Sunday, July 27, 2008

Long Harry Potter ramble

WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD! If you’ve read the books, go ahead and read this. If you haven’t, I ask you not to spoil them for yourself. However I have no problems putting this online because if you wanted to find out what happens you could have found out on any number of websites already.

I originally wrote this about 9 months ago, after reading Deathly Hallows, and posted it as a Facebook Note, but I’ve updated bits since then and now have a blog to put it on.

I often find I think best by writing, so this is primarily to help me compose my thoughts on the Harry Potter series, but if you’re reading, I hope you enjoy it and it gives you some interesting ideas about them. So this isn’t really a review, it’s more of a spiel of some of my thoughts about the books. There will be some specifically about book 7, but some of it will be more general. I’ll start with a little of my history as a HP fan.

Fan History
I first read Philosopher’s Stone in 1999, I think, about the time that ‘Prisoner of Azkaban’ was released. I’d tried it about a year before, but I didn’t like it (!). I confess that I got bogged down in the early chapters which are, I still maintain, the weakest part of the series. I think it was the endless letters and chasing around hotels, and the fact that the intrigue of the first chapter seemed to disappear. Also, in contrast to the rest of the series, those first few chapters have a distinctly childish tone to them which, and as by this time I was on to LOTR, I found a bit beneath me. By sister and brother both read books 1 to 3 and nagged me to read them, so I gave it another try, and was addicted very quickly. I read and re-read 1-3 that year, and subsequently read 4 to 7 as soon as they came out. I even permitted myself to experience the carnage of a midnight opening for ‘Deathly Hallows’.

8 years later and the books are my all-time favourites, having read them all an embarrassingly large number of times. I do follow the general internet fandom, though I don’t contribute because I find the triviality of most of it incredibly annoying!

The Success of Harry Potter

Harry Potter is obviously huge. Some of the statistics about book sales, money and changes in childrens reading trends are just scary. And of course, all the spin-offs – films, charity books, websites, a theme-park (the thought always makes me want to puke) and vast amounts of merchandise (incidentally: Death Eater masks?! Does no-one else have a problem with this? We might as well be encouraging kids to dress up as Nazis, for the DE’s have very similar views. OK so the DE’s are fictional (sorry to break that to you) but it’s promoting the same values…ok rant over (for now)).

People seem to struggle to work out exactly what makes the books so popular. They have great plots…but so do many other books. They have engaging characters…so do other books. What makes HP so uniquely successful?

Firstly, it is NOT clever marketing. Marketing has to have something to work on. The adoration of these books is there without the marketing; marketing just makes sure people do actually buy the books (not that most fans need any persuasion).
I could write for hours on the brilliance of the plot, the joy of getting to know the characters, and the vast number of themes spanning the books. One day I probably will. But for now, I think that the success of the books is down in part to the fact that they were released bit by bit over ten years. This means that before the release of the next book there is a year or two of questioning, theorising and speculating about it based on new information from the last book. This is what fandom thrives on – trying to answer the questioning, trying to guess Rowling’s mind. Of course, HP is not the only series to be released this way. But HP has another feature too: a vast percentage (possibly over half) of the story happens before the time in which the main story takes place. This is what makes the books so exciting to read. I must admit I’m not yet sure how this works, but there is something in the finding out of information from the past that helps piece together the present and future that is immensely exciting to the reader. And because this happens bit by bit over seven books and ten years it is all the more tantalising.

In addition to this, there is an interesting point that the word ‘fandom’ generally applies to the fantasy genre. Popular examples include Star Wars, LOTR, Buffy, Star Trek, X-Men: all part of the fantasy genre (fantasy used in its wider sense, including much sci-fi, horror and mythology). To any non-fantasy buffs out there, part of what makes modern fantasy literature so intriguing (at least to me) is that the story and the characters are only half of what is presented. The other half is the description of the very world where the stories take place, be it Middle Earth, Narnia or wherever. This includes the places but also the politics, the religion, the magic system etc.

Harry Potter can obviously be classified as fantasy and part of the draw of the books is the portrayal of the fantasy world, including the places, such as Hogwarts and St. Mungos, and also the politics (the Ministry) and the magic system (obviously throughout the books, and very much discussed among fans e.g. what happens when a secret keeper dies? How fast to curses move if they can be dodged? How can wizards sometimes cast spells without wands? etc.). But the critical thing about this fantasy world is that it could be real. It is after all set in this world that we Muggles live in, and Rowling is careful to explain why wizards (and dragons!) go unnoticed. While we know the stories are fiction, one some deep down level there is something that says “yeah, but you don’t know it isn’t real”. And that is very tantalising and adds weight to why the books are so popular.

Lastly, while other books are praised for their plots, characters and themes (what I see as the three main elements of a good story), nothing else has been produced on such a scale as Harry Potter. Roughly 3500 pages of story, most of which is action and dialogue, mean that in terms of plot and characters it is enormous. The plot covers nearly a century of history, seven years in immense detail. As mentioned before, the use of backstory and its intertwining into the main plot is nothing short of genius. In terms of characters, there are at least forty who we are very emotionally engaged with over the series (don’t believe me? Try this: Harry, Ron, Hermione, Neville, Luna, Ginny, Hagrid, Dumbledore, Snape, Riddle, Lupin, Sirius, Tonks, Fred, George, Crouch Jr, Crouch Sr, Dudley, Petunia, Regulus, Kreacher, Dobby, Winky, Firenze, Fleur, Xenophilius, Draco, Narcissa, Lucius, Bill, Arthur, Molly, Percy, Ernie, Aberforth, Wormtail, Lily, James, Trelawny, McGonagall, Slughorn, Griphook…there’s 42 to be going on with). That’s a huge number for one series, and the most poignant and moving moments of the series are ALL character driven, whether it be Lily’s sacrifice, Molly’s boggart, Dumbledore’s childhood, or just about any moment involving Luna (by the way, that girl is truly amazing!). On top of this, Rowling covers a massive number of themes in her books. As she herself has said, the primary theme is death (and I would add also the power of love over death), but how about these: life after death, love, sacrifice, prejudice, loyalty, fate, the greater good, the purity of souls, fear, the future, power, fatherhood, bravery…there will be more. In short, the scope of these books is both huge and highly detailed.

The Criticisms
However, the books have their critics, both literary and religious. The literary focus on things like the books not being classic literary masterpieces, being full of clichés, being intellectually unstimulating and just being made up of material borrowed from mythology. To these I would say, so what? Who says that a great book has to be technically of a high standard or highly intellectual? These books do not try to change the thinking of philosophers or further thinking on authorship. Rather they try to tell a brilliant story, with many deep and engaging characters and a range of very interesting views on the world. And they do an excellent job of it.

As for the religious critics, I find it amusing that 99% of them are adamant that they have never read the books and never will. Therefore they are, of course, ideally informed to comment! Anyone who reads the books can clearly see that this magic is nothing like the occult practices that God tells people to avoid in the Bible. I notice that no-one condemns the Narnia or Lord of the Rings books for their use of magic. Perhaps because they don’t give details of the actual spells? Oh come on – does anyone really think that saying “wingardium leviosa” will actually make something fly? Or maybe it’s because of the Messianic themes in Narnia and, to a lesser extent, LOTR. Well maybe they should try reading the end of ‘Deathly Hallows’.

Thoughts on Deathly Hallows

Which brings me nicely on to book seven itself. I had to cover it at some point. I am interested that everyone I have spoken to about ‘Deathly Hallows’, and most of the fan reviews on the internet, say exactly the same thing, in four parts:

1. something along the lines of ‘it was amazing’ or ‘I loved it’
2. a single word: ‘but’
3. a list of the various things they are unsatisfied with
4. a reassuring statement such as ‘but I did love it!’

My initial reaction was the same. The problem is that with two years of speculation and expectation after ‘Half-Blood Prince’, everyone wanted the perfect book, the perfect ending. Unfortunately ‘perfect’ depended on who you talked to, and in the end no-one was going to be wholly satisfied (well maybe one randomer somewhere, but no more). The most common thoughts before release were about who would die and who would end up with whom (how shockingly narrow-minded of the fan base, if all they can debate are these). However I had my theories too. My pre-release predictions were almost all bang on in terms of deaths. Admittedly my slightly wild McGonnagall-is-a-death-eater theory didn’t work out (I am glad she was good though!), but I got Neville-will-be-herbology-teacher (something I’ve been saying since about 2000!), all-four-Marauders-will-die, Draco-will-be-redeemed and Snape-is-loyal-to-Dumbledore spot on. I was quite pleased with myself.

The only death I got wrong was Ron’s (lack of). After reading it, I believe that the book could have been improved if Ron (and possibly Ginny) had died. I just think that having spent six books with Ron as at best a loyal sidekick and at worst comic relief, and then having him be so crucial in Deathly Hallows and go through all that he does over the course of it, it would have been so much more moving had he died. The trio broken at last, Hermione left alone. Pure bittersweetness. As it was, I felt it was a bit too sweet and not bitter enough for my taste. Of course, had Ginny also died, Harry’s journey would have been so much more heartbreaking. Killing Tonks was ludicrous – the series has enough orphans already, and Lupin was always going to die (note that Moony, Wormtail, Padfoot and Prongs died in reverse order).

Anyway, onto other things. I thought the horcruxes were dealt with well by Rowling. I disagree with the accusations of “it was all to convenient” – the point is that Dumbledore made sure it was that convenient; he’d been setting it all up from the start! (having said that, the whole Ron-Parseltongue idea was a joke) Dumbledore’s backstory was truly amazing, as was Snape’s. The hallows themselves caught me completely off-guard, but I liked them, in spite of the huge plot complexities they caused. They really opened up the themes of power, death and conquering death.

Except for Dobby’s, the deaths didn’t hit me as hard as Dumbledore’s and Sirius’s. Killing Lupin off-screen was harsh and wasteful of what could have been a great death scene. And Fred’s was just a bit rushed really – the scene later on in the Great Hall where the dead lie was much sadder. I feel that the book needed something bigger though, something to match or even exceed the deaths in books 5 and 6 (i.e. Ron).

I thought book seven concluded JKR’s themes, such as love and sacrifice, very well, and I really liked the introduction of the idea of ‘the greater good’. This is of course tied up with Dumbledore’s backstory, which challenged everything we thought we knew about Dumbledore (more on this in a minute).

The epilogue needs a mention: it seems that more has been written about those few pages than about most entire books! It seems to me that it was there for two reasons. First, to show what happened to the trio, Ginny, Neville and Draco (interestingly not Luna). It did that fairly well. The accusations of over-neatness in the epilogue are unfounded. It is neat because they all got married and had kids. Shock horror, such an unusual thing to do! The neatness is not that they all got married, but that they all survived. And I’ve already given my view on that. Having said that, I didn’t approve of the names of Harry’s eldest and youngest – naming your kids after your parents? The second reason for the epilogue is so that Harry can deliver the tribute about Snape being the bravest man he ever new. A little cheesy yes, but I think it’s fair enough to put this line in. I just think she could have done it in a less cheesy way. I was glad of the few interviews JK gave soon after the release, giving more detail of those nineteen years and beyond, most satisfying indeed (if you haven’t read any of these, they include things like HRH’s careers, Luna’s future, and even Dumbledore’s sexuality, a revelation that just adds more heartbreak to his story).

In terms of my reading of the book, I read it very quickly in about six hours because I was terrified of it being spoilt! I have to say that other than Dumbledore’s backstory, I was surprised by nothing in it. This is the problem with having such an intense fandom and two years between releases – everything had been discussed so much that I’d thought of all the things that could happen, so nothing was surprising. The price of being such a big fan.

So in the end, it wasn’t the perfect book, but it was overall a brilliant finish to an unbelievable series. It’s just a shame that we always focus on the negatives for a while. It was the same with The Return of the King film – an awesome conclusion to the trilogy, but all anyone talked about was their dissatisfaction, whether it was with Aragorn, Frodo and Sam, Saruman, the ending, or whatever. It hadn’t met people’s hopes of being the perfect film. A few years on, however, it is seen for what it is (brilliant), and we’ll come to that point with ‘Deathly Hallows’ too.

Development of the books
As I’ve read the books over the years I’ve noticed some trends. One is that, obviously, the books tend to get longer, and there is a big leap in length between 3 and 4. I think that the books become more complex as Harry matures and becomes more complex himself. This would make sense, given that they are basically all from Harry’s point of view. And it is over books 3 and 4 that Harry starts to grow up.
One great thing about living while the books were released is that there is time to form theories between releases. Of course, most of those theories get torn apart by the next book. And so do the assumptions that people have about the books.

After book 1, it seemed that this was a good fantasy story, about good versus evil, with three teenagers as the protagonists. After book two this was still true, but the darkness of the chamber of secrets, including things like Ginny writing her own death sentence, added another overtone. After book three, we realised that JKR is truly a brilliant writer, and that these stories are a lot more complex than we first thought – our view of the books was being expanded. Then book four really smashed it all apart: Voldemort was back, Cedric was dead, and suddenly the scope of these books seemed a heck of a lot bigger, and no-one knew anymore where JKR was taking us. Book five brought in the struggles of adolescence and not a small amount of disturbing talk of psychology (linked minds anyone?) and possession. Book six built on what had gone before but, while previous books had included a little backstory, six had huge amounts and this wasn’t a 7 year tale anymore, it went all the way back to the 1920s. And then book seven brought up various minor points such as Dumbledore’s Death Eater leanings, and also shocked us all, I think, with just how close Voldemort got to winning, and what that would have looked like.

So at every stage, the scope of the books was enlarged. At each stage, the fans thought they knew what the books were ‘about’, only to have their view of what JKR was doing massively expanded. I don’t think anyone in 1999 would have realised the scope that the story was to have.

Death and Love
The main themes in the books are death and love, and the relationship between them, so I should really say something about them. Various contrasting views of death are presented in the books. Voldemort sees death as an enemy to be conquered (“you know my goal, to conquer death”). This drives him to create horcruxes. In contrast, Dumbledore says death is “the next great adventure” and not to be feared. Luna clearly believes in life beyond death, and uses the voices beyond the veil as evidence. If a wizard or witch fears death, he or she can choose to remain as a ghost, instead of embracing the world beyond the veil. Frequently, Dumbledore presents his view that there are things worse than death, and he seems to be referring to living without love (“Do not pity the dead, Harry. Rather pity the living, and above all, those who live without love”). Dumbledore has much personal experience of loss of love, when his sister was abused, his father sent to prison, his mother died, his sister killed, his relationship with his brother broken, and the man he loved becoming the man he killed. He can speak with more experience than any other character about love and death. Love has power over death. Lily’s love caused her to sacrifice herself for Harry, and consequently the death curse could not harm him. Harry sacrificed himself for those he loved, and Voldemort’s curses could not hold them.

Love is what is contained in the locked room in the Department of Mysteries. “It contains a force that is at once more wonderful and more terrible than death, than human intelligence, than the forces of nature. It is also, perhaps, the most mysterious of the many subjects for study that reside there. It is the power held within that room that you (Harry) possess in such quantities and which Voldemort has not at all”. Voldemort’s lack of knowledge of love (he has never loved or been loved, having been abandoned at birth) causes him to underestimate its power, and therefore underestimate Harry, who’s greatest weapon is his ability to love so much. Even by book six, Harry doesn’t understand how exceptional he is to love so much after what he has been put through. At the very end it is love which finishes Voldemort. Narcissa betrays him for the sake of her son Draco, allowing Harry a chance to face a now horcrux-less Voldemort.

And by the way, it is also love that made Dumbledore so convinced that Snape was on his side – he believed that Snape’s love for Lily was greater than any reason for Snape to be on Voldemort’s side.
For more on love and death, see

A second theme that is high on JKR’s priority is that of prejudice and tolerance. Most obviously it is portrayed through the ongoing ridicule of Muggle-borns by purebloods such as the Malfoys, which escalates in Deathly Hallows once Voldemort gains power and starts imprisoning muggle-borns. The page-time given to this theme indicates its importance to Rowling, and she even had Dumbledore (who often speaks for JK) speak out against Malfoy’s prejudice when he is about to be killed.
This theme is also shown in more subtle ways. Lupin, as a werewolf, was “unemployable” after leaving Hogwarts, even though he is clearly safe. For most witches and wizards this is prejudice, but for some like Umbridge it goes further into maliciousness. There is prejudice against other races such as centaurs and goblins. Even Ron shows prejudice against giants in Goblet of Fire. Sirius is prejudiced against Kreacher, Harry against Griphook and Hagrid against the Durmstrang students. Practically all magical folk treat non-human intelligent beings as of lesser importance. The overwhelming emphasis here is on house-elves, who are at best well-treated slaves. Dobby, Winky and Kreacher are all treated appallingly by their masters until they end up at Hogwarts, and only Hermione shows any outright indignation at their treatment.

And I’ll bet most people haven’t noticed that we are all prejudiced against Slytherin. Some of this comes from Hagrid who claims that all dark wizards were in Slytherin (one exception we know of is Pettigrew, who was in Gryffindor, though I have no idea how he got there). But even without this, we are prejudiced against Slytherin, mainly because Harry is prejudiced against Snape and Malfoy, even though Snape was in the end “the bravest man I (Harry) ever knew” and Malfoy was also redeemed. Rowling has made it clear that only some Slytherins are the Death Eater type but still we have this prejudice.

In contrast to all this are Hermione and Dumbledore, who are the two characters through whom Rowling speaks. Hermione is very pro-unity both with wizards and with other magical beings. And Dumbledore is the king of second chances and giving acceptance where others won’t (Snape, Hagrid, Lupin, Dobby)

Souls and Horcruxes
One final thing that interests me in the books is the view they present on souls. It seems that while ‘life’ refers to physical life, which is temporary, ‘soul’ refers to the inner self, including thoughts and emotions. The soul seems to be eternal, hence we have ghosts and the voices behind the veil. Killing, as the “supreme act of evil” (an interesting statement given the emphasis throughout the books that there are things far worse than death) rips the soul apart, the pieces of which can be contained in horcruxes (note that ‘horcrux’ refers to the receptacle, not the soul fragment). The only way to piece back together one’s soul is to be truly remorseful.

Although the piece of a soul in a horcrux can be destroyed by physically destroying the receptacle ‘beyond repair’, it seems that the same is not true for a complete soul – destroying a persons body does not destroy the soul. This is slight speculation however, because we don’t know for certain what happens to a person’s soul once they have been killed by basilisk venom or fiendfyre – the only person in this category is Vincent Crabbe, and we don’t know what became of his soul.

Horcruxes can't generally be made by accident - the process requires the priming of the receptacle prior to the murder taking place. The exception is, of course, the vanquishing of Voldemort in Godric’s Hollow, when his soul was so unstable, having already split five times, that it split spontaneously when he attacked Harry, and part of his soul attached itself to Harry. Therefore, technically speaking, Harry wasn't a Horcrux. (Haha, that'll re-spark the 'I told you so's!). To all intents and purposes, he then functioned as a horcrux, but JKR was keen to stress that he didn't become an evil, cursed object like the diary or locket, and because he hadn't been made by the usual horcrux-creation process, he wasn't technically a horcrux, though he functioned in the same way.

(On a side note, notice that the fragment of Voldemort’s soul that spent years in Albania, possessed Quirrell, and ended up inside his reborn body, was able to gain some physical form. This blurs the boundary between soul and body somewhat!)

There is one more problem however: at the end of ‘Deathly Hallows’, how was the part of Voldemort’s soul that was inside Harry (the 7th fragment) destroyed, without destroying Harry’s body (the receptacle) beyond repair?
Having been hit with the Avada Kedavra, Harry’s soul was fine, and went off for a chat with Dumbledore, so the AK clearly doesn’t destroy a normal, complete soul, but may be that killing (i.e. physically taking life) with the AK is sufficient to destroy the soul fragment, so if the AK is used, the receptacle does not need to be ‘damaged beyond repair’. Therefore Voldemort’s AK could destroy the 7th fragment, which is inside Harry.

However, a problem comes when we ask what happened to the 8th fragment of Voldemort’s soul (the bit in his own body) after he was finally killed in the Great Hall. If it is true that using the AK can destroy a soul fragment (though not a complete soul), then Voldemort would completely be no more. However, JKR has said that he is actually forced to exist in the form we see in King's Cross limbo (in response to a question about whether he became a ghost). I think this would indicate that the AK didn't destroy the 8th fragment of Voldemort’s soul, so there is no reason to suppose that it would have destroyed the 7th fragment in the forest.

Whatever the mechanism, the soul fragment was gone. Harry’s body was killed, so normally he would have gone “on”, beyond the veil, but because his blood was still part of another living body (Voldemort’s) he didn’t. Instead he went to some sort of half-life limbo (I think this is the best interpretation of the King’s Cross scene, given the symbolism of that platform as a halfway point between the two worlds, magical and muggle. However, JKR has said that an alternative interpretation could be that "Harry is unconscious, everything Dumbledore tells him he already knew deep inside. In that state of unconsciousness his mind travels further. Dumbledore is in that case Harry's personification of wisdom; he sees Dumbledore in his head so he can come to certain insights." Anyway, Harry then had the choice to return to the living world – he didn’t have to go back. The presence of his blood in Voldemort’s veins gave him the option, it didn’t tie him to the living world against his will.

When Harry came to, he realised that Voldemort had also experienced something strange. Maybe Voldemort was also conscious of being in the King’s Cross limbo, but I’m not sure how he got there given that the AK didn’t rebound this time so his body wasn’t harmed. The soul should only be released (to limbo, or beyond the veil, or wherever) once the person is dead. But however Voldemort got there, Harry, having a complete soul, experienced a complete existence in King’s Cross limbo, while Voldemort, left with just one eighth of a soul, was reduced to something less, whatever it was.

The whole situation is further complicated by the fact that, on the very same page, we discover from Dumbledore that Voldemort killed Harry, but Harry isn’t dead. I believe that what Dumbledore means is that Harry has been killed in that his body has died and his soul has moved on (for now), but he is not finally dead and gone, his soul is not yet beyond the veil.

What is it that Dumbledore is so insistent that is worse than death? It is “living without love” – more emphasis on the great theme of love as greater than death. In King’s Cross limbo, Dumbledore tells Harry not to pity the dead, referring to the thing on the platform that we are told is Voldemort. But Voldemort can’t be dead, because he’s still alive (physically) in the forbidden forest. Therefore Dumbledore is again mixing his words and referring to Voldemort as dead in that his soul (or the fragment that remains) has departed from his body for a while, and gone into King’s Cross limbo, not that his soul is yet beyond the veil. However this still doesn’t explain how the soul fragment managed to get into King’s Cross limbo, as Voldemort’s body has not been hit by the AK this time.

To summarise all that, soul-splitting is an active process, with the intention of making a horcrux. Accidental horcrux creation can occur when a soul is sufficiently unstable and another act of murder splits the soul without the intention of the killer; in this case the soul fragment attaches itself to the “nearest living soul”. Soul fragments are destroyed when the horcrux (the receptacle) is destroyed beyond repair. Harry got into King’s Cross limbo because his blood was present in Voldemort’s body, and this gave him a choice of whether to go on or go back. I don’t yet know how either Voldemort’s soul fragment or Dumbledore got there, or how the 7th fragment of Voldemort’s soul, inside Harry, was destroyed!

One more important thing to remember: JKR has stressed that what occurred in the forest at the end of DH (and all the subsequent implications) was not scientific. Therefore we cannot say things like 'Harry could never have been killed by the Bellatrix because he was tied to life by Lily's blood in Voldemort's veins'. It's not as simple as that. the connection between Harry and Voldemort was unprecedented and no-one really knows how it works. I suspected that this was the case, but it's nice to hear it from Jo, and it's a good reminder that all my analyses should be taken as theories, and no more!

No comments: