Harry Potter and why it’s not exactly a seven-part series

Alright, so let’s address this real quick: Harry Potter does have seven books and no, I do not count Cursed Child, Fantastic Beasts or anything on Pottermore. You probably have questions about that, but I’ll address them in another post. After all, you didn’t click this to hear about the Lunch lady on the Hogwarts Express turning into a monster, or a sexually aggressive rhino hunting Scamander…

If it isn’t a seven-part series, what is it?

Simple, it’s a pair of trilogies and a standalone. And right there I’ve lost half the readers so now only my mum and whichever family members I’ve roped into reading this are left. But, for those of you still here, I’ll give more reasons because, as we all know, an opinion is useless without facts to back it up.

As I say, there are two trilogies and one standalone novel in this series (although a friend of mine refers to it as three phases). The trilogies are books 1 – 3 and 5 – 7 with the standalone novel being book 4, Goblet of Fire.

Trilogy 1: Philosopher’s Stone, Chamber of Secrets and Prisoner of Azkaban.

This is the first trilogy, seperated, in my eyes, from the rest of the books by multiple factors including target audience, thematics, tone, and the way in which tension and horror are tackled.

The original cover art for Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.
The original cover art for Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.

The target audience for this trilogy (and yes, that is how I will be referring to the books from now on) is children, as is made clear by the illustration on the front and back cover, the language used and general feel of the books. Look at the first cover, it draws back stylistically to artwork made for classic children’s stories like The Famous Five, is simple and has a child-friendly blurb.

“… The reason: HARRY POTTER IS A WIZARD!”

Verbatim from the blurb.

That section of the blurb is worth highlighting. It’s exciting and energetic and so appealing to children and, if the parents are still worried about letting their children read about wizards (as mine were), the reviews below help convince them it is indeed a children’s novel.

Again, Chamber of Secrets follows this trend with the same art style, only now the images are trying to evoke more wonder with things like a flying car and the ever-mysterious fog — I love a good bit of fog! It ties in with the title and progresses the narrative in an accessible and fun way. And now the characters are established the blurb assumes you know Harry, almost as though he is your friend.

Harry Potter is a wizard. He is in his second year at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Little does he know that this year will be just as eventful as the last…

Verbatim from the blurb.

Fun, mysterious and concise. It makes you, as a child reader, feel as though you are part of the story while making you want to read more — a clear continuation of a story from book 1 to 2.

And now book three, the last in this trilogy and my favourite of the franchise: The Prisoner of Azkaban.

Once again, the art uses soft, slightly faded tones, but this time it’s adding a small element of darkness to it. Where the first two were shot during the day, this is at night against a full moon as a subtle hint to (spoilers) Lupin’s story. The darkness is still framed as though it is fun, and while it feels like a darker turn it works as a narrative for the first trilogy and is still, really, targeted at children.

The blurb follows the same fun style as the first two and tempts you into the mystery of what awaits our heroes.

HARRY POTTER is a wizard! Along with Ron and Hermione, his best friends…

Verbatim from the blurb.

The same excitement, mystery and friendliness as is found in the first two with the added phrase “best friends” which is, for the most part, one we all used more as children than we do as adults.

But that’s just the covers, what about everything else?

The covers are really important to a good book, they grab your attention, sit on your shelf for years and years, and help you decide if the book sits in a genre you enjoy. These kinds of covers would be completely out of place for stories like George R.R. Martin’s A song of ice and fire or James S.A. Corey’s The Expanse (a series I have endless praise for), but on the children’s shelf in a library or bookstore they are perfect.

Thematically, these three focus more on friendship and easy-to-handle concepts and really masks anything which may be a bit darker in the wonder of the wizarding world. Sure, Quirrell and Tom Riddle both get killed, but their deaths are well-reasoned and shown in a way that makes you happy they aren’t going to hurt Harry, Ginny or anybody else rather than horrified by a man crumbling into dust before your eyes.

Even Lupin, whose transformation could be done in a terrifying way, is dealt with in quite a fun way. With his friends choosing to become animals themselves, the transformation is tense but not scary, and the tension really comes from your worry for the magical trio, and from the desperation in Sirius’ attempts to help his friend. Again, friendship. Friendship saves the day!

It’s also worth noting the more subtle aspects, those being the chapter titles. The chapters in this trilogy are largely fun and mysterious, things like “The boy who lived” and “Through the Trapdoor” match the children’s lit aesthetic perfectly. Each book also ends on a positive note, with Harry having defeated evil in whichever way it manifested that year and signing off with the friends he has made.

Shout out to my favourite character in this trilogy: Arthur Weasley. He’s fun, comedic and a great piece of exposition in every scene. Seriously, read the books again and focus on him and you’ll see what I mean. Perhaps that’s a future blog…

The Novel: The Goblet of Fire

That’s right, I am labelling this “the novel” because, well, it is.

Right away the mysterious aspect of the previous covers has been taken away and replaced with an awesome dragon attempting to burn our hero to a fine crisp. No longer is this fun and playful, but the cover is telling us danger lies ahead.

The blurb: this time I won’t do a quote of a passage, rather I’ll draw your attention to a few phrases.

“The summer holidays are dragging on…” the excitable, joyous nature of the previous blurbs is already missing here. “…there are spells to be learnt, potions to be brewed and Divination lessons (sigh) to attend…” Note the “sigh”, it’s more reflective of a slightly older child who’s slowly becoming fed up with school. On that, stay in school, kids.

This book has begun the ageing process. Just by the cover alone it is telling you this isn’t a book for your six year old, maybe instead one for their older sibling. The joyous, mysterious nature of the first trilogy’s covers is gone and has been replaced with one of danger and growing petulence. Hogwarts is no longer seen as an exciting place to be, but a chore for its students.

The book itself reflects this ageing target audience with the new-found interest in romance and relationships beyond plutonic “best friends” (wink wink, Ron and Hermione). This is the turning point for the series where everything starts to fall together, relationships are tested and the troubles are accelerating. The Death Eaters are a great example of the tonal shift. Hooded clansmen suspending people they don’t like in the air while marching around, burning their belongings…

Really, this book serves one main purpose and that is to bring Voldemort back from the dead. A graveyard scene where a teenager is restrained and bled to resurrect the man who killed his parents, only to escape by the skin of his teeth from facing the same doom? That’s hardly children’s literature anymore, and Cedric Diggory’s off-handed death is a testament to that.

Thematically this is still talking about friendship and relationships, but there are now much heavier allusions to more adult themes. It is still a book I’d let my children read (if I had any) but I’d perhaps wait a year or two after they’d finished the first trilogy before handing this one over.

While it is worth looking at chapter titles to see a tonal shift, what with the final one being titled “The Beginning”, it’s perhaps more interesting to note that in the first trilogy Harry gets to Hogwarts in a few chapters, but in this the first third of the book is taken up by extra-curricular magical terrorism before he finally boards the Hogwarts Express.

A shout out to the unsung hero of this book: Neville Longbottom. Without him Harry would have died because neither Hermione with her infinite book smarts, nor Ron with his teenage angst could think of a way for him to not die underwater. Praise be to Longbottom!

The second trilogy: Order of the Phoenix, Half Blood Prince, and Deathly Hallows.

Okay, so this is where it gets dark and, if I were the kind to swear, I’d do so from here on in. Actually, screw that, I’ll swear as much as I gosh darn want!

Book cover for Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.
Cover art for Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince.

So this, following on from the post-trilogy standalone novel, is also using fire, but this time not perilous fire. The tone is somewhat lighter than in the last book and it sets a stage of hope (A new hope, maybe?) with the imagery. It’s more detailed than the art in the first trilogy, less sketched out and a bit more grown up. Trilogy 2, book 1 sets the scene for the rest nicely.

“It is time,” he said, “for me to you tell what I should have told you five years ago, Harry. Please sit down. I am going to tell you everything.”

Verbatim from the blurb.

This is much less joyous than the other books, even less so than the one where Harry’s blood brings his foe back to life, and sets a much more adult tone. The blurb which follows is just as mirthless, it feels more grown up and really, in my mind, wouldn’t be out of place in the YA section. Rather than a promise of mystery and fun, as the first trilogy had, this offers the opening of a new, darker world.

Dark, serious, dangerous. Half Blood Prince has the artwork of something much darker than you’d expect from Harry Potter and is the only one where the back cover is prettier than the front. The fire looks dangerous and the expression on both Harry and Dumbledore’s face is nowhere near as jubilant as it is in the first trilogy.

It is the middle of summer, but there is an unseasonal mist pressing against the windowpanes…

Verbatim from the blurb.

The language itself is a lot less friendly than that of the first trilogy, or indeed the standalone novel. The tone is only deepened with phrases such as “fierce one-to-one duel”, and questions which would normally be left out of children’s blurbs.

I could write an article all on its own for my distaste for this book, but for now we’ll just leave it at this being tonally, thematically and narratively together with Order of the Phoenix and ignore all the many… MANY problems I have with Half Blood Prince…

Finally, the third in this trilogy, the Deathly Hallows. Darker, more chaotic and less joyful, the cover is in keeping with the style of the series but tonally more so with the second trilogy. Expressions of fear, a sword-wielding teenager, and — on the back cover — a comparatively calm night.

Harry is waiting in Privet Drive. The Order of the Phoenix is coming to escort him safely away — if they can.

Verbatim from the blurb.

Compare this to the blurb on any of the first trilogy. It’s punctual, short and heavy. We know there are tensions, massive danger and unfathomable odds. We know Hogwarts might be overtaken by Voldemort, but there is no more fun. This book is serious. This book ain’t for kids!

Funny enough, the second trilogy is the point at which I remember being excited and running to the bookstore (or library in my case) to get my hands on the first copy. That tells you how old I am, right there, and the sudden darkness was enticing. Sure, the narrative of the first trilogy and the intermediary novel flowed into this, but it was substantially darker and harder to read — not least because of the extra couple hundred pages in each!

Some of the thematics jumped right over my head as a child, things like prejudice and mortality were barely concepts I understood or contemplated, but the tonal difference was something you feel, and that’s at the heart of my point. They feel different. There’s no more fun mystery with the magic, each of the new mechanics and plot points are dealt with in a humourless way. Perhaps that’s unfair, there is still humour, it’s just less of a selling point in the characters here. Things like the Room of Requirements, in the first trilogy it would have been this great room where students could go and do whatever they want — I’m thinking bouncy castles and trampoline parks — but in the later books they’re introduced with the vision of training for a war.

The second trilogy, as I call it, handles concepts heavily and shows things like death, murder and torture explicitly with the idea being you feel horrified. To some degree, that was the fun of the books, to grow older with them, but it does make for some tonal disorder as you progress.

Again, it is worth looking at the chapter titles, which are now much heavier and a lot less fun than those in the first trilogy. Things like “Fallen Warrior” and “The Second War Begins”. Couple this with the endings of each of these books being much more open ended, telling you there is something coming, that the story is incomplete, and leaving us with a darker tone. No more happy endings, kids! (And no, I don’t think epilogues count as an ending, in the same way prologues don’t count as the first chapter…)

Like I say, this is not a criticism of the books at all. I loved them as a child and read them many times over, but it’s an interesting way to view them. Not as one whole series, but as a narrative flow divided into trilogies and a standalone. Although, if I wanted to criticise the books I’d probably start with Sirius’ death…

I should probably give a shout out to one more character who doesn’t get nearly enough love — Winky the house elf! Merlin bless you, Winky!

That’s all from me. If you want to see my future posts with opinions, writing advice and updates on my own work, follow this blog. And if you have any feedback, topics to discuss or just general conversations you’d like to have, head on over to my contact page and get in touch via your preferred means. I’d love to hear your thoughts, good or bad, so don’t hesitate to reach out!

Harry Potter and why it’s not exactly a seven-part series: A look into the beloved story by @jk_rowling

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Published by cbpowellwrites

I'm a writer of science-fiction, fantasy epics, and other speculative fiction works and have a little blog focused on writing and how to become a better writer. Hopefully it is helpful to others, and I'd love to hear more feedback and have more in-depth discussions on all thing creativity. Before turning to writing I worked for a number of years as a chef, following on from my time as a writing and performing guitarist in the South West of England. Perhaps I will upload some music from these days at some point...

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