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Essays

Descriptive Words
in the Harry Potter Books

by Rrishi Raote

Most authors expend substantial effort on description, describing scenes, events or characters so that readers will be able to visualise them. The best descriptions often offer no more than hints, keywords, a trained butler's unobtrusive opening of a particular door. The reader goes through that door himself or herself.

Rowling, apparently, is a master of this form of butling. I noticed fairly early that her descriptions are slyly non-descriptive. She gives what she wants to describe a name, and leaves the rest up to the reader. The following examples are all from PS.

Consider her description of Hagrid when he bursts into the Hut-on-the-Rock. He's large, hairy, and has beetle-bright eyes. He has a large overcoat and a pink umbrella.

Now Draco Malfoy, in Madam Malkin's the first time: "a boy with a pale, pointed face."

Mr Ollivander: "An old man was standing before them, his wide pale eyes shining like moons through the gloom of the shop."

Ron Weasley, at King's Cross: "tall, thin and gangling, with freckles, big hands and feet and a long nose." Oh yes, and there was the little black smudge on his nose.

Hermione, on the Hogwarts Express: "She had a bossy sort of voice, lots of bushy brown hair and rather large front teeth."

Professor McGonagall, meeting the first-years at the castle door: "She had a very stern face and Harry's first thought was that this was not someone to cross."

Snape, at the first Hogwarts dinner: "a teacher with greasy black hair, a hooked nose and sallow skin."

In each case, this is more or less all that we ever hear about the appearance of these characters. What Rowling gives the reader is an assemblage of discrete physical characteristics; the reader fills in the gaps, literally. For example, the description of Hermione made me think instantly of a woman in Asterix in Corsica (p.9, if you're interested! British, big teeth, bushy brown hair, and likes to cook in boiling water... I ask you). What Rowling's reader later finds out about the characters is based on what they say and how they behave.

Here's a revealing example: the goblin outside Gringotts. "'Yeah, that's a goblin,' said Hagrid quietly." True, swarthy face and long fingers are mentioned, but that one line of Hagrid's is sufficient -- and oddly exciting.

Why does this work? Does this fragmented listing of a few topographical features of each object or character reflect the way we actually apprehend someone or something the first time we come across them? Most people on first contact would note eyes, face, hands, clothes, the outward signs of what goes on inside. Rowling offers only a brief impression of the person before zooming ahead with the story. The one occasion on which she breaks this rule is in PS1, when she describes Albus Dumbledore down to his "high-heeled, buckled boots."

The five senses, used as a tool in description: Rowling's world is unusually muffled in all except visual terms. For example, references to smell or odour are infrequent. What does Hagrid's hut smell like? What do pupils smell in the Potions classroom? What does it really feel like to ride a broomstick? Why do Chocolate Frogs taste like plain old Muggle chocolate?

And: Rowling's unadventurous adjectives. Fat, brown, mouldy, huge, horrible, blank, cold, hot, etc. Rather bland fare. Conversely, her verbs and nouns are almost unbelievably apposite... Urging, squinting, swishing, flickering, scrambling, etc. They give the texts forward motion, the urgency of action.

One answer stems from the fact that Rowling maintains a single temporal front of action. She does not skip back and forth, play the part of the omniscient narrator, or switch points of view -- except for PS1 and GF1. The action is where Harry is, and Rowling follows him like a ghost at his shoulders. We know what he knows, and see what he sees. In the first book, where Harry and we readers are both introduced to the sights and characters of the magical world, Rowling does not need to expend energy (her own and that of the reader) on describing Harry's feelings. Instead, she borrows the reader's astonishment for Harry. In other words, the reader reads his or her own feelings into Harry, and feels what Harry must feel, wordlessly. "Harry wished he had about eight more eyes." (PS5) So does the reader.

Harry is very much a visual person. He relies on his sight, despite his glasses; think of his role on the Quidditch field. Sight offers the largest amount of information in the shortest time of any of our senses, a fact a Seeker would certainly appreciate. Rowling may be relying on her subtle inclusion of the reader to supply imaginatively the other details of scene, smell, temperature, etc. that validate and complete her vision.

Another possible reason is that to give something an adjective is often to judge it. The judgement is the author's; it may not be that of the reader. Rowling's use of simple, direct adjectives prevents the sort of discordant jerk that would come of describing Hagrid's hut as smelling of old sweat and hippogriff droppings. For a child like Harry smell, or even dirt, is no basis for judgement.

On the other hand, when judgement is called for, Rowling produces "Sir Properly Decapitated-Podmore." (CS8) Rowling's names are highly allusive, and stand in as adjectives permanently attached to their bearers. Who could respect a Goyle? Cuddle a Snape? Not have their teeth set on edge by a Skeeter? And you just have to know that Peskipiksi Pesternomi lacks the punch that will make it work.

Sometimes, adjective, verb and noun come together brilliantly: think of the ultra-spare "rush of fierce joy" that fully describes Harry's feelings the first time he flies. Here are a few others. PS1: Hagrid: "He looked simply too big to be allowed." CS1: Dudley "was so large his bottom drooped over either side of the kitchen chair." PA15: the rigid completeness of victory when Harry snatches the Snitch at the Quidditch Final: "Harry soared above the crowd, an odd ringing in his ears." And the return from Tom Riddle's grave at the end of GF35, when Harry lands on the grass holding onto Cedric and the Triwizard Cup. All his senses are heightened and jangling, he smells, feels, hears and sees all together, producing a disjointed crash of sensation that transcends description.

But this is rare. Emotional moments (usually fear or shock) are most often described with familiar literary devices, particularly what list member Amy Z. is tempted to call "internal kinesthesia": Harry's stomach lurches, his insides fill with ice or lead, his heart skips.

Summary (sort of): the scrambling, forward pace of the HP books owes as much to details of style and language as it does to plot. Or rather, the stern utilitarianism with which Rowling develops her plots applies equally to her choice of words.

© 2001 Rrishi Raote

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