Dispatches: Harry Potter and Hallowed Death

With thanks to M.A., who let me know that I’m not too cool for the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry… see?

Harry Potter?  I know, as a self-respecting member of my peer group, I’m supposed to remind everyone that they should be spending their Potter time revisiting something more important – maybe Elements of the Philosophy of Right, or Jude the Obscure?  Or, as Alex Balk drolly tells us, Harry Potter is only for children or feeble-minded adults – meanwhile he’s reading Michael Ondaatje’s latest (damn, son, that’s supposed to be better?).  There’s also this polite version of the dodge, made by formidable HT of That Was Probably Awkward: “I tried to read it, but gave up after twenty pages and am now ensconced in William T. Vollman’s amazing Europe Central.”  Well, la di da, HT.

We can’t all be that brainy and stylish.  Some of us have become addicted to these books somewhere along the way.  In my case it happened after six years of studiously, hiply ignoring the things, until a Potter-mad friend took me to the third movie.  Alfonso Cuaron’s Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is a great children’s film, convincing and complete.  Most impressive to me was the movie’s unabashedly frightening, depressing and even fatalistic tone: from the opening image of Harry reading at night by wandlight to the Munchian creatures (“dementors”) who board his train, there was a visceral, dank sense of fearfulness in it that made its happier moments feel that much more thrillingly earned.  At that point I went out and read all the books, and while the first two were pretty simple, I (like so many other “adults”) found books three through five enthralling.  The other movies, too (again excepting the first two), are particularly impressive in the quality of their execution and in the consistent tone imposed by their producers, even while directors come and go, even though their attempts to adapt seven-hundred page novels for the screen necessitate near-fatal overdoses of plot.

The series’ setting is not static; it’s a slow zoom outwards that reveals more and more of the wizarding world, and as J.K. Rowling continually enlarges it, it comes to resemble our own (often with frustrating new layers of bureaucracy and political pettiness).  Through this expansion, the novels provide to adults both a return to the simplicities of childhood, and a return to that adolescent feeling of growth, of increasing knowledge and sophistication: the optimistic mastery of youth.  The books also explore the following laudable theme of the bildungsroman: growing up involves demystifying the idea of authority, whether personal or institutional, and learning to act for oneself.  Harry’s burgeoning awareness that everyone, from the Minister of Magic to the beloved, avuncular Sirius to the big Daddy, Dumbledore himself, is flawed and human is the mark of real change in the books.  This is the true story arc, not the episodic pursuit of the monomaniacally evil Voldemort. 

Politically, however, the heart of the struggle in Harry Potter is between Voldemort’s racialist love of “purebloods” and the liberal multiculturalism of Harry and his allies.  It’s a reassuring if somewhat superficial multiculturalism, featuring many token characters (Cho, the Patil twins, Kingsley, Seamus), none of whom betrays any difference other than the sound of their names.  Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows even includes a subplot recounting young Dumbledore’s regetted flirtation with fascism.  It’s hard not to read this as a warning about and revision of the pastoral longings of much fantasy literature: for instance, in J.R.R. Tolkien or C.S. Lewis, the sense that monstrous technology wielded by subhuman invaders is to blame for the loss of the world’s innocence.  Or consider Roald Dahl, another fantastist with strongly nativist politics.  Rowling does inherit most of the elements of Tolkien-style Christian allegory, modernizing them around the edges and thankfully dispensing with the donnish snobbery.  But the real difference between her and her predecessors is her willingness to think about what happens after the books end, beyond the fantasy.  It’s the parents’ perspective, and genuinely new in the genre.

That’s why, at first, Deathly Hallows seems not quite up to the previous standard.  Actually, parts of it really aren’t up to the previous standard.  It often reads like a communiqué to faithful cultist-curators who have grown up (or gotten old) obsessing over the books, rather than with a sense of fresh invitation and invention.  The massive popularity of the series, which must have encouraged Rowling to Take Herself Too Seriously, may be to blame.  (And don’t think that old “It’s only a kid’s book!” excuse flies – compare it to her best books, Prisoner of Azkaban and Order of the Phoenix.)  In Deathly Hallows, after five hundred pages of strangely penitent plot starvation comes an emetic span in which the main storylines, and masses of other loose ends, are tied up within a hundred pages: plot bulimia.  And when the novel does move, it’s far too often by narrative fiat, or as Sam Anderson puts it: “Rowling has cranked the “coincidence” dial up to eleven and is now flagrantly abusing her “imminent-death-thwarted-at-the-last-possible-moment” privileges.”  Actually, you know what?  Just read Sam’s entire reading diary for a nice account of the problems with the novel.

Rowling has always delighted in creating rules, standards and procedures: this curse is unforgivable, this Vow unbreakable, this spell doesn’t work in this location, this is a Horcrux, that a Hallow.  But she never resolves Deathly Hallows’ endless crises with the intricate feats of logical navigation that all these impediments make you expect.  Instead, the plot moves ahead in the time-honored but facile way of bad novels: coincidental appearances, secret passageways,  and unexpected reversals.  It’s as if Rowling is reminding us that these are fantasies and she’s in charge, playing with events in an almost childlike way.  Which, anyway, fits the logic of these novels: encroaching adulthood is a form of death.  For Harry, this is literally true.  And for the adults: Harry’s parents are killed at twenty-one, his older friends (Sirius, Lupin) have their best days behind them, and the rest are schoolteachers or parents of Harry’s classmates – incorrigibly second order.  Of Rowling’s two most textured characters, Severus Snape and Hermione Granger, one reaches death after a life that never surpasses a childhood love’s intensity, the other reaches adulthood after a precocious childhood… and we learn no more (sniff!).  Rowling’s first allegiance is to children: we merely eavesdrop on something that belongs to them.

The promise of death, though, has always animated these books.  Deathly Hallows’ first epigraph, from Aeschylus, begins with the following lines:

Oh, the torment bred in the race,
the grinding scream of death
and the stroke that hits the vein,
the hemorrhage none can staunch, the grief,
the curse no man can bear.

The epigraph is deliciously scary, but not surprising: we’ve always known that one of the three friends would die.  Wondering which one it would be provided most of the suspense, since you knew the result of the good versus evil conflict wasn’t going to surprise you.  Finally discovering that they all survive felt like a cheat, a failure of nerve.  Thinking about it again, though, this might be a more generous, more brilliant ending.  For Rowling is a most prosaic of fantasists: she exults more in the invention and naming of magical pranks than in the political victories of her adults.  Her battle scenes and final confrontations are less convincing than her detailing of school culture.  Heroism, in Harry Potter, is a mantle to be put back down and forgotten as soon as things are safe.  And with the epilogue, Rowling has made clear that her characters, having become mere adults, should make room for their own children’s fantasies and marvels, rather than prolonging their own.  It disappoints the reader because the dramatic death of Harry or Hermione would prolong the fantasy, in the form of mourning a beloved character who will always remain seventeen.  You could stay a kid forever that way.  Instead, Rowling, by letting them survive, has written a more mature, more parental ending.

Most fantasy twins the reader and main character: both simultaneously discover and explore an unsuspected world.  For the reader, it lies inside the book, for the protagonist, beyond the Shire, or at a faraway school, or, in Lewis’ brilliant metaphor, at the back of a wardrobe, between coats spread apart like pages.  Losing oneself in the other-world is magic, and fantasy literature’s metaphor for the reading process is the plot, a journey to the end.  When one completes the book, the magic, as it must, ends and real life beckons – and that lies outside the purview of such books.  Rowling, a late and self-conscious practitioner of her genre, includes the closing of the book in her book.  Harry grows up, becomes a dad himself.  The quest over, he disenchants himself, and, like the rest of us, goes on living.

The rest o’ my Dispatches.