I published this in my apazine in September 2000, after I'd been blown away by Goblet of Fire.
(For you youngsters, an apa - amateur publishing association - is an every other month paper
thing that fans were active in before there were
weblogs, newsgroups, and chat. It meets some of the same needs for community and
self expression, and a number of paper apas, including my own, are still around.)
I never wanted JKR to actually read this open letter; its purpose was
to register with a
small circle of friends what I thought was going to happen, what I wanted to happen...
About a year and a half later I discovered HP fanfiction and fell off the edge of sanity. But this document is still of historical interest, as describing what I wanted most from HP before I got into Harry/Draco. It also explains why I was able to get into H/D so fast: I was already way into JKR's world and had brooded about it a lot. (I can only effectively fangirl things that have book and movie components, because I don't have a TV.) I still want everything on this list. I still personally identify with Ron - albeit a Ron who now "likes to watch" H/D more than canon!Ron would, surely. I still want Neville "in at the death." I still think Alexander and Jones (and a number of my fave H/D fanauthors) are better stylists than [heresy censored here].
As embarrassing as I now find the obviousness of some of this, I've edited it only to take out references that would identify friends by name, and to change instances of "American" to "U.S." to comply with the usage I currently prefer.
earthquake to rowling
what I want to happen (please)
J.K., don't read this - I know you have a plan, and I don't want to mess it up with copyright infringement problems. (I refer to the kind J. Michael Straczynski would have opened himself up to if he had used story ideas from the Babylon 5 newsgroups. I've heard that before JMS stopped reading them, there was an actual future/planned plot development that he had to change or rewrite because of a newsgroup posting. I am furious at that unknown poster and almost all art-related commodification and theft and excessive litigiousness. To digress further I realize it's inconsistent to oppose theft and our only current means of countering it; too bad...) This essay is for people other than JKR who are reading her 'Harry Potter' series and want to talk about it. And there are Potter series spoilers throughout.
Let's get the big issue out of the way first. I have long acknowledged Diana Wynne Jones as one of my true masters, and even though her work is so often seemingly imprisoned in Azkaban (let's not discuss the publishing industry in this rant) I am still her loyal servant: I still like DWJ's work much better than JKR's. That's because it IS better: more psychologically true, edgier and more exciting, and better written. Count me as one of the many people who are trying to get Potter fans to read the kick-ass Witch Week and Charmed Life and the other books that feature a Chrestomanci, or even better, DWJ's knockout standalone novels such as (my three favorites, the first two structurally perfect, the latter a bit flawed but so creepy-romantic) The Homeward Bounders, Archer's Goon, and Fire and Hemlock. We've had some limited success, but the Potter readers who are Harry's own age also often say, "Those might have been your books Grandma (the DWJ's haven't been out that long, but they feel Pleistocene to my ten year old informants), but the Potters are being written just for us; this is our time..." Oh well, when they go looking for that same fix, in years to come, and get tired of being talked down to (ref: too many YA authors to list) or twelve books containing same plot decorated with loooong descriptions of banquets (ref: Brian Jacques) maybe they'll check out DWJ.
But I like the Harry Potters, especially that satisfyingly long rushed-through-editing-yet-thrillingly-surpassing-the-other-three first-Potter-I-can-reasonably-compare-with-Lloyd-Alexander's-Chronicles-of-Prydain-which-also-got-stronger-as-the-series-continued P4 (their titles are long and they vary between the US and the UK anyway, so I'll just use the numbers) which I just finished re-reading this afternoon. I think at this point I can see the shape (or a possible shape anyway) of the whole seven year course of Harry's education at Hogwarts, and it's exciting. More important even than than that, my heart almost breaks with happiness over the realization that the hoopla and midnight commercial events and NYT realignment of bestseller lists are occurring around a tale that craftily stitches the old materials together in lively patterns, in a shape that matches the imperceptible yet ineluctable patterns in our mind that yearn for the age-old true Stories. Does the popularity of the Potters mean that despite the influence of TV and computers on our collective brains (which weigh even more heavily on the malleable young brains of the Potter generation) and the lunatic assumptions that the mangled U.S. Potter editions reflect, that books are not yet dead, evil has not yet triumphed? Eeeeeeee! (banshee wail here)
Let us canter over familiar territory once more. I doubt I can make the process of rehashing the obvious as enjoyable as JKR has, but as the archetypal Dick Francis hero (also a writer) said to himself in Longshot: have a go.
The Potter books' basic structure is that of a British Isles institution, now mostly unfamiliar to U.S. readers, The School Story. Hughes' Tom Brown's Schooldays launched the genre just as Wister's The Virginian launched the Western; F. W. Farrar took the tales to new (sappy, insanely popular in their day, now completely forgotten) lows, and Kipling's Stalky & Co. is the best guys' school story of all time; for a review of girls' school stories see You're A Brick, Angela by Mary Cadogan. One aspect of the Potters that initially irritated me comes directly from the genre. In your average school story, the academy (of whatever type) is a safe, artificial atmosphere, protected from the outside world, in which the headmaster is always right. In P1 and P2, in contrast to Witch Week for example, those cliches were all too true.
Happily, P3 explicitly dealt with the world and the past impinging on the school, and in P4 JKR started to transcend the genre as really good school stories do. I suppose the underlying message of the genre is "school is important" or more largely (to encompass many of us who hated/left school) "decisions you make early in life are surprisingly important; even if youth is not the high point of your life, and let's hope it's not, you are without knowing it starting to choose your path and each choice has its consequences..." In its extreme form, the school becomes the world, or decisions made at the school (under the leadership of the headmaster whose brilliance lights the way) reach outward and preserve, renew, or redeem the world; you can see this clearly in Kipling and it's where Rowling seems to be going in P4, and more power to her.
Let me try to say it another way: in a good school story the school is its own little
world yet all too real, a refuge from the world yet also its battleground, and
decisions taken there have far-reaching consequences, but not in a overly moralistic
way (that's where Farrar went off the rails - one sip of beer and the student's
life was All Over). Rowling's "messages" are fairly simple and obvious: it's not
what you are/have, but what you make of it - trust gets better results than terror -
and so on; they go down smoothly. But what I really liked was the way the multi-book
plot (more about it in a minute) deepened in P4. The scenes at the end gave me the
first true frisson of wonder I experienced in the Potters; they reminded me
of one of my favorite parts of Lloyd Alexander, in The High King chapter 8,
and in case you don't have the book handy I'll quote rather a lot of the passage.
('He' is a brave young crow...ellipses indicate I've skipped...)
When he opened his eyes again, he lay upon a soft nest of rushes in a
sunny chamber. He was weak, but his pain had left him; his wound had been bound up.
As he feebly fluttered his wings, a pair of strong hands deftly reached to hold and
The man's white bearded face was as gnarled and weathered as an ancient oak in a s nowdrift. White hair hung below broad, knotted shoulders, and a blue gem sparkled from the golden band circling his brow. Kaw, without his customary squawking and jabbering, humbly bowed his head...
Perched on the back of Medwyn's chair, an enormous eagle studied the crow. Besides the old man, the wolf Brynach sat on his haunches. Lean and gray, with yellow eyes, he wagged his tail and grinned up at the crow. A moment later, another wolf, smaller and with a white blaze on her breast, trotted in and crouched beside her mate...
Kaw spoke then in his own tongue which Medwyn easily understood. The old man's features turned grave as he listened. When the crow had finished, Medwyn was silent for a time, deeply frowning. Brynach whined uneasily.
"It is come," Medwyn said heavily. "I should have so guessed, for I sense a strange fear among the animals....now I understand the meaning of these tidings. The day I had ever feared has come upon us. Yet my valley cannot hold all who would seek refuge."
Medwyn's voice had begun to rise like a wrathful gale. "The race of men face the slavery of Annuvin. So, too, the creatures of Prydain. In the shadow of the Land of the Dead, the nightingale's song will choke and die. The galleries of badgers and moles will become prison houses. No beast, no bird will roam or fly with the joy of a free heart. Those who are not slain--theirs will be the fate of the gwythaints, long ago made captive, tormented, broken, and their once-gentle spirits twisted to Arawn's vile ends."
Medwyn turned to the eagle. "You, Edyrnion, fly swiftly to the mountain eyries of your kindred. Bid them rise up in all their strength and all their numbers."
"You, Brynach, and you, Briavel," he commanded, as the wolves pricked up their ears, "spread the alarm among your own brethren; among the bears, with paws to smite and arms to crush; among the sharp-antlered stags; and all forest dwellers, large and small."
Medwyn had risen to his full height. His hands clenched as tree roots clench the earth. The crow watched, awestruck and silent. Medwyn's eyes flashed and his deep voice came as a wave of thunder.
"Speak to them in my name and tell them: such are the words of one who built a ship when the dark waters flooded Prydain, of one who bore their ancient sires to safety. Now, against this flood of evil, each nest, each lair must be a stronghold. Let every creature turn tooth, beak, and claw against all who serve Arawn Death-Lord."
Side by side, the wolves loped from the cottage. And the eagle took flight.
Now to an even more important point, if the quotation hasn't already suggested it: interwoven with the Classic School Story structure is something much deeper and older. As a disciple of John Clute's ideas about fantasy (and I strongly recommend the "secret book" hidden in The Encyclopedia of Fantasy - choose the entry called STORY and start jumping around for the full theory), I am all too aware that some fantasies have the classic "full fantasy structure" and some don't, and I so hope this one is going to have it...across the full seven books of course. It's got the earmarks so far: Harry has the wound of the would-be Fisher King, and there's a Wrongness in the Land; Voldemort's ("will-of-death"?) crime is that he wants to defeat or postpone or control death instead of going through the Knot the right way as required for the Gift (later Doom) of Men; his Dark servants, the Death Eaters, have already paid a price and will probably pay more; there's all that stompin' Jungian stuff about the connections between Harry and his adversary; the students learn formal magic, but even older magic comes into play, that can seemingly only be learned the hard way (as Deep Magic from the Dawn of Time can only be trumped by Deeper Magic from Before the Dawn of Time, only more elegantly in JKR's system) and it all mostly "feels right." I hope we get at least some stuff that goes deeper still, as it must if the story is going to have the right structure; things have to get worse (Thinning, in Clute's system) before they get better (Recognition and Healing).
One instance of the older magic: we discover that Voldemort couldn't kill Harry the first time, because Harry's mother Lily died for Harry, and the power of her love protected him. From P1 through most of P4 Voldemort couldn't even touch Harry. Where This Could Go (please note prediction): Now that Voldemort has taken some of Harry's blood, he can touch Harry, but we also saw Dumbledore flash a quick smile of triumph at the news; does this mean that some aspect of the transforming love charm will now be working on Voldemort from the inside, with eventual fascinating effects (Darth Vader taking off his mask)? Another instance: it's very funny (after you lock off the flashing child abuse warning signs in your head) to read about Harry's problems living with his mundane, er, Muggleish relatives, the Dursleys, but it's not just comic relief; Dumbledore has protected him from Voldemort this long by invoking more old magic that has something to do with being in the protection of relatives...that's why he can't go and stay with the Weasleys for the entire summer...
Practitioners of the Craft tell me that JKR uses a lot of Western European historical ideas about magic in a way that's more obvious than creative. She didn't make up her magical system from whole cloth, just some of the creatures and potions and spells, and she lightens history a lot (as in her treatment of the burning of witches: she says they only pretended to burn). But I find this aspect of the books sort of dull (even duller than the "scientific" magic in Randall Garrett's Lord Darcy books); what makes the Potters feel magical is the undertow of real Story, I'm sure of it...
Where JKR's innovations seem to lie (my opinion):
A. The Potters are the longest and I think most ambitious combination of a school story (safe, essentially comforting) with real fantasy (danger) that I'm aware of. The first volume of Ursula LeGuin's Earthsea Trilogy sort of combines the two, but in the second volume she goes far beyond the school story; if anyone knows of a series that keeps both school story and fantasy structure going at the same time as long as JKR has done, I'd love to read it.
B. The Potters are a lot funnier than your average fantasy - than your average full fantasy, at any rate. (A couple of Readercons ago Clute and Candas Dorsey and John Crowley and Theresa Nielsen Hayden and I think Nalo Hopkinson were jumping all over a lot of the fantasy published today, as being simply Pastoral, with Healing sections divorced from a full structure, and I proposed a ratings system by number of stars on the spine of each fantasy novel, to determine whether it'd been certified as having all four stages, and the panelists admitted that would be a good idea if one could make it happen.) Some of JKR's humor is just as dumb as Piers Anthony's, but I admire the way she keeps the surface boiling and frothy while moving the pieces of the big Story stealthily underneath. At the end of P4 there is a hint of the Story starting to Recognize itself, where Harry says, "I could do with a few laughs. We could all do with a few laughs. I've got a feeling we're going to need them more than usual before long." And I'm confident (based on previous form) that JKR will be able to supply them.
I think these two factors, combined perhaps with the Gramma-these-are-my-books factor, explain the series' popularity. I admit all the problems other people have mentioned: the occasional clunkiness of the prose, really obvious borrowing sometimes with the original designers' tags still on, undistinguished poems, evil characters shown too clearly (whereas I like my Balrogs fuzzy, with their awfulness demonstrated via reaction shots), and the number of female characters who are more caricatures than the guy characters (I couldn't agree more), but somehow I have managed to get past that...
So let's talk about What I Want (remember JKR, this is the part you're not to read, I am just registering my hopes and guesses with my pals who have such long memories, to keep things interesting):
1. I want JKR to be able to hang on and pull this off (if I'm not mixing my prepositions too wildly). I want her to write all seven years of Harry-at-Hogwarts, and I want it to stay a good school story as well as a true and full fantasy, leavened with her twisted comic relief, with a really stompin' series ending that fulfills the requirements of both genres. I know she'll have no trouble selling all seven of them; I'm worried about her coping with the international pressure and writing them up to the standard she's already set - and will be sending up prayers to the readers' and writers' god along these lines.
2. The best ending is of course another beginning (see: ending of John /C.S. Youd/ Christopher's Tripods trilogy, or Alexander's Chronicles of Prydain - I've put a bit of it below - or LOTR in a sense - although [friend's name deleted] correctly points out it's a very depressing ending/beginning) but I'll leave the actual details to JKR, who I believe already has a plan, as I mentioned above. I just have a few more guesses and more importantly Requests within whatever ending she chooses, consonant of course with the customs of the two genres...
3. Ron Weasley's character has the classic second banana problem. I want some satisfying reward for Ron, after all his hard work supporting the plots, introducing the poverty/inequality theme, and providing the dramatic tension fighting with Harry or Hermione as needed. And the reward shouldn't just be money. Quidditch Captain is out of the question since he doesn't play, but couldn't Ron be Head Boy or in some other way either fulfill or transform the expectations of his large family? JKR, don't forget Ron!
4. The dating thing. Off the wall: several interchanges in P4 made me think that JKR was laying the groundwork for Ron and Hermione to date eventually. R/H would feel wrong to me, but I guess some sort of Cleary/Du Jardin theme of "it was the boy/girl next door, all along!" could be worked up, at the expense of the more important lesson, "men and women can be good friends, comrades, and colleagues." I am not advocating this romance but if it does eventuate, I want points for having noticed the first tremors in P4. Moving now to Harry himself, JKR has put in groundwork for either or both Ginny and/or Cho as his love interests, and I don't care which one he ends up with (maybe both, for a polyamory flavour). He could of course end up with someone completely different (as I hope Ron and Hermione will - for example, I think Hermione and Lupin would be hot together) but it'd be a waste of all that careful prep. One redeeming factor about these stories is that the romance plots are not paramount and can wind in and around the stronger and more basic structure without really throwing it off.
5. Have you noticed how Neville continues to hang in there? My guess, or desire, is that when the big slam bang ending comes, Neville's doggedness and his desire to revenge his parents' torture and madness will be a factor in the mix, nicely bookending the fact that his measly but critical 10 points put Gryffindor over the top in the first book. It'll be complicated to tie up all these ends but I am confident JKR can do it.
6. Speaking of loose ends, Pettigrew (now even more deformed; I hope Voldemort remakes his silver hand!) still owes Harry a debt; I know that's going to come up again. We now have the bad guys somewhat compromised (and potentially in the future, knocked off base) by their contact with goodness, which in the old stories always made them more frustratedly evil than ever - until the climax, when the mingled strands finally got used or sorted out.
7. I am sorry if this is a spoiler, but if JKR stays the course with the combo fantasy/schoolstory, Harry will in the fullness of time become the next Headmaster of Hogwarts (who as has slowly become clear is the shadow defender/ruler of all the Magical Lands as well), taking Dumbledore's place and power once Harry has been properly seasoned and matured by his adventures. That's just how these things work.
8. Just a question: the issue I've worried the most about, since finishing P4, is: Where did Snape go and what was he going to do? The narrative suggests that he's going to go back to Voldemort and once again spy from the inside at great personal cost. But isn't this so obvious that Voldemort will be onto him in a flash (as suggested in V's soliloquy to his old acolytes, maybe V already is) and he'll be in intense danger? Dumbledore takes risks but he doesn't send allies to certain death (unless there's no other way, in which case he'll lead the hopeless charge); that's in The Rules For Great Wizards. Anyway I've spent a lot of time stewing about this and in P4 have found Snape a much more interesting character than previously. Good work, JKR, revealing that the buffoonish cartoonish villain/foil is so much more than that.
8. The last problem, heavily reported in the media, is that when Harry's parents reappeared at the end of P4, they came out of Voldemort's wand in the wrong order. JKR could either ignore this (she was rushing?) or put in an explanation later and (as JMS was wont to do with his goofs) make it a key plot point. If it was a mistake this is JKR's first one (of course it's easier when you're in total control; JMS had other authors, production mishaps, etc.) and not a big deal for me either way.
Well, now that I've gotten the Potter series down and broken its arm (as Thurber
used to say) or at least taken all of the fun out of it for you, I'll mark time
while I'm waiting for JKR's ending, with another ending of my favorite sort,
again from Alexander's Chronicles of Prydain:
"...Arawn is slain," Taran replied. "Evil is conquered and the blade's
"Evil conquered?" said Gwydion. "You have learned much, but learn this last and hardest of lessons. You have conquered only the enchantments of evil. That was the easiest of your tasks [N.B. it took five volumes!], only a beginning, not an ending. Do you believe evil itself to be so quickly overcome? Not so long as men still hate and slay each other, when greed and anger goad them. Against these even a flaming sword cannot prevail, but only that portion of good in all men's [sic] hearts whose flame can never be quenched."
I'd have put a comma after the last "whose" myself but...I guess I'd better get back to work on my own stuff and leave her to it!
 [friend's name deleted], you will have to tell me if Anthony Powell's Dance to the Music of Time begins with a school story in this sense. I so totally think your stories and teleplays of [college name deleted] frat days are a mostly heroic school story in this same way...
 This mechanism was one of the more irritating things in C. S. Lewis' The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe. Just because I'm a Christian doesn't mean that I can't see those books are very stiff in places, as the old Story struggles in its corset...