August 12, 2007

The Religious Penumbra

Although Rowling draws on both Christian and mythological themes, the Potterverse isn’t a religious place. This much is well known. But what are we to make of passages like the following (book seven, pages 74 to 75):

“How do you feel, Georgie?” whispered Mrs. Weasley.
George’s fingers groped for the side of his head.
“Saintlike,” he murmured.
“What’s wrong with him?” croaked Fred, looking terrified. “Is his mind affected?”
“Saintlike,” repeated George, opening his eyes and looking up at his brother. “You see … I’m holy. Holey, Fred, geddit?
Mrs. Weasley sobbed harder than ever. Color flooded Fred’s pale face.
“Pathetic,” he told George. “Pathetic! With the whole wide world of ear-related humor before you, you go for holey?”

The reference is unintelligible unless you know a little about Christianity. George knows about saints, and he expects his audience to know about them, too. This passage is either evidence that wizards know more about Muggle culture than they usually seem to, or a rare instance of Rowling slipping up.

August 2, 2007

The Age of Innocence and the Age of Anxiety

It is theoretically possible but practically impossible to read the Harry Potter books as intended. There’s a steady upward progression in maturity through the series. From books one through five (which had to be set in 11.5-point type, rather than 12), each is longer than the one before, and also more demanding of its readers. After book five, Rowling eased up a bit on the length, but also set the “dark themes” dial even higher.

Let’s look at the bodies for an example. Book four’s signature death is Cedric Diggory, a nice boy but not a central character. Book five’s is Sirius Black, a fan favorite. Book six takes away Dumbledore, but he also suffers first, in a particularly harrowing scene in the horcrux cave. And book seven is, of course, a veritable bloodbath.

In light of all this, the most appropriate age for a reader is probably Harry’s age: a moving target. Book one is a nice read for an 11-year-old; 17-year-olds seem about the right age to grok book seven. You can be off a bit in either direction. The dementors in book three probably won’t give a reasonably stout-hearted 11-year-old nightmares; the books have delighted not just 17-year-olds but also 70-year-olds. But there are definitely some losses as you get farther out. You really have to be 11 or close to it not to find the first book (considered on its own) a little twee and more than a little derivative. And the adolescent agnst of book five is probably going to be lost on anyone who’s never (yet) been a teenager.

The books didn’t come out at the one-a-year pace needed to pull off this schedule. They were on track up through book four, but book five took three years, and six and seven took two apiece. The 11-year-old who started the annual journey to Hogwarts with his contemporary Harry is 21 now, a good four years older than the wizard.

Now that all seven volumes are out, it’s actually harder to set a good pace. Potterphiles can testify that the craving for the next book is most intense right after finishing the previous one. Knowing that the book was out there ready and waiting for you, could you hold off a year? More to the point, could you tell your Harry-crazed kid to hold off a year? Six times? You might just barely be able to keep the existence of the later books a secret from an 11-year old, but once you bring out the second, the jig is pretty much up. Your 12-year-old knows that there are seven years at Hogwarts, and if there was a book two, there’re probably books three through seven lurking out there, too.

Besides, if her analytical mind doesn’t spoil the surprise, her friends and classmates probably will. Even leaving aside the movies, not having read the later Harry Potter books is going to be the literary equivalent of unilateral disarmament at least until everyone in this generation who grew up on the Harry Potter novels is past the age of reproduction. There are strong pressures to go as far through the series as you can stomach once you start it at all, and so the question becomes at what age to start. No age is ideal; books of very different tone are compressed together. You could be well-suited for the first two, the middle two, or the last three, but you’re probably not well-suited to all seven at the same time.

I can think of various compromises, but none of them truly solve the problem. Starting at age 11, you could probably get up through book three; if the scary bits didn’t convince you to lay low for a while, book four’s sheer bulk might. In a few years, say at age 13 or 14, you could pick up again and read through the end. Okay, but still not quite the way it’s meant to be done. Reading them as an adult and regressing to childhood during the experience may well be the best way to go.

July 28, 2007

The Man-Witch

Overheard in line at the movie theatre, just as we pass the poster for the Harry Potter movie:

You know, I never realized Harry Potter wasn’t a girl. My kids were watching TV the other day, and I was like damn, that’s Harry Potter? I always thought Harry Potter was an old woman, a witch.
No, dude, he’s a young warlock. A man-witch.

July 26, 2007

Now or Neville

Little more needs to be said about Neville’s heroism in book seven, both in leading the resistance at Hogwarts and in carrying out Harry’s instructions to kill the snake Nagini even when all seems lost. Neville’s transformation from hapless doofus to stouthearted wizard is one of the notable (and well-noted) examples of personal growth in the series. He’s come along way since his first line: “Gran, I’ve lost my toad again.”

But the courage he displays in the last few books shouldn’t be a complete surprise. Recall that at the end of book one, it’s Neville who tries to stop Harry, Ron, and Hermione from sneaking out to look for the Sorcerer’s (or Philosopher’s, in the original) Stone. Hermione has to hit him with a body-bind curse. Later, when Dumbledore is awarding points to the three for their cleverness and courage in searching for the Stone, he concludes:

“There are all kinds of courage,” said Dumbledore, smiling. “It takes a great deal of bravery to stand up to our enemies, but just as much to stand up to our friends. I therefore award ten points to Mr. Neville Longbottom.”

Those ten points put Gryffindor over the top to win the House Cup. Although the Sorting Hat takes “a long time to decide with Neville,” it finally chooses Gryffindor. Since Neville magically pulls the sword of Gryffindor out of the Hat at the end of book seven, it would seem that the Hat knew what it was doing.

And oh yes. The curse of Voldemort’s that Neville escapes from as he kills the snake? A body-bind curse.

July 25, 2007

What We Owe to Our Children

Dinah had it exactly right in her comment to the last post: the epilogue is thematically essential because it shows us Harry as a father. To see why, I’d like to flip that post around. Instead of talking about the children, let’s look at what Rowling thinks of parents.

The answer is simple: parents should protect their children at almost any cost. That means both guarding them from danger and making sure they inherit a good world to live in. Remus Lupin posthumously expresses this philosophy well in the Resurrection Stone scene. Harry has apologized that Lupin died so shortly after becoming a father, but Lupin responds:

“I am sorry too,” said Lupin. “Sorry I will never know him … but he will know why I died and I hope he will understand. I was trying to make a world in which he could live a happier life.

(Rowling is careful in the epilogue to reassure us that Remus’s hopes for his son Teddy are not in vain. Not only is he reported to be “snogging” Victoire Weasley, but Harry notes that Teddy “already comes round for dinner about four times a week.” Teddy, his generation’s orphan among the main characters, is clearly being well looked-after by his parents’ friends.)

Centrally, James and Lily Potter do much the same. In the inciting incident, of course, they both give their lives to protect Harry. We learn later on that his mother’s sacrifice, in particular, is precisely what protected Harry from Voldemort’s curse. Even before Voldemort’s attack, though, the Potters (both the previously slightly callow James and the gentle Lily) have already made the same choice as Lupin: they will place themselves at risk so that Harry can grow up in a better world. Their courage and selflessness—both focused on their son—are one of the moral cores of the series.

It’s a model often repeated. Again and again, good characters who are parents are often good parents: they protect their children at great personal peril. Like James and Lily, Harry’s surrogate parents Remus and Sirius both give their lives protecting Harry from the Death Eaters. Molly Weasley memorably charges into battle with Bellatrix Lestrange with the words “NOT MY DAUGHTER, YOU BITCH!” She follows up by declaring “You — will — never — touch — our — children — again!”

Even more telling than these heroic examples, though, are cases in which more ambiguous characters face the fundamental question of what kind of parents they will be. There are some striking trends. Bad characters can be at least partially redeemed by being good parents, and even some surprisingly bad behavior can be forgiven if done in the service of protecting one’s children. A few noteworthy examples:

The Malfoys are figures of nearly pure badness through the first five novels. But Lucius and Narcissa are concerned parents who want what is best for Draco (even if their sense of “what is best” includes a world free of Mudbloods). In book six, Narcissa is so concerned for Draco’s safety (Voldemort has ordered him to kill Dumbledore) that she violates Voldemort’s orders and extracts an Unbreakable Vow from Snape to protect Draco from harm. In the climax of book seven, she is so concerned for Draco that she lies to Voldemort and says that Harry is dead after Harry tells her that Draco is alive and in Hogwarts. The Malfoys thus move from Bad to Neutral; they are neither victors nor defeated in the celebration after Voldemort’s death. We are meant to understand that Narcissa made the right choice, and perhaps that Draco has been a bit redeemed by it. (In the epilogue, he is a parent as well, and “nod[s] curtly” to Harry. Lucius would not have deigned to notice.)

Or consider Xenophilius Lovegood, the eccentric half-crackpot. He tries to betray Harry to the Death Eaters, but it comes out that he does so because they have imprisoned his daughter Luna and he will try any scheme he can think of to bargain for her release. Harry and his friends, understanding that Xenophilius is doing something wrong but for an understandable reason, arrange matters so that the Death Eaters will not retaliate against Xenophilius after they make their escape.

More examples, perhaps? Dumbledore’s father was imprisoned in Azkaban, but his crime was seeking revenge on the Muggles who attacked his daughter. Barty Crouch—ultimately driven mad and killed by the same son he helped smuggle out of Azkaban? In Sirius Black’s words, “Should have spent a bit more time at home with his family, shouldn’t he? Ought to have left the office early once in a while … gotten to know his own son.” Tom Marvolo Riddle’s family was a nightmare of dysfunction.

If, as I’ve been arguing, Rowling is using the series to defend this standard of parental love, the epilogue is essential. We get to see Harry grown up and a father—and thus to see him being the right sort of parent. (Notice, for example how he takes his younger son aside to reassure him not to worry about being Sorted into Slytherin House, both because there are good Slytherins and because the Sorting Hat will know not to.) This scene closes the loop. Harry is fulfilling the duties of a good person by being a good parent. This, more than Harry’s own happy state, is the biggest point of the epilogue. A natural balance has been restored, and we see wizards and witches whose parents nurtured and protected them carrying on the tradition by doing the same for their own children.

July 24, 2007

The Boy Who Grew Up

Let’s start at the beginning. As we learn in the first chapter of the first book, Harry Potter is an orphan, his parents murdered by Voldemort. That’s the incident for the entire series. Over the course of the series, Harry goes through the usual orphan’s questions: Why aren’t my parents here to take care of me? Didn’t they love me? Am I safe? At first, he asks these questions while under the care of the awful Dursleys. Then Hogwarts and his magical heritage come along to rescue him. Or do they? As Voldemort regains power and launches increasingly dangerous attacks on Harry, he experiences the same anxieties again and again in amplified form.

Indeed, Rowling raises the stakes through books five, six, and seven. Harry’s surrogate fathers and grandfather—Dumbledore, Sirius, and Lupin—all die. A quarter of the way into book seven, the adults are offstage completely, and it’s just Harry, Ron, and Hermione hiding in the wilderness by themselves. The lurking sense of abandonment and helplessness is more intense than anything Harry went through back at the Dursleys.

Notice how many times in the novels Harry thinks he’s found a way to reach his parents again, only to learn that it won’t really bring them back. In book one, the Mirror of Erised shows Harry see himself standing with his parents. In book three, thanks to some clever time travel, Harry thinks his Patronus is actually his father come to protect him. In book four, shadows of his parents reemerge from Voldemort’s wand during the duel. All of this is why the Resurrection Stone scene near the end of book seven is the emotional climax of the series. Harry has come into possession of an object that can almost resurrect the dead—it can certainly bring them back enough for one to talk with them. This is, in one sense, exactly what he’s been yearning for for years. Let’s look more closely at some of the key lines:

And again Harry understood without having to think. It did not matter about bringing them back, for he was about to join them. He was not really fetching them. They were fetching him.

At the exact instant Harry the orphan is finally able to achieve what he’s been hoping desprately for, he also finally understands why it is that he can’t bring his parents back in the sense that matters. He uses the stone to summon them, “neither ghost nor truly flesh,” along with Sirius and Lupin. Notice what they say to him:

“You’ve been so brave”

“You are nearly there,” said James. “Very close. We are … so proud of you.”

“You’ll stay with me?” “Until the very end,” said James.
“They won’t be able to see you?” asked Harry.
“We are part of you,” said Sirius.
Harry looked at his mother.
“Stay close to me,” he said quietly.
And he set off.

There it is. His parents are proud of him. They are “part of” him, they are “close to” him, they will stay with him “until the very end.” These are the words he’s been longing to hear; they’re the reassurances that every orphan, and every child, needs to hear. The fears of the orphan, after all, are just particularly sharp versions of every child’s anxieties. Harry’s quest for his parents has succeeded; they will protect him. Notice how they do it:

The dementors’ chill did not overcome him; he passed through it with his companions, and they acted like Patronuses to him … .

This is a familiar image in the novels; it reaches back to Harry’s summoning of the patronus in his father’s form in book three. The protection is as much spiritual as it is physical.

Beside him, making scarely a sound, walked James, Sirius, Lupin, and Lily, and their presence was his courage, and the reason he was able to keep putting one foot in front of the other.

And here the point is emphasized. Harry’s parents, having protected him with their sacrifice through the novels, will also protect him from inside. This theme reaches back to the two epigraphs that open book seven, particularly the conclusion of the Penn quotation:

This is the comfort of friends, that though they may be said to die, yet their friendship and society are, in the best sense, ever present, because immortal.

This is the final inflection point in Harry’s growth to adulthood. You don’t have to believe that the resurrection stone has done anything — it does, after all, summon figures who are invisible to everyone else and talk only to Harry. But he’s now able to bring back their memory, after a fashion, and that gives him an inner strength. In this scene, Harry understands mortality—that is, becomes an adult—and realizes that he must face a final challenge from which no one, not even his parents, can truly protect him. But at the same time, he knows, knows, that his parents love him and always have in the way that matters: supporting him to the absolute utmost in having the courage to take that last, terrible, necessary step into maturity.

That is, there are three separate movements in this scene. First, Harry gets what he’s wanted for seven novels: to be with his parents and have them promise to protect him. Second, Harry knows that parents can’t protect you from everything in the world; there are some things you have to do yourself. And the third is that these first two aren’t a contradiction or a cruel irony: Harry can make the second movement because of the first. That’s the emotional arc of growing up, and the story of Harry Potter the orphan is a compelling version of it.

Or perhaps, to emphasize this point, we should call him by his other name: The Boy Who Lived.

Welcome Back, Potter

Hello, everyone. This is going to be a short-term weblog of thoughts about the Harry Potter series. There’s a lot of silly babbling about the books out there, and I’d like to respond to it with some detailed analyses of the books’ maturity and sophistication. J.K. Rowling has filled them with a wealth of interconnecting details, and some of the long-term arcs deserve to be called out: details in one book become significant much later. More than that, she’s given the series a real moral vision, one that fully embraces life’s ambiguities but also speaks clearly when moral clarity is called for.

Be warned: this blog will be riddled with spoilers. You should read it only if you’ve already finished the series or have no intention of ever reading it.