Monday, June 22, 2009

The Harry Potter Mega Post

So I know this is somewhat outside the typical scope of this blog but given that we are now only a couple days past the two year anniversary of the release of the final book coupled with the release of the sixth movie (the best yet, but as always woefully inferior to its literary partner) last week, for the past few weeks Harry Potter has managed to be my substitute in the doldrums of the sports year that is the month of July. That said I was more than happy just to reread a few of the books and go see the movie without devoting a post on my sports blog up until a phone conversation with my brother a week ago.

As I have mentioned in previous posts, the older of my two younger brothers and I share a specific bond in the world of sports, mostly due to our intense competition in all things sports through our childhoods and on until today. While not quite the sports fan that I am, I still have some of my longest conversations involving sports while on the phone with him. Though he does not share my enthusiasm for reading he of course has read the Harry Potter series (honestly at this point you are a bit of a social oddity if you are between the ages of 15 and 25 and haven't read the books). We got into a long discussion breaking down the books and discussing certain elements of Rowling's genius and even some shortcomings (though few). After finally hanging up after being on the phone for more than half an hour, I decided that I would dedicate a post to a thorough ESPN style breakdown of the Harry Potter books, then finish off with some parallels between Harry Potter and the world of sports. So hang onto your Firebolts because from here on out its Potter Time. Oh and if you are one of the misguided souls who has yet to read the books SPOILERS AHEAD!

The first part of this mega-post will delve into the books. While I feel I could easily write a book myself breaking down this behemoth of a series I will take the opportunity to break it down in three parts all in a sports style: 1) Rowling's Greatest Strengths 2) The VFSS Top 10 characters in Harry Potter and 3) The Best Chapter of Each Book in the Series.

Rowlings Strengths
The Harry Potter books are far from the best books ever written in a classical literary sense and if you asked a literary critic they would say Rowling's writing is far outstripped by authors such as Orwell, Hemingway, and Tolkien. However Rowling utilizes he own brand of genius in her ability to grab the reader from the first page and not let go until the last. I can count on one hand how many 700+ page books I have read in a 24 hour span and both are Harry Potter books. Along with this ability to write literary cocaine, two other things stand out to me as particular talents of Rowling's writing.

The first is her ability to come up with names for characters that stick, many of which are less than subtle homages to other works of fiction or mythology (e.g. Argus Filch is a reference the the Greek creature Argus, Wormtail seems to take certain elements from Grima Wormtongue in Lord of the Rings). Not only does she think up great names, she often will mention a name in passing in one book, then introduce that person as an important character several books later. I personally don't think she plans that far ahead with every character, but regardless it makes the characters seem that much cooler when introduced. For instance, I doubt that while writing the first book Rowling knew that Sirius Black was going to be such an integral part of the series, however using that name as opposed to another gives greater meaning to smaller aspects of the previous books, instantly making them easier and almost necessary to reread.

Rowling's greatest strength however is her ability to build up storylines, then deliver an awesome payoff. Snape's storyline of course is the ultimate example of this, but Rowling weaves multiple storylines in each book and also weaves several across each book. For example the Barty Crouch storyline paid off wonderfully within the fourth book and the reason for Dumbledore's withered arm in the sixth book paid off wonderfully in the seventh book upon the revelation concerning the Deathly Hallows. That said there are some less than satisfactory payoffs in the series, though few and far between. I was a little disappointed with the fleeting nature of how Wormtail's debt to Harry was incorporated for example. These few admirable misfires though are not nearly enough to detract from the brilliance Rowling exhibits in creating long lasting storylines, then paying them off in dramatic fashion.

The VFSS Top 10 Harry Potter Characters

1) Severus Snape- Argue if you want, but for my money Snape is the best character in the entire series. From the first book a juxtaposition exists between Snape's apparently irrational hatred of Harry Potter and the fact that Dumbledore trusts him implicitly. Through the first five books we pretty much assume Snape to be good, yet he still antagonizes Harry Potter as well as characters such as Lupin and Sirius Black to no end. The brilliant decision Rowling made with Snape was refusing to fully explain his motivations until the end of the final book, yet giving short glimpses and hints throughout the series (such as in the Snape's worst memory chapter of book 5). To me the true testament to the fact that Snape is #1 is the fact that, in the time between book 6 and book 7, the biggest question on the minds of most fans was not whether Harry would live or die, or what the Deathly Hallows were, but instead was whether Snape was good or evil. Book seven delivered on that with the best chapter of the series (see below) and was the best of J.K. Rowlings many amazing literary payoffs.

2) Albus Dumbledore - if I had written this list before reading the seventh book, Dumbledore would have not been ranked any better than 5. Throughout the first six books of the series Dumbledore basically fills the archetypal role of the old wise sage, similar to Merlin, Gandalf, or Obi-Wan Kenobi. That's no slight of Rowling, as he still was perhaps more lovable than anyone in the group and simultaneously emanated power, wisdom, and a very quirky sense of humor. The seventh book completely changed all of that. Most characters in film or literature that fill the same archetype as Dumbledore don't get much attention with regards to their past. In giving us the background of Dumbledore and Grindewald, Rowling blindsided most readers (myself included) by suggesting that Dumbledore was fallible in his trust (which made the Snape storyline even more engrossing) and had less than pure ambitions at some point in his life.

3) Harry Potter
- Harry Potter is one of the most loved and certainly well known protagonists in the history of literature. While one never really questions his alignment with the side of good or his eventual success in his endeavors, where Rowling really succeeds with Harry is in his interactions with his peers. His interactions with Ron and Hermione and the fact that, despite his unyielding alignment to good, his ego leads him to act without much regards for the rules, really convey a character who the readers can identify with. Harry's two best moments were the aftermath of Sirius's death, in which he was legitimately infuriated with Dumbledore, and the moments before he willingly accepted his apparent death in book seven, when he accepts his fate. Harry is the ultimate good guy who symbolizes friendship and love's triumph over evil and hate.

4) Lord Voldemort/Tom Riddle- After the first book Voldemort seemed not too much different than any typical villain: powerful, purely evil, and not very deep. While Chamber of Secrets gave us a bit more insight into his past via the flashbacks to Tom Riddle, it was not until the Half-Blood Prince that the character who all but a select few wizards are too afraid to name truly got a chance to shine

5) Dolores Umbridge- Dolores Umbridge first speaks on page 146 of the Order of the Phoenix and is carried off into the forest by the centaurs on page 756. I have never hated/loathed/reviled a character in any work of literature or film as much as I did Umbridge in those 610 pages. From her sing-song voice to her passive aggressive demeanor Umbridge all the worst qualities of that teacher or boss that you just couldn't stand. It got to the point where I wanted her to undergo the same torture that William Wallace did at the end of Braveheart. And I would have been one of the people in the crowd cheering. When you can engender such emotion in a reader, you know you have just created one hell of a character.

6) Sirius Black- Sirius Black is probably not the best written character in the series but managed to be one of the most embraced characters by the fans. I think the reason for that lies in his tragic nature. Black was a misfit in his family and only found comfort with his friends James Potter, Remus Lupin, and Peter Pettigrew. That was until his best friend, James, was killed due to the betrayal of another one of his friends (Pettigrew), and on top of this he was wrongfully accused of Pettigrew's crime and forced to waste away in Azkaban for 13 years. Due to the fact his name is not cleared until after his death, Harry really never gets to spend the time with the one person who is a link to the life he could have had, had his patents not been killed. Perhaps aside from his mortal enemy Snape, Black is the most tragic character in the entire series.

7) Hermione Granger- Hermione Granger is the friend we all have that prevents us from doing stupid things and is a dedicated know it all. While this friend may annoy the hell out of us at times they always seem to have your back. No where is this more clear than in the seventh book in which, despite Ron leaving for a bit, Hermione never strays from Harry's side. While she never really has a truly powerful moment like Harry or Snape, she is consistently a good character throughout the book and a perfect complement to Harry and Ron.

8) Fred and George Weasley- You know how I just said Hermione is the friend that prevents us from doing stupid things. Well Fred and George are the friends who you always enjoy being around and seem to get you into trouble. I am really not sure there are two funnier characters in any book I have ever read. It's impossible to pick a single moment as their best, but for me it's pretty hard to top their magnum opus of mischief in the 5th book in which they undermine Umbridge's regime of terror then fly triumphantly into the sunset. Their devotion to good never waivers, yet they don't fret over letting those they feel deserve it have it. I felt the death of George was a bit contrived, but even in the more serious moments of the book these characters shined.

9) Ron Weasley- Ron is basically a normal kid who happened to become best friends with a famous peer who seems to have a magnetic attraction to dangerous circumstances and gets brought along for the ride. Ron is a great character in the fact that he is like most of us would be in his circumstances: somewhat scared and occasionally jealous of being in the shadow of his friend. These faults and occasional moments of weakness are easy to identify with and make him a great third piece along with Harry and Hermione.

10) Rubeus Hagrid- This one of course was the toughest. Lupin, Moody, and Dobby were all considerations and certainly had great moments throughout the book. I really like Luna and Neville, as they are the most similar to Harry in their backgrounds. Malfoy was the first runner up for this spot, as he really shines in book six, but a lackluster conclusion to his story line in the last book (he kind of just all of a sudden turns good) prevented him from taking this spot. In the end though its hard not to include Hagrid on this list. While he does not change much between the person he is in the first book and the person he is in the last, it's hard not to love the good-spirited half-giant whose love of hazardous creatures is beyond everyone else's comprehension. In addition Hagrid gave Rowling the chance to introduce some awesome magical creatures both of her conception and reimaginings of mythological beasts. While Hagrid's most powerful moment comes when he carries the apparently dead Harry out of the forest in book seven, it is really the two or three visits to Hagrid's cabin every book where we get to really love the big guy.

The Best Chapter of Each Book
A quick word before I start: In case you are about to label me the biggest dork in the world, I did look the chapters up quickly as I could not remember the names of many of them.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone: The Boy Who Lived
"Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much." That's how the first chapter of the first book starts. From the get go, we are let in on the fact that something is extraordinary about Harry Potter. Rowling immediately draws a great contrast between the Dursleys and the wizarding world. While the Mirror of Erised is also a great chapter The Boy Who Lived has to get the recognition here.

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets: The Heir of Slytherin
In retrospect, the Chamber of Secrets may be the weakest of the Harry Potter novels. The plot is very similar in layout to that of Sorcerer's Stone and the story definitely lags a bit in the middle (The Death Day Party is one of the most boring chapters in the series). However the climax of the book is superb and the revelation that Tom Riddle was the past self of Lord Voldemort certainly caught me by surprise (granted I was only 12) and thus I think it is the best chapter of the book.

Harry Potter and the Prizoner of Azkaban: The Servant of Lord Voldemort
While many look at Goblet of Fire as the turning point in the series (which makes sense as it definitely darkens the mood and after all is the middle book in the series), I personally think Prizoner of Azkaban was the most crucial to the success of the series. The first two books were great but had become a little formulaic.  Both ended with pretty much everyone happy and the status quo restored. The Prizoner of Azkaban completely changed that and is unique in the series in that it is the only book not to feature Voldemort in some form or fashion. Instead of Harry's adaptation to the world of wizarding, the third book focused more on Harry's father, and the circumstances surrounding the death of his parents. After discovering that Sirius Black was apparently responsible for the death of Harry's parents Harry finally comes face to face with him in this chapter only to learn that Peter Pettigrew is still alive and is responsible for his parents' death. The events of this chapter set in motion the rise of Lord Voldemort and bring light to how Voldemort found the Potters.

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire: Flesh, Blood, and Bone
Goblet of Fire was astoundingly longer than the previous books and thus has a lot more solid chapters to choose from.The Unforgivable Spells chapter was very cool and The Pensieve and Veritaserum were both very enlightening as to why certain things were going on. Flesh, Blood, and Bone is a relatively shorter chapter, but accomplishes what has been building up over the past 4 books, the resurrection of Lord Voldemort. The chapter begins with the killing of Cedric Diggory and ends with a resurrected Voldemort, keeping a very high level of suspense and forboding in between.

Harry Potter and the
Order of the Phoenix: The Only One He Ever Feared
Up until the seventh book, The Only One He Ever Feared was probably my favorite chapter. As I mentioned above Rowling is the master of payoffs and this one took the cake up to this point. Throughout the first five books it was continually mentioned that Dumbledore was the only wizard that Voldemort ever feared. We basically had to take Rowling's word for it, at least up until this point. As soon as I flipped the page and saw the chapter title when first reading the book I knew it was going down. The fight did not disappoint either. In fact the film potrayal of the events of this chapter has to be one of my biggest beefs with the entire movie series. In the book Voldemort casts killing spells at Dumbledore, who confidently blocks them with various objects in the room (specifically the statues). Dumbledore always seems to be a step ahead of Voldemort in the duel and while Voldemort is desperately aiming to kill, Dumbledore is simply stopping each attempt. Dumbledore pretty much wins the duel while Voldemort is forced to resort to invading Harry's mind in order to escape.
The movie F***'s this up big time. They abandon all the cool spells Dumbledore uses to block Voldemorts attacks by instead relying on big CGI explosions to impress the typical american moviegoer (I hate the typical american moviegoer) and in doing so completely change the dynamic of the fight. In the movie the duel appears to be between two evenly matched wizards and if anything Voldemort seems to have the upper hand. It completely ruins the mood of the book and the payoff therin. And that kids is why books are almost always better than movies

Harry Potter and
the Half-Blood Prince: Horcruxes
Half-Blood Prince really serves as exposition and rising action for the final book. The best part of the book is the flashbacks to Tom Riddle/Voldemort's past in Dumbledore's office. The way Rowling crafted this story element was somewhat ingenious because when reading, I, like Harry, kept looking forward to the next visit to Dumbledore's office and vis a vis finding out the next part of the puzzle. This story line reaches its climax in the chapter Horcruxes in which we finally get the answer as to why it is Voldemort couldn't die and also find out exactly what Harry Potter has to do to take Voldemort down once and for all. Also we get an awesomely chilling scene between Slughorn and teenage Voldy.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: The Prince's Tale
The best chapter in the series. Bar None. Up to the point where Snape gives Harry his collection of memories before dying, it is still up in the air as to whether Snape is good or evil. I think it would be safe to say most people didn't like Snape before reading this chapter, but once you are done reading this you can't help but feel a huge amount of empathy for him. Other than answering the question of whether Snape is good or evil, the chapter also finally explains why Harry having his mother's eyes is significant. Throughout the books it seems like the main reason Snape dislikes Harry is because of James Potter. This chapter makes one realize that Harry is a reminder to Snape that not only did the girl he loved end up with his worst enemy, but also that he was responsible for her death. It even lets us know why Dumbledore trusted Snape so implicitly. Every word of the chapter is wonderfully crafted and as a result it is not only the best chapter in a book jam packed with amazing chapters but also the best chapter in the entire series.

This is a sports blog after all so why not finish this up by tying Harry Potter to the world of sports. There are two things I want to touch on in this section. The first was a revelation I had the other day. Within the state of North Carolina there are four major ACC schools: North Carolina, Wake Forest, N.C. State, and Duke. I realized the other day that each of these schools has a pretty good parallel with one of the houses of Hogwarts. Before I go any further let me admit that I am not the first one to put this idea forward on the internet. A short running UNC parody blog called the Daily Tar Hole first mentioned this idea (you'll have to take my word I thought of it seperately as well) in a very funny post that went on to draw comparisons between characters in the series and current basketball players at Duke and Carolina. Anyways here is my breakdown of each of the schools and their corresponding Hogwarts house.

NC State is Hufflepuff
I am fully aware all NC State fans are going to hate me now, but hey, at least you aren't Slytherin. Hufflepuff is considered the house for hard-workers and their philosophy was to not be so selective about who they wanted in their house. State is certainly considered a good institution that is less selective than the other three schools. Hufflepuff also tends to lag a bit in the main sport (quidditch) just as State does in the main sport here (basketball).

Wake Forest is Ravenclaw
Ravenclaw's goal is to get the brightest and most cunning, intelligent students in the school. That's not to say they always do (Hermione vs. Cho Chang), only that that is their cheif aim. From all first-hand accounts Wake's classes are as difficult as any school's in North Carolina. With regards to sports Ravenclaw is always considered a threat to Slytherin and Gryffindor. In fact, Ravenclaw wins the quidditch cup in the first book. Wake Forest plays a similar role, occasionally rising above Duke and UNC to take the ACC.

Duke is Slytherin
The other comparisons in this list are mostly accurate with a few noticable differences, but Duke pretty much is Slytherin. Okay maybe they don't actually produce evil people (except J.J. Reddick and Gerald Henderson) but Duke's elitist atmosphere and mission to select only the most elite students from old money isn't too far a cry from Syltherin's policy of selecting only those of pure blood. Much like Slytherin, Duke is generally disliked by the other three members of the list, yet always poses a threat when it comes to basketball (Slytherin was on a long winning streak before Potter arrived, much like Duke was before Hansbrough arrived). Matches between Gryffindor and Slytherin tend to get violent with Slytherin employing less than fair tactics (see the game in book three). Can you say Eric Montross/Tyler Hansbrough and Duke Flopping? Face it Duke, you are Slytherin, you both even have devil related mascots.

North Carolina is Gryffindor
I know I'm biased as I go to UNC, but North Carolina really is the most like Gryffindor out of the four. Like Gryffindor carolina students are from a varied background but all have a sense of pride and confidence that can occasionally border on cocky. Carolina also has turned out the most famous basketball player of all time, just as Gryffindor has the most famous wizard of all time (Potter). Carolina is often considered a protagonist of the ACC by most fans with Duke being cast as the antagonist. Sports wise Carolina has gone on a string of ACC championships with an NCAA championship just as Gryffindor went on a run of quidditch and house cups in the books.

I was going to go into depth about quidditch and its place as a sport in both the world of Harry Potter and our world. However both and ESPN page 2 covered the topic in depth and I don't feel like retreading their words. Basically its amazing how Rowling created such an awesome sport that is completely untranslateable to the real world (at least until apple invents the iFirebolt, iBludger, and iSnitch).

So there it is. If you made it this far I am proud because that was one hell of a long post. As always feel free to share your opinions by commenting. To end, i'll just say that you have to wonder if J.K. Rowling had any idea that she would create such a phenomenon by writing a book about a lightening scar.


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