Harry Potter Best Fantasy Series Ever?

Sophie Masson argues that J.K. Rowling is a “genius” and that her Harry Potter series surpasses the work of the “great fantasy authors, such as [C.S.] Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien and Philip Pullman.”

All of these books share the great themes of good and evil and the quest for wisdom and love. Their authors also share a strong background in classical literature, myth and fairytale. They are all great storytellers. Rowling shares with Tolkien a glorious gift for what the old ringmaster called “the art of subcreation, the power to give fantasy the inner consistency of reality” and also a good eye for a satisfying ending, but thank heavens she doesn’t share with him a taste for tedious genealogies, over-solemnity or ghastly dwarf songs.

She shares with Lewis a spring-like freshness, sense of fun, broad satire and a marvellous inventiveness but, unlike him, she finished her series well: the final book in the Narnia series, The Last Battle, was a bitter disappointment to me as a child as it’s far too polemical and theme-driven. This is also true of Pullman’s much-admired His Dark Materials, which begins magnificently with Northern Lights, starts to falter in The Subtle Knife and falls in a heap in The Amber Spyglass which, mirroring the final book in the series of his bete noire, Lewis, fails to trust its characters and story and descends into preaching (of the opposite viewpoint). With Pullman, however, Rowling shares a happy talent for names, and terrific pace and timing.

As to the quality of her prose, I reckon Rowling pretty much matches Lewis: engaging, bright and child-oriented, with a great clarity and playfulness of expression, mixed with some clunky bits and some cliched moments. (Pullman and Tolkien are perhaps more consistent, more adult-oriented prose stylists, though they too have their flaws.) Her characters are archetypal but so are all the others’: fantasy thrives on the archetypes which live deep in all of us.

I know Potter only through the movies and critiques, not yet having read the books. I’m not familiar with Pullman’s work and it’s been too long (perhaps 30 years) since I read the Chronicles of Narnia series for me to have more than general impressions. I must agree with Masson on Tolkien, though: As magical as his stories were, he could have used a good editor.

via Norman Geras

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. I find the Potter books unbelievably boring – I actually think Rowling is the one who could use a better editor (as she got more successful the books became less edited – just like Clancy and King).

    It’s all a matter of taste, of course, but I wouldn’t ever put Hogwarts in the same league as Middle Earth when it comes to literary worlds.

  2. ken says:

    I count myself fortunate in that I have a son who grew up with the Potter books. He has been reading them and we have been discussing them with friends and family for ten years now. The years in between books were filled with endless discussion, debates, dissections, speculations, ruminations, and nit-picking over characters, plot lines, bad puns, clever turns of phrase, symbolism, meanings and applicability to life. I would say that the years from grade school through middle school and into high school my son and his peers have done more literary criticism then they will ever do again in their lives.

    I kind of pity those whose start with the books comes after the whole series is completed.

    But never mind: The books make great bedtime reading to young kids starting around first or second grade. Then around age 9 or 10 they pick them up themselves and will read them from cover to cover. Repeatedly.

    James, even if you found the time to read them now you will never enjoy them more than you will when you read them with your kids. Either way, enjoy.

  3. markm says:

    Yeah, i’m more of the movie goin’ type. It’s better for my time management. The Potter movies were entertaining. Actually, compared to the redo’s that H-Wood is churning out over the past couple of years the Potter series of movies has been good stuff.

  4. James Joyner says:

    James, even if you found the time to read them now you will never enjoy them more than you will when you read them with your kids. Either way, enjoy.

    I’ve got a few years to wait, then! But, yeah, I suspect you’re right. I’ve got the Chronicles of Narnia box set, the Peter Rabbit collection, the Hardy Boys, and some others saved for that occasion, though.

  5. Anderson says:

    I’ve read lots of fantasy, particularly the pre-1980s stuff, and while the Rowling books are much more kid-lit than fantasy-lit, they’re clever, entertaining, and well-plotted. I admire her flair for invention — owl post, the Quick-Quotes Quill, etc., etc. — and how it didn’t flag over 7 books.

    Re: the “they stopped editing her” bit, why do people say that? Because the books got longer? Could it just be that she had more to put in so that she could avoid running into an 8th book? I’ve never felt bored with any part of the series, and in fact the 5th book was my favorite.

  6. another matt says:

    Tolkien and Rowling should not even appear together in the same sentence…dolh!

    Maybe I am just a Sci/Fi/Fantasy snob, but I don’t consider the Potter series as serious Fantasy. Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad Rowling wrote them and that young adults today are actually reading something as a result, but I view the series as more entertainment than literary work.

  7. It depends on what you mean by best. It is certainly the most popular and has a relatively unique ability to appeal to a broader range of people than just about anything I can think of, starting with pre-teens.

    I don’t think J. K. Rowling was writing for the approval of Harold Bloom. She wouldn’t have minded his approval, but getting his approval and reaching so many people are probably contradictory aims. Sometimes, such criticism reminds me of Professor Gilderoy Lockhart, whose fame rested on the risks and achievements of others.

    I liked it. My kids liked it. I doubt that when I die I will have read it as often as I have The Lord of the Rings, the Foundation Trilogy, Dune, etc., but that’s a matter of taste. Maybe having kids of the right age has a strong influence on how much you appreciate the series.

  8. Anderson says:

    but I view the series as more entertainment than literary work

    Sure, but then, how much fantasy has literary value? LeGuin, Vance, some Zelazny (my age is showing). Ditto SF.

    As series go, the Potter books sustain interest pretty well.

  9. G.A.Phillips says:

    Not even close, I find the potter books very copied boring and unoriginal and the movies in the same way lacking, but here are some of my favorite authors. and my candidates for best fantasy series ever.

    Michael Moorcock, Elric saga,a true study of evil and evil.

    Douglas Adams, hitchhikers, dude you got your towel?

    Robert Asprin, Myth Adventures,its probably one of the funniest and most well developed multiple character driven things I think you will ever read.

    Joel Rosenberg,the Guardians of the flame, yes deep down I wish D&D was real!!

    Gene Wolfe, the book of the new sun, for just being of literary value.

    Stephen Donaldson, Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, for shear mind blowing vividness of description along the journey.

    Roger Zelazny, the Chronicles of amber, for best dis-functional family!

    David Eddings, The Belgariad and The Malloreon, for best sweeping epics.