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» Hatrack River Writers Workshop » Forums » Discussing Published Hooks & Books » Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone

   
Author Topic: Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone
Sétanta
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It's boring and comparatively poorly-written. Am I crazy?

Lest I get harpooned here, I love the series and I love Jo. It's just interesting to see how she matured as an author. I remember reading book one, eons ago, and thinking... "sure. This is a world I'd be willing to go back to." But I was by no means blown away.

Now, re-reading it, I think I agree with myself (as is frequently the case). The prologue is slow, and the first few chapters are slow. It does not grab you right away, although I did feel pity for Harry pretty immediately. It's interesting to note that Dahl often did the "horrible family" but with him, the world was already whimsical and unrealistic enough, and the family so EXTREMELY off-beat horrible, that it always felt funny rather than abusive. HP straddles the whimsical world and real one just enough that reading it this time around, I was pretty taken aback at how pointedly cruel the Dursleys were, and it was less whimsical at times than just nasty.

Well, to keep with the forum topic, here are the first 13 lines of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's stone:

"Mr. and Mrs. Dursely, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. They were the last people you'd expect to be involved in anything strange or mysterious, because they just didn't hold with such nonsense.

Mr. Dursley was the director of a firm called Grunnings, which made drills. He was a big, beefy man with hardly any neck, although he did have a very large mustache. Mrs. Dursely was thin and blonde and had nearly twice the usual amount of neck, which came in very useful as she spent so much of her time craning over garden fences, spyng on the neighbors. The Dursleys had a small son called Dudley and in their opinion there was no finer boy anywhere."

... The first paragraph brings to mind Mr. Bilbo Baggins, who never had any adventures or did anything out of the ordinary, and liked that way just fine, thank you very much.

The second paragraph was about normal people being normal, and as such, was a bit dull.

What kept me reading originally, I think, was that her tone was humorous and didn't take itself particularly seriously. I was willing to bet that it wouldn't remain normal and boring for long - she was clearly foreshadowing the oddness to come.

What are your thoughts on this incredibly trite and overdone topic that you probably can't believe I had the nerve to start up? LOL.

S =)

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wetwilly
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I think Harry Potter is pretty boring in general, actually. I read the first 4 books, and each one was essentially 500 pages of hanging out at Hogwart's, followed by a fight at the end. Not a fan.
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Sétanta
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Well, to each their own, certainly! But to be fair, most books are 500 pages of hanging out SOMEwhere followed by a fight at the end. LOL!

I AM a fan, but I do think the plotlines got better as they got a little more mature, and her writing tightened up a bit (but not much, necessarily).

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Meredith
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Well, I'm not going to claim it's the best writing I've ever read, but story trumps that for me every time. And these have that. Yes, the first book is a little slow--more like it wanders off the main story line--but that's because it has so much to set up for the series as a whole.

I have a theory about series. The first book is where you fall in love with the characters and the world. The last book is where the conflicts that have been building finally blow up. And that's why the middle book(s) usually feel a little disappointing. Not in the Harry Potter series.

In my opinion, JKR's genius was to string out that falling-in-love period, because each book gave you something more to discover about her wizarding world.

HPatSS showed us Diagon Alley, the Hogwarts Express, Hogwarts, quidditch, the Mirror of Erised, a baby dragon, a centaur, unicorns (dead, unfortunately), the sorcerer's stone, etc.

But HPatCoS gave us house elves, a flying car (with a mind of its own), the whomping willow, a hippogriff, dementors, a basilisk, the first horcrux (though we didn't know it yet), and so on.

After HPatGoF (where the story shifts from middle grade to young adult, btw), the tone got darker and the new discoveries were as often tinged with horror as wonder, but there were still new things turning up all along the way, right up to the Deathly Hallows--the cloak of invisibility, the resurrection stone, and the elder wand.

That's what kept the overarching story from losing momentum in the dreaded middle. And the middle book, Goblet of Fire, is the one most filled with new things.

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Meredith
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As for the writing, there were still things in HPatDH that drove me nuts as a writer.

Stopping the action in the middle of the Battle of Hogwarts so Harry could go look in the pensieve.

That awful scene in the train station of death, which in the book turned into way too much of an info dump of inconsequential background material JKR hadn't worked in anywhere else.

But it doesn't mean I didn't enjoy the stories.

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Robert Nowall
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It's the only one I read, and that a while ago. Don't remember the exact wording of the beginning. But I did think the first chapter, something to do with toasting Harry Potter's birth, didn't have anything to do with the rest of it---that the story began with Harry Potter getting his invite to Hogwarts.

I've heard Rowling disowned any idea that Tolkien influenced her writing---something I found hard to believe, given the tone of that first book, and the choice of some names, particularly Dumbledore. (That name alone implies Rowling read deep into Tolkien.)

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MattLeo
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I happen to love the Harry Potter series, and Lord of the Rings too, but I can also tell you quite a bit about their faults. Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone is a first novel, and it has quite a bit of awkward writing in it. It's washed in a kind of twee that some people find tedious, others find mythopoetic, and which is neither here nor there for me. And there is the cringe-inducing adverb abuse which Rowling never quite gives up as her writing matures.

But Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone also does other things brilliantly, and indeed sometimes Rowling gets cheeky about how brilliant she is. Take Quidditch for example. The question is not whether Quidditch is an objectively good or bad thing; the question is why it works for so many people when it is so clearly contrived to be ridiculously, annoyingly complicated. The reason is that Rowling knows she's successfully got most of her readers identifying with Harry's quest to find a place where he fits in. Quidditch is essential to that quest, and so it's important to the readers who've fallen under her spell.

And lets consider the movie for a moment, which I didn't particularly like from a storytelling standpoint. But one of the amazing things about the book that when we saw the world of Harry Potter up on the screen we immediately recognized it. Stephen King compares this writing feat to telepathy: somehow the writer conjures a richer image in the reader's mind than would seem possible going by word count.

As for Harry Potter's resemblance to Lord of the Rings, that's not so much in HP&tPS; it comes later. My reaction puts Rowling in different company than Tolkien; I place her with the classic English detective story writers like Dorothy L. Sayers.

One of the things a detective story writer has to do is to pare down the universe of possibilities to something that is manageable but challenging for the reader. So excepting police procedurals, one thing a mystery writer almost always does is place the suspects in a constrained environment like a country house, a train, a ship, an island, etc. Within that environment she (usually it's a "she" for some reason) plots out two parallel storylines: the manifest storyline which is from the detective's POV, and the story from the antagonist's POV which the reader doesn't see until the detective uncovers it. The setting is a crucible in which the protagonist refines the truth.

This is exactly the form each novel in the Harry Potter series takes, except for the last one. As the series progresses the epic arc takes over, until the final book dispenses with the crucible because it's a plot coupon story.

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extrinsic
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Why do I regularly wonder if I've read the same narrative upon which others comment? Potter, for example. Not because the franchise is the third highest performer of modern Western literature after Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities and J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle Earth franchise, not because of sales, not because of popular and critical acclaim, not because the novels were interpreted for film and likewise were blockbusters, not because the franchise aged along with its target audience, not because the franchise speaks to an age range's life complications, not because the franchise holds appeals for all ages, not because the franchise captivated a generation and captivated global society for twenty years, not because of subject matters or themes or complications; because of the franchise's near invisible yet accessible composition strengths: satire, irony, folk mythology, event, setting, and character development depth, and timeless relevance, to locate a few.
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Robert Nowall
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By the way, in the United States, it's Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone.
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MattLeo
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quote:
Originally posted by extrinsic:
Why do I regularly wonder if I've read the same narrative upon which others comment?

Well if it makes you feel better I concur completely with your assessment of Harry Potter. It just goes to show that nothing is so good that it works for everyone. And since nothing is perfect people will always find justification for why they don't like something, and they won't be wrong, except maybe about why they don't like it. I always find those claims somewhat suspect.

I've come to distrust my personal like or dislike for a story as a basis for a critical understanding of that story. An author needs the reader as an ally, and a reader who is onboard will experience a story in a completely different way from one who is left cold.

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wetwilly
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In Rowling's defense, I read them as an adult (thirty-something), so I was not the target audience. I see why others, especially kids, dug it. Especially if you came up reading it when it was new. I had already absorbed most of it through pop culture, so none of it was new to me. In the end, it just fell flat for me.
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MattLeo
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quote:
Originally posted by wetwilly:
I had already absorbed most of it through pop culture, so none of it was new to me. In the end, it just fell flat for me.

Well, there's your problem right there. If you came to the series after watching the mediocre Chris Columbus movies then you lose a lot of the enjoyment of the books right there. The Harry Potter books are essentially mystery stories in a fantasy setting so reading the book after that is like reading Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None after somebody told you the surprise ending. It's bound to be less fun.
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Meredith
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MattLeo, we seriously need like buttons for these posts. [Big Grin]
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Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
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I have to say that one of the things that impresses me no end is how it all came together and worked over that twenty year period.

When we see too many television series that start with all kinds of intriguing possibilities and then watch them die slow agonizing deaths with "endings" that either don't make sense or seem to cheat the viewers who have actually stuck with them (LOST, HEROES, TWIN PEAKS, etc) and seem to prove that the originators could come up with exciting ideas, but didn't know how to follow through and resolve them satisfactorily and instead just stuck more weird ideas onto the old ones, making the story lines/arcs unbelievably and frustratingly complicated and incomprehensible,
I have to congratulate J.K. Rowling for how well her series wrapped up and resolved itself.

(I hope that made sense.)

If she was making it all up as she went along, she was a pure and absolute genius. I continue to be amazed at how something tossed off early on came to have strong relevance and significance later.

I hope this makes sense. It basically boils down to "Wow, that woman's muse was amazing!"

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extrinsic
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quote:
Originally posted by Kathleen Dalton Woodbury:
I have to say that one of the things that impresses me no end is how it all came together and worked over that twenty year period.

When we see too many television series that start with all kinds of intriguing possibilities and then watch them die slow agonizing deaths with "endings" that either don't make sense or seem to cheat the viewers who have actually stuck with them (LOST, HEROES, TWIN PEAKS, etc) and seem to prove that the originators could come up with exciting ideas, but didn't know how to follow through and resolve them satisfactorily and instead just stuck more weird ideas onto the old ones, making the story lines/arcs unbelievably and frustratingly complicated and incomprehensible,
I have to congratulate J.K. Rowling for how well her series wrapped up and resolved itself.

(I hope that made sense.)

Did, to me. I add Game of Thrones and the premiering now History Channel miniseries Texas Rising.
quote:
Originally posted by Kathleen Dalton Woodbury:
If she was making it all up as she went along, she was a pure and absolute genius. I continue to be amazed at how something tossed off early on came to have strong relevance and significance later.

I hope this makes sense. It basically boils down to "Wow, that woman's muse was amazing!"

Fully realized dramatic arc for each installment and the franchise overall is challenging to compose; the intensive planning is obvious to me and genius no less. Like, pre-positioned motifs serve dual purposes, or more, of foreshadowing and Chekhov's Gun, plus, of course, verisimilitude.

For me, another remarkable and noteworthy feature of the Potter franchise is how Rowling obviously planned the work to be interpreted for film. Very little interior discourse, and that set up so that it could be expressed on film without cinematic workarounds. The franchise is worth close study for that purpose alone. Potter or other forefront characters, or characters whose function is foils, express their thought reactions aloud. Film calls these "reaction shots." A consistent self-imposed rule example, for illustration.

Another noteworthy method is the narrative point of view is a covert narrator, [after a brief-prologue-like backstory setup and introduction of the narrative point of view]; camera like otherwise, whose report is what Wayne Booth labels the directly "received reflections" of viewpoint agonists. Seymour Chatman labels the method non-narrated narration. Both are excellent methods for casting a robust reality-imitation immersion spell and participation mystique, for third person or other grammatical person. Third a wise and crafty decision for its selective omnipresent strengths. Yet a detached narrator who is neither omniscient nor omnipotent. Real magic -- artful writing craft.

To say the work has shortfalls -- I'll remain mute about details; maybe say nine point nine out of ten on a best-craft possible, strengths to shortfalls, scale for the form's challenges. My enjoyment of the work is as much for effectual method as simultaneous engagement with the reality imitation creation, and, of course, that the franchise is a complete action in its parts and parcels and wholes. The larger story to me is an apprenticeship -- a coming-of-age, epic personal journey narrative. The tangible action of the puzzle, the mystery solved, is a surface package that contains the intangible maturation tableau, the moral human condition core. That latter action also a fully realized action.

Edited to add: The Potter franchise and installments are also as much slice-of-life vignette as drama, shared in common with James Joyce's Ulysses and David Foster Wallace's The Infinite Jest, though a fully realized drama that Ulysses doesn't attain, lacking a proportionate antagonism magnitude, and The Infinite Jest lacking a satisfying outcome end to otherwise suitable dramatic antagonism. Infinite Jest indeed.

[ June 04, 2015, 02:31 PM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]

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Sétanta
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'Twas listening to "Writing Excuses" (the podcast that landed me here), and the group kept saying, re: characters, that Harry was a boring character, that you didn't know what he wanted (e.g., in comparison to someone like Hermione), and that he had no accountability.

Well, I sort of agree with the accountability part, from a school discipline point of view. I think he was aware of the consequences of his actions on a bigger scale. But I know exactly what he wanted: to be part of something bigger, to protect his Mom and Dad's legacy, and to find a family he could be a part of. I don't think he was particularly boring, either. Did you?

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Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
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Boring? Nah. He cared deeply, he learned and changed and grew. He was an everyman character trying to survive and help those he cared about to survive in a very dangerous world that he was not native to and that he had to learn about in order to survive.

But then, I don't think Bella Swan was wishy-washy and whiny as some have said. I think she was self-sacrificing, and that Stephenie Meyers goofed by having the Twilight series told from Bella's 1st person point of view.

J. K. Rowling certainly didn't make that particular mistake, and I think it made what she created all the more engaging and powerful.

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Robert Nowall
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One other thought arises---"Harry Potter," the first book, was fantasy, all right---but it was also firmly in the tradition of the British "public school" genre, say like Tom Brown's School Days or R. F. Delderfield's To Serve Them All My Days or several P. G. Wodehouse books.

Having read some of those prepared me to handle that first Harry Potter book in a way fantasy wouldn't.

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JSchuler
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Harry Potter wasn't necessarily boring so much as he was surrounded by characters that much more interesting than he was.

Cracked did an After Hours skit/discussion on this main character design and why it works in cinema.

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MattLeo
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quote:
Originally posted by Sétanta:
Well, I sort of agree with the accountability part, from a school discipline point of view. I think he was aware of the consequences of his actions on a bigger scale. But I know exactly what he wanted: to be part of something bigger, to protect his Mom and Dad's legacy, and to find a family he could be a part of. I don't think he was particularly boring, either. Did you?

I think Rowling did something interesting with Harry's character that fans usually don't pick up on, but which people who don't cotton to the character frequently *do*. Rowling suggests there are aspects to the personality of charismatic heroes that aren't so attractive when viewed in cold, clinical isolation.

Rowling actually agrees with the people who read Philosopher's Stone and sided with Snape. Later on she shows us that Snape's bitter condemnations of Harry's character are all a true, but an incomplete picture. He *is* arrogant, self-righteous, and dangerously cocksure, as Rowling amply confirms in Order of the Phoenix. Despite her unsubtly hammering home the similarities between Harry and Voldemort, most people inhabiting the story through Harry's viewpoint skim over that without taking it as seriously as they ought to.

The resemblance heroism and evil are a major theme of the stories, and to make her point Rowling ruthlessly demystifies the character of Dumbledore and James Potter. For Rowling what ultimately separates the heroic from the evil is the nature of the connections they make to other people. The ultimate form virtue is the willingness to make a blind leap of faith in people you love even in the face of justifiable doubt. The most reflexively virtuous character in the Harry Potter universe isn't Harry, it's Lupin. When confronted with evidence that Dumbledore's devious master plan has failed, Lupin doesn't so much refute that as make a conscious act of will to believe.

What I find remarkable in the series is how she uses Harry's naiveté to build his emotional connection to Dumbledore and others, and then uses Harry's growing maturity to knock that scaffolding away. If Harry's faith were the mere absence of doubt, that would be the end of the story.

Now as to why callow, reckless, and privileged (to use cultural warfare parlance) Harry is such a compelling character in the first book, I think it has nothing to do with what will ultimately motivate him. How could it? We find those things out *after* we've become invested in Harry. Rowling gets us there in part by artful use of mythopoetic signifiers. Harry is a foundling, a foster-child. Right off the bat that marks him as special, like Moses or King Arthur.

But Rowling's real hook is the archetypal place she puts Harry in. He's eleven years old and his world is just opening up to him, but he doesn't see where he will fit. I'd say this is the critical question upon which your identification of Harry rests: do you still identify with yourself when you went through that universal experience of wondering where your place will be? If that's a question you've put behind you you'll see Harry in a colder, but in some ways more accurate light.

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JSchuler
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quote:
Now as to why callow, reckless, and privileged (to use cultural warfare parlance) Harry is such a compelling character in the first book, I think it has nothing to do with what will ultimately motivate him. How could it? We find those things out *after* we've become invested in Harry. Rowling gets us there in part by artful use of mythopoetic signifiers. Harry is a foundling, a foster-child. Right off the bat that marks him as special, like Moses or King Arthur.
I'd say being callow and reckless work in favor of a compelling MC, not against. It's easier to side with innocence and someone who avoids risk isn't going to wind up in interesting situations.

The privileged part is more interesting, as people also like an underdog. Harry, meanwhile, is already famous before he's been potty-trained, has powerful friends to go alongside his powerful enemies, and has a giant pile of gold waiting for him in a bank. Fame, power, fortune. He's no underdog.

BUT

His parents were killed and he spent his early years in a family that hated him enough to stuff him in a closet underneath the stairs and kept him ignorant of his great heritage. As a result, this privilege becomes wish fulfillment. Are you an ordinary kid in miserable circumstances? What if it turned out you were a great wizard? Here's a series that lets you pretend.

Being special isn't what makes Harry Potter compelling. Just the opposite. On the surface he isn't special. Until Hogwarts comes calling he could be any young boy.

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MattLeo
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My daughter and I were just talking about how our favorite wish-fulfillment characters are often those that refuse to behave -- the ones who are brave, stubborn or clueless enough to do and say the things we'd would if we weren't so polite and eager to please.

We're watching a British show called "The Indian Doctor", about an Indian MD who immigrates to Wales in 1963 to work for the nascent National Health Service. At first Dr. Sharma's high-handed and aristocratic wife Kamini functions as an antogonist. She grew up hobnobbing with the Mountbattens and considers treating rural peasants beneath the station of someone married to her. She schemes to have him take a position a prestigious private Harley Street practice.

Kamini's not "likable" at first, but then you really wish someone would work up the courage to tell off Sharpe, the ambitious, corrupt coal mine manager. But he's a big deal locally, so when he eventually gets in her way it is so satisfying to see her stomp on him like the venal, social-climbing cockroach he is.

(Just to show you how much of a Bostonian I am, I assumed Kamini's name was spelled "Carmini" until I looked it up.)

[ June 06, 2015, 12:32 AM: Message edited by: MattLeo ]

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Sétanta
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Super-interesting analysis, guys. Love it.

I never thought of Harry as privileged, which supports your thesis. I noted instead his ill treatment, which seemed to supersede the other as a primary characteristic. He did not *act* privileged in terms of fame or money, although he certainly did not argue when he reaped its benefits.

MattLeo, I especially appreciated your argument that a theme of HP was that heroes and villains are not so different from one another - the way Rowling knocked down both James and Dumbledore (and subsequently elevated Snape) are great examples. Sometimes I find that I read books like a naive reader, seeing only the superficial levels, and not like an educated and literate adult. I think it's because I still get the same childish pleasure I always did out of reading and am often satisfied with that alone - but I feel silly for not pondering some of these things further. This is great for stretching my literary muscles.

Thanks for the great discussion. By all means, keep it up!

I'd be interested in anyone willing to stay on topic (haha) re: the first 13 lines of HP and how effective it was or wasn't, and why?

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Disgruntled Peony
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This took me a couple of tries. When the books first came out I only read them because everyone else in my family had and I got tired of being left in the dark. Basically, I had to get back on the writer's side.

The first thirteen lines don't grab me particularly much, simply because of the emphasis on how ordinary the supposed protagonists are. Harry isn't mentioned yet, so I would probably assume the Durstleys were the protagonists if only exposed to these thirteen lines.

The diction itself is solid and the descriptions are interesting. One gets the feeling the Durstleys are a "proper British family", although the British feel of things has more to do with the narrative style than the characters themselves. I probably would have kept reading for another page or two, but the opening doesn't enthrall me.

Regarding the series in general, I was never a fan of the Harry Potter books, but that was mostly because I detested the way Rowling's endings tended to work. I like foreshadowing--when done properly, a reader can look back and go, "Oh, yeah! It's right here, how did I not see that?" I never got that feeling with her books. Even though she wrote in third person, because she was so set on Harry being the viewpoint character, the endings were always full of telling rather than showing and the plot twists always seemed to come out of nowhere. Why did Harry have to know everything?

Random note: My favorite example of foreshadowing actually comes about in a movie called "The Prestige". The threads for the ending are thoroughly woven into the story, every scene is important, and the ending is terrifyingly appropriate.

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MattLeo
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quote:
Originally posted by Disgruntled Peony:
The diction itself is solid and the descriptions are interesting. One gets the feeling the Durstleys are a "proper British family", although the British feel of things has more to do with the narrative style than the characters themselves. I probably would have kept reading for another page or two, but the opening doesn't enthrall me.

This is a good catch. One thing that doesn't quite make it across the Atlantic is the British leftist's smoldering hatred of class pretension. I think that there's ample evidence that Rowling's sympathies lean that way, although like any good writer she's skeptical enough that she doesn't force her views down the reader's throat. A great author always leaves room for alternate readings. So consider the opening 13 lines:

quote:

Mr and Mrs Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. They were the last people you'd expect to be involved in anything strange or mysterious, because they just didn't hold with such nonsense.

Mr. Dursley was the director of a firm called Grunnings, which made drills. He was a big, beefy man with hardly any neck, although he did have a very large moustache. Mrs. Dursley was thin and blond and had nearly twice the usual amount of neck, which came in very useful as she spent so much of her time craning over garden fences, spying on the neighbours. The Dursleys had a small son called Dudley and in their opinion there was no finer boy anywhere.

The Dursleys had everything they wanted, but they also had a secret, and their greatest fear was that somebody would discover it.

There's two very different voices you can overlay on these words. One is the kindly but slightly condescending voice of an adult to a favorite child. Rowling understands this voice well because she's a student of E. Nesbit. It's a voice that works well with young children but not so well with adults.

The other voice is dripping with sarcasm. I imagine the narrator reading this in a ruthless burlesque of the affected "posh" accent the Dursleys almost certainly affected. The satirical point here is that the Dursley's are so unimaginative that their idea of living the good life is aping the habits of their "betters".

But the signifiers here don't signify outside of Britain, or at least not reliably. Imagine rewriting this in some kind of familiar American context:

quote:
The Dursleys were, like totally normal. They weren't into stuff that was, like, freaky or anything.

Vern owned a chain of surf shops called "Hang Ten". He was a fat guy with, like, no neck. He had a soul patch and a bad comb over. Petunia starved herself so skinny she had no hips to hold up her skinny jeans. Twice a week she put on her leotard and leg warmers and yoga class. She wasn't into any that grody mystical **** but it came in handy twisting around to keep an eye on what the neighbors were up to. And they had this kid Dudley they thought was hella awesome.

I'm not saying this is any good; but it'd be clear to an American that nobody would actually talk this way in mixed company unless they were so clueless they thought it made them sound cool -- just like nobody would talk like the Harry Potter narrator in the opening unless they were so clueless they thought it made them sound posh.
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extrinsic
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I'd say verbal irony, perhaps satire, not, though, dripping with sarcasm. Not because I'm U.S., because irony's sublime criteria are universal for practitioners thereof and who are attuned to the signals; that is, attitude commentary.

". . . thank you very much." is an operative irony clause of the fragment, and natural for the Dursely sort and soon enough to be Potter's observations of them, and inevitable and surprising character development. The voice is the narrator's, though encompasses character voices too.

Satire uses irony to expose vice and folly. Sarcasm uses irony to mock and ridicule virtue. Fine-grained though objective distinctions.

[ June 06, 2015, 01:02 PM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]

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Grumpy old guy
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That opening reminds me of Mary Poppins.

Phil.

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