The OF Blog: Reflections upon Harry Potter

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Reflections upon Harry Potter

By the time I had begun writing this sentence just after midnight CDT on July 25, 2007 CE, there had been literally tens of thousands of comments and reviews that had already appeared in newspapers, magazines, and on numerous online websites and blogs. Millions would have already finished reading this and over 10 million copies of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows would have been sold. Never before in fiction has one book sold so much, been read by so many, been discussed to quite the degree within the first week of release as this book, the seventh and final volume in the Harry Potter series, which stretched over 7 fictional years and almost 10 actual years.

Sure, there were moments such as tens of thousands of Londoners (and weeks later, New Yorkers) weeping over the death of Little Nell, the brave little girl in Charles Dickens' The Old Curiosity Shop. Yes, there were "Frodo Lives!" stickers and associated graffiti in New York subway stations in the 1950s. Yes, we have had our "flash mobs" and "it" moments (from the assassinations of JFK, MLK, and RFK to the Challenger blowing up 1:18 into its launch on January 26, 1986 to even the death of Princess Diana of the United Kingdom), but never before have we seen such a widespread frenzy over a work of fiction.

Massive security precautions to prevent "leaks" (which incidentally failed). Thousands of people camping out for days to be the first in line at 12:01 AM local time on 7/21/2007 to buy their copy of the hallowed Deathly Hallows. Thousands more dressing up as characters from the previous six books, ready to attend midnight "release parties" at local stores. This is the sort of treatment one might expect for a major music or movie release (or for the even more longly-awaited release of G'n'R's Chinese Democracy, a promise that is 12 years old and still aging with no definite end in sight), not something that typically is reserved for a book.

But yet so much has been written about this book. There were adulatory praises about how American reading scores, which had plummeted since the 1980s, actually showed a tapering off in the middle school population, possibly due in part to pre-teens and 13-15 year-olds reading Harry Potter novels. Others have been more critical of the series and the author. One recent Washington Post article has actually claimed that bestsellers such as Harry Potter might actually have weakened the fiction-reading audience even further by somehow "forcing" book readers to become "consumers" who read only to keep up with their friends and associates. Still others have accused author J.K. Rowling of being variously anti-feminist, too feminist, conservative in regards to family values, too radical in her approach to gender relations, too religious, or anti-Christian. There have been book burnings that have taken place at some church centers in the United States, something that might be too closely akin to the Nazi-like Ministry of Magic under Lord Voldemort's influence in this final novel. Regardless of the veracity of any of these positive or negative reactions to the series, there has to be something that has made Harry Potter's story something else other than just another fictional tale.

Before I go into a brief commentary upon the seventh volume itself, I want to share a quote from G.K. Chesterton that Neil Gaiman used as the epigraph for Coraline:

Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.

There is something of a fairy tale about Harry Potter's fictional life. Parents dead due to a mysterious reason, we find young one year-old Harry deposited at his maternal aunt's house one Halloween night (that itself a symbol for the eve of All Saint's Day and the following All Soul's Day, perhaps). Like many a fairy tale character, he is mistreated and feared by his adoptive relatives, who spurn him in favor of their own, rather spoiled child. This poor, neglected child, who has grown to mistrust adults and to shut himself away from the immediate pains of his situation, learns on his eleventh birthday that he is more than just a typical neglected orphan.

And from this rather stock beginning, readers who may identify with Harry's frustrations with adults who either do not listen to him or who neglect him for another, these readers have begun to forge a connection with this Everyman, this basically good-natured child who is lost in an often cruel and unforgiving world. So far, so good, but so what? What could this possibly have to do with millions wanting to read this cute but hardly original variation on a universal theme?

Those who might argue that then, I would argue, be missing the point. This is not a settled society in which we live, whether one be from the decaying inner cities of the United States or the UK or from the former farmlands that are becoming high-priced suburbs and "bedroom communities," or if one is from places where civil wars are occurring and old animosities are rising to the top. There is a lot of uncertainty in this world and millions, children and adults alike, want something that's not just comforting (mere comfort can be patronizing, if not does not relate to the person being comforted) but also told in their voice and frame of reference. To a large extent, each of the Harry Potter novels has done this.

In Deathly Hallows, we learn that Voldemort's Death Eaters have infiltrated so many facets of wizard society. We quickly learn that prior enchantments against attack on Harry are failing as he reaches the age of 17, the age of adulthood in the wizard world. We witness many attacks on Harry and his closest friends and we see beloved characters die in order to save Harry. We are exposed to many subtle and insidious evils besides that of Voldemort, as former friends appear blind to what is happening around them, so eager are they to gain status or to avoid further trouble with the new wizard order. The classic Quest motif is stronger here than in prior novels, as Harry, Ron, Hermione and their friends and family members assist the three on their most dangerous task yet: the destruction of the remaining Horcruxes that contain elements of Voldemort's divided soul.

When I read Deathly Hallows over a three-day period, I focused much more on the character relationships and themes than I did on the plot or even the writing. While I did find the plot to be just enough to sustain interest in what is developing and that the writing was, with a few memorable scenes (including one burial scene) to be just only adequate on the syntactical level, the way things were constructed made the whole much more than the sum of its parts.

This was a moving, emotional novel. Very dark, although none of the others were ever truly "light-hearted" stories. We are exposed to a world that is really much like our own, where evil does not have to have scarlet eyes or serpentine features to exist and to be a danger to children or adults. Rowling pulls no punches in this novel. Harry and his friends are facing terrible predicaments.

As a novel, Deathly Hallows serves not just as a culmination of the previous six, but as a fulfiller of the hints and promises contained in each of them. We see how prior events, minor at the time (such as kindness to the downtrodden), end up having such a dramatic impact on the story's resolution. These are things that go beyond plot mechanics, however. Readers end up noticing certain recurring themes, such as the power of Love in its many forms, the ways in which true bravery cannot be discerned by a simple Sorting Hat but by the resolve (as witnessed by the character development of Neville Longbottom) that can be built up even through the worst of humiliations, among many others. But there is one thing in particular about this series that stuck out to me and I'll quote from an earlier writing of mine:

One of the things that struck me (out of many) about the series and even more so in DH, is how much the stories and the events within them read like a symbolic ritual of passage. From the first tests of dealing with the unknown, to the learning and mastery of tasks, to the recognition that past viewpoints are not always the correct one (witness the Dudley/Harry scene in DH with the tea cup), to how Harry has to struggle with his past of abuse to come to learn how to trust his friends and even adults like Dumbledore - all of this has been leading us to the point of seeing a former child facing down his fears and mistrust and learning how to accept the world as what it is, while never giving up the need to fight to change it in order for it to become closer to what it ought to be.

Friendships lessen (Hagrid) in frequency, if not in intensity. While certain patterns appear to be repeating, there are subtle changes with each passing year, as Harry, Ron, Hermione, and others build upon what they have learned and have grown during the process. All things pass, but yet we witness them being able to grieve when grief is called for (Cedric, Sirius, Dobby, etc.) and the ways that they respond to that grief are illustrated and sometimes shown to be but intermediate steps along a journey of understanding that will take a lifetime to complete.

The HP of the first book is 11 years old, with the world-view of an 11 year-old boy. He cannot readily see the goodness that lurks within the tortured frame of a Snape or within the spoiled shaping of a Draco Malfoy. They are enemies to overcome - perhaps not capital E Evil like Voldemort, but still just that, "evil." But as the series progresses and we witness things through Harry's PoV, things subtly change, until we too are forced to change our preconceptions of a Snape or a Draco to see that they are not static characters, but that they too are as dynamic as Harry or any of his friends. We end up seeing Harry's world through the eyes of one who is ready to leave his childhood shell to become an adult who will be wise enough to remember the lessons learned during that childhood apprenticeship stage.

Harry at the end of DH has faced down his childhood fears, as embodied by Voldemort. His readers, some of whom may have grown up living in other, perhaps more symbolic but still terrifying stairway closets, are often able to relate to this story so much because it reminds them of what they've been through or what they've witnessed those close to them go through. Hope, fear, neglect, companionship - these and many others that comprise the gauntlet of life, these are what makes Harry's journey so wonderful to behold and so sad for us as well.

As Chesterton said, readers of fairy tales have learned that dragons, in any shape or form, can be beaten. The true power of Harry Potter is that in a day and age in which such tales are not often told, we have once again become grounded, if only for a short span, with those truly magical stories that make dragon tamers of us all. That is what I believe lies at the heart of Harry Potter's appeal to so many. Only time will tell if it's true.

1 comment:

MICKY said...
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