In the past 20 years, J.K. Rowling has become a household name, appealing to children and adults alike with her wildly famous Harry Potter series. Potter themed restaurants, amusements parks, websites, video games, and countless posters, t-shirts, and mugs continue to make millions, even seven years after the release of the final installment. With 450 million Harry Potter books, translated into 73 languages, currently in print, a “Harry Potter virgin” (assuming there are any left) might assume that, upon picking up the series’ first installment, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, they are about to read Faulkner-worthy prose. They would, however, be mistaken. Rowling’s novels tend to make use of the plain language, so much so that some critics refer to her writing as “primitive.” Is Rowling’s use of the plain style a stroke of literary magic, or was Harry Potter’s success the result of nothing more than the use of a good luck charm?
Plain language is used in favor of the official style to communicate ideas clearly and concisely. Its intention is to make absolutely certain that the reader understands what is trying to be said. Rowling achieved that level of understanding throughout Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.
“’Hello, dear,’ she said. ‘First time at Hogwarts? Ron’s new, too.’
She pointed at the last and youngest of her sons. He was tall, thin, and gangling, with freckles, big hands and feet, and a long nose.
‘Yes,’ said Harry. ‘The thing is – the thing is, I don’t know how to –‘
‘How to get onto the platform?’ she said kindly, and Harry nodded.
‘Not to worry,’ she said. ‘All you have to do is walk straight at the barrier between platforms nine and ten. Don’t stop and don’t be scared you’ll crash into it, that’s very important. Best do it at a bit of a run if you’re nervous. Go on, go now before Ron.’
‘Er – okay,’ said Harry.
He pushed his trolley around and stared at the barrier. It looked very solid.”
This excerpt of Harry’s first time boarding Platform 9 ¾ reads at a 3.2 grade level and has a Flesch-Kincaid reading ease of 95.2 out of 100. Rowling uses the active voice to describe the happenings of Platform 9 ¾. The active voice is much more forward and uncomplicated than other verb usage, making it perfect for inexperienced readers who are still building their language skills. She also writes in very short, plain sentences, like “It looked very solid.” This phrase, in particular, also draws in some of the creative style, since Rowling is not only trying to convey the solid-ness of the wall but also Harry’s apprehension about charging head first into sturdy bricks.
This initial first impression of Ron Weasley is also largely dominated by the plain style. Rowling doesn’t describe him in any complicated manner. The reader can immediately create a mental image of Ron without having to interpret complex metaphors to picture his tall, thin, “ganglyness” and large nose. As any person who’s ever even heard of Harry Potter (so, essentially everyone with basic language capabilities) knows, Ron Weasley will become a central character throughout the entirety of the series. He will be described many times as he grows and changes, but Rowling’s first description of him will always ring true, allowing readers to feel that, even before seeing him come to life in the movies, they could pick him out if he happened to be walking next to them on the street.
Rowling seems to have made a conscious effort to make all of her characters easy to build in her readers’ imaginations. When creating the troll that nearly killed Hermione in the girls’ lavatory, she used several analogies to commonly known objects.
“It was a horrible sight. Twelve feet tall, its skin was a dull, granite gray, its great lumpy body like a boulder with its small bald held perched on top like a coconut. It had short legs thick as tree trunks with flat, horny feet. The smell coming from it was incredible.”
Again, the creative and plain styles collide in Rowling’s writing. Analogies, of course, are a creative strategy, but they are also plain the way that Rowling used them since she compared the troll to such typical objects. Nearly all children have had some experience with boulders, coconuts, and tree trunks and can therefore use their prior knowledge to create an image of the troll in their minds.
To adults reading the Harry Potter novels, this could seem like the work of a child, rather than a grown woman. It was this level of accessibility, however, that got Rowling’s novel published in the first place. After being rejected by 13 publishers who said that her book was far too long for any child to read, one publisher decided to hand off the manuscript to his eight-year-old daughter, who was in the second or third grade at the time. She loved the story and begged for more, ultimately bringing Harry’s universe to life. With the massive popularity the Harry Potter franchise has gained, it’s easy to forget who the stories were originally intended for – children.
However, this is clearly not a “Dick and Jane” book. The plot is entirely complex, and its complexity only increases throughout the series. Rowling has gone so in depth with the world of Hogwarts that it would be nearly impossible for a reader to retain everything, even having read all of the books. Entire websites and encyclopedias have been devoted to delving into what is now referred to as the Potter-verse. Now, imagine that Rowling had written like William Faulkner. How would anyone have ever understood the books? At many points, plain language was necessary solely to be sure that the reader is following the inner workings of Rowling’s mind. With their elaborate family trees and distinct voices and interests, her characters could be real people.
It’s fairly obvious that any successful children’s book must be geared toward children in terms of its reading level. Despite this, critics still nitpick Rowling’s writing, asserting that, even for a third grade level, it is not well written. A main complaint that book reviewers have is Rowling’s excessive use of adverbs, and they do have a point. Just on page 23 of the book, Rowling wrote, “Harry put in hopefully,” “said Aunt Petunia slowly,” “Dudley began to cry loudly,” and “said Aunt Petunia frantically.” Although adverbs themselves are not inherently plain, the way Rowling uses them seems to line up with the plain style. They are intended to describe the verb to give the reader a more accurate interpretation of what is happening between the characters with only one word as opposed to several. Many may make the argument that a book, even one intended for children, of such length should be higher quality writing.
Rowling used her staple adverbs far less frequently as the series progressed, and by the seventh novel, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, her descriptions became much more creative and mature. For example, “’That’s Xenophilius Lovegood, he’s the father of a friend of ours,’ said Ron. His pugnacious tone indicated that they were not about to laugh at Xenophilius, despite clear provocation.” In Sorcerer’s Stone, Rowling typically used only one word to explain the tone with which a character spoke. In Deathly Hallows, she expanded upon these explanations, making them much less plain and raising the grade level. This shift seems to make sense, however, because, as Harry and his friends approach the age of 17, making them legal adults in the wizarding world, the books’ themes become more mature and stray from juvenile fiction into young adult fiction. Is it possible that Harry Potter should never have been intended for children, especially as the themes evolve and become more mature, resembling horror or science fiction genres?
Themes become darker and grittier as beloved characters are murdered and the Terrific Threesome begins to doubt their worth and ability. Even as the series developed, Rowling never forgot her intended audience, and she returned to the childlike innocence of the first novel in Deathly Hallows’ epilogue, during which all the characters get their happy endings and the language returns to plain, ending the novel with a straightforward, “The scar had not pained Harry in years. All was well.”
J.K. Rowling’s use of the plain style in her novels makes her books widely accessible, adding to the popularity of the Harry Potter series. Harry Potter stands out among classic literature in that it’s not made up of long, complicated, metaphorically resonant sentences. The Harry Potter frenzy was driven by the series’ plot, and Rowling’s strategic use of plain language made her audience larger than anyone could have ever imagined. Although the plain style allows for clearer and deeper connections between readers and characters as well as an uncomplicated understanding of a storyline that develops to become rather complex, could Rowling have taken a different approach to improve the quality of the novels? Regardless of opinion, it is undeniable that simple as it may seem upon first glance, Rowling used language to create a story that enchanted millions and became one of the most successful authors of our time.
By Elena Montanye