" readers realize that. As Chesterton would say, regarding the "awful authority of the masses," sometimes our humanity instinctively leads us to what is good and affirming. Something unknown within us responds to truths never named: that friendship and self-sacrifice, and standing by what's right in the face of impossible pressure, is more than mere escape, but a glimpse toward that which the soul knows and misses, and not something to be swept up in the "dustbin of the ages."
* The "stretching his legs" cliches he mentions on page 4 I happen to like, as it establishes the "this is just an ordinary story about an ordinary family" tone before jumping into the Shocking Reveal--this is more a sense of trite storytelling, as I am sure of the art and intelligence of Rowling enough to know that she could do better if she'd wanted to. Then we wander into territory that asks, "Is using pre-established formula considered bad form for literature?"
** I'm probably not using the correct definition of "irony" here!
*** You should see my expression as I acknowledge the glaring spelling error. Let's hope it's a typo.
**** Still trying hard to believe it's a typo.
***** Would Harold Bloom accuse me of peacocking by dropping my knowledge of literary canon? Probably, but he'd be wrong about that, too.