John Granger is not known to provide superficial readings of J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series à la Harold Bloom or A.S. Byatt. Instead he gazes deeper into the rich tapestry of JKR's creation, seeing what most Harry Potter readers (or even non readers) miss, namely the spiritual overtones of the series. His previous works, The Hidden Key to Harry Potter and Looking for God in Harry Potter, explores why JKR's work resonates with so many of her readers, namely because they hearken to that Great Story. Granger takes this a step further in Unlocking Harry Potter: Five Keys for the Serious Reader.
Granger's task in Unlocking Harry Potter is to show how JKR uses patterns in every novel and by recognizing these patterns or "keys", the reader will have a greater appreciation for the series in general. These five keys are Narrative Misdirection, Literary Alchemy, The Hero's Journey, Postmodern Themes, and Traditional Symbolism. Each key unlocks a part of the Harry Potter series until the whole trunk is opened and the reader sees JKR's meticulously planned work for what they really are, multi layered, complex works of literature (not 'literary slop' as Bloom posits) that is edifying and satisfying. Finally Granger believes that these keys can even "unlock" or give us clues as to the structure of the final Harry Potter novel.
Granger first discusses Narrative Misdirection by pointing out that JKR uses a "third person, limited omniscient" narratological view when writing her storyline much like Jane Austen, JKR's favorite writer. We only know what Harry knows while other major characters sit in the background. For instance we never know where Albus Dumbledore or Severus Snape are doing when Harry does not encounter them. Because we see what Harry sees, the reader follows Harry's prejudices and feelings until the end of the novel when he is proven wrong and the reader is surprised. Who can forget the ending of the first novel? Even when Harry is right in Half-Blood Prince, Granger warns us that this could be the biggest example of narrative misdirection in the series.
Literary Alchemy is always discussed in Granger's books and for good reason. JKR told Anne Simpson of The Herald that, "To invent this wizard world, I've learned a ridiculous amount about alchemy. Perhaps much of it I'll never use in the books, but I have to know in detail what magic can and cannot do in order to set the parameters and establish the stories' internal logic" ("Face to Face with J K Rowling: Casting a spell over young minds," 7 December 1998). This surprising interview surfaced on Quick Quotes Quill around a month ago and confirmed Granger's suspicions all along, that literary alchemy undergirds the series and that JKR is writing in the tradition of others who used literary alchemical imagery in English Literature from Shakespeare to C.S. Lewis, and many classic writers in between. Granger's extensive knowledge (and enthusiasm) of the subject and thoughts on alchemy is worth the price of the book alone.
Now the Harry Potter books are all different, in storyline and detail; however they follow a general formula, namely that Harry Potter starts off at Privet Drive, travels to Hogwarts, finds a mystery to solve, deals with Professor Snape, works with Ron and Hermione, faces a crunch-time decision, races off to an underground battle, dies a figurative death and is reborn, listens to Dumbledore's reflections on the events of the climax, and returns to King's Cross Station. JKR uses this formula although she does depart from it occasionally, which explains the mystery of Half-Blood Prince being chock full of misdirection in preparation for the revelation we will encounter in the final novel. Granger's insights are fascinating in this chapter and forced me to think about certain things I never considered before.
Granger emphasizes that that the reason why Harry Potter resonates with so many readers is because JKR is a writer for our time. And since she is writing in the here and now of our 21st century, we should expect her to at least have some features of this Postmodernist era. For example Jean-François Lyotard writes that postmodernism is an "incredulity towards metanarratives". A metanarrative is a story about a story; a grand narrative about our historical record and experience. A postmodern questions this schema, particularly the notion of progress and technology. In Harry Potter this translates to a British wizarding society (within the entire wizarding world) that views itself as progressive but whose flaws are many including governmental abuses (think Umbridge), prejudice towards magical humans that are not like the others (werewolves like Remus Lupin), subjugation of magical creatures (i.e. house elves and goblins), and not to mention a very dangerous Dark Lord on the loose threatening the whole society. Granger sees this metanarrative being traced back to the story of the Four Founders of Hogwarts. JKR's criticism of government, education, and the press as well as the emphasis on the idea that "nothing is as it seems" reflect postmodern deconstruction. Granger delves more into this and you certainly have to buy the book to find out more.
Now if Granger's book has taught us anything, it's that JKR is not a conformist. She may be a Postmodern writer but she is also transcends Postmodernism by invoking traditional symbols that are explicitly Christian that point to a supernatural world. This definitely shows JKR to be as the Scripture says "in the world but not of the world". One thought that I found interesting about this chapter was that JKR never criticizes the church in her novels. Other institutions are fair game: government, public education, and the press. Granger makes an excellent point here. Both members of the press and educators love JKR even though she satirizes them in her novels. However the church is never mentioned or criticized. This makes the Harry Potter series vastly different from the anti-church, anti-Christian His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman. Granger's thoughts on the last two keys (Postmodernism and Traditional Symbolism) are, like the chapter on Alchemy, worth the price of the book alone.
Granger in the last chapter delves into some guesswork and tries to take a glance into Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows through these five keys. Some of the material in this chapter are teasers from the book he edited Who Killed Albus Dumbledore? but nevertheless you will find much good speculation here. I suspect that much of Harry Potter fandom will be wrong when the novel comes out July 21 but that will not stop all of us from having some fun coming up with theories about the details. Besides JKR has said, "I love the theories more then I can possibly say. I take it as the highest compliment that people analyse the books so much and think about what might happen next so much. There are people who have got very close to the end of the final series. I don't think I've ever heard or read anyone who has actually got there, but bits of the final book have been guessed" (Jones, Owen. One-on-one interview with J.K. Rowling, ITV Network July 17, 2005).
I cannot say enough good things about Unlocking Harry Potter. This book leaves much food for thought and Granger writes engagingly without being too technical even when the subject matter becomes intense. Granger has plenty to say here about the "Harry Haters" who reject the books on literary or religious grounds and refuse to see the books for what they really are. This book really is for the serious reader so if you want to find a book that "unlocks" the Harry Potter series, this is the one. Expect nothing less from Hogwart's Professor. You won't be disappointed.