Thursday, November 5, 2009

RETTOP YRRAH: The Philosophy in Reading "Harry Potter" Backwards

I realize the title of this post might be misleading. When I say, "Read Harry Potter backwards", obviously I don't mean the words.

Well, let me back up for a minute.

I was in the school library with my Poetry class today so they could have computer access to get their lyrics project due tomorrow finished up. Since they were working so diligently (or at least were making it appear so well enough to convince both me and the librarian), I started browsing the stacks looking for something to read.

The craziest thing happened then ... I reached the R section and saw all seven Harry Potter books lined up neatly on the shelf. This, of course, included the second one, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. And with that, my day was made.

I had an extremely tumultuous summer. As I always do in times of extreme stress, I read. Like, I read obsessively. And one of the things that I found myself with a desire to read was the Harry Potter series. The problem, of course, is that I could only find the last one, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows; the series starter Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone was nowhere to be found (I was moving ... it was beyond chaos). My urge to read the series again was so great, however, that I started reading it the only way I could--from the ending to the beginning.

Now, I realize this wouldn't work for a lot of people. If you're not familiar with the books, it would be essentially pointless to start with the seventh. However, since I have a tendency to reread books more than is probably healthy, I suspected I'd be able to muddle through somehow.

What I didn't expect, though, is what a tremendous learning experience it was for me. Obviously, I knew as both an English teacher and a reader myself that J.K. Rowling might have sold the first book as children's literature but that subsequent books in the series were more political and social commentary than fantasy tales for kids.

The part I missed, though, and the part that I would have hoped I'd have gotten more quickly given the name of my blog, is the philosophy brought forward in Rowling's brilliant series. Had I not read the series backwards, I would have missed a great deal.

An obvious example is Ron Weasley's dual jealousy of and pride in his best friend, Harry Potter. One of seven children, Ron never seemed to get his chance in the spotlight, and becoming bosom buddies with the most famous magician ever born certainly continued the struggle. Ron has his moment in the sun in the seventh book; he is a true hero. When you read through Book 6 then Book 5 then Book 4 then Book 3, you see the true conflict--both internal as he struggles within himself and external as he becomes Harry's staunchest supporter--experienced by this boy. You appreciate how cheap his own successes always seemed next to the glory of Harry's constant defeat of evil, how small his joys when compared to Harry's. I got this, obviously, reading the books in order, but I didn't get it until I read them backwards.

And then there's the whole Snape thing. I once heard Snape referred to by a college English professor as "no more than the ultimate red herring", but that was a cop-out answer if I've ever heard one. Snape was never acting, not pretending a bit, when he bullied and berated Harry Potter--he honestly hated the boy, and his harsh treatment makes the reader find Snape pretty despicable too. That Snape protects Harry out of love is perhaps the most shocking conclusion ... and when you finish the seventh book, it's really easy to see Snape's nobler points. Certainly they existed; Harry Potter was well aware of them as he eventually named one of his own children after Severus Snape. However, reading the book backwards, fully aware of the "Snape protected a child he legitimately (and perhaps understandably) hated out of a pure and eternal love" thesis gives the dynamic between Harry and the potions master a whole new depth, a level of complexity that cannot be achieved by reading the books in chronological order.

Anyway, school started back up just as I finished Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, and I couldn't find my copy of Chamber of Secrets to save my life. Well, I took it out of the library today, and I cannot wait to read it (I stupidly forgot it at school).

I am especially excited, in case you're wondering, at exploring the nature of Dobby's relationship with Harry in terms of what you learn about Dobby later in the series (and particularly the sacrifice made by the house elf in the final book).

Does this make any sense to anybody, or have I gone completely off the deep end?

Wait, don't answer that ;)