by Escutcheon Blot
This is a follow-up to my interminable reading list of last week.
I want to talk about the Harry Potter series, and address the negative, both private and printed, critiques that I have read or heard from acquaintances. Please do not read this if you have not read the books. The following essay contains more spoilers than a white-trash Trans-Am circa 1979 (with a big fire eagle painted on the hood). I think that the series is a great one...one of the landmark literary achievements of our time, and do not want to spoil the pleasure of any body's first read of the Potter saga.
Harry Potter's adventures in teenie-land have enthralled (if that's not too strong a word) me for the better part of the last decade. I started reading Rowling's saga in 2001 or 2002, when I, getting tired of the hype over what I expected to be a perfectly banal series (alla Bridges of Madison County--boring book, ugly bridges), bought the first book, Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone at the local supermarket. (I won't use the dumbed-down American title, which smacks more of English condescension than actual cultural differences...I knew what a philosopher's stone was when I was a teenager, and all that would have been required was an explanatory sentence...not too difficult, even for us dum 'merkins. I blame her publishers though, not Rowling).
Expecting a vacuous nothing, I was surprised in my first read, at how engaging the book was. It being, after all, a children's book, I finished in three or four hours. The world created by Ms. Rowling in this first, and shortest of the series, was so persistently in my mind, that I re-read the book a few days later, to try to figure out what it was that just wouldn't let me be. There are very few books that stay with me for more than a few hours after I have finished them (The Lord of the Rings and War and Peace spring to mind). I was unable to see beyond an admittedly clever, amusing, and well-paced story. I put it down to witchcraft.
Within a week, or so, I was in the Walmart near my parent's house, when, seeing the next three books in paperback and on sale, I splurged and bought the lot. (Being only marginally committed to the lunatic fringe, my single problem with Walmart is their unconscionable land-use, building mega stores next to existing, smaller, older stores, then closing the first one, which, due to Walmart's unassailably complete inventory, usually remains empty and becomes derelict.) I quickly sprinted through The Chamber of Secrets, The Prisoner of Azkabahn, and The Goblet of Fire, ever increasingly delighted by the improving quality, complexity, and--admittedly-- the length of the books. I accepted Rowling as a very clever writer, and an accomplished plotter who, even if she wrote relatively pedestrian prose, could pace a story brilliantly. I also suspected she was writing increasingly difficult books to mirror the development of the main characters, i.e. Book One for 11-year-olds, Book Two for 12-year-olds, and so on; a sort of latter-day graduated McGuffey Reader for the modern adolescent. What I missed at the time was the strong moral emphasis of the original McGuffey series.
The Order of the Phoenix, which I purchased on the day of its release, was a more difficult book, considerably darker, and showing Harry as much less charming as a 15-year-old than he was at younger ages in earlier books. He yells at everybody, whines constantly, and I personally would not have been terribly disappointed if Voldemort had appeared in his bedroom at Hogwart's and cursed him out of existence. But, upon reflection and my customary follow-up read, I remembered my own, spectacularly charmless adolescence, and applauded Rowling's verisimilitude and courage in writing for her heretofore lovable hero, a very un-lovable year. Harry even manages, through his own arrogance, and, as Hermione says rather presciently, his "saving-people thing", to get his own godfather killed.
Then came The Half-Blood Prince, which, purchased on the first day of course, was eagerly devoured. After re-read and reflection, I was, on the whole, disappointed with the complexity and sophistication of the storytelling. The book was considerably shorter than its two predecessors (a fact which her publishers tried to hide by larger, more widely-spaced print), and also much-simplified. But the plotting, which is, after all, the strong point of the author, was upon further consideration, not just strong, but perfect (dare I say that?). The logic which underlay all the previous episodes began to bear fruit in this the penultimate. Chance, or rather, seemingly chance paragraphs, sentences, even words and objects from the previous five books were explained in the sixth. The mystery of the ghost of a Tom Riddle not actually dead, which possessed Ginny Weasley in the second book was explained by the revelation of the Horcruxes in book six. Finally realizing that there were no throwaway lines, no chance revelations, I re-read all of the previous five, and then the sixth again.
The result was stunning. Here was a single novel, plotted over 3,000 pages (at that point)which maintained not only a through-line, but seemed not to possess a single logical or temporal inconsistency. One cannot say that for Tolkein's, considerably shorter, though considerably more elegantly written masterpiece, to which Potter is often unfavorably compared. Anthony Trollope's Barchester Chronicles, though they hold a firm place in heart and in my regard, cannot compare with this achievement. And I can think of no similarly lengthy novel series which even pretends to accomplish the same thing (I must admit that I have never read Proust).
I discussed the books with a very good friend and with my sister, both mature women, well-read and well-educated, and, like myself, enraptured by the ongoing perfection of plot. We eagerly awaited the final book, The Deathly Hallows. We all agreed that Snape was good--that he was working undercover and had killed Dumbledore upon his own request--nay, demand. That he had been protecting Harry all along, due to his life-long and unrequited love for Lilly Potter. We also were sure that the R.A.B. was Sirius Black's younger brother Regulus. We suspected that there was a Horcrux in the Room of Hidden Things at Hogwarts...there would be no reason to detail the contents otherwise. We, independently, came to these correct--as it proved--conclusions because they were inescapable. Of course, none of us knew what the Deathly Hallows were, but then that was unrevealed information. (Although even with that there were clues; the black stone in the ring of Marvolo Gaunt and the peculiar appearance of Dumbledore's wand, so unlike the polite, well-formed wands of Ollivander's make.) There are, quite simply, no chance remarks in Rowling's work.
Like a well-plotted mystery of Agatha Christie, the answer is obvious and inescapable if one has read the book carefully. (I have less regard for mystery writers who, either for lack of ability, or simply a desire to remain opaque, do not allow their readers this chance to come to the correct solution before the solution is revealed--this doesn't mean they don't write well--often considerably better than Christie herself did.) That a book can be so perfectly plotted is, witness Christie, eminently achievable, and unsurprising. What is unprecedented, indeed, amazing, is an overarching thematic scheme, complete to small details, spanning what is, in the end, over 4,000 pages of entertaining storytelling. The choice of Rowling to couch this in the simplistic language of her initial, pre-teen readers made this obviously more easily achieved, but the achievement is nonetheless remarkable.
The first critique of the books, then, that they are poorly written and dull...childlike and vacuous, are patently false--they are merely simply written. J.K. Rowling may not be a mistress of elegant prose, but Henry James is considered one of the all-time prose geniuses, and he often lost the plot before he finished a sentence. There is, of course, the pleasing narcissism of being able to pooh-pooh all that is popular in order to appear sophisticated and intellectual; but I don't think this explains either the undercurrent of supercilious praise of Rowling as a children's author, or the outright condemnation (as in the recent review in the Christian Science Monitor or the faux review in the Guardian) of the central character as having made no moral journey. Or that he possesses flawed morals and presents an ambiguous debate of good and evil, where evil is obviously evil, but good lies and cheats, and, quite frankly, steals...Snape's potion ingredients in book two, Dobby's gillyweed in book four, the cup of Helga Hufflepuff in book seven...are just three examples.
Harry gladly accepts the help of Mad-Eye Moody (actually a Death Eater in disguise) to win the Tri-Wizard Tournament. The fact that he honourably passes on the ill-gotten information to Cedric Diggory is an important facet of his character--that Harry is essentially fair, good, and absolutely unselfish--though self-involved, at times. That Barty Crouch Jr. uses the goodness of Cedric to his advantage is typical of the disdain evil has for goodness...and that brings me to the crux of what I see as the thesis of Rowling.
J.K. Rowling has said many times that she absolutely believes in the existence of magic, and in the need for magic in the world today. (This is the reason for so many religious groups' condemnations, unread, of the Potter series--no belief system relying upon the existence of the supernatural can tolerate a seeming competitor: fanatics understanding no metaphors.) She also says, ad infinitum, through the mouth of Dumbledore, that the greatest magic of all is selfless love. She underscores this by the constant mockery of this concept by most of the Death Eaters, and by Voldemort himself. They believe in power, which enables them to rain down death upon their foes; not realizing that only love can defeat death itself. Rowling even "let slip" in an interview earlier this year that a member of Harry's family would reveal latent magical talent. I was annoyed, at first reading that I did not find this event. But, but, but...there are no random events in Potter's World, and apparently not in Rowling's either...Dudley Dursley learns the power of gratitude, and discovers his love for his former punching-bag of a cousin, much to the horror of his thoroughly unloving parents. It is love for Draco (though selfish) that keeps, inexplicably, the two elder Malfoys alive, seemingly alone among all the Death Eaters who have invaded Hogwart's in the finale. Draco, who through his (truly inexplicable) love for Crabbe and Goyle, and attempt to save them, is himself saved by his arch-enemy, Harry. (NB: Rowling has since said that she changed her mind...but I don't buy it)
Harry's mother dies before the action of the first book. She dies in a selfless, and seemingly futile attempt to save Harry's life, just as James Potter, wandless, throws himself in the path of Voldemort, buying not more than a second or two of respite. These sacrifices endow Harry with a powerful protection against Voldemort, and sow the seeds of Voldemort's undoing.
The accusation that Harry makes no moral journey is a considerably more serious, and seriously flawed one, than the snarkily intellectual dhimmitude that he and his fans undergo from critics of the left, who (perhaps) see the strongly moral underpinnings, and, much like Screwtape, point out gleefully the personal foibles and inconsistencies in order to discredit the professor and possessor of a despicable (to them) sense of good and evil.
From the revelation of the prophecy in book five (in my mind, the best of the series from a purely literary standpoint) that "Neither can live while the other survives" makes clear to Harry that his destiny involves certain death, either his own or Voldemort's...and he must be Voldemort's executioner. Heady stuff for a 15-year-old. That Harry is put (a bit daringly) in his own Garden of Gethsemane at less than half the age of Christ, and no son of God, begotten, not made, is the ultimate test of character.
In the sense that Harry does not start out bad and end up good, yes Virginia, there is no moral journey. Harry starts out instead, as a child, and in seven short years, becomes, in the words of Dumbledore, "a much better man than I". And it's true, amazingly enough. Harry is not a brilliant man--often mistaken in this world as being of more worth than a good man--he is merely good. This is what so inflames the intellectual critics who damn him and Rowland, and the only thing that enables him to defeat Voldemort, an incomparably more intelligent, powerful and gifted wizard.
Harry, after his "let this cup pass from me" moment, fulfills Hermione's messianic allusion (the "saving-people" comment of book 5) in his willing self-sacrifice(earlier eschewing the pursuit of the Elder Wand, thus abnegating the possibility of victory through power--apparently)...going into the den of beast, offering himself as willing sacrifice, as did his mother, for his friends...and wins the ultimate victory over death itself. This is a great journey, but not, perhaps, the moral one of the narrow world of the Christian Science Monitor. I think, or rather suspect, that Rowling is quite a fan of C.S. Lewis, not, as I have stated earlier and elsewhere, of the childish pablum of Narnia, but of the philosophy of Mere Christianity and the negative lesson of The Screwtape Letters.
Of course the fans of sophistry and snide, intellectual brutality will never be fan of a boy/man who tries simply to be good, and to do what's right. He is brave, he is true, and in the end, he triumphs. READ! THESE! BOOKS!
Yours, selflessly, lovingly,