Wednesday, August 29, 2007

News Values


















Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Tolkien Blues

Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail better.

I think it was Punch that said it first. Shortly after the posthumous publication of The Silmarillion, reconstructed from Tolkien's notes by his son Christopher, the humorous magazine ran a short skit entitled 'The Tolkien Shopping Lists'. The implication was clear: Christopher Tolkien was engaged in a barrel-scraping exercise; cashing in on his father's reputation by selling insignificant scraps of paper; or diminishing that reputation by publishing works which Tolkien had long-ago consigned to the waste-paper basket.

It's a joke that some people have never stopped finding funny. It is, of course, entirely unfair. Tolkien had worked on The Silmarillion for his whole life. He wrote the very first versions during World War I; in his eighties he was declining to answer fan-mail because it would take time that could better be spent finishing his life's work. And he certainly wanted it to be published, arguing that The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion were an inseparable whole, and threatening to take the trilogy to Collins instead of Allen and Unwin because the former showed some interest in printing both books together.

The problem is that no such book as The Silmarillion actually existed. When Tolkien died, he left a shed-full of writings about the First Age of Middle-earth, including at least five different versions of the story of Hurin and his children. The-Book-Now-Called-the-Silmarillion is Christopher Tolkien's synthesis of these various works into something which, in a certain light, looks like a coherent whole. It's only gradually become clear just how much work Christopher had to do to create this illusion of completion.

The Children of Hurin is the first new posthumous work by Tolkien to be released since the publication of The Silmarillion in 1977. In this context, "first" means "seventeenth" (*) and "new" means "repackaging of a work first published in 1980".

Christopher Tolkien is quite up-front about his reason for re-publishing The Children of Hurin as a separate book. He says that he hopes that it might provide a "way in" to The Silmarillion for people who know and love Lord of the Rings but have never tackled Tolkien's primary work.

The Silmarillion is a very dense book: it is often compared with the Old Testament, especially by people who haven't read either. One of the reasons for this density is that the main section – the "Quenta", the history of the Elves
was intended by Tolkien to be a synopsis of his mythos, not the final word on it. Some of the stories were summaries of much longer works which he'd actually written; some were outlines of works he eventually intended to write.

Tolkien had written an almost complete version of the story of Hurin in a semi-novelistic form, under the title of "Narn I Hin Hurin". But he had only partly written it in the shorter, summarized style of The Silmarillion. It turns out that the chapter "Of Turin Turanbur" in the-book-now-called-the-Silmarillion is Christopher Tolkien's attempt to summarize the Narn in the style of the Quenta. He now thinks that it was wrong of him to have engaged in this kind of jiggery-pokery with his father's work.

The long version of the story of Hurin was published as part of the Unfinished Tales in 1980. The new book, The Children of Hurin is a fresh presentation of that text. In Unfinished Tales Christopher Tolkien skipped a couple of passages which are more or less word for word the same as passages in The Silmarillion; and for some reason Tolkien himself missed out a passage which would have described what happened to Turin while he was hiding out in the home of the Wagnerianly named Mim the Dwarf. Christopher has restored the missing passages and filled in the dwarf material from other versions of the story. I certainly couldn't see the join.

The story benefits from this new presentation. You read Unfinished Tales with one finger in the back, flipping between the text, the footnotes and the commentary – and, if you are a particularly devout student, diving into The Silmarillion to fill out the missing passages. I am sure that I should care very much that in an early version of the text Saeros is Daeron's brother, but in latter versions he is only his kinsman, but having your attention drawn to this kind of thing tends to make you treat the text as a work in progress. Having it between shiny covers in a nice clear typeface complete with (rather lacklustre, I thought) Alan Lee illustrations definitely encourages you to treat it as a story.

In The Silmarillion the story runs to about 12,000 words: this new volume runs to about 40,000. If we put two passages side by side, we can easily see the difference:

"Then Turin was filled with fear for his mother and sister and in grimness of heart he went before the King and asked for mail and sword; and he put on the Dragon-helm of Dor-lomin and went out to battle on the marches of Doriath, and became the companion in arms of Beleg Cuthalion."
The Silmarillion

"Now Turin grew heavy-hearted, not knowing what new evil was afoot, and fearing that an ill fate had befallen Morwen and Nienor; and for many days he sat silent, brooding on the downfall of the house of Hador and the men of the North. Then he rose up and went to seek Thingol, and he found him sitting with Melian under Hirlorn, the great beech of Menegroth.

Thingol looked on Turin in wonder, seeing suddenly before him in the place of his fosterling a Man and a stranger, tall, dark-haired, looking at him with deep eyes, in a white face, stern and proud; but he did not speak.

"What do you desire, foster-son?" said Thingol, and guessed that he would ask for nothing small.

"Mail, sword and a shield of my stature, lord," answer Turin. "Also, by your leave I will now reclaim the Dragon-helm of my sires."

"These you shall have, " said Thingol. "But what need have you yet of such arms?"....

The Children of Hurin

Although it is much longer, The Children of Hurin is a much easier read. The Silmarillion is a chronicle: this happened, and then this happened; and then this happened. It expects the reader to do a lot of the work for himself. We are told that Turin asked the king for weapons, but left to imagine where and when this happened, and what they said to each other. (In this respect, it is indeed a little like the book of Genesis.) The Children of Hurin is a story: we see, through the authors eyes, what actually happened. Because the characters are "on stage" for longer periods of time, it is much easier to keep track of who is who. When Thingol is surprised at how much Turin has changed, it reminds us readers that we've skipped over a few years, that the boy Turin of the last chapter is now a youth. The style is relatively formal and archaic ("then he rose up") although no more obscure than, say, the Rohan passages in Lord of the Rings.

Incidentally: Tolkien's first version of the story, "Turanbar and the Foaloke", took this "archaism" a lot further:

"To ease his sorrow and the rage of his heart, that remembered always how Urin and his folk had gone down in battle against Melko, Turin was for ever ranging with the most warlike of the folk of Tinwelint far abroad, and long ere he was grown to first manhood he slew and took turns in frays with the Orcs that prowled unceasingly upon the confines of the realm and were a menace to the Elves."

As a piece of writing, I might cast my vote for the (unfinished, of course) poetic version of the story:

"To assuage his sorrow and to sate his rage
and hate of his heart for the hurts of his folk
then Hurin's son took the helm of his sire
and weapons weighty for the wielding of men
and went to the woods with warlike elves."

The Turin material has never been my favourite section of The Silmarillion: it has always seemed a little anomalous, even un-Tolkienesque. It's as if we've paused after the High Tragedy of Beren and Luthien and focussed down on the life of one single mortal. A heroic mortal, certainly, but killing a dragon – even the Father of All Dragons – is fairly small potatoes compared with stealing a Silmaril from the crown of Morgoth. Hurin, top human hero, is captured by Morgoth the Dark Lord after the Battle of Unnumbered Tears. Morgoth decides to keep Hurin alive, but forces him to witness the lives of his children, Turin and Nienor. Turin is fostered by the elves and therefore never meets his infant sister. He spends some time as an outlaw, leads the elves of Nargothrond against Morgoth, and slays Glaurung the Dragon. Eventually, Nienor comes looking for Turin, but she gets separated from her mother, and then loses her memory as a result of dragon magic. Turin spends most of his time living under various aliases. So when brother and sister finally meet, they don't know each other. With hilarious consequences.

As a tragedy, I have never found this completely satisfactory. The tragedies of Oedipus, or even, say, Michael Henchard, feel powerful because they feel inevitable: once Oedipus is separated from his birth parents, you feel that the chain of events which is going to result in him marrying his mother has been irrevocably set in motion. In order to maneuver Turin into a situation where he will sleep with his sister, Tolkien has to resort to Glaurung casting a spell of forgetfulness on her. The agency of his fall is not blind fate but malicious trickery by Morgoth and his minions – although Turin has an absolute knack for blundering blindly into whatever trap the powers of darkness set for him.

In sagas, it matters who is related to who, and nearly every minor character has a significant back story. This means that you are going to have to look at maps and family trees whether you want to or not, and navigate sentences which go:

"Lord we were of Angrod's people, and we have wandered far since the Nirnaeth, but of late we have dwelt among Cirdan's following by the Mouths of Sirion. And on a day he called us, and bid us go to you for Ulmo himself, the Lord of Waters, appeared to him..."

People who are intimidated by this sort of thing will find that this is the sort of thing that they are intimidated by. But on the whole, the book showcases the best features of Tolkien as a writer. He's the master of the understated snippet of dialogue, the telling remark left hanging in mid-air:

"Then I think that my father is dead," said Turin, and before his mother he restrained his tears "For no-one could keep him from coming back to help us, if he were alive."

"I do not think that either of those things are true, my son," said Morwen.

And of course, the story has lots of scope for soaring rhetoric. Turin's nickname, Turanbar, means "master of doom", in the sense of "master of my own fate" – which, of course, is the one thing he isn't. When Nienor realises that she has inadvertently married her own brother she cries "Farewell! Oh twice beloved! A turin turambar turun ambartanen: master of doom by doom mastered! Oh happy to be dead!" and throws herself in the sea.

But I wonder whether the tale of Turin and Hurin loses a lot of its point when taken out of context and asked to stand as a story in its own right. Tolkien started – but inevitably, didn't finish – a follow up work called "The Wanderings of Hurin", which would have followed the aging Hurin's life after Morgoth set him free. At the beginning of The Children of Hurin, Hurin spends some time in the utterly secret elvish city of Gondolin. During his wanderings, he would have tried to find the city again, and thereby revealed its location to Morgoth. In the present book, we see how Glaurung the Dragon sacks and destroys the elvish city of Nargothrond, and ends up living in the caves on piles of elvish treasure. We also see how Mim the dwarf betrayed Turin. But we don't see Hurin returning to Nargothrond after the dragon is dead and discovering that Mim has retired there in order to spend more time with the treasure. So there is a sense that we have read the beginning of the story of Hurin, but not it's end. Christopher Tolkien's introduction isn't, I thought, especially clear, getting bogged down in questions about what "to see with the eye of Morgoth" philosophically means, when what newbies presumably needed was a bluffers guides which said:

Morgoth – Dark Lord. Former god. Has a servant called Sauron.
Menegroth – Place where the Elves live. Lots of caves, hidden in a forest.
Thingol – Elf. King of Menegroth. (Father of Luthien, but that doesn't matter right now.)
Melian – Goddess. Wife of Thingol.

That said, I am pleased to have one of the Great Tales on my shelf in a format that says "This is a story in its own right" rather than "This is part of an enormously complicated textual puzzle". One wonders whether some more of the Good Bits of the History of Middle-earth could be published in an accessible format? Imagine a handsome illustrated edition of "The Ley of Lethian" with a short paragraph on page 268 that said "Tolkien went no further with the poem, but he subsequently completed the story of Beren and Luthien in prose..." Tolkien worked for years and years on some of this material, and "the epic fragment" is a venerable literary form.

The secular press gave quite a bit of coverage to Hurin in the mistaken belief that it was a new book by the author of Lord of the Rings. John Rateliff's monumental – indeed, if we are honest, rather too monumental – History of The Hobbit was largely ignored. Which is a shame because, in the esoteric world of posthumous Tolkien writings, this is a rather more exciting book.

The Hobbit turns out to be almost as much of a textual muddle as The Silmarillion itself. As everyone knows, the 1951 second edition (the one you have on your shelf) was substantially different from the original 1937 version (the one that sells on Ebay for tens of thousands of dollars.) In the original, Gollum had been more or less willing to give the Ring to Bilbo. In the revised version, Gollum never offered his precious as the stake in a riddle-game. He only offers to show Bilbo the way out of the goblin caves if he lost the bet; Bilbo found the the Ring where Gollum had dropped it. (Tolkien, of course, provided a story-internal explanation for this inconsistency: the first version of the story was a fib made up by Bilbo in order to make his claim to the Ring more secure.)

There are other more minor, but interesting changes between the two published versions, as:

"...What is a Hobbit? They are (or were) small people, smaller than dwarves, (and they have no beards) but very much larger than Lilliputians"


"....What is a Hobbit? They are (or were) a little people, about half our height, and smaller than the bearded dwarves. Hobbits have no beards."

The '37 version is still very much in the realm of a children's literary fairy tale; the '54 version is much more like Lord of the Rings. We can see why the '54 author suppressed the reference to "Lilliput". The Hobbit is effective because it pretends to be a work of history: that illusion is exploded by comparing Bilbo with characters from a work of fiction like Gulliver's Travels. The anachronistic references to steam-trains and post-offices don't blow the illusion to the same degree: they may even enhance it.

It turns out that there is an extant copy of Tolkien's first draft of the first edition, which is substantially different from the published version.

"....What is a hobbit? I meant you to find out, but if you must have everything explained at the beginning, I can only say that hobbits are a small people, smaller than dwarves (and they have no beards) but on the whole larger than Lilliputians"

Rateliff has edited this first draft, and associated outlines, with a Christopherian attention to detail; lovingly drawing attention to every crossing-out and smudge. If you think that looking over a writer's shoulder while he is creating a much-loved classic is going to take away the magic then you probably ought to avoid this book. If you find it fascinating that Tolkien wrote that Thorin said that Bilbo possessed "Wisdom in good and blended measure" and that struck it out and wrote "valour and wisdom and little greed" than this book will provide hours of amusement. I'm certainly interested to know that Gandalf was originally going to be called "Bladorthin" (which Rateliff tries, not very convincingly, to gloss as "Grey Pilgrim") and that Thorin was going to be called, enormously confusingly, "Gandalf."

But the real fun is in seeing the different directions that the story might have veered off in. Tolkien had originally intended that Bilbo would stab Smaug with Sting while he slept – an obvious and rather vulgar ending compared with the elegant one he eventually came up with. And I am glad that he dropped the idea that Bilbo would lose all his gold on the way home and be left only with experience to show for his adventure: those kind of sardonic fairy-tale endings used to irritate me no end as a child.

I'd always assumed that Tolkien had initially intended The Hobbit to be a stand-alone work, and only gradually came up with the idea that The Silmarillion should provide an ancient history backdrop to Bilbo's world. In the published version, it is mentioned in passing that The Necromancer (who is not very nice) lives in a Dark Tower in Mirkwood. Thorin suggests that they should challenge him, and Gandalf responds:

"Don't be absurd. He is an enemy far beyond the powers of all the dwarves put together."

But the first draft contains the jaw-dropping variant reading:

"Don't be absurd. That is a job quite beyond the powers of all of the dwarves, if they could be gathered together again from the four corners of the world. And anyway, his castle stands no more and he is fled to a darker place: Beren and Tinuviel broke his power."

So Tolkien knew from Day 1 that "the Necromancer" of The Hobbit and the "Sauron" of The Silmarillion were the same person. If this reading had stayed in the final text, Bilbo would have been more or less contemporary with Beren, and the whole idea of the Third Age would never have come about. On the other hand, where the published text has Bilbo saying:

"Tell me what you want to have done and I will try it, if I have to walk from here to the East of East",

the draft had him saying:

"Tell me what you want me to do and I will try it, if I have to walk from here to the great desert of Gobi".

This is consistent with the "fairy tale" idea that Hobbits are creatures who live in our world, here and now, but have a Womble-like capacity not to be seen; but not very consistent with the idea that Hobbiton can be located on a map of "Middle-earth" on which the Gobi desert is notable by its absence.

Rateliff is very good at pointing up thematic links between The Hobbit and The Silmarillion. The King of the Wood Elves is awfully reminiscent of King Thingol: both of them live in caves in forests which it is almost impossible to find your way through; and both of them play a villain-like role even though they are really on the side of the goodies. It fits in well with the history of the elves in The Silmarillion that those we meet in The Hobbit particularly dislike spiders. The Arkenstone behaves, and makes other people behave, a lot like one of the Silmarils. And while Tollers hardly came up with the idea of dragons who sleep on piles of gold, the story of Smaug, Erebor and Thorin has notable points of similarity with the story of Glaurung, Nargothrond and Mim.

As well as editing the early draft, Rateliff provides a general commentary on The Hobbit, which will almost certainly tell you more than you wanted to know. Did we really need the complete text of the passages from which Tolkien stole the dwarf names (both the Prose Edda and the Elder Edda version)? Did one passing reference to Radagast merit a 12 page discussion of the development of the idea of wizards in Middle-earth, the character of Radagast in Lord of The Rings, and where Tolkien may have got the name? But some of his literary archeology is fascinating: the story about Tolkien having been stung by a tarantula when he was a toddler in South Africa can't be true because tarantulas don't sting and anyway there aren't any in South Africa. Probably he was thinking of some kind of scorpion. And there is a fascinating appendix on the origin of the word Hobbit, including the full, maddening text of an 1848 article which lists "hobbit" as one of the 198 kinds of fairy....

The most interesting section of the book comes at the end, where Rateliff reveals that Tolkien had started to work on a third revision of the text, with a view to further harmonizing The Hobbit with The Lord of the Rings. Rateliff reproduces Tolkien's draft re-write of Chapter 1 ("A Well-Planned Party") which skilfully removes all the charm and humour from the familiar book:

"How astonishing this was will be better understood by those who know something about Hobbits, and some account of them is really needed nowadays for they are becoming rare, and they avoid the Big People, as they call us. They were a small people, about half our height or less, often smaller than the Dwarves of those days, to whom they were quite unrelated: hobbits never have beards."

What was Tolkien thinking? In a fannish way, it is amusing to know that before the encounter with the Trolls, Bilbo's party "spent their last comfortable night for many a day to come, in the great inn of Bree, the Prancing Pony" and we can look forward to hours of fruitful arguments about whether the detail that Gandalf had a horse called Rohald should be regarded as "canon". But this ill-conceived re-write seems to have broken down over the question of chronology: Tolkien found that there was simply no way that the various dates and traveling-times given in The Hobbit could be made consistent with the map of Middle-earth as it developed for Lord of the Rings, and that the phases of the moon (which are relatively important to the story) don't add up either. (Oh, and he became worried about the fact that the dates given in The Hobbit are in the Gregorian calender, as opposed to the rather complicated Hobbit calendar in the appendix to Lord of the Rings!) As Rateliff says, The Hobbit is really written in a "once upon a time" world, where a journey takes precisely the amount of time which is dramatically appropriate, and the moon is full on those days when it would be dramatically appropriate to have a full moon. The Lord of the Rings, which tells us which way the lane went behind Farmer Maggot's house and the rough dates when Hobbits migrated from the Shire to Bree, is simply a different kind of thing from The Hobbit. During the re-write, Tolkien becomes worried about where the Dwarves got their musical instruments from, and what happened to them when they set off on their journey: has any reader ever noticed or worried about that kind of detail?

Did The Hobbit lose some of it's Hobbitness when it was retrospectively pasted into the saga of The Silmarillion and The Lord of the Rings? Look at the progressive neutering of the remark about Bilbo's ancestry:

Draft: "It had always been said that long ago some or other of the Tooks had married into a fairy family (goblin family said severer critics); certainly there was something not entirely hobbit-like about them."

First edition: "It had always been said that long ago one of other of the Tooks had married into a fairy family (the less friendly said a goblin family), certainly there was still something not entirely hobbit-like about them."

Second edition: "It was often said (in other families) that long ago one of the took ancestors must have taken a fairy wife. This was, of course, absurd, but certainly there was still something not entirely hobbit-like about them."

Proposed revision: "It was often said (in other families) that the Tooks must have some elvish blood in them: which was of course absurd, but there was undoubtedly something queer about them..."

The first version places us in a world which is delicately balanced between the mundane and the supernatural. There are fantastic, magical creatures like fairies and goblins; but they are a subject for local gossip. Marrying a fairy or a goblin is talked about in the same tone of voice that country folk might discuss any other marriage to an outlander or furriner. If we are thinking of the terrible servants of the Enemy in Lord of the Rings then "goblin family" is almost a contradiction in terms; but because we are seeing the world through Hobbit eyes, both the Eldar and the Orcs have become domesticated.

In the second version, the whimsical "married into a fairy family" has become the more high-romantic "taken a fairy wife". We might possibly say that Beren took a fairy wife; we certainly would not say that he married into a fairy family. In the proposed revision, this has become even more vague – instead of an individual liaison, we are merely asked to imagine "some elvish blood".

Or again, in the draft version, Bilbo accused Gandalf of encouraging young Hobbits to "stow away aboard ships that sail to the Other Side". In one sense, this is precisely what Bilbo and Frodo do at the end of Lord of the Rings; but the language seems to call up images of naughty little hairy-footed Edwardian children hiding away on fairy ships. This is a very different world from that of the Grey Havens, but not too far removed from The Book of Lost Tales, where children who have been unfairly punished may travel along "the path of dreams" and find themselves in the "cottage of lost play" on the edge of the Undying Lands. In the published edition, this idea is suppressed: Gandalf has merely encouraged Hobbits to "sail in ships to other shores". But disconcertingly, in the proposed revision the older idea pops up again:

"They used to send many quiet lads and lasses, off on adventures, it is said: any mad thing from climbing tall trees to visiting elves, and even trying to sail in ships." Bilbo's voice fell almost to a whisper "To sail, sail away to the Other Shore. Dear me!"

This romantic sehnsucht feels very different from "stowing away" on elf ships; but it's interesting that Tolkien wanted to re-insert the idea of Hobbits somehow getting to the Undying Lands. In one sense, Tolkien is trying to "set up" the end of Lord of the Rings on the very first page of The Hobbit. Are we being asked to think that, before he's even set off on his Adventure, that Bilbo already had the sea-longing? And does that suggest that the idea that the Tooks had elvish blood in them is not quite so absurd after all?

I don't think that one version is necessarily better than the other; or that we should regret the coming into being of the final Silmarillion or Lord of the Rings. But it's worth being aware that there were different and contradictory versions running around Tolkien's head; and that in order to create the heart-breaking, bitter world in which Galadriel could say "All shall love me and despair!" he had to partly suppress an earlier world where elves still said "tra-la-la-lally, come back to the valley". (NOTE: Never, ever, mention Tinfang Warble.)

It was impossible for Tolkien to finish The Silmarillion: if he had lived another ten years, he might have finished "The Wanderings of Hurin" or written a narrative version of the Voyage of Earendal; but you can bet that he would have then spotted some new inconsistency with the "Quenta" and decided that he needed to start all over again. I think that we can now see that The Hobbit was also doomed to be a process, rather than a finished work.

Bilbo and Frodo are torn between the Tookish and the Baggins side of their personality; Gollum is both Gollum and Smeagal; and Sam, at the end of Lord of the Rings, is "torn in two" between Rosie and Frodo, Hobbits and Elves, the Shire and the Undying Lands. (The rejected epilogue reveals that Sam never completely resolved this.) I think that we can now see that Tolkien also was "torn in two". He was both the hyper-romantic public school boy, drinking tea in a department store with three close friends (two of whom won't live to see their 20th birthdays), producing ecstatic, hallucinatory poetry:

"East of Moon west of the Sun
There stands a lonely hill
Its feet are in the pale green sea
Its towers are white and still
Beyond Taniqueitil
In Valinor..."

But he was also the old scholar, desperately chipping away at a book which is already a bestseller in order to make the phases of the moon fit together. It's as if the young schoolboy and soldier had seen Middle-earth and the old academic was struggling to make it real – even if that meant pulling the whole thing down and building it up again in order to make it consistent with geography, astronomy, catholic theology...oh, and to make sure that the half a dozen made-up languages all interrelated according to established philological rules. He never finished: because he was trying to do the impossible.

My edition of The Silmarillion has a quote from a contemporary review on the back: "How, given little over half a century of work, could one man become the creative equivalent of a people?" The answer, pretty obviously, is that he couldn't.

(*)Mr. Bliss, Roverandom, Letters from Father Christmas, The Unfinished Tales, The Book of Lost Tales (2 volumes), The Lays of Beleriand, The Shaping of Middle-earth, The Lost Road, The History of The Lord of the Rings (4 vols) Morgoth's Ring, The War of the Jewels, and The Peoples of Middle-earth.

If you have enjoyed this essay, please consider buying a copy of Do Balrogs Have Wings?, which contains all my essays on Lewis and Tolkien, including some previously unpublished.

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Sunday, August 12, 2007

News Values

Ten in row....


Saturday, August 11, 2007


"I could invent a cure for cancer and the headline would read 'Misogynist Cartoonist Makes Lucky Scientific Guess" sub-head "Builds on Foundation of Feminist Pioneers in Cancer Field." Knowing that the Torah commentaries and 289/90 are as revolutionary as I suspect they are, I'm really mare amused than anything else these days as to how this going to look in five (ten? twenty? fifty?) years when it finally "hits" the real world intellectual community what it is that I'm talking about and that the only coverage at the time was "This guy seems to have major issues with strong, independent women." I mean, actually finishing off that gag is going to be a major, major punch-line at feminism's expense. If 289/90 holds up scientifically, it's actually Einstein's Unified Theory he kept looking for. Guy comes up with Einstein's Unified Theory and anyone whats to talk about is how he thinks daycare is a bad way to raise children."

Dave Sim, Collected Letter page 46

Friday, August 10, 2007

"The whole spirit in which we enjoy a comic rogue depends on leaving out the consideration of the consequences which his character would have in real life: bring that in and every such character becomes tragic. To invite us to treat Jingle [in Pickwick Papers] as a comic character and then spring the tragic side on us, is a mere act of bad faith. No doubt that is how Jingle would end in real life. But then in real life it would have been our fault if we had originally treated him as a comic character. In the book you are forced to do so and therefore unjustly punished when the tragedy comes...."

C.S Lewis

"I find these letters which I still occasionally get (apart from the smell of incense which fallen man can never quite fail to savour) make me rather sad. What thousands of grains of good human corn must fall on barren, stony ground, if such a very small drop of water should be so intoxicating! But I suppose one should be grateful for the grace and fortune that have allowed me to provide even the drop"

J.R.R Tolkien (after receiving a fan letter from a young boy who said he had just read The Hobbit for the eleventh time)

"Sure, it’s simple, writing for kids. Just as simple as bringing them up.

All you do is take all the sex out, and use little short words and little dumb ideas, and don’t be too scary, and be sure there’s a happy ending. Right? Nothing to it. Write down. Right on.

If you do all that, you might even write Jonathan Livingston Seagull and make twenty billion dollars and have every adult in America reading your book!

But you won’t have every kid in America reading your book. They will look at it, and they will see straight through it, with their clear, cold, beady little eyes, and they will put it down, and they will go away. Kids will devour vast amounts of garbage (and it is good for them) but they are not like adults: they have not yet learned to eat plastic."

Ursula Le Guin

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Harry Potter and the Qualified Recantation

For as a surfeit of the sweetest things
The deepest loathing to the stomach brings,
Or as the heresies that men do leave
Are hated most of those they did deceive,
So thou, my surfeit and my heresy,
Of all be hated, but the most of me.

When I was eight, Miss Beale, old and grumpy with white curly hair, taught me how to write stories, good and clear, which would earn me house points.

"Good stories," she articulated, slowly and clearly, "Must have lots of unusual, vivid describing words, including adjectives, which come before naming-words, and adverbs, which come after doing-words."

I wrote this down slowly, carefully and neatly on the plain, white pages of my square, red exercise book which was on top of my brown, wooden desk.

"Good stories," she accentuated, "Must be written in complete sentences. They should be made up of proper words. You must never use any slang expressions."

I looked out of the window. The sky was blue, the grass was green. At least a hundred children were playing quickly and happily on the elephant-free playing field.

"If there is direct speech," she opined, "You must use expressions like 'he asked', 'he explained', 'he shouted'."

Twenty years later, when I was a grown-up, tall and stout with brown hair, I read a number of books by people who made their living writing stories.

"Only use adjectives as a last resort", they said, "And don't use any adverbs at all. Use the kind of language that you would use in real life, even if it is not grammatically correct. Don't be afraid to say 'said' over and over again. Don't tell the reader how to feel. Don't say that a monster is 'frightening': describe it in such a way that the reader will think 'Gosh! How frightening.' The best rule that any writer can follow is 'show, don't tell.' "

I think that children like the Harry Potter books because they are written in the style in which bad teachers tell conformist children constitutes "good writing". Eight-year-olds read J.K Rowling and think "I could do that too." And they are very probably right.


"Harry led them all back into the kitchen where, laughing and chattering, they settled on chairs, sat themselves upon Aunt Petunia's gleaming work-surfaces or leaned up against her spotless appliances: Ron, long and lanky; Hermione, her bushy hair tied back in a long plait; Fred and George, grinning identically; Bill, badly scarred and long-haired; Mr Weasley, kind-faced, balding, his spectacles a little awry; Mad-Eye, battle worn, one legged, his bright blue magical eye whizzing in its socket; Tonks, whose short hair was her favourite shade of bright pink; Lupin, greyer and more lined; Fleur, slender and beautiful, with her long, silvery blonde hair; Kinglsey, bald, black, broad-shouldered; Hagrid, with his wild hair and beard, standing hunchbacked to avoid hitting his head on the ceiling; and Mundungus Fletcher, small, dirty and hang-dog with his droopy, basset hound's eyes and matted hair. Harry's heart seemed to expand and glow at the sight: he felt incredibly fond of all of them, even Mundungus, whom he had tried to strangle the last time they had met."

This may be the single worst paragraph ever committed to paper by a published author. The first sentence is far too long. It gets caught up in a monotonous and repetitive formula: "This character, with this attribute and this attribute, doing this thing: that character, with that attribute and that attribute, doing that thing." Children's books are often read out loud: you might think that the Best Loved Children's Author of All Time would road test her typing and find out if it is possible to get your tongue around her sentences. (I have been told by people with kids that there is no safe way of pronouncing "Harry-ron-and-hermione.")

Most of us see the world in terms of very specific tags and trade names. We don't see "a glass of bitter ale" but "a pint"; we don't use "the vacuum cleaner", we use "the hoover" or "the dyson". So why say "the appliances" rather than "the fridge" or "work surfaces" rather than "Formica top"?

To this vague language, Rowling applies teacher-pleasing describing-words like "gleaming" and "spotless". Is it physically possible to clean a "work-surface" so much that it gleams? Rowling is trying to tell us – as opposed to show us that far too many people have crowded into a small kitchen, and that they are disregarding Petunia Dursely's fussy cleanliness. A writer would have picked out some details which conveyed this comic situation: "The room smelt of pine and chlorine."; "Harry smiled when Hagrid plonked his big bum on the newly polished dining table." Rowling prefers to use the language of washing-powder adverts.

This tic runs right through the series: Dudley is taken to "burger bars" rather than to "McDonalds"; he has a "computer console" rather than a "Playstation 2". There are a certain number of arse jokes and toilet jokes, but Rowling is very reluctant to use the word arse (or even "bum") and imagines that children say "bath-room" (rather than "loo" or "bog") even when there are no adults present. In the movie, Ron is occasionally allowed to say "bloody", but in the books, the most he ever does is "use swearwords." In the latest volume, one of the adults gets to say "bastard" and "bitch" but the children limit themselves to "Merlin's underpants!" and "Merlin's baggy Y-fronts!" This is presumably an example of the series becoming darker and more adult as it progresses.

The kitchen paragraph re-introduces us to a short-list of eight potential casualties. If you have lovingly committed the first million words of the saga to memory, you already know who Mr. Weasley is. If you haven't, then a list of distinguishing features is not much use to you. I haven't really given Harry Potter much thought since I tossed Harry Potter and the Half-Baked Prince aside in disgust: so I freely admit that I had forgotten who "Fleur" was: it didn't help very much to be told that she was the slender, beautiful one. And for goodness sake – don't tell us that the girl is beautiful: describe her so that we think "How beautiful!" Possibly, Rowling thinks that we seeing the world through Harry's eyes, and it is he who is saying that Fleur is beautiful. But a 17-year-old wouldn't use that word about a girl: he'd be more likely to think that she was cute or fit or hot or horny or pretty or nice-looking.

When you are reunited with old friends, your heart does not "seem to expand and glow". I am not even sure what a glowwy expandy heart would feel like. A writer might have described actual human emotions based on her actual human experience: "Harry felt as if he had just finished some intense physical exercise". She might have shown us what Harry felt by showing us what he is doing: "He started to giggle uncontrollably at the weakest of jokes." Or she might have just told us how he felt in plain language: "Harry was very pleased to see them all again." Rowling simply mouths a boy-band lyric: a set of words which have no actual meaning behind them.

Ursula Le Guin's fantasy world is driven by language: everything has a True Name and a wizard must understand words before he can control the world. Tolkien's world is driven by music: it was sung into existence before time began, and historical events are less important than the songs in which they will be remembered. J.K Rowling's world is driven by hair-cuts. Before he regenerated into Daniel Radcliffe, Harry Potter's main personality trait was his untidy hair. The one thing that we have to know about each member of the Order of the Phoenix is whether they have bushy hair, long-hair, short-hair, long silvery blonde hair, wild hair or matted hair. Disappointingly, Rowling doesn't tell us the colour of their eyes, or how many Charisma Points they've got.


"But Andrew, these books are intended for children. It's not fair to judge them by the standards of an adult critic."

Here is a passage of writing from a book that was intended for children:

"I do not know what it rightly is to faint, but I do know that for the next little while the whole world swam away from before me in a whirling mist; Silver and the birds, and the tall Spy-glass hilltop, going round and round and topsy-turvy before my eyes, and all manner of bells ringing and distant voices shouting in my ear.

When I came again to myself the monster had pulled himself together, his crutch under his arm, his hat upon his head. Just before him Tom lay motionless upon the sward; but the murderer minded him not a whit, cleansing his blood-stained knife the while upon a wisp of grass."

Note the clarity of the viewpoint. There is no question that we are listening to a slightly older Jim Hawkins recollecting what happened the first time he saw John Silver kill a man. Notice that he is using the kind of language that a teenage lad might use. Note that the details are drawn from Stevenson's observation of the world, not theatrical conventions or stock phrases. Note the skill with which we are first told what it felt like to Jim; and then given a vivid picture of what Jim saw, based on a telling detail which shows us what kind of a man Silver is. The only adjectives are the ones which convey actual information: "tall hilltop", "motionless body".

Here is a passage from a book that was intended for quite young children:

"The wind had dropped, and the snow, tired of rushing round in circles trying to catch itself up, now fluttered gently down until it found a place on which to rest, and sometimes the place was Pooh's nose and sometimes it wasn't, and in a little while Piglet was wearing a white muffler round his neck and feeling more snowy behind the ears than he had ever felt before."

You may think that A.A Milne didn't really understand children, but he certainly understood words. He has taken the trouble to actually describe the snow-storm, not with clich├ęs, adjectives or stock expressions but with a clever little metaphor that the kids are going to have to think about for a second or two. The whimsical personification of the snow cleverly tells us both what it looks like and what it feels like. Snow flakes do dart around unpredictably; you aren't sure when one of them is going to land on your face.

Finally, here is an excerpt from one of the key texts in the Western Canon. I don't know if it was intended for children, but I first read it when I was in Miss Beale's class:

"And a few minutes later, Peter Parker forgets the taunts of his classmates as he is transported to another worldthe fascinating world of atomic science!

But, as the experiment begins, no-one notices a tiny spider, descending from the ceiling on an almost invisible strand of web a spider whom fate has given a starring, if brief, role to play in the drama we call life!

Accidentally absorbing a fantastic amount of radioactivity, the dying insect, in sudden shock, bites the nearest living thing at the split second before life ebbs from its radioactive body!"

This is not nearly such good writing as Stevenson or Milne: it is functional, journalistic prose, intended (arguably redundantly) to describe the illustrations which accompany it! But it states clearly what is happening, without wasting any words! It is written in the kind of language an ordinary person might use! The slightly breathless, present tense sentences create a sense of urgency! It is somewhat over-written ("life ebbs from its body" rather than "it dies") but there are no stock phrases and few un-necessary adjectives! Like Rowling, Lee makes the mistake of telling us that science is fascinating, rather than showing us that Peter Parker is fascinated by it – but on the other hand, "fascinating" is a word that a science nerd might well use!

Miss Beale undoubtedly thought that reading books was intrinsically merit-worthy and reading comics was intrinsically wicked, so it's worth noting that Lee uses longer words than Rowling: I imagine the text of Spider-Man is of a higher reading age than that of Harry Potter! Comic books were printed on very cheap paper, and this meant that full-stops tended not to come out: so the letterers put exclamation marks at the end of sentences! And yes, I know that spiders aren't insects!


"But Andrew children love these books. Shouldn't you be applauding the fact that Rowling is getting children to read, rather than picking holes in her choice of words?"

Up to a point, Lord Voldemort.

Whatever you may have read in the Daily Mail, the yoof of today are not in any danger of becoming illiterate. They read text messages and My Space and blogs and e-mails. What they do not necessarily do is read many novels.

Does this matter? Miss Beale would probably have said that it was a Good Thing to read Good Books because they improve your grammar and expand your vocabulary – which is, being interpreted, they enabled you to fulfil your destiny as a useful little economic unit that doesn't make spelling mistakes in its CV. A spoonful of Quidditch makes the lexicon go down. Any long compendium of text would do the job just as well: The Times would be much more use than Treasure Island.

I do actually think that novels are more valuable, or at any rate, differently valuable, than newspapers or movies. But only on one condition: they have to be the kind of novels which have novel-like qualities. That means "psychologically believable characterisation, description which describes, and a plot which is more complex or subtle than fits into 90 minutes of cinema." If what you are reading really is "some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour are conveyed to the world in the best chosen language" then you have probably gained something from reading it. If it isn't, then you haven't. Harry Potter isn't.

Some people think that it doesn't matter what the younglings are reading, provided they are developing the habit of picking up books. Give the kids a shot of Harry Potter (the first hit is free) and before long they'll be full blown James Joyce addicts. Transformers leads to The Seventh Seal and The Da Vinci Code leads to Documents of the Christian Church as surely as the Northern Line leads to High Barnet. Is there actually any evidence for this?


"You are missing the point here. Granted, for the sake of argument, that as a prose stylist. Jeffrey Archer and Dan Brown could both beat J.K Rowling in a 'write your way out of a wet paper bag' competition: kids still like the Harry Potter books because they are good stories. So it's as stories you should be judging them."

I'd better come right out and say it, then.

I enjoyed the first three Harry Potter books very much indeed. If I am exasperated with J.K Rowling, it's because she has drained all the fun out of the series in the later volumes.

I remember the first time I read Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone. I was on a train to Reading. It passed the time. I enjoyed the silly word play (Diagon Alley, spellotape, the Mirror of Erised). I liked the dotty details about the magical curriculum and the inventive descriptions of the actual lessons. I thought that Quidditch was an impressively bonkers idea. I thought that Draco Malfoy was an eminently dislikeable villain, and that Prof. Dumbledore – much zanier in the early books – was a splendid comic creation. ("What happened down in the dungeons is a complete secret. So naturally, the whole school knows.") I liked the idea of a world where the oil paintings talk back at you, where the chocolate frogs hop away before you can eat them, and where trains leave from non-existent stations.

I thought that Rowling had cleverly dusted off the old and slightly reactionary genre of the school story and given us permission to enjoy it again. I thought that it was a witty conceit to set such a story in a world which functions, like Alice in Wonderland, according to a kind of dream-like illogical logic. That's very much how the adult world can appear to a child. (That was Lewis Caroll's point as well, obviously.) Snape asks Harry questions that he knows perfectly well that Harry can't possibly answer. Harry is sometimes late for lessons because one of the staircases in the school moved while he wasn't looking. The Headmaster makes strict and sometimes rather arbitrary rules but is just as likely to praise Harry as punish him when he breaks them. That's how school feels to a child. "I don't know how this works, I can't avoid getting into trouble because I simply don't know what these irrational adult-things expect of me." When I was eight, it was obvious that the class bully was a member of a secret order bent on world domination and that Miss Beale was a wicked witch in disguise. At Hogwarts, that's actually true.

Hogwarts includes everything which is theoretically fun about boarding school, but excludes everything that can make it traumatic. Harry gets to be with his friends 24 hours a day; he stays in a big exciting house, with lots of grounds to explore. He has a considerable degree of independence: how many children have their own personal grown-up free territory like the Gryffindor common room? On the other hand, he has a reasonable amount of privacy: he shares a room with his best mate and sleeps in a four poster bed. (The only bathroom we actually see the inside of appears to be a full sized swimming pool: we rather pointedly aren't told what the first year's showers are like.) School dinners are delicious and you can eat as much as you like. There is very little bullying. The first time Harry is in trouble, he anachronistically wonders if he is going to get the cane, but in fact, detention turns out to mean "going on a thrilling adventure with Hagrid" or, at worst "doing some comically boring chores". Most of the time, if you are naughty you simply lose house points. There isn't any P.E: so far as I can tell, Quidditch – conceived as a combination of American football and Formula 1 racing – is only played by those kids who positively want to try out for the team. There is some kissing (sorry, snogging) in the later books but the problems of adolescence, let alone the logistics of a co-ed boarding school are omitted (or more accurately, repressed.) Harry can't, by definition, miss his parents, because he doesn't have any: by another piece of looking-glass logic, the only time he feels homesick is during the holidays.

All this is an awful lot of fun. The problem sets in around volume 4, when Rowling ceases to treat Hogwarts as a literary device and starts treating it as if it was a real educational establishment. The whimsical "Billy Bunter with a magic wand" adventures become subordinate to a painfully derivative fantasy quest story in which Harry is the Chosen One who can defeat the Dark Lord. This creates massive inconsistencies in tone. In the fifth volume, evil Blairite Dolores Umbridge starts to physically torture misbehaving pupils. Are we to read this as comic violence or react to it as a realistic depiction of quite serious child abuse? If the latter, are we entitled to ask whether there are social workers or schools inspectors in the wizarding world? If Harry is now the Hero With a Thousand Faces are we really supposed to care (or imagine that he cares) about his wizarding exams or who wins the Quidditch tournament?

Each of the seven Harry Potter books contains two different stories. One story typically concerns some dramatic event from the past. It's often something which will impact on Harry's life and call into question something he believes in: maybe his father wasn't quite the saint he thought him to be; or perhaps Dumbledore secretly fathered a love child with Mary Magdalene. The second story describes how Harry-ron-and-hermione collect a series of clues – fragments of old letters, anecdotes narrated by other characters, and un-convincing plot devices like Tom Riddle's sentient diary and the magic pot that contains the headmaster's memories. Eventually, they have enough MacGuffins to re-construct the back story, at which point Prof. Dumbledore pops up and shows them how it all fits together.

Now, in books 1 and 2, the focus was entirely on the front-story: that is "the adventure of a new-bug at a funny school". We only cared about the identity of the Heir of Slytherin and the location of the Philosopher's Stone in so far as they provided a pretext for Harry to leave the dorm after lights out, sneak into the girls' toilets (sorry, bathrooms) and generally have a thrilling but slightly naughty time. Even Lord Voldemort is primarily a plot device: a bit of doublethink which allows Harry to be excused and even sometimes rewarded for breaking the school rules. ("The dog ate my homework" and "I have a medical condition which means I have to eat chocolates during maths" don't work nearly so well as "I had to do it because otherwise the Dark Lord would have covered all the lands of Middle-Earth in a second darkness.")

In the third and best of the books, the front story and the back story were about equally important. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is a thrilling school story about an escaped murderer possibly hiding out in the school grounds; but when Harry learns the convict's identity, he also discovers some genuinely interesting things about his parents and the origins of Lord Voldemort.

From volume 4 onwards, the focus increasingly shifts to the back-story. It feels as if the story which Rowling wants to tell is not the one about Harry-ron-and-hermione, but the one about Harry's parents and their contemporaries. Harry is simply the lens through which James Potter, Lilly Evans, Tom Riddle and the rest come into focus. In Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the school story has atrophied completely. We learn about the childhood and early career of Prof. Dumbledore. We find out why he was content to remain a school-teacher instead of taking on some job that would have been more appropriate to his talents – Minister for Magic, emissary of the Valar or Anglican Deity. (This is not very interesting.) It is revealed (for the sixteenth or seventeenth time) whether Prof. Snape is a dark wizard pretending to be a good wizard; a good wizard pretending to be a dark wizard; or a dark wizard pretending to be a good wizard pretending to be a dark wizard pretending to be a good wizard. (This is actually rather well done.) Harry-ron-and-hermione's function in all this is to traipse around the countryside collecting two different sets of plot coupons – the "horocruxes" which contain parts of the Dark Lord's soul, and the interesting but largely irrelevant "deathly hallows". J.K is so wrapped up in herself that she can't see why we might think that "A Harry Potter book which is mostly not set at Hogwarts School" is a slightly odd notion.
So, instead of following any conventional narrative structure, the books are built like computer games. Deathly Hallows reads (seriously) like the novelization of a third person quest adventure. Characters decide which location to explore; they visit each room in that location in turn; they pick up clues or solve a puzzle; they sift out which clues are relevant to their quest, what is a red herring, and what is a pointer to some sub-plot or side-quest. When they meet another character, the main thing is to work out what question they need to ask it in order that it will recite the next section of the back story. Harry is linked telepathically to Voldemort; and the occasional flashes where he sees the world through the Dark Lord's eyes feel an awful lot like cut-scenes.

I wonder if this is the key to the books' popularity? Give children or thick adults Treasure Island or Tom Sawyer and they will say "Where are the missions? Where are the puzzles? Where is the underground trap-filled labyrinth? Who is the end of level boss?" Give them Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows and they will feel right at home. It's the only form of narrative structure these people understand.

At the beginning of chapter 10, Harry-ron-and-hermione are hiding out at Grimmauld Place (geddit?) former headquarters of the Order of the Phoenix. While the others are asleep, Harry decides to explore the place. First, he goes into his old room:

"The wardrobe door stood open, and the bedclothes had been ripped back. Harry remembered the over turned troll leg downstairs."

J.K helpfully explains that this is a Clue, and goes through its possible meanings:

"Somebody had searched the house since the Order had left. Snape? Or perhaps Mundungus."

Harry then goes to the room which Sirius Black, his godfather, had used as a boy. (Wizards have godfathers, celebrate Christmas, name hospitals after saints and put quotes from the Bible on their grave stones, but they don't have churches, vicars or Christenings and their weddings and funerals are secular affairs. But hey, it's only a kid's book, right?) It is described at some length: we are told what posters Sirius used to have on his bedroom wall; and then we are told what this implies about his personality. ("He seemed to have gone out of his way to annoy his parents".) Harry searches the room and, among many unimportant items, he finds this level's Important Clue: a single page of a letter which his mother wrote to Sirius shortly before she died. The fragment finishes with the words "it seems incredible that Dumbledore...". J.K helpfully points out that this is another Clue, but that some more information will be necessary in order to decode it:

"That Dumbledore what? But there were any number of things that would seem incredible about Dumbledore..."

In another vintage piece of comic over-writing, she tells us that a letter from his dead mother is of some importance to Harry:

"Harry's extremities seemed to have gone numb. He stood quite still holding the miraculous paper in his nerveless fingers while inside him a kind of quiet eruption sent joy and grief thundering in equal measure through his veins..."

Once he has calmed down, Harry searches the room again, and finds an old photo; this doesn't effect his extremities nearly so much because he already has pictures of his family. After discussing the new Clues with Ron-and-hermione, he decides to check the remaining unexplored room which has "Do not enter without the express permission of Regulus Arcturus Black" written on the door. They already have in their inventory an amulet with R.A.B on it, so they quickly spot that this is also a Clue; however, when they search the room, they can't find anything of any use. A few pages later, they encounter Kreacher (geddit?) the House Elf, and, by asking him the correct questions, get him to narrate a section of back story concerning Regulus Black.

Harry is not interacting with characters or the world: he is walking a around a pre-programmed "scene of the crime", being fed information and activating plot devices. If this was a classical detective story or indeed a halfway decent computer game, the significance of the clues would not be spelled out. We would be told that Sherlock Holmes had found an old letter, a photo, and an amulet and be implicitly challenged to work out the back-story for ourselves. What would happen, I wonder, if you went through the book and deleted all the passages in which J.K says: "Harry found a clue. Harry thought about the clue. Harry wondered what the clue meant. Harry went and asked Hermione about the clue. Ron said 'Blimey mate it's a clue'."? Do you think that you would end up with a much tighter, punchier, shorter book, like, for example, Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone?

This is why fans of the series are so obsessed with spoilers. No-one pretends that they are waiting for the new book for the sheer fun of reading about what hi-jinks Harry and the gang will get up to this term. The only reason for reading it is to discover which new pages from her notebook J.K Rowling is going to release into the public domain. Once you know that information, there's no actual need to read the book.

Any sense of tension or suspense you may experience – and I can't deny that I kept turning the pages over – is created by the publicity campaign, not by the book itself. Since Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Rowling's publishers have performed an Equus style striptease act – coyly mentioning that if you read this volume will show you something that you've never seen before, and that you really ought to queue up outside Borders at midnight on Friday in order to be one of the first five or six million people to know what it is. The flyleaf to Order of the Phoenix described Prof. Dumbledore saying to Harry "Please sit down. I am going to tell you everything." So we plow our way through 765 pages because we are mildly interested to find out what the big revelation is going to be. (Nothing very interesting or surprising, and a good deal less than "everything".)

Before volumes 4, 5 and 6 we were warned that "A major character is going to be killed off", which made the books seem more like Big Brother than adventure stories: not "How will our hero escape..." but "Someone is going to be evicted from the series? Read the next 500 pages and you might find out who." This approach gave the final scenes of Deathly Hallows a quite spurious urgency. When Harry confronts Darth Vader, we couldn't help thinking that he was in genuine danger – not because Rowling was typing the scene in a particularly dramatic way, but because the publisher's hook for this volume was "Perhaps the person who gets killed off this time may be Harry Potter himself." The actual battle, by the way, is so convoluted that only a child could possibly understand it. Harry is not, in fact, required to defeat Voldemort neither naked nor clothed, neither riding nor on foot, wearing a hat which is not a hat, and eating a cheeseburger that is not a cheeseburger, but it would have been much simpler and more believable if he had.

I don't blame adults for reading this kind of thing. Adults use books to send themselves to sleep after a stressful day at the office. They don't expect them to make much sense. They probably don't pay much attention to them. If you paid attention to Jeffrey Archer or Dan Brown or Barbara Cartland your heart would probably glow and expand and all your extremities would drop off. Some of them may even want a fix of dragons and centaurs and magic swords and feel that they can get away with reading Harry Potter without Peter Bradshaw and John Humphrys calling their virility into question.

But something has gone very wrong with a world in which children would rather read about a school-shaped theme-park than Greyfriars or Linbury Court or Malory Towers or //please insert name of contemporary school story here//. It's a pity if their first meetings with dragons and unicorns are in this mushed-up watered-down baby-food form. Oh, maybe after finishing Harry Potter they'll go looking for more dragon-books and stumble on A Wizard of Earthsea or The Sword in the Stone. But isn't it equally likely that 1.3 million words of knock-off reproduction fantasy will leave them never wanting to see another dragon ever again? And is that why the Harry Potter series seems to be approved of by the kinds of grown-ups who openly sneer at Tolkien readers? Do they secretly hope that J.K Rowling is a kind of spiritual vaccination that will cure the kids of imagination for the rest of their lives?

Hi. I'm Andrew Rilstone. 

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