Joanne Rowling’s Works and How They’re Connected
People dressed up as their favorite fictional characters camping in front of book stores, ready to buy the shelves empty once the doors are opened. Movie tickets being sold-out weeks before the release date of the movie. More than 176 million entries on Google. And all of this just because of a bed-time story that wanted to be more than that; the story of the wizard boy Harry Potter that includes seven novels and three short other books from the universe which have become the best-selling book series of all time, and eight films that have become the highest-grossing film series of all time. With these works attached to her name, Joanne Rowling is one of the most influential persons in history.
Of course, a success as huge as that of the Harry Potter brand causes expectations that can be hard to fulfill. In 2012, five years after the launch of the last literary installment to the Harry Potter series, Rowling’s second novel The Casual Vacancy released to mixed reviews. Aside from selling well – which is to be expected with an author as popular as Rowling – the black comedy received both praise and criticism. However, it was quite popular with common readers and won the Goodreads Choice Award for Best Fiction that year. The novel, set in a typical British small town, was a big leap from the somewhat softened, child/ teenage friendly fantasy tale of Harry Potter, as it touched upon topics like drug abuse, sex and domestic violence. But when you compare the general themes of the two stories and look apart from the fact that they are set in two completely different universes, there are a few similarities between the Harry Potter series and The Casual Vacancy. In fact, the picture gets even clearer once you add Rowling’s latest work, the detective/ mystery thriller The Cuckoo’s Calling. Released under the pseudonym of Robert Galbraith, the novel received more criticism than The Casual Vacancy, especially after it was announced who the real author was. This brings us to the first similarity between all of Rowling’s works.
identity [ahy-den-ti-tee, ih-den–]
– The condition of being oneself or itself, and not another.
After revealing her identity as the author of The Cuckoo’s Calling, Rowling was accused of mis-using her fame to promote a mediocre book that didn’t sell overwhelmingly well under the unknown name. This may or may not be the case, but it is worth noting that Rowling already used a pen name for her previous publications. Afraid that a female author wouldn’t necessarily attract a readership of young boys besides young girls, she released Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone under the name of J.K. Rowling instead of Joanne Rowling to stay neutral. Even when her gender became known with the increasing popularity of the series, Rowling kept the pen name. It is now so widely associated with her that she used it for The Casual Vacancy too – although she did consider writing under a completely new pseudonym, afraid of negative reactions that would spoil her reputation. Also worth a mention are two of the three minor additions to the Harry Potter series; Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them and Quidditch Through the Ages which are mentioned at several points in the series itself and which Rowling wrote under the pen names of the fictional authors Newt Scamander and Kennilworthy Whisp.
The Semi-Heroic Male Protagonist
A man of distinguished courage or ability, admired for his brave deeds and noble qualities.
The principal male character in a story, play, film, etc.
All three of J.K. Rowling’s separate works or universes are written from the perspective of a third-person narrator – omniscient in the case of The Casual Vacancy (we know the thoughts and emotions of all living characters) and limited in the case of The Cuckoo’s Calling and Harry Potter (we only know the thoughts and emotions of two characters/ those of Harry Potter, respectively). All three novels have one character who sticks out from the others – a protagonist. These three characters are all male and by no means flawless, yet at the end of the day, they become the heroes of their respective tales.
In the Harry Potter series, initially, there is no question about the protagonist or the heroic future he will be facing. Harry Potter is The Boy Who Lived and in each book undergoes challenges no other children his age have ever faced before – always going away as a winner. That’s how it looks from the outside anyway. In reality, Harry is a normal-looking, mediocre student who has to live up to insane expectations set by his highly successful parents and an incident he can’t remember. Something that, apart from headmaster Dumbledore, nobody in the wizarding world truly understands – everyone taking Harry for a naturally gifted wizard who defeated the darkest of all wizards as a baby. As the story goes on, it becomes clear that Harry survives mainly with the help of his friends, that he is stubborn and while extraordinarily brave also extremely stupid at times. He loses friends and family, has to fight inner demons and doubts all the time and is used as a political toy by the Ministry of Magic. However, Harry also has the qualities of a true hero, displaying astonishing talent for the wizarding sport of Quidditch, great honesty and a strong sense of fairness.
Rowling’s second protagonist didn’t stray too far from her first one and even has a similar name. Though Barry Fairbrother dies at the beginning of The Casual Vacancy, it’s his presence that lingers over the remaining 500+ pages. Most of the plot of the novel derives from Barry’s death and the conflicts it causes. However, Barry is much more of a typically heroic persona than Harry. Despite his mediocre looks, he has a cheery face and has made the leap from poverty to a “normal”, middle-class life in the country side. As a person with some political power that is strengthened by his hobby as a journalist, he always takes the side of the weak and poor ones and addresses social issues in a humorous, diplomatic way. Even after his death, his attitude continues to inspire. Still, the father of four children didn’t live a perfect life, feeling that he was never able to truly satisfy his wife as he spent much time fighting for ‘random’ people instead.
The most contradictory of Rowling’s three protagonists is private detective Cormoran Strike from The Cuckoo’s Calling, a war veteran cripple who is struggling to pay his office rent and receives death threats more often than pay checks. In the beginning of the story, Strike has just broken up with his longtime on-and-off girlfriend for good, and the pain of that break-up is a constant companion throughout the novel. Like Harry and Barry, he isn’t particularly good-looking but unlike them he’s more of a bear-ish, brute man. He’s also a brilliant detective, as we find out, whilst suffering from a nicotine addiction as well as a weak form of OCD caused by long years spent in military discipline. When Cormoran is assigned to investigate the death and possible murder of a supermodel that has been classified as suicide by the police, he takes the case seriously despite his doubts about the usefulness of his work. Slowly but steadily, he discovers something that no one else had expected and surprises everyone with his success and ability.
While Rowling puts her focus on a male character in each of these cases, her work includes many strong female characters, and quite a few major ones. Most of the time, they are savvy and smart and a strong help to the “heroes”. Harry Potter would have died in the first book if it hadn’t been for his book-ish friend Hermione Granger and Cormoran Strike wouldn’t have been able to solve his case without his enthusiastic, intelligent secretary Robin Ellacott.
The Concept of War
A conflict carried on by force of arms, as between nations or between parties within a nation;warfare, as by land, sea, or air.
Active hostility or contention; conflict; contest: a war of words.
Bad news is good news as we all know so well and hence a story – whether it’s a film or a book, even some songs and poems – would be nothing without conflict. And if provoked sufficiently, a conflict becomes a war.
In J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter, we have the example of a physical war that is at times carried out in a psychological way. It’s a simple story of evil against good, or so it seems: The darkest of all wizards, Lord Voldemort, was defeated in a mysterious way when he tried to kill the baby boy Harry Potter with the rest of his family. As Harry grows up, Voldemort – now a bodiless creäture neither alive nor dead – tries everything to come back and kill him. After he succeeds with the former, another Wizarding War arises and puts the world into great danger. Harry and his friends have to get ready for combat while Harry is also fighting the mental connection between him and the Dark Lord. No one else has ever survived the Death curse before him and so there is no way of understanding what is happening between these two characters. Harry is afraid of becoming more and more like Voldemort as he feels pangs of dark thoughts washing over his mind, reaching a peak in the fifth book when Voldemort consciously misuses the bond between them. This war inside Harry’s mind then decreases, however a new one takes over; before the ending of book five, the main part of the magical universe didn’t believe Harry’s and Dumbledore’s account of Voldemort having come back to life, but finally proof is found and Harry is named The Chosen One due to a prophecy about him and the Dark Lord. So in the following two books he battles the pressure put upon him to save the world because he has been chosen by some unknown force to do so. This conflict or inner war is already foreshadowed in some of the first books when Harry struggles with his unusual fame and the expectations that he feels he can’t meet.
A similar conflict occurs in The Cuckoo’s Calling, where Cormoran Strike is trying to ignore the fact that his father is a famous rockstar who once spent the night with the “super groupie” that is his mother. During the investigation of Lula Landry’s death, Strike spends much time in high society where everyone has something to say about the father he has only met a couple of times. Strike’s response to anecdotes about his father are always cold and bitingly sarcastic. The plot itself is also a war between the official, juridical result of a murder investigation and that of a private detective – nurtured only by the belief of Lula’s brother, but later confirmed by curious facts. Cormoran and Robin constantly have to fight the disbelief and annoyance of police officials and some of the witnesses, many of them taking Cormoran’s insistence for greed as Lula’s brother is paying him well for the investigation. In the end, it’s a fight for justice that is won by precise awareness and observation.
An even dirtier war is fought in Rowling’s earlier novel though. As Doyle’s famous Sherlock Holmes once said,
“… the lowest and vilest alleys in London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside”
– The Copper Beaches, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1892)
That is why The Casual Vacancy, set in the suburban town of Pagford instead of London or a wizarding school, is the most brutal of Rowling’s three works. In this novel, everyone is at war with everyone – children against parents, parents against parents against childless people and teenagers against teenagers. It’s also a fight between right-winged and left-winged activists who are trying to decide the fate of the local council estate “The Fields” that is home to many socially weak families. In that way, The Casual Vacancy explores the concept of the modern, democratic political war as opposed to the fundamentally political war in the Harry Potter series. The idea is that everyone can contribute information and views to the discussion so that every voter can make a well-founded decision. Here, it’s the children that contribute that (secret) information with the help of the internet; under the name of The_Ghost_Of_Barry_Fairbrother, they fill the Parish Council online forum with scandalous secrets about their parents, turning everyone against everyone. This kind of war bears strong resemblance to current conflicts like Wikileaks and the Snowden affair and is much more interesting from a political point-of-view than the more simple war of the Harry Potter series. However, all three stories Rowling has produced so far can be discussed from a current perspective and touch upon various ageless problems.
Social Commentary: Orphans, Poverty and Child Abuse
J.K. Rowling’s creation myth is one of the most famous modern tales of the underdog who becomes a millionaire. While some of it could be fragments of imagination, it is true that Rowling has a background of poverty and that her mother died at a relatively young age. This may be one reason all of Rowling’s works deal with grave themes and death, as well as being social commentary in one way or another.
Studies have been written about Orphans in J.K. Rowling’s Literature already, yet the author’s fascination with or concentration on characters that have lost their parents in one way or another continues to be a topic worth discussing. Again, Harry Potter is the most extreme and literate example of this motif, having lost his parents as a one-year-old toddler under circumstances as extreme as murder. Growing up with his idiotic aunt and uncle and their sadistic son Dudley, he is told his parents died in a car crash – only at the age of eleven he finds out they died in brave resistance to one of the worst people who ever lived. The lack of parents is what causes most of Harry’s dark thoughts and sadness and it’s a recurring theme in the books. In the first book, Harry finds The Mirror of Erised that shows the user his deepest desires. When Harry looks into the mirror, he sees himself surrounded by his parents and many other relatives that have passed away. For the first time in his life, he has a family. While the fact that Harry is an orphan isn’t social commentary in itself, the treatment he receives from his surrogate family, the Dursleys, certainly is. Very much on the edge of child abuse, they treat Harry more like a slave than a servant, ignoring how is being mobbed by Dudley and never showing any sign of love. Later, he finds another family in the Weasleys – symbolically and literally, as he eventually marries into the family. While the Weasley are a very warm and open-minded family, they don’t have much money in contrary to Harry. This is something Harry deeply regrets and he never openly discusses his inherited wealth with anyone, nor does he show off in any way. As a contrast, Draco Malfoy – Harry’s class mate and bully – rarely ever talks about anything else but his father and his connections, except when mocking Harry’s friend Ron Weasley for his (relative) poverty. He also likes to note that even thought the Weasleys are a “poor blood” family (there are no muggles/ non-wizard people in their family), they have become blood traitors by interacting with half and Mudbloods. This way, Rowling cleverly includes racism in the already extensive social commentary that can be found in the Harry Potter series.
Where Harry Potter mainly just addresses social issues, The Casual Vacancy makes a point of exploring them to the fullest and truly dwelling on them. From prostitution to drug abuse to unprotected sex, Rowling paints an anti-glorifying picture of suburban life. It only takes a few scratches before the neatly painted facades begin to crumble; theft, infidelity and pedophilia come to light. Still, the novel has been criticized for not touching upon the issue of poverty in an effective way, since it includes only one family from The Fields beside many “normal” families from the village of Pagford. While it may be true that there are novels and books that offer a more inside view of poverty, the book certainly does a good job at showing that the ordinary middle-class families aren’t really better than mentioned Fields family. It’s that observation that makes reading the book worthwhile and that lingers with the reader afterwards. While the descriptions of the Weedon family and the young Robbie left to himself while his mother spends her time prostituting herself and using are truly horrifying, so are the revelations about the other families. And at least Krystal Weedon tries to make the best of her situation and truly cares for her brother, while many of the other families don’t even accept that they have problems.
The Weedon family bears some resemblance to that of Cormoran Strike and his half-sister Lucy in The Cuckoo’s Calling. Their mother was a super groupie whose liaison with pop-star Jonny Rokeby resulted in the birth of Cormoran. Having grown up with ever-changing boyfriends, schools and homes, peppered with marijuana, the adult Cormoran and Lucy suffer from very different manifestations of neurosis. While Cormoran is rather careless, unsuccessful and adventure-seeking, Lucy has built up a “respectable” family for herself and deeply regrets that her brother has chosen an opposite lifestyle. Cormoran on the other hand is irritated with his sister and tries to avoid her presence. He notices that her husband is very arrogant not only towards him, but also towards his own wife. Robin’s fiancé Matthew, who doesn’t want her to work with Strike and generally seems to dislike anything not connected to instant profit or respectability, exhibits the same sort of behaviour. Rowling also criticizes high society in the novel, most of the rich characters being selfish, scheming and unhappy. Again, Lula Landry is right in the middle of the conflict between rich and poor. Born to a lower class woman after an affair with an African student, she was adopted by the Landry Bristow family to “replace” the oldest son who died in a tragic accident. She became the little doll of Lady Bristow, a role she couldn’t escape before she was discovered by a modeling agent. Throughout the novel, various traits of Lula’s personality are discovered through accounts from different people who knew her. Celebrity culture is both glorified through the depiction of Lula’s on-off boyfriend Evan Duffield, a drug-addict yet oddly attractive, and mocked through the rapports from Lula’s homeless friend Rochelle Onifade.
Other Recurrent Themes
All three of Rowling’s works also play with the conception beauty and the “perfect” girl. In Harry Potter, Ron Weasley and most other men present fall for the beauty of so-called “Veelas” – mythical creatures that entrance men with their beautiful singing and make them do whatever they like. Even jump off a cliff. Fleur Delacour, a half-Veela, becomes Ron’s first crush and later goes on to marry his brother Bill. Much to the displeasure of the women connected with the Weasley family, who think that Fleur is treating them like inferiors – and who are most likely jealous of her looks. In the fourth book, Hermione Granger surprises her friends and all other students by wooing famous Quidditch player Viktor Krum and appearing at his side at the Yule Ball, her beauty outshining every other girl present. Lastly, Cho Chang is the beautiful yet complicated and very girly student Harry falls in love with. Not surprisingly, it doesn’t work out. In The Cuckoo’s Calling, Lula Landry is the outer-worldly beauty that continues to fascinate people even after her death. Still, it is implied that she used to fantasize about not being beautiful and the life she would have led in that case. Her model friend Ciara Porter also plays a slightly important role in the novel, however even she doesn’t reach Lula Landry’s level of gorgeousness. Even The Casual Vacancy has an intriguingly beautiful character; Gaia Bawden, who reluctantly moves to Pagford from London with her mother. One of the young protagonists, Andrew Price, becomes obsessed with her and tries everything to get closer to her.
A last recurring theme in Rowling’s work that I have already mentioned, is death. The first Harry Potter book is called The Philosopher’s/ Sorcerer’s Stone, a stone that is able to prolong the life of the owner forever. When the stone is saved from Lord Voldemort’s attempt at stealing it, the owner Nicolas Flamel decides to destroy it, stating that:
“To the well-organized mind, death is but the next great adventure.”
The series has many more connections to death, the most important one being the fact that Lord Voldemort has been trying to deceive death for decades. Rowling has said in interviews that she has always been fascinated with death and that everyone is probably able to understand Voldemort’s wish of control over death. She has also been known as the Queen of Death, as many of the readers’ favorite characters die in the books. Similarly, The Cuckoo’s Calling revolves around a case of murder and The Casual Vacancy starts and ends with death. Ironically, Rowling recently became a victim of an internet death hoax, with believable sources stating her death on April 26th 2014. However, the author is still safe and sound among her millions of Pounds that may increase when The Silkworm, the sequel to The Cuckoo’s Calling, releases in June.
Although they seem like completely different stories from completely different points-of-view, there are many recurring themes in all of Joanne Rowling’s works. Some themes work better in some of the stories than others, and most of the time they are executed in different ways from story to story – but the main motifs remain the same: There is a flawed hero, war (external or internal), social commentary (obvious or less so) and one or several deaths hovering over the goings-on. It will be interesting to see whether and to what rate Rowling’s upcoming work is going to reflect the themes discussed in this article.
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