Harry Potter and the Highbrow Critics

01 January 2010
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Platform 9 and three-quartersDavid Gribble

It is intellectually acceptable to admire Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings trilogy and Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materrials, but in spite of (or perhaps because of) their huge popularity, Rowling’s Harry Potter books are often disdained.

When Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, the first book in the series, was first produced, there were only eight hundred copies printed. The extraordinary rise in its popularity was due entirely to those who enjoyed it, that is to say children, and those who saw children enjoying it – teachers and parents – recommending it to their friends. There were no reviews in national papers to help it along. There must be something in the books that serious critics have failed to understand.

There are various reasons for looking down so loftily on the children’s judgement. The boarding school setting is derided as following the traditions of the children’s comics of the 1950s, for instance, the characters are seen as stereotypes and the language is believed to be as foolishly simple as the language of Enid Blyton.

This last criticism can be analysed statistically, and the range of language and ease of reading can be measured with some of the other books that are often compared with Harry Potter. The following figures are based on samples of approximately 300 words from the first full stop on page 43, the first full stop on page 150 and the first full stop on the tenth page from the end of each of four books, The Fellowship of the Ring, Northern Lights, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone and Five on a Treasure Island. The tables that follow are taken from these statistics.

Total number of different words in all three extracts from each book

Harry Potter 327
Northern Lights 306
The Fellowship 303
Five on a Treasure Island 248

Average sentence length in each of the extracts from each book

Harry Potter 2
Northern Lights 2
The Fellowship 1
The Fellowship 2
Harry Potter 1
Five on a Treasure Island
2 Northern Lights 3
The Fellowship 3
Five on a Treasure Island
1 Northern Lights 1
Harry Potter 3
Five on a Treasure Island 3
21.4 words
15 words
14.3 words 13.6 words
13 words
12.5 words
12.5 words
12.5 words
12 words
11.1 words
11.1 words
10.3 words

Flesch-Kinaid Grade Level (calculated by Microsoft Word)

Harry Potter 2
Northern Lights 2
The Fellowship 1
Harry Potter 3
Harry Potter 1
Northern Lights 3
The Fellowship 3
Five on a Treasure Island 3

5 5


General comments

Five on a Treasure Island is aimed at the youngest age-group, and is therefore easier to read, using shorter words and shorter sentences. It also includes fewer unusual words, and the narrative is simple and clear. Throughout the book everything is predictable, there is no unpleasantness and hardly any characterisation, apart from George, whose characteristic is that she does not wish to be a girl.

Surprisingly, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, as well as having the widest vocabulary and the highest reading level, has a fast-moving, complex narrative with no long descriptive passages. The adolescent dialogue is convincing, particularly the bullying by children and adults.

Original inventions in the series as a whole include the dementors who kiss you to suck out your soul, the thestrals who are only visible to those who have seen death and the boggarts, which present themselves as whatever it is you most fear, and can only be overpowered by ridicule.

Rowling builds up the reader’s interest in a number of different questions – not only what is going to happen next, but why what is actually happening now is significant, and not just questions about the story of Harry and his friends, but also questions about, for instance, Snape’s story, Hagrid’s story and the stories of the different Professors of Defence against the Dark Arts.

Northern Lights has a wide variety of results in the statistics, showing nevertheless a tendency to use shorter words and usually a simpler sentence structure than Rowling or Tolkein. The narrative is slow, and Pullman sometimes uses his own voice to tell the reader what is significant.

The daemons are an attractive invention but are not consistent – sometimes they share their owners’ thoughts but at other times they have separate identities, sometimes they are inseparable from their owners but at other times they can be sent off to find things out.

The puberty theme is interesting, but the death of God, as recounted, is only the death of a ridiculous representation of God, the parallel universes are nothing to do with serious theories of parallel universes and the quotations from Milton, Blake and the Bible in the last volume of the series are just pretentious. The fate of Will’s mother, which appears to be a major theme at the beginning of the series, is never followed up.

The statistics for The Fellowship of the Ring are perhaps unbalanced by one extremely simple passage, but further analysis of the chosen passages has found that the average word length for all the different words used is the same as for Enid Blyton, five characters, as opposed to 5.4 for Rowling.

An atmosphere is created by the use of occasional archaic words and turns of phrase, giving the impression that the story is an ancient legend. Long descriptive passages result in very slow narrative, which consists largely of a series of insuperable difficulties being overcome and unconquerable odds being conquered.

Characterisation is minimal or stereotypical – Sam Gangee is the typical loyal servant, for instance, and who can distinguish between Merry and Pippin? Orcs, though not particularly original, are a successful invention, and ents are both effective and original, but most of the magic is traditional.

All four books portray a conflict between good and evil. In Enid Blyton these are represented by children on the one hand and criminals on the other. Tolkein raises this to a higher level with hobbits and a good wizard against orcs, other monsters and a bad wizard. Pullman again has children on one side, but they have a range of enemies, including God. Rowling’s story leads up to a battle between Harry Potter and Voldemort, but on the way touches on many different moral issues, such as the importance or unimportance of discipline, how much should be concealed from children for their own protection, the way a dictator creates his own enemies, Harry’s uncertainty about his own identity and the power of love.

There are various reasons for underestimating the Potter books. One bad reason is simply that the books are popular. Another is that adults read too fast, and miss much of what children, who generally read more slowly, find and enjoy. Adults may also find much of the humour beneath their dignity (though others find themselves laughing out loud). But perhaps the commonest reason is that most of the people who say the Harry Potter books are trite, superficial and undemanding have never actually read any of them.

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