Harry Potter and the Cursed Child by J K Rowling, Jack Thorne & Jack Tiffany

Is Harry Potter and the Cursed Child an essential part of the series? A long (two-part) play that premiered on 30th July 2016, it’s written by Jack Thorne, but based on a story by J K Rowling, Jack Thorne and director John Tiffany. I think they were trying to fulfil a number of expectations. First of all, it had to be a night out for Harry Potter fans, a sort of theatrical Harry Potter experience, offering up all your favourite characters, places, and even key scenes from the novels. Secondly, it would have to let us know a little of what happened next with the main characters. Thirdly, it would have to give us a new story that felt, somehow, equal in weight to the seven book series that spawned it, yet could be contained within a pair of plays watchable in a single day.

And I think if you view it this way, they did a pretty good job considering the heavy constraints. By a combination of dreams, talking portraits, time-travel (the plot revolves around the misuse of a time-turner, though one that’s far more powerful than the one Hermione used to attend so many lessons in The Prisoner of Azkaban) leading to alternate timelines, the play gives us scenes from the life of both the grown-up Harry Potter (its first scene is a restaging of the last chapter in Deathly Hallows) and the child Harry Potter, plus appearances from Dumbledore, Voldemort, Hagrid, Harry’s parents, Harry’s children, Severus Snape, Ron and Hermione and their children.

Music (by Imogen Heap) CD release

The main story is centred on Harry’s youngest son, Albus. As we meet him he’s weighed under by the pressure of having such a famous father — who defeated Voldemort and saved the wizarding world, no less — which results in his own attempts at magic being rather feeble. In addition, the first and only friend he makes on the train to Hogwarts is Scorpius Malfoy, son of his father’s schoolboy enemy Draco, and Scorpius is under his own sort of cloud, as rumours have begun to circulate he isn’t Draco’s, but Voldemort’s son. Albus finds himself sorted into Slytherin, and feels both the burden of letting his father down, and the rebelliousness of breaking free from his father’s past. Then, overhearing Amos Diggory’s plea to Harry one night to use a time-turner the Ministry has recently recovered (all the others were destroyed in Order of the Phoenix) to save the life of his son Cedric, Albus (encouraged by Amos’s niece Delphine) decides to steal it and, with Scorpius’s help, do what his father is refusing to do: go back in time to the Triwizard Tournament and save Amos’s boy. Things, of course, go wrong, and the pair find themselves caught in a number of alternate timelines, in one of which Voldemort has won.

There’s a thematic link with the novels. In the books, there was a lot about how memories and stories of the past can be changed or misrepresented, and the effect that can have on enabling evil on its way to power. Here, we get the past being actually changed, with often disastrous consequences (including the full-on victory of evil). But also we get the way children can struggle to be perceived as individuals thanks to their parents’ overshadowing reputations. And that’s the main thing this play is about, the relationship between children and parents, which is something the books (that so much focused on orphans like Harry and Tom Riddle, people who disowned their families like Sirius Black, or people like Hermione whose parents we never got to see) couldn’t deal with in the same way. Harry’s difficulties with his son he puts down to the fact of his having had no father present in his life, so he doesn’t know how to deal with his son on an emotional level.

Reading the play (I haven’t seen it), I did find some of the dialogue a lot more emotionally self-analytical than the books, as the characters diagnosed their relationship difficulties with one another in a way that smacked a little bit too much of self-help speak.

Theatrical poster

But, the main thing the play is designed for is to be fun. And another thing that reading it rather than seeing it did is to make me wonder how they managed it on stage. The scenes are often very short — more filmic than theatrical, I thought — and jump between locations and times in a way that must be pretty challenging for a theatre’s technical crew. And there’s a lot of magic: transformations, levitations, disarming and binding spells, and so on, which I can only guess must be a large part of the fun of going to see this play, to find out how they put these things on live.

Inevitably, fans have argued about whether Cursed Child is “canon” or not. The way it threatens to fiddle with major events in the book-series’ past (which the possibility of time-travel of course raises) does, perhaps, make it feel as though it’s treading on the series’ past a little too much. (Leading to the inevitable scene where some characters have an opportunity to prevent the terrible events that sparked it all off, and the writers have to give them a reason not to do it.) And the grown-up versions of the main characters can only, really, act as jokey versions of the children we got to know thanks to the books. (This may be true of adults generally, though.)

Overall, I think it’s best to see Cursed Child as a bit of fun added to the series, a sort of theatrical “Harry Potter’s Greatest Hits”, with some what-happened-next thrown in, rather than an essential continuation. Personally, I’d be happy to see a more comedic take on the day-to-day lives of adult Harry, Ron, and Hermione, without their having to save the world from ultimate evil, but I can’t imagine that happening — not for a while, anyway.


Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J K Rowling

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was published in 2007, ten years after the first book in the series. By this point, Rowling’s saga had become a global phenomenon, with midnight book launches, publication dates shifted so kids wouldn’t bunk off school, a film series well under way (it was Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix in 2007), and a very public haranguing by literary heavyweights such as Harold Bloom (“In an arbitrarily chosen single page — page 4 — of the first Harry Potter book, I count seven clichés”) and A S Byatt (“Ms. Rowling’s magic world has no place for the numinous. It is written for people whose imaginative lives are confined to TV cartoons, … soaps, reality TV and celebrity gossip”) laying in on Rowling in a way that now seems incredibly petty, like academics berating a child for neglecting to quote Eratosthenes in his “What I did on my holidays” essay. But all this is, frankly, irrelevant (as it should be) now it’s just me reading the series for pleasure.

So, what are the pleasures of The Deathly Hallows?

For the seventh book in a seven-book series, where everything has surely by now (thanks to Harry Potter and… Any Other Business?, a.k.a. The Half-Blood Prince) been set up for the final confrontation between our hero and the evil Lord Voldemort, The Deathly Hallows opens in bravura style by kicking off some entirely new plot-lines, and emptying a whole new set of questions-in-need-of-answering into our hapless truth-seeker’s lap. Whose blue and Dumbledorean eye is looking out from the broken fragment of Sirius’ communication mirror? Why had Dumbledore been in possession of James Potter’s invisibility cloak on the night Harry’s parents were murdered? How do the Death Eaters track Harry & co. so quickly to Tottenham Court Road? Whose is the silver-white doe patronus? Why is Harry suddenly less able to produce a patronus of his own?

Jonny Duddle cover

It struck me on my first reading of the series how incredibly satisfyingly it was in the way it mixed the uncovering of past events (the first rise of Voldemort, the school days of Harry’s parents, and so on) with each book’s present-day action. And that’s still going strong even in this final book, if not stronger. Having had Voldemort’s origin-of-evil story told in The Half-Blood Prince, we now get what might be called the tarnishing of Albus Dumbledore, as tabloid reporter Rita Skeeter reveals the “disturbed childhood, the lawless youth, the lifelong feuds and the guilty secrets” of what has been the warmest and most comforting character in the series so far.

Why does Rowling do this? Right from the start, Dumbledore seemed a gleefully archetypal character, the grandfatherly wizard who mixes aspects of Gandalf, Father Christmas, and, frankly, God (or at least Aslan) in his calm, patient, white-bearded wisdom, his acceptance and encouragement (and, also, his distance). At the end of the last book he was — quite rightly, and as tradition demands — taken out of the action, ready for our hero Harry to face things on his own.

But no, it seems he has lingered. And not lingered in the way Obi-Wan Kenobi lingers in the original Star Wars trilogy, to pop up as a ghostly presence and offer a little prompting and guidance (“Use the Force, Luke”, “Go to the Dagobah system, Luke”, “Don’t forget to brush your teeth, Luke”), but lingered to go sour. Dumbledore, we learn, was not always that Santa-like saintly wizard. In his early days, great as he already was, he became preoccupied with the same thing that drives the evil Lord Voldemort:

“I had learned that I was not to be trusted with power… I had proven, as a very young man, that power was my weakness and my temptation…”

Death has become one of the most important themes in the Harry Potter series, one that is, intriguingly, profoundly connected with Harry’s role as a truth-seeker. Increasingly, Harry’s seeking after the truth has been driven by a need to make contact with what death has taken from him (his parents, Sirius, Dumbledore), and to learn why it had to happen, why they had to die.

Brian Selznick cover

And death has twined its bony fingers into another theme, too, one that runs not only throughout this series but (as I said in my mewsings on the first book) through fantasy literature as a whole: power, its temptations, and its misuse. Voldemort defines himself entirely in terms of power, and sees its ultimate use as being to hold off his own death, while doling it out to others on a whim. But, as the case of Dumbledore in this book reveals, death in the Harry Potter series humanises those who die (which is perhaps why Voldemort flees it). Even as great a figure as Dumbledore, when he passes through the veil, is revealed to be what he always was: a human being, with faults, with mistakes, with regrets, with secrets — with a story. The crucial thing is, in Rowling’s world, this humanisation doesn’t compromise her characters. Dumbledore isn’t a lesser presence because of his revealed faults, once we have the full story. (After all, it’s “his early losses [that] endowed him with great humanity and sympathy”, in other words, which made him who he is.)

This humanisation-in-the-face-of-death is something Rowling does to other characters, too. Most notably in this book — and most poignantly — Severus Snape, who finally gets his story told (when you’d think it ought to have been in The Half-Blood Prince, which was, after all, named for him). Snape’s story is the last to be revealed, but is told alongside that of another character who has, surprisingly, not had hers told yet either: Lily Potter. (And the influence of Lily, Harry’s mother, over Harry’s development, is much more prevalent in this book, where up till now he was mostly defined in terms of how he measured up to his father. In this book, we’re told Harry is now exactly the same height as James Potter — so he’s as much like his father as he’s going to be — and this is no surprise. But it is a pleasant surprise when Harry sees his mother’s handwriting and realises that she “made her g’s the same way he did”. We’ve long been told his eyes are his mother’s — and this is what makes Snape’s “Look … at … me …” so poignant — but more and more we learn it’s Harry’s inner nature that derives from her, in a book where protective mothers — including Mrs Weasley, Narcissa Malfoy, and even Neville Longbottom’s grandmother — come to the fore. Just as Lily sacrificed herself for Harry, so Harry, here, sacrifices himself for others.)

Snape is revealed to be the most divided character in the series, caught between the love of power (his being the head of Slytherin, and his being a Death Eater) and the power of love (when his need to protect Lily brings him back to Dumbledore, and enables Dumbledore to enlist him in protecting Harry). Snape is, I’d say, the one character whose take on the events of the Harry Potter series would be worth reading.

But before all these backstories, The Deathly Hallows enters a surprising stretch (for a final and should-be-action-packed book), where nothing happens for a long time, a period of frustration, isolation, and endurance, in which the main trio do little more than bicker and get on each others’ nerves. It starts to feel like Frodo and Sam’s section of The Return of the King, that despondent slog through the wastes of Mordor, where they keep going not because they must finish their task, but because it would be even more of an effort to turn back.

Kazu Kibuishi cover

Then — things kick off, and the second half of The Deathly Hallows is perhaps the best, in terms of sheer storytelling, in the series as a whole. And that, after all, is what it’s about (and this is the big point Bloom and Byatt so blatantly missed). It’s not about the literary qualities of the language (though Rowling has moments of good writing, my favourites being a baby dragon described as looking “like a crumpled, black umbrella”, the barman of the Leaky Cauldron looking “like a gummy walnut”, or Harry, alone with a bickering Ron and Hermione, feeling “like the only non-mourner at a poorly attended funeral”). But mostly the language is only there to tell the story — and tell it not to jaded academics but story-hungry what-happens-nexting kids. Nor is it about the originality of imagination. Rowling freely makes use of every fantasy archetype she can lay her hands on. But, she makes original use of them. And it may be she does so simply for a quick joke, but it may also be that she does so (as with Dumbledore) to say something deeper, that goes to the heart of her theme.

Using such fantasy archetypes is part of how she creates such an immersive world. It’s not (as I said in my mewsings on the first book) immersive in the traditional How to Write Fantasy & SF way of presenting a logically consistent reality with carefully-worked-out rules for magic. It’s immersive because it’s so rich and alive. There’s no time to stop and think about logical inconsistencies, it’s already throwing another Dahlish joke, or Dickensian character, or Rowlingish list at you. (She loves her lists: of wares in a magical joke shop, titles of magical school-books, varieties of owls, sweets on a snack trolley, or the contents of a Hogwarts storage room.) Most of all, it’s alive with story: with little sub-plots and details, with little connections (as you realise, for instance, that some fellow-pupil of Harry’s who was initially just a name is in fact the descendent of some famous witch or wizard), as well as wider, deeper (sometimes subterranean) arcs.

Olly Moss

The theme of fame I puzzled about before this re-read of the series has proved to be just part of a much more varied and interesting theme of truth, memory, and history, how these can be distorted, and how such distortions can pave the way for the rise of an evil such as Voldemort. In other words, this is a story about the power of story, both for good and for evil.

The series’s own politics aren’t, perhaps, all to be read as a straightforward allegory, tempting though it seems. Hermione’s efforts to emancipate the house elves at first feels like it’s drawing a parallel with human slavery, but the series doesn’t resolve it at all in that way. I suspect it might just be a joke about the sort of elves you find in a fairy tale like “The Elves and the Shoemaker”, and how Hermione overthinks the whole thing, or misinterprets it in entirely human terms. House elves aren’t oppressed humans, they’re house elves. And Harry’s deal with the goblin Griphook in The Deathly Hallows makes it clear that goblins aren’t supposed to be read as oppressed humans, either, but as non-humans who have their own values, ideas, and agendas. This aspect of the books, perhaps, needs more material to play out.

And it’s with The Deathly Hallows that Rowling can best refute A S Byatt’s criticism that her fantasy is not “numinous”. Byatt was mistaking Rowling’s first-book groundwork — her laying out of a cornucopia of fantasy elements — for her end theme. It’s with The Deathly Hallows that things come as close as they get to a religious statement, and if they’re to be read in that way, it seems to me Rowling is doing something slightly different. The way the previously God-like Dumbledore is revealed to have had a weakness for power in his youth before learning to be more human reminds me of Jung’s psychological reading of the Old and New Testaments in Answer to Job. God, Jung says, gave His son to mankind in the New Testament as a propitiatory sign that He’d changed from His highly judgemental, punitive, and patriarchal Old Testament ways. It wasn’t to redeem humankind from original sin, but to redeem God from His old self. If so, then Harry is Dumbledore’s “son” in this book, and it’s surely significant his self-sacrifice comes to have a magically protective power over everyone opposing Voldemort: he “dies” to redeem them all from evil. (And Harry finding himself in an ethereal King’s Cross is perhaps the most explicitly religious reference.) But whatever her own beliefs, Rowling never gets as dogmatic as C S Lewis. Rather, as with Dumbledore and Snape, she humanises it all, and perhaps de-patriarchalises it a bit while she’s at it.

In the end, the Harry Potter series is about “the triumph of good, the power of innocence, the need to keep resisting.” But it’s also about a good story well told, one that’s even more rewarding on a re-read. Rowling can be, amongst all the whizzes and bangs of her magical world, a subtle storyteller, taking more from the likes of Jane Austen than Roald Dahl. Fantasy-wise, her imagination runs the gamut, and seems to have furnished a generation (if not more) with all the weird beasts and magic lore the likes of Dungeons & Dragons, Fighting Fantasy, and a generous helping of Ray Harryhausen films did to a previous generation. (By which I mean mine.)


Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince by J K Rowling

Kazu Kibuishi cover

After the most satisfying book in the series so far (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix), comes, well, in comparison at least, somewhat of a nothing. The trouble with Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (published 2005) is that it’s the book before the final showdown with Voldemort, so its main purpose — aside from offering us one more slice of Potterishness — is to tick off those last minute essentials before that showdown begins. In other words, this is Harry Potter and… Any Other Business?

Which wouldn’t matter, if Rowling were on top storytelling form. There are plenty of plot elements to put to bed before the final book — the uncovering of Voldemort’s origin story, Harry linking up with Ginny, and the necessary Hero’s Journey moment of shedding the mentor-figure who’s been guiding and protecting our protagonist so far, to name but three — and I can’t help thinking that the Rowling of the previous book would have woven them into a seamless, suspenseful narrative. But I don’t think she has, this time. Some of those plot points just happen, without the sort of preparatory tension that would make them feel properly earned. (Harry and Ginny getting together, in particular, feels like it just gets squeezed in amongst everything else that’s happening, rather than being properly embroiled in the rest of the plot, or given the sort of build-up that would have made it feel so right — something highlighted by how easy it feels for Harry to tell Ginny he has to distance from her at the end of the book, now he’s in full Harry-versus-Voldemort mode. This makes me think it really should have happened in the next book, at some appropriately dramatic high point.) Voldemort’s origin story is made to seem a bit more alive than flat-out exposition thanks to Harry getting to witness snippets via Dumbledore’s Pensieve, but Dumbledore has still done all the footwork and thinking to put it together, so it is, basically, still exposition. Even the main “foiling evil” plot that Harry (as usual) gets caught up in — Draco Malfoy’s mission — doesn’t make any progress till it’s all revealed in one go at the end, voiding it of any sense that Harry’s efforts made any difference at all. (And they didn’t.)

Jason Cockroft cover for the UK HB

(I like to think I’m backed up in all this by the film, which, given a chance of a second go at Rowling’s loose bag of plot elements, refined it in a number of small ways, and made it a lot more satisfying. The film of Half-Blood Prince is, I think, the most different from any book of the series so far, and perhaps it’s the only film that’s actually better than the book, in my view.)

Even the by-now standard visit to a subterranean place-of-secrets — which reached a height, for me, in the last book’s eerie Department of Mysteries — here has one of the oddest, and least satisfying sequences of all. Dumbledore and Harry visit a cave to retrieve one of Voldemort’s Horcruxes, and the main task there is… for Harry to force Dumbledore to drink a potion. I can only guess this is supposed to be a sort of test of loyalty on Harry’s part (loyalty being the main quality associated with Dumbledore throughout the series), but if so, it doesn’t have a corresponding payoff. Perhaps the most intriguing thing about this sequence is the nature of Dumbledore’s suffering, which is all about the pangs of conscience:

“…please make it stop, I know I did wrong, oh, please make it stop and I’ll never, never again… Don’t hurt them, don’t hurt them, please, please, it’s my fault, hurt me instead…”

Dumbledore seems to feel incredibly guilty about things, but is this just a result of the potion, or does he have reason to? Well, the answer for that lies in the next book.

Brian Selznick cover

This book’s most interesting new element is Horace Slughorn, the ex-Head of Slytherin who likes to associate himself with “the famous, the successful and the powerful”, and who “enjoys the feeling that he influences these people”. Slughorn is another “neutral”, of the kind I’ve been highlighting in my mewsings on the series. He’s neither good nor evil, but is attracted by “greatness” (power), and driven by, not morality, but self-interest. Slughorn could have done with more of a story, I think — either a comeuppance or a redemption — but doesn’t really get it.

In contrast, Harry is at his least interesting in this book. Now he’s being believed by everyone, and is starting to show signs of confidence and power, I realised his main attractive quality in previous books had always been his vulnerability. Now he no longer has that so much, he just comes across as rather petulant. Or maybe he’s just a teenager…

Olly Moss ebook cover

Learning Voldemort’s backstory is perhaps the main function of this book, and it’s perhaps Half Blood Prince’s highlight. It means we get to see Rowling’s version of an origin-of-evil story, something genre fiction generally doesn’t do well. (I’m mostly thinking here of the Star Wars prequels’ back-of-a-postage-stamp-psychology take on how Anakin became Darth Vader.) Rowling doesn’t make the mistake of explaining Voldemort’s evil, but instead sets about revealing how deep its roots go. Tom Riddle, it turns out, comes from a long line of magically powerful, pure-blood-elitist wizards so averse to mixing their bloodline they’ve dwindled into a physically and mentally-decayed line verging on the subhuman. However, Voldemort wasn’t brought up by this line, so we can’t put his moral failings down to their style of upbringing, only as an in-bred genetic tendency. Rather, it’s that he inherited their power (a neutral thing), and came to see that power, and the way it sets him apart from others, as his identity and destiny. After having got used to the way his abilities make him feel superior to the Muggles he was raised with, it’s perhaps only natural that, when he found himself in the Wizarding World, he was driven to differentiate himself still further along the same scale, by raising his magical abilities so that he was as far above his fellow wizards as his magic put him above the Muggles.

Jonny Duddle cover

I’m not saying Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince isn’t enjoyable. But perhaps it might be better viewed as the first half of a two-book narrative concluding in the next and final volume, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows — if only because the titular focus of Half-Blood Prince, Severus Snape, doesn’t get his full story told till that book (which also balances Voldemort’s origin story with Dumbledore’s).

If nothing else, though, Half-Blood Prince is still a dip into Rowling’s Wizarding World, which by this point can be allowed to survive on the minor pleasures of character moments, jokes, and hints-of-things-to-come — for one book, at least.