Review: Repotting Harry Potter, by James W. Thomas


Repotting Harry Potter: A Professor’s Book-by-Book Guide for the Serious Re-Reader, by James W. Thomas. Allentown, PA: Zossima Press, 2009. 376 pp. $18.99 (paperback).

I’m sometimes puzzled at people, some of my good friends among them, who never give a serious thought to rereading a book, even a classic. Yet these same people would surely not pass up a trip to Paris because they’ve already been there or refuse to listen to a CD of Beethoven’s Ninth because they’ve already heard it. (p. 41)

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Professor of Literature James W. Thomas holds that there are “plenty of rewards and surprises” to be gained by rereading one’s favorite books (p. i). And in Repotting Harry Potter: A Professor’s Book-by-Book Guide for the Serious Re-Reader, Thomas convincingly elucidates the kinds of gems to be found.

Toward that end, he analyzes the seven books in J. K. Rowling’s famed Harry Potter series, dividing each into manageable sections (often covering several chapters) and pointing out various instances of foreshadowing, symbolism, external references, and humor that Rowling incorporates into each. Understanding and looking for these literary techniques, says Thomas, makes reading and especially rereading great works of fiction all the more enjoyable.

One literary technique Rowling often employs is foreshadowing. Thomas explains:

Foreshadowing is literary hinting . . . and, as Rowling probably learned from her favorite author Jane Austen and others, foreshadowing can be straightforward (whatever is hinted at or mentioned will come to fruition later as hinted at) or ironic (we’ll hear of this again, but certainly not in the same way we thought). In the seven-book series, Rowling foreshadows things that will happen or will matter or will be mentioned again later in the book at hand—ranging from a few pages later to several hundred pages later. In addition, she is adept at foreshadowing things that will happen many books later, thousands of pages later in fact. With regard to the nature of foreshadowing, incidentally, the Russian writer Anton Chekhov observed that if the playgoer sees a gun in Act 1, that gun had better go off before the final act. By the end of Book 7 a lot of Rowling’s guns have been fired, whole arsenals of them. (p. 11)

Some of Thomas’s best examples of Rowling’s foreshadowing cannot be shared without spoiling the series for those who have not yet read the books, but others include: an offhand remark that one would have to be mad to rob a certain bank foreshadows its being robbed (p. 12); a villain’s boast that “many of [his] followers would give their right hands” to help him foreshadows the actual loss of someone’s right hand (p. 139); and Rowling’s lingering on a “huge pudding with whipped cream and sugared violets” foreshadows its coming importance (p. 52).

One of the most enjoyable aspects of Repotting Harry Potter is the humor that Thomas finds in and brings to his analysis of the Potter series. For example, he describes the scene in which the Chekhov’s “gun” of a huge pudding “goes off” as the “kitchen splat heard round the dining room” (p. 52). He says, about one of the other foreshadowings noted above, “I love it when a figure of speech is rendered literal in a later scene (as long as it’s not my right hand that’s involved)” (p. 139). And his enthusiasm for Rowling’s humor is infectious:

Don’t you like the accountant joke in Chapter 6 [of the Sorcerer’s Stone]? Harry asks if the whole greater Weasley family is magic—and the answer is yes, except for that second cousin of Molly’s. He’s not only non-magic; he’s an accountant, and we “never talk about him.” (p. 17)

Much of Rowling’s humor and wit is bound up in the words she uses—and Thomas seems to love sharing every instance of such wordplay that he can find. For example, when someone offers Harry help opening a mysterious egg, he declines, responding that a “couple more days should crack it” (p. 159). When the minister of magic, Cornelius Fudge, threatens to visit the prime minister of England, Rowling writes that the British leader “had quite enough on his plate already without any extra helpings from Fudge” (p. 233). And then there is “Golpalott’s Third Law”:

As Hermione [a studious friend of Harry’s] (of course) tells . . . us, this is the law that the antidote for a blended poison will need to be more than the sum of its antidotes for each separate poison. In other words, the poisoned persons would have to gulp a lot of antidotes to get themselves unpoisoned. (p. 256, emphasis added)

Thomas also provides details of and cites external sources related to Rowling’s creation of the series, eagerly sharing details of the rich background of character names. Here, readers can see the care that Rowling took in choosing each name, regardless of the character’s relative importance to the series. For example, Harry’s owl, Hedwig, shares its name with a 13th-century saint who helped orphaned children. Caretaker Argus Filch’s bothersome cat, “Mrs. Norris,” is the name of “an obnoxious character (human not feline) in Mansfield Park” (p. 16). As for “Draco Malfoy,” the name of one of Harry’s ongoing enemies, Thomas reveals:

“Draco” has roots in Latin to words that meant dragon or serpent or other beasts; moreover, a literal Draco was a cruel lawgiver in ancient Athens; and “draconian” means extremely severe or unmerciful laws. If you know French, Rowling’s co-major at the University of Exeter, Malfoy is an Anglicization of mal foi or “bad faith” (and, if that’s not enough, Google “bad faith” with “Sartre,” and you’ll get even more). Put it together, and consider what you have standing there [when Harry meets him]: you’ve got the personification of a dragon who would mete out unmercifully cruel laws while believing in nothing and living in bad faith. (p. 10)

Thomas routinely provides such interesting information as well as recommendations for additional reading related to the details he discusses. He also relates scenes and developments in the series to moments in history—illuminating both in the process. For example, when discussing how “the magic folk remain in denial of [a villain’s] return and of the inevitable war” to come, Thomas points out that they are “comparable to British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and those who supported the policy of appeasement in the period between the two world wars” (p. 198). When a character explains what it was like to live under the reign of the villain in question, Thomas notes that it was “surely reminiscent of the numerous accounts by Soviet and German citizens who experienced Stalin’s and Hitler’s ascendancies to power, accompanied by chronic fears, constant intimidation, and, eventually, the terrors of being taken to the gulags or death camps” (p. 163).

Thomas also relates the book to his own life and encourages readers to think about how the story relates to their lives. He describes a passage in which Harry discovers a letter from his dead mother:

Harry holds a paper written in his mother’s own hand. Harry notices that he makes his “g’s” as did she—and each of these “g’s” he finds is “a friendly little wave glimpsed from behind a veil.” Harry feels that he is holding a “miraculous paper” in his hands, and he feels “joy and grief thundering in equal measure through his veins.”

Who among us can identify with this remarkable experience? I’m blessed to say that I can. . . . [S]everal years ago, after my mother’s death, my sister and I discovered a love letter our late father wrote to her from the ship that was taking him back home following World War II . . . [That] letter was absolutely transcendent—the paper itself miraculously giving us a glimpse behind a veil and bringing us joy, as well as grief. (p. 300)

Throughout the book, Thomas shows a remarkable appreciation for Rowling’s series, which he calls “unprecedented in contemporary literature in that it is equally for the child and adult, equally touching the heart and challenging the mind.” It is “solid gold,” he says, “and, like the porridge, the chair, and the bed in Goldylocks, it is ‘just right.’” (p. vii)

Although Repotting Harry Potter has a few flaws—most notably some questionable interpretations of major events—Thomas offers fans of the Harry Potter series and committed rereaders an immensely useful guide infused with infectious enthusiasm.

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