Tuesday, March 6, 2007

In Defense of L.O.O.N.ish-ness and problems I have with the Harry Potter books

In trying to think of a good title for my blog that was different from others, I harkened to the term League Of Obsessive Nitpickers from the Harry Potter for Grown Ups (HPfGU’s) list serv.

Last night I was talking on the phone with a local high school student whom I agreed to mentor in her senior writing project. In the course of our conversation, she brought up the subject of the Harry Potter series and asked if I was familiar with it. There was this awkward silence when I tried to figure out how to politely say, “yeah, in fact I’m in recovery from having overdosed in Harry Potter fandom politics.”

Yes, I will read the seventh book, but I’m not as excited as others to read the final installment. Because I’ve been greatly disappointed with the last two books. I admit that it is due to my own unreasonable expectations.

I haven’t spent anytime yet on this blog telling about my not so secret obsession with the Potterverse. Many of you who have stopped by and read my blog have come from my dear friend John Granger’s website where he does an amazing job of analyzing aspects of the HP books with a particular emphasis on alchemy and Christian symbolism.

First off, I want to stress that I adore the Harry Potter series. I do. I was floored when I first read the books to realize that the plot lines were intricately woven not only in each volume, but between the volumes. I had never read a series where things that were introduced in a previous book were clues laid for subsequent books.

I had initially read the books in November 2001 when the first movie came out. Having had experience in trying my hand at writing and adapting screenplays, I actually enjoy reading books and then seeing how a screenwriter condenses the plot, characters, etc. to fit the running time for a movie. I had read the first two books and was about halfway through Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban when I saw the movie.

I remember sitting in the movie theatre and watching as Hagrid fell out of the sky in the flying motorcycle and then feeling floored. I remembered then that he had said that the motorcycle belonged to young Sirius Black. A character briefly mentioned in the first chapter of the first book and then never again until book three where he was the titular character.

I went home and confirmed that indeed he was mentioned in the first chapter, in a throw off manner. As if it wasn’t really important. Just an amusing aside, except it wasn’t an aside at all. It was a clue for future plot points.

I was impressed.

I finished reading the third and fourth books (the series was only 4/7th completed at the time), then I began reading again from the beginning. I was so impressed that I began analyzing the plot structure. It was during my third or fourth read of the series and that I began dissecting things. I made lists of all the characters, all the potions, all the animals, etc. I didn’t realize that I was reinventing Steve Vander Ark’s wheel. I could have saved myself the trouble and merely looked at his website. However, it was good practice for me and honing my analytical skills.

After doing that, I started talking with others whom I knew had read the books. None seemed to share my intense interest in examining the evidence for clues of future plot points. I started to feel a little weird. Then I went online and discovered the global online HP fandom.

It was then I found my niche with the HPfGU list, which led to my writing online fan fiction at Fiction Alley, Portkey, Fanfiction.net and becoming a prominent ship debater. (Ship is slang for relation-ship and an immense amount of bandwidth was/is consumed with people arguing for various romantic pairings of fictional characters.) I spent a lot of time arguing why I felt the Harry/Hermione ship was the ultimate romantic pairing of the series. For those who are wondering, in the online community I am known as either Athena or Pallas Athena, and yes, I did represent the H/Hr ship at the Nimbus Symposium in Orlando in 2003.

My nerdy fandom creds are showing.

Back to L.O.O.N.s…I spent about eight solid months reading the HPfGU’s list and was fascinated by the level of discourse and intense scrutiny of the text (AKA canon.) People would ask a question and if they didn’t have a solid grasp of canon then others would chime in and cite from the books showing that their premise was wrong due to X,Y and Z in chapter 12 of the Chamber of Secrets (Cos). People were polishing their imaginary League Of Obsessive Nitpicker badges, and since I had taken the time to create my own schematic of the series I felt like I was one of their kindred spirits.

I wrote my own fifth year fic based on different theories I happened to favor that were spun on the HPfGU’s list, and one that was truly my original theory. Most have been totally eviscerated by new canon, but a few other minor points still might come true.

Thing is, I spent a lot of time considering where I thought canon was going to go in book 5. There are a few aspects that I didn’t know where Jo Rowling was going to go and so I consciously decided not to explore them. I expected that she would deal with it, but she didn’t and to me it is a gaping plot hole.

Most people don’t even recognize that there are things missing that bother me intensely. It is only when I point them out do they realize their omissions. The things that bother me the most were sins of omission and not sins of commission.

In my talk last night with the high school senior, she said how much she like Half-Blood Prince (HBP) and I felt guilty to say that I didn’t like it. Then I told her a few of the reasons why and afterwards she felt like she should have noticed these things as well.

Okay, here’s a list of what bothered me:

Barty Crouch, Jr.’s soulless body.

What happened to it? Here we have prima facie evidence that something grossly wrong had occurred. This man had been declared dead and buried at Azkaban prison years ago, and yet his living body is found at Hogwarts after the death of a student in the TriWizard Tournament. What? No investigation? And where did this zombie-like thing go? Is it hooked up to feeding tubes in St. Mungo’s?

Lack of penalty for assaults on students.

At the end of Goblet of Fire (GoF) and Order of the Phoenix (OotP), Harry and his friends attacked Draco Malfoy and his gang of Slytherins. They were left on the floor of the Hogwarts Express with footprints on them, or they were stuffed into an overhead bin.

So, why wasn’t there any disciplinary action taken after these assaults? I tell you I if went to the train station to pick up my child after a year of being in a boarding school and he didn’t come off the train safe and sound, I would hold the school accountable. If I had to go onto the train and I found my child unconscious after being attacked, I’d be livid.

I’d want to see those responsible punished. Severely.

I actually worked that into my fifth year fic, and I was critical in my reviews of others fifth year fics for not including something which I felt would naturally follow in the continuing narrative.

Jo didn’t see it the way I did. She not only forgot to have that in the beginning of the school year in OotP, but again in HBP.

No punishment followed Harry and friend’s physical punishments of the bad boys. What kind of message does that send to children? If you are favored by the headmaster you can do anything you like?

As a parent, I don’t like that at all.

Lack of respect for Sirius Black.

Okay, I’ll admit that I adored the fictional character of Sirius Black. I was just a sucker for a handsome man who was wrongly accused and imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit. I felt sorry for him having to live in Azkaban for 12 years, live in the Forbidden Forest for another year, and then subsist on rats and live in a cave for another.

I wanted so much more for his character. I wanted him to be safe, warm, well fed, have a romantic partner, and yes, I wanted him to be exonerated.

My fate for his character arc was so much different than Jo Rowling’s. She made him suffer, suffer, and suffer.

Then she killed him.

Then she really made me mad. Killing him was one thing, but her treatment of Sirius’s character after his death is what really infuriates me.

No funeral.

No memorial service.

No formal anything for Harry to grieve, or for anyone else to grieve the loss of Sirius Black.

Now, if there’s no body, it makes it hard to have a funeral, but you can gather people together to talk about that person’s life and what they meant to you.

She didn’t do that. Jo did have a funeral for Albus Dumbledore, which she needed to do.

Jo also had Hagrid blubber over the death of Aragog. Harry attended the service that his friend had for a monstrous man-eating spider.

Nice. Yet, no one could do the same thing for Harry’s godfather.

And what really bothers me the most about this is that I know that Jo knows better. She was asked after Goblet of Fire about bringing Cedric’s corpse back.

Saving Cedric's body reminded me of the Hector Patroclus Achilles triangle in the Iliad.

JKR: That's where it came from. That really, really, REALLY moved me when I read that when I was 19. The idea of the desecration of a body, a very ancient idea... I was thinking of that when Harry saved Cedric's body.


So Jo drew upon the classical poem the Iliad for Cedric, and yet she did nothing for Sirius after killing him off.

There is still a question in my mind as to whether or not Sirius was fully exonerated by the Ministry of Magic.

I Don’t Know The Answer. And it bugs me.

Okay, that’s all the time I have today to state the problems I had with the last two books. There are more, but that’s enough for people to chew on right now. If you’d like to share your thoughts with me, please feel free.


Josh said...

I recieved your e-mail and decided to come check it out. You pointed out several things I hadn't considered before. I have to agree that J.K.R. is definitely brilliant in some things, but in others really misses the mark, which has really come out in the last two books.

A big sticking point with me has been Umbridge's presence at Dumbledore's funeral. Here's a woman who tortured students and worse, yet is still scot free?

Anyway, good work. I think I'll subscribe to see what happens next :P

Anonymous said...

I also received your email to your former Fandom followers. I believe that most of the seriously obsessive Fandom followers got the same general impression from the last two books. They were rushed. You have pointed out a number of things I hadn't thought of, but there were many glaringly large plot holes in the last few books. Frankly, as a former fanfic reader, they were obvious because I had read them before.

The very first thing I expected to read in Book 6 was a lengthy explanation of just what would happen after Sirius' death. I had read dozens and dozens of fics, each with varying degrees of success, which analyzed and continued the plot from there. Almost every 6th year fic began with this fact and wove their description of the results. When we opened HBP, every fanfic reader noticed J.K.R. had missed something. Every other fanfic writer mentioned it, and yet she skimmed right over it. Some of the greatest fanfic writers, yourself included, approached the canon with deeper complexity than J.K.R. did herself.

Like you, I fell in love with the series because of the complexity within the texts. I just think poor Jo's been rushed by the market to publish these last few as fast as possible. I'll certainly read her last book and I am still amazed by and in love with the story.

Finally, I loved your fanfiction for the similar complexity and attention to details. I would love to read your series. I'm certainly not rushing you. I respect the lengthy creative process, but could you perhaps update regarding just how far you are in the writing process? Whether 5 or 15 years from now, I would like to read your story as I have loved your writing from the very first time I encountered it in fandom.

Linda C. McCabe said...

I am posting this for someone else:

I'm having trouble commenting, but I do agree with you
about the last two books, totally.

Unknown said...

I guess I have no need to explain why I agree with your post, although I admit that my perspectives are extremely shallow when compared to yours. ;)

I have to admit, though, I never did think about the issue of punishment or retribution for Harry and Co., for what they did at the end of Book 4 and 5. It may be seen as 'justice served' because of what their adversaries did to them during the school year (especially Umbridge's Inquisitorial Squad in Book 5) for which *they* apparently did not get punished, but still ...

As to the matter of Sirius Black. :sigh:

I cannot help but wonder if this was a conscious decision on the part of JKR, in the sense of "Well everyone else has done something about it, so why should I bother" kind of thing.

Or a deliberate move to "distinguish" (as in separate, establish a distinction) between her and the legions of fanfic writers (yourself included ;) ) who have, as w.li noted, started almost all 6th year fics with the question of how Harry and friends will deal with the demise of Sirius Black.

One thing which constantly niggles at the back of my mind was a comment by Alfonso Cuaron about directing HPPOA - "We took the story and trimmed it down to its bare essentials" (or something like that) which is why I never really liked the movie version. It may have it all as far as cinematic quality and scenery are concerned but its narrative sucks big time - I've had friends who saw the movie but not the book asking, what the *hell* was it all about?

I can't help but wonder if JKR took the same approach in Book 6 - 'trimmed' the story to its bare essentials - which meant a lot of (supposedly) extraneous details were thrown out.

Writer's prerogative, sure... but doesn't a writer have a responsibility to the readers for a "story well told"?

Sorry, didn't mean to rant here. ;)

philstar22 said...

Interesting. I think I agree with pretty much all of your points. I'm not sure about the punishment of Draco and Co. Given that they had been spouting pro-Voldemort sentiment, they probably didn't want it known who attacked them. As much as they were proud to be supporters, they wouldn't have wanted to spout such stuff in the hearing of the professors. Draco, whatever he is, isn't stupid. At least, that's my reasoning for the lack of punishment. It was probably simple pragmatism on Draco's part.
As for the disrespect for Sirius, I agree wholeheartedly. The lack of any reaction out of Harry in HBP was one of the things that bugged me most. GOF and OOtP showed that they were increadibly close. He should have had some sort of morning. His lack of such and his lack of much of a reaction to even Dumledore's death showed that this wasn't the Harry I'd grown to love.

Linda C. McCabe said...


I was also offended by Umbridge not suffering any legal retribution for sending dementors to Little Whinging. She admitted as such, but it seems that she paid no penalty for that crime.

She is someone like Percy that seems to be doing the bidding of evil out of ignorance and a zeal to please their superiors. Which was Fudge.

I still hope that JKR will reveal that he was EverSoEvil!Fudge and not just the EverSoIncompetentAndLame!Fudge that it appears she chose.

That's me and my dramatic preferences showing. Give me betrayal and evilness over bumbling idiocy any day. (That is only in my drama, not a wish for politicians on the world stage - there I wish for a working moral compass and competency.)


Linda C. McCabe said...

W. Li,
I was disappointed that Jo seemed more intent on saying "Sirius is Dead People Time to Move On" at the beginning of Book 6 than deal with the aftermath of the death of a major character.

In retrospect, she should have Done Something at the end of Book 5 in that regard. A small ceremony held in a grove with Dumbledore, McGonagall, Lupin, Hagrid and the Trio. Maybe even Molly and Arthur. He deserved a ceremony, even if he couldn't get a funeral.

The classic play Antigone is all about disrespect for the dead. She cannot accept the idea that her brother Polynices to be withheld funeral rites. And yet, JKR did that with Sirius.

It burns me up like no other subject in the series.

You asked about an update from me. I recently went to the San Francisco Writers Conference and spoke with three different agents who have asked to see partials. That means they want to see a sample of my writing. If they like it, then they'll ask to see the whole manuscript. If they like that, they may take me on as a client.

Then there's the whole dance of trying to find publishers.

I just sent my partial to a woman for one last critique before I send it off to the agents. Right now, I'm hopefully optimistic for my project.

I am still revising my full manuscript. Rewriting is a never ending task it seems.

And thank you for your kind words about my fanfic. I spent so much time puzzling things that I am now trying hard to use that same kind of hyper-scrutiny on the universe based on the legends of Charlemagne.


Linda C. McCabe said...

Gil and Ruth,

As a parent if I found my child attacked, I'd want to know who was responsible and seek their punishment. Whether or not my child did something horrific that provoked the attack would not be my first concern.

That kind of defense would be used to mitigate the culprits' responsibility later.

I just cannot see that Draco, Crabbe and Goyle would cover up their attacker's identities for any reason. He certainly wailed when he was attacked by Buckbeak, I can't see him granting Harry Potter any favors.

That set up just BUGS me. It doesn't fit. Instead it seems like Jo wanted to leave books on a somewhat high point of jabbing a metaphorical stick in a bully's eye to make the readers think, hey they got what was coming to them.

But leaving them unconscious on the floor of a train? Or packed in an overhead bin?


I don't care, that still makes Harry and Company out to be thoughtless, heartless bullies, and I don't like thinking of the White Hats in that manner.

And she did it twice.

As for Gil's thought that Jo wanted to distinguish her book from fanfics starting off with the topic of Sirius's death....No, I don't agree. I don't think she reads any fanfic. She knows certain theories in the fandom, but I don't think she spends anytime seeing how others use her characters.

I think she was simply plodding along her plotline, but hadn't spent time to think what the logical consequences of the past actions would have. And that I think is the problem I have with these omissions that I mentioned.

I know that I'll have to revisit this issue in future posts because there are other things that bugged me about books 5 & 6 that don't really seem to fit with the previous books' logic. Those are different because those are sins of commission and not omission.

Stay tuned.


Anonymous said...

I got your email and decided to check out the blog. I was very impressed by how you acted after HBP, by the way.

I don't agree that the Trio et al. not being punished after fighting Malfoy and his goons is a serious problem with the books, simply because the magical world as JKR writes has far more dangerous accidents than the Muggle world, but they're easily fixed - people break bones frequently and little is thought of it. The same really goes for fights: whatever the good guys did to Malfoy, it's not that hard to fix, because for all appearances there is little aside from serious dark magic that IS difficult for a talented wizard to fix.

Further, Malfoy becomes increasing more of a horrible person in the later books (until he becomes really 3-D in HBP, which shows him at both his worst and his most human). When Harry, Ron, Hermione, Fred, and George attack him in GoF, he has just finished threatening their lives - by all appearances, in all seriousness. No, parents wouldn't like their kids being beat up at school, but they wouldn't like neo-Nazis going around voicing death threats against ethnic minorities - which is pretty much analagous to who Draco is and how he was acting even at the age of 12 ("you'll be next, Mudbloods!").

With regards to OotP, there's the fact that HE ambushed and attacked HARRY - the good guys may have gone overboard in self-defense, but he initiated the attack.

To Josh: The point of having Umbridge at Dumbledore's funeral was precisely because seh WAS loathsome, to show that the Ministry - despite Fudge being sacked and their show of fighting Voldemort - is still extremely corrupt. I think that's really one of the best part of the book, that it's not just good guys vs. bad guys, there are some very strong political tones there as well. It's practically impossible not the draw connections between the arrest of Stan Shunpike and events in the US over the last few years - I don't think Rowling is trying to directly attack the Bush Administration, and the books would probably have been the same without the War on Terror, but there's no denying that she gets political.

Vibhor said...

I completely agree with your opinion on last two books and the points you made except the punishment in draco malfoy case,in my point in no way they would degrade themselves so badly in return for few detentions to others when voldemort is back {pride is a big issue for them}otherwise i think your points are more than valid specifically S.B and pairing one

Anonymous said...

I'm here from John Granger's board, where I'm mary (mary-j-59 on livejournal), and I enjoyed this very much. Believe it or not, I had not though of what happened to Barty Crouch Jr.s body; I have a feeling that, unless they are used as inferi, soulless bodies don't live very long, and it was in someone's interest (many suspect McGonagall; I suspect Fudge) to have Crouch competely, utterly dead. As for your other point-

Briefly, yes. I personally cannot stand Sirius, but it was clear that Harry loved him, and it was equally clear to me WHY Harry loved him. The man does have his good points, after all. And, although his death and its manner actually made sense to me (Sirius is impulsive, hotheaded, and would have come rushing to Harry's rescue at the drop of a hat - also he's a natural fighter, just like Bellatrix, and was having a ball fighting her) - well, as I said, the manner of his death made sense. But Harry's reaction absolutely did not. I was relieved by Harry in OOTP - at last! the poor kid was showing some grief and even fear (masked as rage) after all he had been through. And then we got to HBP, when Harry has just seen his beloved godfather die, and - nothing? No reaction at all? Harry seems to have turned off both his heart and mind in HBP, and it bothers me tremedously. I just cannot like him anymore. And his lack of realistic grief for Sirius is part of the reason. What you say about burial rites, or some kind of memorial service, is well taken, too.

Your other point - I think we are actually meant to see that the 'good guys' can be callous bullies. Sirius was, as a boy, and was not even slightly repentant as a man; Fred and George have been throughout the books and have never faced the harm they have done; and now, in HBP, Harry is shown being a bully. We see the first sign of that at the end of GOF. Rowling actually is dealing with shades of grey. All the same, up till HBP, Harry was clearly a better person than Draco and co, for all his flaws. Now - I'm not so sure.