“Are the Harry Potter Novels Great Books?”

In a Scriptorium ‘Middlebrow’ podCast free-for-all, Profs Paul Spears and John Mark Reynolds of Biola University (THI) argue with the Hogwarts Professor about the virtues and the failings of Joanne Rowling’s Harry Potter novels. There aren’t many slow spots in this exchange and no filler. Lively exchange of blows, all Marquess of Queensbury, of course.

Please score this two-on-one pugilist contest on the subject of Harry’s worthiness to be considered “great” on your fight cards at home. Be sure to notice the shout out to the All Pros at the start and my mentioning “Felicity and others” who corrected me about the Fidelius Charm.

I look forward to reading your scoring of the bout, and, yes, win, lose, or draw, I want a rematch.

For more on the depths of Harry Potter, purchase and read The Deathly Hallows Lectures: The Hogwarts Professor Explains Harry Potter Last Adventure — and let me know what you think.

For the first Middlebrow interview and podCast at Torrey Honors Institute, on ‘What Constitutes Harry Potter Canon?,’ click on that link and turn your ears on.


  1. OK, I have finally ordered your Deathly Hallows Lectures so I can benefit from your Potter eruditions without John Mark Reynolds and Paul Spears interrupting every sentence. Just kidding, I enjoyed the interview twice and ordered the book for the sheer pleasure of reading your insights.

    Are the Potter books “great literature”? Let us define the term “great” from a popular online dictionary:

    1. “Impressively large in number.” At over 4000 pages times 400,000,000 books; Potter is easily the “greatest” of literature written without the direct inspiration of the Holy Spirit.
    2. “Lasting a long time.” The presses have never stopped printing Potter books since their inception. The publishers are already printing the first of the tenth anniversary editions. English teachers in training today are learning their craft from the Potter books, assuring at least another generation of students will read Harry. Without a Grangeresk mind and training in literature, ascending every level of the Potterverse will require a lifetime and contribute to the praise of The Potter throughout our lifetimes.
    3. “Important.” Introducing millions of children and adults to reading “big square books”, becoming the gateway drug to other great literature in this self-absorbed electronic age, surely qualifies as important.
    4. “Expert, able to do something very well.” Has any writer ever covertly slipped more truth past so many sleeping dragons? The fact that nearly all snoozed until the last chapters and many indeed still snore (actual or faked to cover their inattentiveness) is proof of Rowling’s immense skill.
    5. “Being a good example of something.” The Potter books contain fine examples of about twenty literary genres. Taxonomically however, I know of no other book in Potter’s classification. It was so unique that the New York Times best sellers list had to create a new category just to keep the Potter books from embarrassing all their favorite “serious” writers only to have the series jump clean from their children’s literature classification.
    6. “Very good.” The books are the story of The Potter’s elect man Harry being conformed to the image of Christ. A VERY GOOD story indeed!
    7. “Useful for a particular task.” Tools are what we make of them. If we, like John, use Potter to further the cause of Christ, it can be truly great. Certainly Potter, as the common literature of three or more generations, provides a useful tool to open or direct conversations. However, Potter’s real usefulness is personal. I have been touched to the heart by many passages in the Potter books. Anyone who can read “The Forest Again” and not experience a transcendent moment needs a heart transplant.
    Thank you John for your ability to see and write on a higher plane than some of us who so enjoy your analysis.

  2. My score card says the Hogwarts Professor won by a TKO. The sparring was wonderful and the HP was “float(ing) like a butterfly, sting(ing) like a bee” throughout. The fancy footwork was amazing. But the TKO was the description of the subversion of the materialist paradigm! I could see the lights going off in the hosts’ heads and hear the “Aha!” Really.

    The coup de grace was the “shared text” message. The stars came out when that blow landed.

    I have dared place Rowling with Dante, Lewis, Tolkien, and Sayers previously and I have no reason to change that estimate, and now more reasons to so contend! Subverting materialism in a shared text – splendiferous.

  3. Arabella Figg says

    Nikeniptor, thanks for the “great books” definition. Yes, Harry Potter does qualify, according to this, as a Great Book.

    I listened to both podcasts and, like Inked, wished to hear less interrupting and overtalking. But the give and take perspectives were worth it.

    Nikeniptor, you wrote: “Without a Grangeresk mind and training in literature, ascending every level of the Potterverse will require a lifetime and contribute to the praise of The Potter throughout our lifetimes.”

    Exactly. What John has been doing through all his books and at HogPro is what I call “foundational scholarship.” While others have floated on the water’s surface, he’s been plunging into the deeps (and it’s often been pretty cold there), opening the books’ most profound meanings and structures and laying groundwork for decades to come. His work will be referenced, analyzed and footnoted long after wizard rock, shipping arguments, Harry-hater controversies, and other comtemporary as-the-books-were-written stuff are but a faded memory. His continued exploration and welcoming of legitimate new insights (some from this site) shows that he continues to be a seeker.

    Speaking of seekers, Curious Black is tracking a bug…

  4. It was a really hard podcast to follow. Too much interrupting & your voices sound alike at times. Perhaps speak in exaggerated tones next time. 🙂

    Anyway, I’ll score it 30-29, 29-30, & 30-29, for the winner by split decision & still Hogpro champion, John Granger!

    One can quibble over the details of whether some of the books are too long or need editing or whether some plot devices are overused or used in a too contrived deus ex machina way.

    But as you put it the subversion of materialism & the appeal to deep themes relating to the human condition will keep the books appealing. LOTR & Lewis may not be read as much as they used to be, but they are still read widely & also studied profoundly. You don’t get too many people who dress up as Frodo anymore, though.

    All the reasons nikenipter lists above are right on in assessing the continued greatness of the HP series.

    As for sublime moments, I’m [not] really sure I caught what you or John Mark were meaning in the discussion. Would you be able to elaborate some more? Thanks.

  5. It helps immensely. That makes much more sense & clearly gives you more points in the bout. 🙂

    Besides, I agree with you that her prose is much more mundane but that doesn’t matter so much because, as you say, the story & the characters carry the day. Tolkien may have more moments that “smote me to the heart,” but that’s not too say that because Jo doesn’t have such moments that her work is somehow less compelling or meaningful. And anyway, Jo does have some moments that are very emotionally engaging; they just grab you in the moment.

    Thanks for the additional info, John.

  6. Prof. Reynolds’ point was that there were no sublime moments in prose, i.e., the text itself was not beautiful or elevating. My ‘push-back’ was to concede that point and to argue that the sublime aspect, world-transcending aspect of the Potter novels was in each reader’s profound identification with Harry (through the voice of the story, his being an orphan, etc.) and sharing thereby his transformation, even, imaginatively, his border line apotheosis at the palatial King’s Cross and vanquishing the Dark Lord.

    In terms of the depth of this identification and catharsis, Rowling’s inability or decision not to rise to or reach for poetic heights in her prose was a wise decision. The story carried all the freight and the artistry was subliminal, in the scaffolding, and all about the symbolism.

    Does that help?

  7. Arabella Figg says

    I love excellent writing. Beautiful writing (that doesn’t preen itself) can make me weak in the knees. I remember hearing a song (by poet/songwriter Chris Rice) while driving, in which one line made me almost pull over for safety’s sake.

    But I also argue for writing that is plain and nonintrusive, “elegance” bustled out of sight, so that I may gorge unhindered by palatial prose. Rowling may lack literary elegance, but I don’t care. (Even if OotP was too long and bogged down in the middle, and the Trio was *unendingly* entering/leaving the Gryffindor common room.) Her storytelling entertains, and emotively immerses/rivets me in an otherworldly and uplifting experience.

    To me, that is a great book.

    A cat on the lap improves a great book…

  8. Red Rocker says

    John, I wasn’t sure if I could find the old comment in the Hog’s Head Archives, but it didn’t take that long. Here’s the link:


    Not sure how this link will work, but the comment is under Discussion:Ursula K. LeGuin on the “mid-list” that is dated 81.26.08. It’s comment #41

  9. Red Rocker says

    I haven’t listened to the debate, just read the commentary above.

    John, I think you conceded the point about the lack of sublime moments in prose, that “the text itself was not beautiful or elevating” too easily.

    I realize that beauty may be in the eye of the beholder. I also know that as a reader I yearn for those moments, and whenever I find them, I remember and treasure them. Their presence in a book, no matter how much else there is that is mundane, will endear that book to me. To use vulgar parlance, they are the “highlight reels” that I replay over and over again.

    And HP has those moments. I remember I made a list, probably more than a year ago, for the SoG , of those moments. My purpose then was to compare the “best of” JKR vs Tolkien. Although overall Tolkien is a better writer – clearer, simpler, less cliched, the best of JKR compared very well to Tolkien’s. I think she can reach for the heights, upon occasion.

  10. I couldn’t think of any RR! If only I’d had your list; please share it here or give us the link to HogsHead.

    As it was, I thought my concession was judo. I conceded what turned out to be Prof. Reynold’s hardest shots in my preamble and he graciously (charitably?) acknowledged my ‘sublime effect’ point.

    Back to your point: open call for Ms. Rowling’s best single paragraphs. I know I could have defended her artistry beter than I did; help me out before the rematch!

  11. Open Call? Hmmm…
    Every time I contribute, I reveal the simplistic workings of my untrained mind…but what the hey?
    The paragraphs that immediately spring forward may not be deeply profound, but ALWAYS make me smile when I read them as they resonate the heartfelt emotional drama of adolescence and demonstrate the innate differences of most teenage males and females in the throes of relational understandings:

    First passage:
    Hermione sighed and laid down her quill.
    “Well, obviously, she’s feeling very sad, because of Cedric dying. Then I expect she’s feeling confused because she liked Cedric and now she likes Harry, and she can’t work out who she likes best. Then she’ll be feeling guilty, thinking it’s an insult to Cedric’s memory to be kissing Harry at all, and she’ll be worrying about what everyone else might say about her if she starts going out with Harry. And she probably can’t work out what her feelings toward Harry are anyway, because he was the one who was with Cedric when Cedric died, so that’s all very mixed up and painful. Oh, and she’s afraid she’s going to be thrown off the Ravenclaw Quidditch team because she’s been flying so badly.”
    A slightly stunned silence greeted the end of this speech, then Ron said, “One person can’t feel all that at once, they’d explode.”(OoTP, p.459)

    Second passage:
    “Harry, you’re worse than Ron…Well, no, you’re not,” she sighed, as Ron himself came stumping into the Hall splattered with mud and looking grumpy. “Look—you upset Cho when you said you were going to meet me, so she tried to make you jealous. It was her way of trying to find out how much you liked her.”
    “Is that what she was doing?” said Harry as Ron dropped onto the bench opposite them and pulled every dish within reach toward himself. “Well, wouldn’t it have been easier if she’d just asked me whether I liked her better than you?’
    “Girls don’t often ask questions like that,” said Hermione.
    “Well, they should!” said Harry forcefully. “Then I could’ve just told her I fancy her, and she wouldn’t have had to get herself all worked up again about Cedric dying!”
    “I’m not saying what she did was sensible,” said Hermione, as Ginny joined them, just as muddy as Ron and looking equally disgruntled. “I’m just trying to make you see how she was feeling at the time.”
    “You should write a book,” Ron told Hermione as he cut up his potatoes, “translating mad things girls do so boys can understand them.” (OoTP, pp.572,573)

    pj, hoping to post a review for HHCHS soon!

  12. Red Rocker and Dr. Sturgis’ quotations and comments on the Hogs Head site (comments 41 and 45 respectively) both go to make RR’s point: the themes are in parallel and the writers’ voices are the difference, mythic and archetypal in LOTR and personal and one step from vaudeville in HP. If accessibility and experience of meaning are the measures, HP wins running away; if majesty of prose and kinship of same to profundity of message are the measures, Ms. Rowling is left at the mountain of greatness’ basecamp.

    Fortunately, this is not an either/or experience and preferences are not ‘desert island one book’ choices we have to make. We can and should enjoy both for what they are. Is King Lear better than Oedipus Tyrannus and Equus? than Taming of the Shrew? Yes — and No! Similarly, LOTR and HP.

  13. Right on, John. We have the best of both worlds, if we want it. LOTR & HP & other great works that work on different levels & with different methods but all of which move us & speak to us in some way.

    I think it’s only those outside of the appreciation of great books who think books must be lined up according to some sort of ‘greatest’ criteria & just because some book may come in first means it is somehow better than all the others on the list.

  14. Arabella Figg says

    Reyhan, I just read your (and Dr. Sturgis’) comparisons at the Hog’s Head link. Really brilliant. Here’s how I see the main difference between Tolkein and Rowling

    Tolkein takes me away in another world, while Rowling takes me away in this world.

    LotR characters, other than a few, are rather removed, more mythic. (The exceptions would be the hobbits and Gollum.)

    But I can relate more to Rowling’s well-rounded characters and contemporary settings. The only “removed” person is Dumbledore, unmasked in DH. She writes adeptly both humor and horror, as well. The scene with Molly Weasley’s howler in CoS cracks me up every time. The scene in OotP of Harry in detention, carving “I must not tell lies” on his own hand sends chills every time.

    But I should snag a few lines to join the competition.

    Off to fill the kibble bowl…

  15. Arabella Figg says

    Okay, here is a section of favorite lines from OotP:

    Upon preparing to leave Privet Drive: Harry stows his wand in his back pocket (p. 49):

    “Don’t put your wand there, boy! roared Moody. “What if it ignited? Better wizards than you have lost butttocks, you know!”
    “Who d’you know who’s’ lost a buttock?” the violet-haired woman asked Mad-Eye interestedly.
    “Never you mind, you just keep your wand out of your back pocket!” growled Mad-Eye. “Elementary wand safety, nobody bothers about it anymore….”

    Tonks then helps Harry pack (p. 53):
    “Ah well…wand still in your jeans? Both buttocks still on? Okay, let’s go….”

    Can you imagine any of Tolkein’s characters coming out with this?

    Kitties have tails, not wands. Maybe that’s why their buttocks are intact…

  16. Arabella Figg says

    I agree, RevGeorge. First doesn’t necessarily mean “greatest.”

    For example, take the 1941 film Citizen Kane, #1 on most best films list. Kane is a remarkable film and was a first on many fronts. Is it the best film *ever* made, after almost 70 years? I think that’s debatable. Is it most people’s favorite film? I’d venture most people haven’t seen it, and wouldn’t appreciate it without study/documentaries). So while I hat-tip Citizen Kane, and believe it belongs at or in the top of such lists, it’s not the only film on our CD shelf, nor my favorite film.

    And when it comes to “Great Books,” how do you possibly compare the voice of Tolkein with that of Twain? Yet we can fully enjoy and marvel at both.

    Now about giving that cat the elixer…

  17. Nice point about Citizen Kane, Arabella. I’ve been alive for 43 years & still haven’t seen the movie except the final clip. But I know the story of the film. But my closest viewing of it was a Saturday Night Live sketch. Just like my closest reading of Wuthering Heights comes from the Monty Python semaphore version! 🙂

  18. Arabella Figg says

    Too bad you saw the end first, RevGeorge. Ruined the shock value and couldn’t have made much sense. There’s a Peanuts strip referencing the end of Citizen Kane; I still have it.

    I recommend viewing Citizen Kane, without reading about it or viewing documentaries first. Go into it cold. Talk about twists–the final is a doozy. The film is a very entertaining and gripping examination of power. Then watch the brilliant two-hour documentary that comes with the DVD. This was shown on PBS several years ago. You’ll understand why this groundbreaking (on many fronts) film was the basis for much of 20th Century filmmaking. Actually, I think serious Rowling fans would like it very much.

    Kitties are all about power…

  19. schmalchemy says

    Are the Harry Potter novels great? For what it is worth, I certainly think so. Partly for some of the reasons stated above…that is, they certainly got people to read and continue to generate excitement of reading and the language used is so engaging. The humor expressed, the ideas, the themes, and so on.

    As for comparisons between Rowling, Tolkein, and Lewis (as Revgeorge indicated), I look to another book I’ve read recently, “Hogwarts, Narnia, and Middle Earth: Places Upon a Time”. While not a Zossima book, it discusses themes and issues that bring thoughtful comparisons of these books to life.

  20. Thanks for the book reference, schmalchemy. I’ve put it on my Amazon wish list. Looks interesting.

  21. John’s comment that Rowling’s pedestrian style is actually a good authorial “choice” (if it is a choice) is interesting. There may be something in it. Rowling’s relatively clean, fast reading prose moves the story right along and allows her to get through more emotional highs and lows without losing readers.

    Still, it is hard to forgive her excess adverbials (he said critically). And the repetitive Quidditch and battle scenes in the books might have been a lot more tolerable if she could have found new ways to describe them. A little “heightened style” here could have gone a long way.

    Maybe the best way to decide whether great style is necessary for a great book is to look at the polar opposite of Rowling’s style: Mervyn Peake’s Titus Groan. Peake has an extremely romantic style which, all by itself, elevates his novel to great fantasy.

    The critical consensus after fifty years, however, is that Titus Groan is not a great novel. Perhaps this is because it is “only fantasy”. Or perhaps it is because it is not considered a children’s novel and therefore doesn’t get the “free pass” accorded to children’s stories with weak style. Perhaps the book itself is simply too baroque.

  22. Arabella Figg says

    Speaking of Citizen Kane, a few days after I wrote about it, I came upon an article, “Judith Crist Loves Ted Tuner,” by Bob Calandra in AARP Magazine, November/December 2008. Crist is a veteran film critic. I find her comments very applicable to the HP series and all great literature.


    True classics hold up to endless viewing, says Crist, who is in her 51st year of teaching opinion writing at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. Her favorite film? She can’t narrow it down to one, but Orson Welle’s monumental Citizen Kane still mesmerizes, she says, as a recent late-night viewing confirmed.

    “I picked it up and after ten minutes I thought, ’Well, I’ll stay with it for a bit and then I really have to go to bed.’ And then I found myself sitting up until 3:00 A.M., watching something I could recite line by line.

    “But I noticed for the first time—and this may be the 50th or 60th time I’ve seen Citizen Kane—that at the very end, as the camera pulls back on the gates and the NO TRESPASSING sign, in the back at the very top of the picture, there is smoke coming out of the chimney of the Kane mansion. I guess all the other times I’ve been looking at the gate.

    “The smoke made me feel something that I never felt before; that we did trespass. But I always notice something new with Citizen Kane. It astounds me.

    “Great performances, no matter what you thought of them the first time, will always reveal something more. The way Orson Welles destroys his wife’s bedroom when he throws her out. You would think that the first pass at the room would be the most ferocious, but his rage grew in ferocity. I found myself seeing more nuances. And that’s the point. The beauty of film is that it’s forever. It’s like rereading Shakespeare. There is always something more.”

    Kitties never trespass—they own everything and know it…

  23. Arabella Figg says

    From an article about the TV show “Heroes” in Entertainment Weekly, 10.31.08. Speaking is Tim Kring, the show’s creator:

    “There’s a premise to the show that we are actually trying to get back to more and more–the idea that ordinary people have been chosen for something extraordinary,” he told EW. “It’s what made the Harry Potter series so great, the idea that the most disenfranchised kid–the kid who lived under the crawl space of the stairs–could be chosen for greatness. That’s an archetypal idea that has tremendous resonance.”

    There are no ordinary cats…

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