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."
"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
"She had a bossy sort of voice, lots of bushy brown hair and rather large
Professor McGonagall, meeting the
first-years at the
castle door: "She had a very stern face and
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
"'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
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
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
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
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."
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.
"He looked simply too big to be allowed."
Dudley "was so large his bottom
drooped over either side of the kitchen chair."
the rigid completeness of victory when
Harry snatches the
Snitch at the
"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
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
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