Over the past few months I’ve revisited the entire Harry Potter original series, in audiobook form, as read by Jim Dale. I wanted to re-establish the back stories and nuance laid out in the books, as the movies had taken hold in my memory even though I knew they were insufficient. I wanted to assess the writing, because I’d last read the books as a superfan hungry for plot, but had heard plenty of criticism that the writing “wasn’t that good.” I wanted to study a modern Young Adult behemouth, to see how Rowling established a world and carried a heavy load of characters. And I wanted to have a good time.
Jim Dale’s is the only reading I’ve ever heard of the series, but it is astounding. His voices are distinct, consistent, and yet not cartoonish. His preparation and rehearsal repeatedly shine through, as he’s never caught off guard by Rowling’s descriptions. A lot of character’s voices are described as cracking in Book 7, and Dale cracks his own at each of them. The only incongruity in the medium occurs when Harry hears a voice he recognizes, and, thanks to Dale’s accents, listeners know who it is before Rowling has chosen to reveal the source.
Rowling writes like a puppet master in Book 1 to get her readers acquainted with countless characters. Every character gets one trait, memorably described on first meeting, and that trait is reinforced throughout the book. Minor characters are sprinkled in from time to time just so we don’t forget about them–Neville stumbling at the portrait hole even though it’s of no consequence to the scene, Ginny blushing at the train station. In later books this descriptive tightness goes slack, as the world expands and the pressure to publish mounted. They are still good books, if a bit bloated.
After primary characteristics are established, it’s utterly masterful how characters can act “out of character” but still be recognizable, and can be flawed in beautifully human ways–without being evil. Lupin, who was and has remained my favourite character, loses his patience in Book 7 and lashes out in illogical (though understandable) ways. He’s never been at peace with his werewolf status, and pushes away loved ones in the hopes of protecting them. Sirius Black is morose in Book 5, and though he doesn’t act very likeable Rowling manages to make us understand his frustrations. Dolores Umbridge is horrible, but she is not a Death Eater, putting forth the distinction between different kinds of evil and power-hungry humans. Harry’s father was arrogant and cruel, but he, like Dumbledore, was allowed to change as he grew up.
From the first to the last, Rowling makes a case for breaking rules, and a distaste for government. But she also makes a case for teamwork, where people of different strengths work together towards a common goal. The rule-breaking is not uncomfortable–characters are variously rewarded and punished for stepping out of bounds–but it is notable for a children’s classic.
Re-reading the series two decades after publication also sheds light on other fantasy stalwarts by the likes of C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien (is it a rule that these authors abbreviate their first names?). Rowling painstakingly re-explains basic magical principles through the first three books, which is annoying for committed readers. Yet when new books are released we usually commend them if “you don’t have to read the rest to understand this one.” Book 2, for certain, can be read without Book 1, which was surely advantageous when they were first released, but is cumbersome when viewing the series as a whole. Just like The Hobbit is kind-of-but-not-really a prequel to Lord of the Rings, and there’s endless debate about the proper reading order of the Narnia series. Once canonized, it’s easy to forget that these books were all written by doubting artists bending to outside demands. Similarly, on first reading I only had appetite for scenes with Harry; in re-reading I became much more interested in the lore and tertiary characters. How difficult and rare it is to create a world such as this, with both confidence and humility to serve readers, while changing them too.
(Illustrations by Callum McKell)