Column What's the worst thing you can say about Harry Potter?
How about claiming that spells are rather like computer programs? Or how about saying that Slytherin, the school house for all the bad guys, is a "cliche of fantasy"? Or maybe, pointing out that the name of Alecto (the female half of the brother-and-sister Death Eater gang in Half Blood Prince) is actually a name borrowed from one of the three Furies, the Eumenides of Greek mythology? David Langford says all these things in The End Of Harry Potter.
Yes, JK Rowling has opened the door, and the world's fans are working themselves into a frenzy about the Deathly Hallows. And (as Rowling remarked disapprovingly, "the first distant rumblings of the weirdness that usually precedes a Harry Potter publication can be heard on the horizon".
And if you go to any bookshop, UK or US, you'll find a table of Harry Potter books, all written by fans, enthusiasts and critics - and prominent among them, The End Of Harry Potter. Which, it seems, has been singled out for Rowling's most magisterial disapproval.
But why? Her official complaint was: she didn't want people to ruin the surprise by purchasing spoilers. A "spoiler" (outside motor racing circles) is a comment by someone who has read a book or watched a movie, which gives away the plot to someone who hasn't. And Rowling said: "I want the readers who have, in many instances, grown up with Harry, to embark on the last adventure with him without knowing where they are going."
Wow. You couldn't ask for a better endorsement of a book than an official recognition of its contents as a spoiler, by the only person who actually knows what the plot of Deathly Hallows will be. Which is a shame, because actually I don't think it is a spoiler. I did try to ask Langford himself this one but, although he hangs out in the SF community on CIX and answers such questions quickly, I probably asked this one too late at night...
Langford, obviously, is quite pleased with the encomium. "JK Rowling urging all her fans not to buy my book? Blimey," he commented in his 27 May entry on his "Ansible" site; "I never said people shouldn't buy hers..."
If Langford has tumbled to the truth of the plot of the final episode in book seven, you can be sure it isn't by espionage. It's pure, expert pedantry and frankly, if you want my sceptical opinion, it's too true for comfort.
But it's not the fact that it's a spoiler that is likely to have offended Rowling. It's the fact that the veteran "wit, slightly deaf person, raconteur, and finest swordsman in all of Christendom*" has really done the dirty on Harry Potter, and exposed the stage magician's finest tricks.
You can't easily claim that nobody has been able to uncover the mechanics of Rowling before. There are literally dozens of fan sites, and their analysis has been comprehensive. In amongst the daft, ill-informed or plain stupid comments there, there are several astute analyses - and Langford quotes several of these, attributing them to fans and fan-fic writers. But the tricky part is "in amongst" - the problem of any user-generated content site is that most of the users are, to put it gently, clueless. For every pearl, you have to eat many a dozen stale oysters.
No stale oysters here in The End of Harry Potter.
Instead, the gentlest of mockery, even when it's intended as praise. Take Potterist naming: I mean, come on. Are these names? or nicknames? or what? "Sirius Black, Harry's Godfather, gets an early mention in the first chapter of Philosopher's Stone, and we accept his forename as just another slightly odd wizard name..." says Langford, going on to point out that since Sirius is the name of the Dog-star and his name is Black, and his distinguishing characteristic is that he can turn himself into a Black Dog... well yeah, right.
And Rowling probably impressed a lot of people by naming the manic anti-Muggle activist Phineas Nigellus Black (Sirius's ancestor) but you can't hide esoteric mysteries from Langford. "...Seems to have taken his forename from the intolerant priest Phinehas in the Bible book Exodus." In that story, Phinehas punished a mixed-race relationship by the somewhat Gordian procedure of killing both partners to the relationship.
Another "coincidence" where the name anticipated the personality; and Langford lists all such coincidences. Professor Sprout, teacher of herbology? Oh, sure. And Professor Vector, teaching mathematics. And Lupin, a name which contains Lupus (Latin for wolf) whose first name, Remus, coincides with one of the two wolf-fed twins who founded Rome? - how amazing that he ended up being bitten by (and therefore becoming) a werewolf!
It's lovely, scholarly stuff. I can quite see why it won't seem like high praise to Rowling, but I learned a lot. And for an inveterate Spooneriser like myself, it's hard to believe that I never spotted "Sturm und Drang" in the school Durmstrang - but I didn't. And it's far from being the only enlightenment I got from the names chapter.
So much for the intellectual stuff (I hear you urge), but what about the plot?
If Langford hasn't dug out the plot, I'll eat my hat. He has picked up on every plotting device Rowling uses, and analyses them, showing how her mind works. And I'll tell you: if I wrote a seven book sequence which was such a mystery to so many people, I think I'd rather undress in the middle of the Albert Hall during a televised Prom concert, than have my secrets exposed quite so incisively.