You might ask why the review of J.K. Rowlings' lush settings and characters. It was prompted by a rare visit to a movie theater to watch the final episode in Harry's cinematic life. We own all the previous movies on DVD. My favorites are The Sorcerer's Stone and Order of The Phoenix. Dolores Umbridge has to be one of the all time best villians. I wonder who Rowling patterned her after? Was there a sadistic teacher in her past? Or did she have a frustrating experience with a bureaucrat that seeded that character? However she arose, Umbridge is brilliantly horrid, from her tittering ahem to her fuzzy pink sweaters.
The final installment of Deathly Hallows did not disappoint. The special effects awed us and even prepared, sniffling could not be avoided when Snape died. Curiously, most of those sharing our experience were middle-aged. It speaks to Potter's wide appeal which brings me back to the books. When I think of the kind of books I'd like to write, they are ones with unforgettable worlds and well-loved characters. I'll never stop honing my craft, but in the end, children care about the story. And no one can deny Rowling drove that nail home.
J.K. Rowling built a lush, magical world that was visually seared into Potter fans' brains when the movies appeared. A red train transports children and readers from the Muggle world to the Hogwarts Academy where Rowling's imagination flourished. We first see the castle rising out of the mountains and mist, all towers and turrets. Then we're ushered into the main hall where we gawk at the hundreds of candles suspended below a ceiling that mimics the sky outside ("It's not real, you know," Hermione says). Four long rows of tables representing each student house, are heaped with food and lead up to the front of the hall where Dumbledore's lectern awaits his welcoming speech. You'll grow to know that hall well as many scenes occur there. You'll see it adorned in pumpkins and Christmas trees and you'll see it darken as the plot does.
Rowling's imagination didn't stop with the main hall. She treats us to moving staircases, talking portraits, an elaborate prefects' bathroom, the Room of Entitlement (providing just what you need at critical moments in the plot), and huge chamber-like classrooms filled with dinosaur skeletons and mysterious cabinets. Dumbledore's office is a wonderful mix of messy and marvelous. Books totter in haphazard stacks and tumble from shelves. His desk is littered with papers, candy and mugs. Colorful vials sparkle from one glass cabinet. Behind another, a large bowl contains memories too painful to bear. And on a perch overseeing it all, sits Fawkes, Dumbledore's phoenix.
Eventually we step outside the castle to the grounds and we encounter the Whomping Willow (a shuddering tree that snaps birds from the air and wallops passersby), an ornate covered- bridge spanning a breath-stopping chasm, The Forbidden Forest, where centaurs and giant spiders roam, the Quidditch field and Hagrid's Hut where the groundskeeper nurtures baby dragons and such. The setting is enormous. I haven't even mentioned Diagon Alley, Hogsmeade, The Burrow, or The Ministry of Magic. It boggles my mind that this world sprung from Rowling's head. And now it lives on in books, movies and websites. For a detailed look at the Potter world, see The Harry Potter Lexicon.
I'm back from a mini blog vacation which was prompted by the death of my computer, a not so loved, but necessary companion. Forgive me if I'm a bit rusty. And cranky. To light a fire under my muse, I perused J.K. Rowling's site yesterday afternoon.
I'm a Potter freak and even though I admire literary fiction, I don't apologize for this digression. I'm married to a sci-fi/fantasy geek who read the Harry Potter books as soon as they hit library shelves. In between he plugged his ears and eyes, so previews wouldn't contaminate his experience. I enjoyed the movies with him but I had no interest in reading the books. Until the writing bug bit me and the first novel out of my head was a middle grade fantasy.
Then I studied Rowling's books cover to cover, all 4195 (U.S.) pages. I noted immediately the issues that critics scoffed at: Opening on a scene absent the protaganist or any character near the targeted reader's age (more than a century has passed since Dumbledore was a teen!), swerving point of views and all that telling/not showing. None of that mattered. By the end of page one, I was gripped by the story and remained so to the last page of book seven.
How did Rowling do it? What is it about her story that struck a chord with millions, young and old? For me it starts with her characters. Harry, Ron and Hermione are relatable, likable kids. They're not super good-looking or cool and they use ordinary assets to battle evil: Knowledge, courage, and determination. Rowling infuses their dialogue with wit and humor, even during the darkest moments. After Harry and his buds tackle a troll, Rowling delivers comic relief when a flustered Professor McGonagall awards their school house ten points for "sheer dumb luck."
Hogwarts' staff . . . Dumbledore, Hagrid, McGonagall and Snape are equally charming (yes, I called Snape charming!). Not only did I root for Harry and his pals, but I hoped for Snape's vindication. Because Rowling's characters are not one-sided. Snape is a complicated mixture of loyal Hogwarts' professor and former Deatheater. The wise and powerful Dumbledore puts Harry in danger and often leaves him to deal with it alone. Even the contemptuous Dudley Dursley is redeemed in the end when he shows respect and concern for Harry. Readers recognize themselves in these flawed characters and celebrate their victory over wrong.
Next week: The World Rowling Built
Hello World! Today I'm settling into a new virtual home. This blog is a continuation of the previous version, Word Weaves, published with my old website. My intent is the same . . . to journal about a writer's life in hopefully, relatable and sometimes enlightening posts. There are so many blogs. I doubt the need for one more, yet I selfishly use this space to sharpen my skills and my discipline. So, if you choose to ignore my blather, I forgive you.
I write middle grade and young adult books with a magical twist, and I'm represented by the fabulous Leslie Zampetti at Open Book Literary.
Lorin Oberweger - Freelance Editor