May 14

Bedtime Storywatch: Harry Potter III – Back In Training

The Brown Wedge/22 comments • 639 views

Prisoner of Azkaban, the third Harry Potter book, is also the third I’ve read to my 7-year old. The rule has been “one a year”, mostly because I know the series ramps up the level of darkness and anxiety, but also because once we hit the pagecount explosion of Book 4 I’m keener to pass the job on to him.

There’s some indication, I think, that this is how Rowling expects things to go. The first two books are really exceptionally good for reading aloud – clear storytelling, distinctive character voices, a steady flow of new ideas and exciting incidents, and evocative but simple description.

By HP3, that’s starting to change. The narrative is getting more sophisticated not just emotionally but technically. Crowd scenes are rendered with snatches of unattributed dialogue. Lists of books include parenthetical excerpts. These are ultra standard techniques, and a child reader gets the point of them very quickly. A reader aloud has more trouble making them work. They simply aren’t meant to be bedtime stories.

There’s also a lot more worldbuilding going on. The Potter books mostly start with a relative lull, then spend a lot of time on the books’ stock antagonisms (vs Dudley, vs Malfoy, vs Snape) while introducing new characters and quietly moving plot elements around in the background. There’s enough drama in the running enmities to make each night’s reading exciting even before the layered payoffs start hitting. But in HP3 not only are there even more spells, artefacts and magical concepts to deal with, there are huge chunks of backstory exposition, which have to be delivered in ever longer talking heads sequences.

Thankfully, these are pretty exciting bits of exposition, all about betrayal and murder. But the introduction of Sirius Black – the living link to Harry’s parents and past – crosses a rubicon. The B story he brings with him – the lives of the previous generation of Hogwarts’ students – never fades out: it gets more and more important (and hence the expository scenes get more crucial) across all the rest of the novels.

So this is a pivot point in Harry Potter. The books start as a kids’ series, and end it as something closer to a Young Adult one. A lot of older readers – me included – are reading it alongside their kids and like the kids’ end more, or at least think JK Rowling is better at handling it. And so Prisoner of Azkaban is a favourite, as it’s Rowling pushing the magical school story with its domino-topple plot as far as it can go. But if you look at 20something Harry Potter fans on Tumblr, they react to the sturm und drang of later books more – which get more and more influenced by that previous-generation B-plot, all about the consequences of teenage friendships and crushes, which is a much more YA set of ideas.

If the series had started out with the Young Adult mentality – i.e. if it had always been meant to be read by bright 13-14 year olds, not 10-year olds – maybe it would have gone for an Alan Garner type narrative (or one like Stephen King’s IT): two generations of storytelling in parallel, so you could trace the resonances between them and see how mistakes and decisions influenced each other. But that’s not how the series was set up – it’s Harry’s story, with the B-plot of 1970s Hogwarts existing as eggs laid inside it, slowly hatching.

The main consequence of this, it seems to me, is that the role of the adults in the books shifts dramatically. HP3 is the first book in which intra-adult dislike is a plot motor (as opposed to a joke – everyone thinking Lockhart is a dick, for instance). Snape hating Lupin is important, and requires kid readers to have a way of grasping and relating to adults’ interior lives and motives, which they won’t really have until a certain age. In the first and second books, the adults basically fill standard adventure fiction roles – their point is to be incomprehending enemies or wise mentors, while the kids carry the adventure. HP3 changes all that – the climactic scenes in the Shrieking Shack are all about four grown men dealing with that they did or didn’t do when young, while the child protagonists of the books are mainly onlookers.

I say “grown men”, but that’s the problem. Younger kid readers basically don’t have much of a way of grasping adult interiority – which isn’t to say kidlit can’t be sharply observational about adult actions and justifications, of course. Teenage fiction, on the other hand, is or should be excellent at capturing teenage motivation and interior lives. So that’s what the prior-generation characters – the motor of the series’ shift towards young-adult status – get defined by. What Snape, Lupin, Black et al. did at school and just after defines their entire role in the books and their emotional motivations: an unresolved teenage crush isn’t just character-defining, it’s the twist the entire seven-book series ends up resting on. By the end, Harry Potter is a book about teenage teenagers and adult teenagers and dead teenagers, which is its power and appeal and why I am stopping reading aloud after this third book, where the slow roll towards that endpoint begins.


  1. 1
    Andrew Farrell on 15 May 2014 #

    That’s a great point about the development of the writing style. It’s worth pointing out that (if I recollect correctly) History is a big feature from the start, the source of Harry’s awkward fame and much discussed in the manner of “We need to discuss this but not in front of the kid protagonists”.

    Thinking on it, it’s a common thread with Tolkien, this sense of living after The War and then whoops it turns out it’s The Next War coming up the path. Scene 1 page 1 even starts immediately after the war – an oversight on Tolkien’s side that the films correct :)

    Which I know is not the same thing that you’re saying – except that for all the focus on teenage daydreams, the characters (except Snape?) don’t seem to have changed that much from then for the next (decade?) until the first war.

  2. 2
    Tom on 15 May 2014 #

    It’s the lack of change that was what I was griping about – Snape in particular! The problem of the books – and I’m hardly the first person to point it out – is that even for the adult characters, what happens to you at school defines your entire life. It’s a bit miserable for the adult reader (though attractive for the teenage one for the same reason, maybe?).

    The backstory is there in books 1 and 2 obv – it’s certainly not like JKR wasn’t always planning the shift in focus. I think it’s to the ultimate detriment of the series tho.

  3. 3
    Andrew Farrell on 15 May 2014 #

    Permission to spoilerize, sir! (as you’ve largely written a non-spoilery post)

  4. 4
    Tom on 15 May 2014 #

    Spoiler away! I’ve only read books 4-7 once and longish ago so I suspect I won’t be able to argue back!

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    Doctor Casino on 15 May 2014 #

    A nice read, and I wonder if it could also be applied to the final book’s epilogue, which has always seemed to me a mix of satisfying and unsatisfying. Twenty MORE years on, and our teenage characters get what they had coming to them as teenagers, with no sense that anything else interesting has ever happened in their lives, or that anybody is capable of change after they leave Hogwarts for good. I approved of this versus other more ‘dramatic’ possible final outcomes. I thought it was important to note that Harry never actually asked to be anybody’s champion, and probably wanted nothing more than to be an ordinary sort of wizard with a loving family and friends. But at the same time it feels a little flat, like we’re watching kids play at being grownups…something the film really rubbed in actually.

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    Tom on 15 May 2014 #

    At the time I read the final book, I thought the epilogue was a good bit of fan service (or fan trolling, depending on the outcome you wanted). But this is certainly a criticism that could be made of it. On the other hand I took the whole thing as JKR putting a nice firm barrier in place against her being lured back to the characters, at least for a good while.

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    tm on 15 May 2014 #

    With Snape, doesn’t it make more sense that he hasn’t changed since school: he’s a man (or wizard) who’s personality is defined almost entirely by his unrequited love, caught in the aspic of his own past, waiting for a grenade big and important enough for him to throw himself on top of it, no?

  8. 8
    Tom on 15 May 2014 #

    #7 Yes, my objection isn’t that he doesn’t make sense as a character, but that a) this is presented as ultimately heroic and brave, and b) it turns out to be normative – none of the character really seem to move on from their schooldays.

    I think I overreact a bit to this because I’m uncomfortably aware that I romanticised unrequited love (& being a creeper about it) when I was in my teens, though luckily being at REAL ACTUAL Hogwarts I wasn’t able to do much about it. So when Snape’s story plays out like a David Gedge song I am not inclined to be especially sympathetic out of harshness to my real 17 year old self as much as his fictional one.

    (His indie hair was always the giveaway. Not even a joke – physiognomy is very often destiny in Rowling)

  9. 9
    Ed on 16 May 2014 #

    This was very well timed for me as I had just finished reading HP5 aloud to my youngest a couple of days ago. We were both exhausted by the time we reached p766, and seized on a Grimm fairy tales adaptation last night with great delight. I’m not sure if we’ll be back for HP6 and HP7, and we may well end up following the pattern with my oldest, who read those two on his own. So I still don’t really know how it all ends.

    As Tom says, the series’ passage through adolescence is entirely deliberate. I remember reading an interview with JKR where she said her plan was for the books’ themes to mature along with their readers as the series went on. That doesn’t help much for kids who are coming to it now, of course, but she clearly didn’t anticipate quite the impact on posterity that she has turned out to have.

    Much more of a problem with the later books, though, is simple bloat. By the time of HP5, you get the impression that no-one at Bloomsbury so much as read the copy she’d submitted, let alone had the temerity to suggest any changes. ***Mild spoilers alert*** The mirror that crops up on p755 and makes a nonsense of the entire plot certainly suggests that.

  10. 10
    Ed on 16 May 2014 #

    Mention of Alan Garner also makes me sigh for his wonderful economy with narrative and atmosphere. ‘Elidor’ is only 201 pages in my edition.

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    tm on 16 May 2014 #

    #8: I always had Snape down as a Nick Cave fan.

    #9: My wife has all the HP books and I’ve read the first and enjoyed it but always been put off by the doorstep thickness of 4 and 5.

  12. 12
    Tommy Mack on 16 May 2014 #

    …and 6. The curse of success: No-one will tell you that maybe Wild Honey Pie doesn’t need to go on the album.

  13. 13
    Tom on 16 May 2014 #

    Yeah, nobody’s having to sing the White Album to their kids though.

    “Number nine… number nine… number nine…”

    “Shut up, Dad.”

  14. 14
    Andrew Farrell on 16 May 2014 #

    My spoiling nitpick: The Twist is that Snape *has* moved on from when people’s memories of him fade out, when he leaves school to become a Death Eater, and everyone else shuffles off to take their places for the War – it’s between then and the start of the books that he switches sides.

    They sell this dummy pretty well I thought, partly through Harry’s trip to the pensieve in the fifth book, which not only gives Harry first-hand memories of Snape, but also a decent psychological foundation for joining up. And also partly through years of scowling.

    Though as regards efforts to get readers to dig interiority of (ahem) kidults, I think “Your first antagonist is a heroic thrill spy” is probably in second place behind “Yer da’s a prick”. If I remember correctly (and I may not), they never really resolve this – your dad was a prick but he was also your dad and he loved you but he was also a prick. For all that we hear “Ah, yer dad was one of the good’uns, ‘Arry”, we don’t actually see much evidence of that, compared to “He made one of his fellow students’ lives hell”.

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    Tom on 16 May 2014 #

    But Snape switches sides *because* he hasn’t moved on… I fear this is an Ourobouros of an argument.

    Re. your second point, yes, my memories are pretty dim of this strand though: I can’t remember whether James being a bully is something that is obvious but left unsaid or whether Harry actually confronts it. And there’s nothing in the second-generation storyline to parallel it or to show Harry making different decisions from his father. There’s a line of fan argument that Harry is basically a dumb jock, but he’s certainly not a malicious one – though he also never gets the chance to be.

  16. 16
    Ed on 16 May 2014 #

    Yes, James Potter is shown explicitly as a bully in HP5. I am not sure what happens later.

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    tm on 16 May 2014 #

    #15 Indeed: Isn’t the reason Dumbledore was able to make him his sleeper agent the same reason he joined Voldemort’s National Front Disco in the first place? Because he was wounded in love and malleable to anyone who could give his life a higher purpose beyond carrying a torch (and getting his trousers back off Potter Sr.)? Dumbledore won out because he redeemed Snape’s unrequited love in entwining it with a greater struggle between good and evil whereas VdM was just saying ‘forget that slag, let’s go fuck up some Muggles’, right?

    Harry as dumb jock: not really dumb jock per se, but more slightly dull Tintin/Bart Simpson everyman around whom extraordinary characters and events revolve (with of course, the obvious Neo/Luke Skywalker reluctant chosen one stuff too)

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    Andrew Farrell on 16 May 2014 #

    #15 That’s true if you consider his development as only relating to his feelings for Lily – which he does of course, and – oh there’s that Ourobouros come round again.

    #17 Apparently he joined up to impress Lily – it’s entirely possible that his change was just noticing that it didn’t work.

    (Apparently according to the Happy Potter Wikia, which I actually trust completely to play accurate with the books, if for no other reason that any deviation will surely have a pushback from a competing faction, and the iron laws of Wiki will out).

  19. 19
    Doctor Casino on 16 May 2014 #

    Re: James, the failure to really deal with his bullying is maybe the best proof of Tom’s argument about perpetual adolescence. Given how many times we encounter some kind of Ghost Dad, it’d be reasonable for James to have at least one moment to sigh, say, yeah, I was a real prat bad in school, it was only in my early twenties that I was really starting to figure out how to relate to women through means other than bullying other boys and by then there was a war on, etc. Would have been nice and much appreciated.

    OTOH: one of the things I’ve always chalked up to Rowling’s credit was that the adult antagonists (the bad teachers, not the faceless and boring Death Eaters) generally had credible real-world motivations and ways of being. Often the people in the books who do the most harm do so in ways that you’re quite likely to encounter in the real world: the never-grew-up school chum who’s vulnerable to the flattery of toadies, the administrative martinet who hangs on the rules to blot out an unpleasant reality, etc. etc. Better to learn how to face those off than to learn magical defenses against Pure Evil.

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    Doctor Casino on 16 May 2014 #

    To be fair, though, I certainly don’t think Rowling expects us to read James as a great guy in his Hogwarts days – it’s emphatically part of the ‘point’ that Harry has to reckon with him being a louse. Just we don’t get to see so much of that reckoning, or get very far pondering how Harry might have re-tread the same path, or forcing the reader to challenge their positive responses, two or three years before, to things that were cast as a harmless bit of fun but actually look a little shady in hindsight. Harry befriending Luna rather than mocking her (see: the early treatment of Hermione, or Moaning Myrtle even!) is perhaps a more important turning point than the bloated later books can really put a spotlight on.

  21. 21
    lonepilgrim on 16 May 2014 #

    really not a fan of the HP books – I gave up after number 2 – but if you can’t be bothered to read the story yourself then there’s this version here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u981JhkK46o

  22. 22
    Ed on 18 May 2014 #

    @15 etc: I’ve never really understood this business about Harry being a jock: his specs and physique certainly don’t mark him out as some kind of athletic superhero. He just happens to be quite handy with a broom.

    And it’s clear that JKR doesn’t place too much value on sporting prowess: Quidditch is a game deliberately designed to be ridiculous.

    I guess it’s something that may be more of an issue for fans in America – where school sport is a really big deal – than in Britain.

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