Generally I tend to steer well clear of children's literature. Being a bitter, cynical, mean-spirited sort, I have little place in my heart for things of joy and wonderment and whimsy. Which is of course why I love JK Rowling's Harry Potter so much: hers is the most formulaic and drearily prim invention to grace bookstore shelves since Biggles repressed his homosexuality by blowing up Jerry rather than simply blowing Ginger.
Although her source material draws on such rich grounds for exploration as the transition from childhood to adolescence and sorcerous subcultures lurking in the back streets, Rowling manages to turn these central conceits into a series of repetitive and highly sterilised riffs on the post-war boarding school novel, pitch-perfect in their asexual nostalgia. Moreover, the secondary world that Harry inhabits is mundanely Swedenborgian; all sense of the numinous has been sucked out, the fantastic replaced by the familiar.
CS Lewis' sehnsucht is turned on its head in Rowling's writing - instead of forcing us to bear witness to the magic inherent in the everyday, she infuses her magical world with the quotidian, the antiseptic, the routine. Do you remember how bored you were by school? It's just like that. And as such, the lack of the truly miraculous in Harry Potter prepares children for life by limiting their imaginations (and therefore the danger of false hopes and expectancies), and keeps the imagination of adult readers firmly in check (and also therefore the danger of actual thought) by offering a sanitised version of childhood in which to dabble. What can I say? I am a fan.
Which is why Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, which hit the bookstores last Saturday amid the usual slightly arch media coverage, came as something of a shock to me, albeit a pleasant one. Rowling seems to have decided on a different stylistic approach for her latest opus; in order to drive home the point to kiddies who were looking for escapism rather than acknowledging reality, she has apparently embraced social realism, a la Ken Loach.
Hogwarts' society is rife with rumour as a prophecy concerning the emergence of the eponymous aristocrat is unearthed. Who is he, what is he about? The mystery deepens, until Ron and Hermione's trip to the family planning clinic after a particularly successful experiment involving Ron's 'wand' makes it perfectly clear from whence the half-blood prince will spring.
Meanwhile, school life takes an interesting twist for our heroes: under perfidious funding cutbacks introduced by the muggle conservative New Labour government, Hogwarts is forced to shut down all it's artistic and creative programs. Harry and Co. must now study to become wizard accountants, all except for Ron, who drops out to become a wizard brickie.
And Dumbledore, after all those years wearing poncey robes and making suspect rhetorical gestures, is finally accused by Malfoy of being a kiddy fiddler. Of course, Harry comes to the rescue and eventually proves the charges baseless, but Dumbledore's name is forever besmirched and his career in ruins. One of the most affecting scenes in the book comes when the former head-master, revealed at last as no more than a frail and spent old man, resolves to end it all, and places a loaded broomstick in his mouth.
Perhaps most interesting is Rowling's decision to openly address the more religious among her critics. The early chapter in which Harry, attempting to learn the identity of the prince, makes a blood-sacrifice of his pet owl and summons the arch-fiend Asmodiak (duke of the thirteenth pit) whom the young wizard addresses as 'lord and master', should put to rest once and for all the debate over whether the series is introducing young minds to the black arts.
Personally, I can't recommend this latest addition enough, and I'm only saddened that the next volume, tentatively titled Harry Potter and the Magic Pornography Ring will be the last. Bravo Ms. Rowling! We fans of the sub-par salute you.