Harry Potter and other killer serials


Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, book coverJust finished a headlong dash through the 11 novels of C.S. Forester's legendary Horatio Hornblower series, and even as the addled mud of my mind swirls with cannon fire and sea mist and the epic clash of British ships against the brooding tyrant Napoleon Bonaparte (that cruel diminutive first draft of Hitler), I pause to contemplate the pleasures of reading series of books, the parades of linked stories that ultimately compose vast novels of thousands of pages.

Are there not many subtle pleasures in series prose? The realisation, at the end of Book One, that you have stumbled on a gripping tale, beautifully told, and there are many alluring islands ahead to be visited; the happy workmanlike feeling of being in the middle of the series, and having a firm grasp of the cast of characters, and knowing there are books enough waiting for you that the summer will whiz past like a nighthawk; the dichotomous sense of hungrily wanting to know what's going to happen while mourning quietly that there are only a few pages left in the whole saga; the sigh of satisfaction at the very end, not only that you have actually read 12 consecutive novels and savoured every moment of the journey, but that you now have, let's say, Captain Hornblower, or Legolas, or Lyra Belacqua, or V. I. Warshawski, or (God help us all) Sir Harry Flashman as a shadowy friend the rest of your life, as yet another example of the mysterious awkward grace of the human animal, because the best fictional characters are utterly true, isn't that so?

Braces of books like John Steinbeck's undeservedly uncelebrated masterpieces Cannery Row and Sweet Thursday, trilogies like Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials, quartets like Paul Scott's haunting account of the end of the British Raj in India or J. R. R. Tolkien's masterpiece The Lord of the Rings (in which The Hobbit is really the opening book, yes?), sprints of seven like C.S. Lewis' Narnia novels or the tale of Mr H. Potter of 4 Privet Drive, sprawling piles like the late George MacDonald's 12 hilarious Flashman novels, or incredible mountains like the more than 50 Inspector Maigret novels by Georges Simenon — it's a fascinating subgenre of fiction, the series.

And while many series are carried along by a single (and singular) character, others have immense circles of casts, layers of voices, hints and intimations of endless more tales to be told.

And maybe this too is a secret of great literature, that the best novels are those that give a reader the sense of seeing and hearing only part of the world created within those covers. In a really fine book, especially an enormous novel like Fraser's collected Flashmania, you get a powerful sense of the tumultuous thrum of people beyond the margins of the page, characters walking away to live their lives unaccounted by the present author, a thousand stories beneath the one on the page ...

Another virtue of the series, it seems to me, is that very often this is where young readers enter the seething and delightful universe of books, in a way that sets them up for life as readers. The many wonderful books you read as a small child are not read with quite the same intent fervour that my teenage daughter, for example, has consumed a book a day when she is on a tear through one of the many series of teenage romance novels she appears to be reading — I am never quite sure of their titles and authors, as they vanish so fast that all I see is their shocking pink and yellow covers. All teenage romance novels have covers in nuclear colours, why is that?

Anyway, I sing the pleasures of seriesousness, from modest twins (even if slightly forced into companionship, like Truman Capote's terrific The Thanksgiving Visitor and A Christmas Memory) all the way to the inexhaustible ocean of, say, Agatha Mary Clarissa Miller Christie, who sold more books than everyone in history except the anonymous geniuses who wrote the Bible and the retired actor from Warwickshire.

To dive into a series, and find yourself absorbed, and flip back to the frontispiece, where you discover there are eight more novels like this — that is yet another of the quiet but delicious delights of the world of books, a world that at its very best reveals the deepest bones and sweetest songs of this world, don't you think?


Brian DoyleBrian Doyle is the editor of Portland Magazine at the University of Portland.

Topic tags: philip pullman, His Dark Materials, Tolkien, Lord of the Rings, CS Lews, narnia, harry potter, rowling



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Existing comments

And don't forget the hilarious series by Tom Sharpe and his character 'Wilt'. A real poke in the eye of the Afrikaaners and their apartheid.

Adrian John Robson | 21 October 2009  

What about David Eddings'two series - the Belgariad and the Mallorean?

donna brider | 21 October 2009  

‘Another virtue of the series … is that very often this is where young readers enter the seething and delightful universe of books.’

Yes. Oh yes. As a boy of about 12, I remember rationing myself on my visits to the library. I’d take out only one Hornblower book a week, for fear that the pleasure would run out too fast. Of course, Forester wrote other books – I still remember The Gun, about the Napoleonic wars in Spain.

But Brian has omitted three notable series from his list. The first is Patrick O’Brian’s Jack Aubrey novels, really a roman fleuve. (Master and Commander, made into a film, is the first.) This is Hornblower for adults – with even greater mastery of character, description and pace, and a finer sense of humour.

The second is Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond saga. These are huge doorstops of books, and you need to be on her wavelength: she was a leisurely, discursive writer who seldom felt the need to hurry the action, and she had faults as a character painter. But once in her world, you’re likely to be an enchanted prisoner forever.

And the third: does anybody read Anthony Powell’s great Dance to the Music of Time nowadays?

David B | 21 October 2009  

Loved the article, but who is the retired actor from Warwickshire?

joe McGirr | 21 October 2009  

Joe McGirr ... that'd be Shakespeare. I had to scratch my head then do a google search before I clicked.

Charles Boy | 21 October 2009  

One of the subtle pleasures of writing for Eureka Street is the education you receive from readers who are a lot smarter than this writer. Sharpe, Eddings, Dunnett -- all new to me, and away I go to the library, humming. As for my boy Patrick O'Brian, I have just had the exquisite pleasure of opening Master and Commander last night, reading the first twenty pages, and thinking happily This is going to be a delight. Ahhhhhhhhh.

Brian Doyle | 22 October 2009  

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