As a fan of Colin Duriez (a J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis expert) and a fan of the Harry Potter series, reading Field Guide to Harry Potter was a no-brainer. Based on Duriez's track record exploring the interrelated lives of Tolkien and C.S. Lewis (my review), I expected a carefully-researched and penetrating look into the life of J.K. Rowling and the intriguing themes in her books. I haven't been disappointed.
Duriez opens the book with a biographical chapter on Rowling. It's brief, but quite well done, and a couple details about her writing ethic especially grabbed me. See if you can spot them. In these excerpts, "Jo" is "J.K."--at her publisher's suggestion, she repackaged her name with the idea that it wouldn't be a turn-off to male readers.
Whenever Jessica dosed off to sleep in her baby buggy, Jo would rush to a convenient cafe and write furiously... Every evening while Jessica slept, Jo wrote. On top of this she had to key in the whole book without help, living as she was on a single parent's welfare benefit... Old habits die hard for writers. Large tracts of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows were penned in longhand sitting in Edinburgh cafes, customers unaware of her identity. One cafe became so much of her life in 2006 that one night she dreamed of its waiters and waitresses.
Did you catch that? Not only did Rowling write the Harry Potter books as a parent (and a single parent for part of the time), she also frequented tea rooms and cafes--the coffee shops of England. Inspiring, instructive.
Now I'd simply like to highlight some of Duriez's research and commentary to give you an idea of how his Field Guide delivers. This is from the chapter on "J.K. Rowling's Spiritual Worldview."
It may come as a surprise to learn that J.K. Rowling denies believing in magic, and equally surprising to discover that her stories emerge out of a recognizable Christian faith. Before the publication of [Deathly Hallows] made her faith clear, this revelation was buried in the enormous number of interviews she has given since Harry Potter became a household name... [An] interviewer, in Canada, asked her directly about her spiritual beliefs, particularly if she was in fact a Christian. Her reply was equally direct:
Yes, I am... Which seems to offend the religious right far worse than if I said I thought there was no God. Every time I've been asked if I believe in God, I've said yes, because I do, but no one ever really has gone any more deeply into it than that, and I have to say that does suit me, because if I talk too freely about that I think the intelligent reader, whether 10 or 60, will be able to guess what's coming in the books.
Were you surprised? Finally, some comparisons that make me think about rereading the Harry Potter books sooner rather than later.
The Harry Potter stories, with the attendant movies, have been phenomenally successful aruond the globe. The fantasies of J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis have enjoyed a similar planetwide success. Though there are important differences in the fantasies of Tolkien, Lewis, and Jo Rowling, there are dramatic similarities in the values embedded in their works.
As a Lewis and Tolkien scholar, this is a statement Duriez is well-qualified to make. If you wonder just how those similarities emerge, you'll thoroughly enjoy his Field Guide to Harry Potter. Personally, the book has increased my enjoyment of J.K. Rowling's work, and gave me a greater appreciation for what she's accomplished.
** Field Guide to Harry Potter gets two of three stars, making it well worth your time. If I were to chart this book on the infamous 10 point bell curve, where "10" represents my favorite books of all time, Duriez's perspicacious, clever scholarship would earn a 7.5.
Yes, this one made the Master Book List. See also my review of the Harry Potter series.