“What is The Nation’s take on Harry Potter?” perhaps your child asked you the other day. Well, to mark J.K. Rowling’s 50th birthday, here it is. When the final installment of the series was written—which, to be quite honest, your Almanac host sampled one afternoon in the summer of 2000 and never picked up again—the critic and novelist Lakshmi Chaudhry wrote a piece for the magazine titled, “Harry Potter and the Half-Baked Epic.”
If Rowling’s take on evil is politically evasive and, in the final analysis, just plain uninteresting, her notion of good is no less obscure, best exemplified by the muddled characterization of her hero. Here’s a 17-year-old who spends much of the book wallowing in the most unheroic of sentiments: resentment, suspicion, paranoia, self-pity and anger, but not of the outraged, impassioned kind that you might think a death-wielding Nazi would inspire. He’s far too busy hating Hermione for breaking his wand or Dumbledore for leaving him in the lurch. Even the sight of desperate Muggle-borns being rounded up and “registered” to meet what will surely be an awful fate cannot shake Harry out of his self-pity. As the rest of the wizarding world teeters on the brink of catastrophe, what Harry really wants to know is: Did Dumbledore love me or what?….
The shallowness of Rowling’s enterprise is revealed in the vapid little epilogue that seems inspired less by great fiction than B-list Hollywood scripts. Where the cataclysmic showdown in The Lord of the Rings leaves the Hobbits and Middle-earth irrevocably altered even in victory, the wizarding world merely returns to business as usual, restoring its most famous citizens to a life of middle-class comfort. At the end of this overly long saga, the reader leaves with the impression that what Harry was fighting for all along was his right—and now that of his children—to play Quidditch, cast cool spells and shop for the right wand. Or what George Bush would call “our way of life.”
To mark The Nation’s 150th anniversary, every morning this year The Almanac will highlight something that happened that day in history and how The Nation covered it. Get The Almanac every day (or every week) by signing up to the e-mail newsletter.