A Hollow Promise: Harry Potter and the Betrayal of the Readers

A HOLLOW PROMISE: HARRY POTTER AND THE BETRAYAL OF THE READERS

by Kat Clements (alias Hikari Katana)

Word Count: 996

Rating: G (suitable for all audiences)

Summary: A discussion on the sudden shift of mood found in the Harry Potter series and how disillusioned some of its readers.

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Image credit: Suzanne Williams

 

 

It took my friend Sarah two years to convince me to read the Harry Potter series. 

I was in middle school and, as an introverted misfit recently transplanted from homeschool to Catholic school, I had a certain level of contempt for anything popular. I’d also read an article about the smash-hit phenomenon of Harry Potter in a Time for Kids magazine, and that only hardened my resolve to never crack open any of those tomes. I remember thinking how weird and dumb the names and words were. I mean, who calls a school “Hogwarts”? Having read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings only a few years prior, I still believed that a “real” fantasy saga should possess names with the proper level of gravitas.  

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire was hot off the presses when I finally caved to Sarah’s entreaties and consented to at least read the first book (more to stop her nagging than out of any real interest.) 

To my utter shock, I found myself devouring the series and looking hungrily for more. The unique fun and charm of Hogwarts and its inhabitants drew me in; it was unlike any other fantasy I’d ever read. I had sort of a vague idea that wizards and witches had to learn magic, but always pictured it in a medieval or monastic setting, or in a Jedi Master and Padawan style of instruction. This was the first time I’d encountered a story with characters roughly my age in relatively modern times that actually showed you how wizards learned. (Jane Yolen’s novel Wizard’s Hall predates Harry Potter by eight years, but I didn’t learn of its existence until after I’d been introduced to J.K. Rowling’s work. Both authors say the similarities between the books are purely coincidental.) And so I found myself under the same spell as much of the English-speaking world, clamouring for more of Harry’s adventures. 

The year 2003 arrived and with it rose Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. I couldn’t wait to get my hands on it. Things had gotten pretty serious with Voldemort’s resurrection, and I wanted to know what happened next. So I settled down and began to read. Within the first chapter I paused, checked the cover to make sure I’d picked up the right book, and continued, albeit with a deepening frown. This book seemed to be set in the same world. The details were the same, the character names, the events that they referenced… and yet this didn’t feel like a Harry Potter book. It felt… dark. Angsty. Adult. Harry was a jerk, everything felt emotionally jagged, and one of my favorite characters died!

I couldn’t believe it. I hoped that this was an aberration, a single-book dive into the darkness. Unfortunately, this trend continued, and in many ways became even worse. I kept reading because I wanted to know what happened, but this was not the story I’d signed up for.  

Now, I don’t want to browbeat people who enjoy the latter Harry Potter books. I can even understand their argument about having the books become darker as Harry matured and the stakes rose. I get that from an artistic perspective, I really do. But I didn’t like it.

The reason I enjoyed the first four books in the Harry Potter series was because of their balanced mix of levity and danger. Yes, Harry and his friends get into lots of scrapes and face real dangers. But there was a certain whimsical charm that never really left them. There was never a sense that characters I deeply cared for would die, even though lots of other bad things could (and did) happen. Some people dislike that sense of security in a book, but I prefer it, especially with younger protagonists.

The angst from book five onward was jarring compared to the relatively lighthearted tone of the previous ones. Because I had no idea that this change would occur or that it would happen so fast, I ended up being emotionally sucker-punched. I felt like I’d been given two separate continuities that got mashed together by accident. I’d signed up for one story, but halfway through got another one that didn’t match. (It didn’t help that the last two books, The Half-Blood Prince and The Deathly Hallows, felt rushed, like they needed another few rounds of editing before going to the printer.)

 The worst part is that I don’t think this abrupt right turn was necessary. I feel like the series could have maintained the original tone without sacrificing the sobriety and import of the latter half of the story. There have been other books that managed it, like Deltora Quest by Emily Rodda, The Unicorns of Balinor by Mary Stanton, or Song of the Lioness and Circle of Magic by Tamora Pierce. While these books may not be the exact same type or have the same style as Harry Potter, there was a certain level of consistency maintained throughout their series that helped avoid tonal whiplash. I know that J.K. Rowling claims that she mapped out the entire story of Harry Potter before writing the first book, so all of this may have been intended, but I never really recovered my love for the series after this deviation.

In the end, while I still say that I like the Harry Potter series, it comes with a huge caveat. When I picture the universe of Harry Potter or say I’m a fan of the series, I’m referring strictly to The Sorcerer’s Stone, The Chamber of Secrets, The Prisoner of Azkaban, and The Goblet of Fire. The darker, adult tone of the last three books felt like a betrayal of the promise of the original four. While I don’t begrudge the enjoyment others take in the series as a whole or those who liked the later books, I remain wistful about the rest of a story that none of us will ever read.

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One thought on “A Hollow Promise: Harry Potter and the Betrayal of the Readers

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  1. I couldn’t agree more with your synopsis, Kat! I feel like the overall plotline of Harry Potter became extremely unsettling because the mood shifted so dramatically. I feel like there are two tones that stories have: one is objective (the action taking place) and the other is subjective (the general “feel” of the story as a whole and the level of security it assures the audience). I don’t have a problem with dark material per se, but it must be properly introduced and fleshed out so as not to cause what you aptly described as “tonal whiplash.” For example, I can appreciate things like The Hunger Games and Planet of the Apes because we expect them to be dark in mood and they do so artfully. But HP went from being a sort of fun child’s bedtime story to an apocalyptic political intrigue in which things not only got super complicated but also downright gory. You know how I feel about both Dumbledore and Snape’s deaths; just way over-the-top in my opinion. I think a lot of this may derive from Rowling feeling the pressure to “hike up” the series as it grew more popular, and also possibly difficult times she was going through in her own life that left her suffering severe depression. I do agree with you that it would have been interesting to have been able to read the series as it might have been, a less gruesome, gentler finale which still managed to use elements of danger without going too far with it. Maybe you should take a shot at writing the great “what-if!” 😉

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