Thursday, July 26, 2007


I found myself discussing the final Harry Potter book this morning with my wife on my cell phone, after reading the last chapter on the bus this morning. She had finished the book two days ago and was itching to talk about the ending. I nearly had to pull an all-nighter to get as far as I did before heading off to work today.

I was happy with the book’s ending. It would have been a bold stroke to let Harry die, but I think J.K. Rowling stayed true to her character, and to the series’ own mythology, in the manner in which Harry manages to beat Voldemort and survive--as it turns out, to go on to live a comfortable bourgeoisie life with Ginny and their three wizard children. Yes, the “Nineteen Years Later” epilogue was a bit hokey, but it could have been worse—Harry and Malfoy could have ended up as golfing buddies.

The most moving part of the book came when Harry looked into the memories of the recently killed Snape. It was no surprise to learn that Snape had not betrayed Dumbledore after all—I suspect most readers believed all along that this would be the case. But I didn’t expect Snape to turn out to be the true tragic hero of the “Harry Potter” series, a man redeemed from evil by his unrequited love for Harry’s mother. The description of Snape’s childhood was heart-rending (it also softened our image of Harry’s Aunt Petunia; it was sad and ironic that Snape’s mistreatment of her as a child no doubt contributed to her abuse and neglect of Harry later on), and I was touched as well by his retrained affection for Dumbledore, who became his surrogate father.

As I drew nearer the end of “The Deathly Hallows”, I couldn’t help but think of some of the works of Stephen King, namely “It” and the novella “Low Men in Yellow Coats” from “Hearts in Atlantis.” In both stories, children are thrust into battle with the forces of evil, and gradually learn that the adults in their lives are flawed, often terribly so, and that many of the truths they’ve clung to turn out to be false. This is a recurring theme in much of King’s work, in which true horror lies not in the supernatural but in the hearts of men.

Similarly, Harry Potter must repeatedly confront the fact that his heroes are not the idealized figures he imagines them to be. His father was arrogant and had a streak of cruelty that, in his mistreatment of Snape and Wormtail, contributed to his own destruction. Sirius did not entirely escape the haughtiness that was his family’s hallmark. Even the sainted Dumbledore was once a power-hungry elitist with little time for those less talented than he. The reverse was also true—Harry misjudged the complexities of the human heart in assuming Snape to be evil, and one imagines that he would always regret never having the opportunity to become the brooding wizard’s friend.

These are, of course, important lessons for children to learn, but they are easy to forget as adults. We learn something new about the people in our lives everyday, and often we continue to learn about them even after they are gone. Love is the one constant, and like Harry and the Dark Lord, we too often underestimate its incredible power.

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I don’t think it would be too strong a statement to say that JK Rowling was looking to re-imagine the classic English school boy story, in somewhat excruciating detail. The thing is, with a build up like that, this painstakingly rendered story of Harry’s preparation for the outside world, there will be considerable pressure on Rowling to show what Harry made of himself. Perhaps nothing else as dangerous as Voldermort ever came along again. And it would be a bit jarring (in an opposite way than what I have described elsewhere) to have a “Harry Potter saves Darfour” or “Harold Potter versus Osama Bin Laden” or even “Harold Potter’s new play opens in London’s East End”. Of course, Rowling is free to do what she wishes, she could buy BBC and run it for her own amusement if she so chose. I assume she will decide to take pen in hand again, though, after a reasonable interval. It will be interesting to see whether she does continue the Potter character or goes in a whole new direction.

I believe it was the King’s Cross chapter I was referencing on my blog, the railway station, in comparison to Jonathan Livingston Seagull(I can’t lay my hands on the Deathly Hallows right now, someone lese is reading it). I re-read JLS maybe about a year ago, and the similarities in what I remember from JLS and that chapter are striking. I did blast through the “Deathly Hallows”, though I think I slowed down a bit for that chapter. There was a baby crying, under a bench, abandoned, right? I am assuming there is a rebirth metaphor in there perhaps, unless it is something altogether different. It is a fairly enigmatic chapter for the usually straightforward Rowling. I did like Dumbledore’s last words in the chapter. Of course it’s all in Harry’s head, it’s not like there’s stuff in the world we can’t explain, like magic or sumpin’.
She claims that she is done with Harry Potter, and that she has both a children's book and an adult novel in the works. I'm sure she will be subject to the same temptation to return that other authors, filmmakers, etc. face when they have left a popular series or character. We'll see if she acts on it.

I assumed the baby, who we were led to believe was somewhat hideous and suffered, represented the piece of Voldemort's soul that had died--or was dying--when Harry gave himself up to Voldemort. That's why Harry advised Voldemort to show remorse, because, as Harry said, he knew what awaited him. But it was rather enigmatic, as was Dumbledore's admonishment that Harry could nothing to stop it.
That’s interesting about the baby being Voldermort. For no apparent reason I had seen it as related more directly to Harry. I’m not sure why the Voldermort wouldn’t be fully grown, I guess there could be something about how Harry was a baby when that part of Voldermort went in him yada yada. I suppose that’s why I remember Harry and Dumbledore just ignoring the baby. I have some trouble with the whole notion, but I think you are right, that is what Rowling intended for us to take away. I probably missed a crucial sentence in my haste.

I meant to agree too about the satisfaction of the redemption of Snape. I was impressed by that, I mean Snape is presented in the first book as the canonical cruel teacher thwarting the school boy, but then he evolves and turns into something much more. I don’t think I agree that Snape would ever become Harry’s friend, I think there was too much bitterness there on both sides, and in Snape’s case reaching back before Harry’s existence and possibly wrapped up in Harry’s existence. But I think they could have reached a level of civility, similar to what apparently Harry had reached with the Malfoy’s in that last chapter.

Rowling’s willingness to make the characters three dimensional and present the concept of redemption by sacrifice does make one feel rather better that so many children are reading this and the other books. Too many movies and television shows present villains as one dimensional, with silly motivations, so that it is in fact satisfying when they are disposed of. But the real world is complex, even though people make simplistic assumptions about others motivations, and we only move toward true reconciliation by looking at others motivations in depth.
What I appreciated about the Harry Potter series is the idea it conveyed that you can explain evil without excusing it. In fact, sometimes you must understand the evil you are facing if you are to succeed in destroying it. That is an idea that often is lost in many of our policy debate, particularly when it comes to foreign policy and terrorism. (And I'm not suggesting an explicit political message in the Potter books.)

It was nearly impossible in the months after 9/11 to have a reasonable conversation about the roots of Islamic terrorism, for example, because you were shouted down by critics who complained that you were trying to justify the attacks, or that you were looking to "blame America." In fact, I think the reason the president uses the term "evil" so loosely is because it is a way to silence debate. In the president's formulation, if something is evil, it cannot be understood, only destroyed.
Another Stephen King book with similar themes was "The Talisman", which he co-authored with Richard Straub.
I loved the "HP & the DH".And yes,i also suspected that Snape was "good"after all.I wouldn't be surprised to see Rowling stay in the genre and do something like go back in time an create the life of Dumbledore or the history of "wizardry."
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