Sunday, July 29, 2007

Someone should name J.K. Rowling an honorary Inkling.


Am I allowed to talk about Harry Potter yet? What the heck, I will. SPOILERS!, and all that. Honestly, why would you be reading blogs if you still had two more chapters of Deathly Hallows to go?

I had been losing my enthusiasm for HP ever since the fourth book, when things started getting too convoluted for me to follow and Rowling's style became more uneven. I still cared immensely about the characters, but I was stuck in my nostalgia for the third book, which is still the best, I think. But I always knew that I was going to revert to my 13 year-old fangirl self when the last book arrived. And I did. I actually revisited a message board that hasn't seen the light of day on my computer since I was in junior high.

One thing I noticed in Deathly Hallows is that Rowling is a master of false foreshadowing. I was positive that she was going to kill Ron, especially after this:

"But even if we wreck the thing it lives in," said Ron, "why can't the bit of soul in it just go and live in something else?"

"Because a Horcrux is the complete opposite of a human being."

Seeing that Harry and Ron looked thoroughly confused, Hermione hurried on, "Look, if I picked up a sword right now, Ron, and ran you through with it, I wouldn't damage your soul at all."

"Which would be a real comfort to me, I'm sure," said Ron. Harry laughed.

"It should be, actually! But my point is that whatever happens to your body, your soul will survive, untouched," said Hermione.
I think I just moaned for a while after reading that. Of course it came to nothing. And she also foreshadowed good things that never panned out - Peter Pettigrew was all set up from book three to be a Gollum-like hinge character and to find redemption. He does yield to a tiny merciful impulse, one that helps Harry and Co. escape, but he comes to a miserable end for it, and the whole scene is very anticlimactic. No one can say that he didn't deserve it, of course.

Snape is back to being one of my favorite characters, now that we've found out that he was really the unsung hero of the series. He haunted the happy ending like Shylock or Malvolio, having perished without ever getting anything he wanted from life. The scene where his Patronus leads Harry to the sword is... well... numinous. I liked the whole section where the the trio was wandering through the woods of Britain, actually. Shades of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight:

So this rider rode through the realm of Britain,
Sir Gawain in God's service: and to him it was no game.
....
At each stream and ford that he found in those lands
enemies lurked (unless his luck held) --
vicious, violent, hard to avoid.
....
Only constant courage and the care of his God
could save him sometimes from certain death.
For if warfare was hard, winter was worse,
when the clouds shed water cold and clear
which froze in the air and fell as sleet.
He lay down half-dead, drenched in his armor,
too many times to bear: and on barren stone
where cold-running creeks came clattering down
and icicles hardened high overhead.
Thus with peril and pain, in difficult plight,
he carried on alone till the Eve of Christmas
fell.

I'm glad that Rowling tempered Harry's cavalier attitude towards Voldemort's name. By having him refuse to say "You-Know-Who," she made the excellent point that you should always call things by their right names, and that you shouldn't be cowed by evil - but in the case of spiritual evil, talking about it tends to attract its notice. And in Deathly Hallows, saying Voldemort's name is as good as Frodo putting on the Ring for attracting the Dark Lord's attention. Of course, "Voldemort" isn't his real name either; and it's very satisfying when Harry addresses him as "Tom" during their last battle.

One theme that was present in the other books really came to the fore in Deathly Hallows: the dangers of the occult. (Yes, I'm savoring the irony.) The legendary Hallows managed to lure Harry into a gnostic fever-swamp worthy of Dan Brown, and only Dobby's death pulled him out of it. Dumbledore went far deeper into his obsession with the nasty things and made a right mess of his life. I liked the way Rowling gave us clues to the progress of Harry's discernment: "And yet the fiercer the longing for the Hallows burned inside him, the less joyful it made him." Or again, when he decided to dig Dobby's grave with his own hands instead of with magic: "In the darkness, with nothing but the sound of his own breath and the rushing sea to keep him company, the things that had happened at the Malfoys' returned to him, the things he had heard came back to him, and understanding blossomed in the darkness...." I like the way she ties knowing to doing. It reminds me of how Robert Bridges wrote an angsty letter to Hopkins asking how to acquire faith, and Hopkins replied in two words: "Give alms."

The big "Oh no!" that everyone is talking about is Dumbledore's mishap with the principle of Double Effect. I don't see any way around it: Dumbledore told Snape to murder him. Sure, he thought that he was ordering Snape to perform some other type of action, but Catholic theology clearly defines what Snape was forced to do as murder. O moi moi. Dumbledore just got messier and messier in this book, and by the end he was more enigmatic than Snape; a lot more enigmatic, after we found out what was really driving Snape to protect Harry. The revelation of Dumbledore's youthful misdeeds was less disturbing than his failure to outgrow his flaws, even as he became wiser and more venerable. I mean, Dumbledore was basically a stand-in for Providence throughout Deathly Hallows. But as much as Harry trusted Dumbledore to guide his steps, he realized that his teacher's apparent omniscience was just extremely shrewd psychology. Dumbledore had him figured out. I doubt we'll ever figure out Dumbledore, though. He was so deeply compassionate that he could think of giving Harry the Resurrection Stone for his solace as he faced his death, and he was so coldly detached that he actually sat down and composed that mirthless riddle, I open at the close, and wrote it on the Snitch with his own hand. Setting up Harry's Death by Scavenger Hunt? Cold, cold, cold. Dumbledore is very humble about his faults, but he doesn't number his detachment among them. When he leads Harry to the knowledge that he must sacrifice his life you could call it saintly tough-mindedness, on par with St. Bernard telling his brother to leave his family and become a monk - terrible and harsh, but founded on a burning love of the truth. But when he arranges his own death at the hands of Snape, his detachment is seen to be mere coldness and abstraction. Unless, that is, Rowling approves of his decision - and Harry's reaction to it suggests that she does - in which case the error is not Dumbledore's, but Rowling's. Sigh.

In spite of Dumbledore's worrisome actions, the ending was wonderful. Eucatastrophe all the way. I haven't been so joyful after reading a book since I finished The Lord of the Rings when I was 12. The story keeps its integrity and Harry lays down his life, but he gets it back and marries his true love and sends his own kids off to Hogwarts. Anyone who has read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe will catch how similar some of the description is: Harry's walk into the forest where Voldemort waits with his monsters by firelight; his defeat of Voldemort at the very instant of red-gold sunrise. Rowling loves Narnia, so I take this resemblance to be a homage.

And then there was King's Cross Station! How cool was that?

Thank you, J.K. Rowling. For eight years of delightful suspense. For taking up the mantle of the Inklings. For characters that will live in my imagination for the rest of my life.

Long live Harry Potter!

24 comments:

Publius said...

Unless, that is, Rowling approves of his decision - and Harry's reaction to it suggests that she does - in which case the error is not Dumbledore's, but Rowling's. Sigh.

That was my first impression, though upon further reflection I'm not so sure. If she meant to make Dumbledore's commissioning his own euthanasia unambiguously moral, I think she failed. In the seventh book, Dumbledore is shown to have serious moral flaws, which is a big departure from the rest of the series (though not an unrealistic one, since it is natural that such things wouldn't come out while he was still Headmaster of Hogwarts and the Greatest Wizard of the Age). His obsession with the Deathly Hallows and the mastery of death they are fabled to bring to the one who unites him caused the death of his poor addled sister and he never fully let go of it. He had, after all, borrowed the cloak to see if it was the third Deathly Hallow, and he doomed himself to death trying to use the Resurrection Stone—a very foolish action, as Snape pointed out, given that Voldemort had used it as a horcrux. His insisting on planning and ordering his own death can be seen to be part of what he himself admitted was his disasterous desire to be master of death.

As for Harry's reaction, we shouldn't expect him to have criticized Dumbledore during his pre-duel dialogue with Voldemort. That is absolutely the worst place and time for that sort of thing. His main point was that Snape wasn't on Voldemort's side. It is possible that Harry didn't see anything wrong with it (as opposed to Snape, who had to be guilt-tripped into agreeing to it, and then tried to back out even after he had taken the Unbreakable Vow to force himself to do it), but its also possible that he hadn't given the question any serious thought, which, given the circumstances, is to be expected.

Great review, BTW!

Meredith said...

You're right; somehow I can't imagine Harry saying, "So Dumbledore chose his own way of dying - which I TOTALLY don't agree with, by the way - and that means you lose..." Dumbledore's character really took a beating in DH, and his arranged murder is of a piece with his putting on the cursed ring and causing his sister's death. I guess I just don't want to believe that his final act was the worst thing he ever did.

It's funny; my experience with the series tells me that Dumbledore is waiting in King's Cross because Harry needs to have the Big Explanation that he always gets from Dumbledore... but my Catholic sensibility tells me that he's detained there, paying for things he never quite disavowed in life. The text doesn't really support my gut feeling, though. And as Harry has seen again and again, it's hard to stay mad at Dumbledore.

some guy on the street said...

I wonder when the Unbreakable Vow is determined to be broken.

About the Lord of the Rings, I find I'm all out of joy by the end; I can't seem to finish it without a bout of really sad tears. You must be saintlier than I am.

some guy on the street said...

Oooh! Does anyone else think Rowling is once or twice teasing Daniel Radcliffe for that Equus nonsense?

Publius said...

I wonder when the Unbreakable Vow is determined to be broken.

Who knows? Perhaps the spell itself has some way of knowing when it has been broken, or else it is dependent on whether or not the person who made it believes that he or she has broken it.

Oooh! Does anyone else think Rowling is once or twice teasing Daniel Radcliffe for that Equus nonsense?

You mean when all the duplicate Harrys were getting dressed? I hadn't thought of it that way, but I dare say it might be.

Meredith said...

About the Lord of the Rings, I find I'm all out of joy by the end; I can't seem to finish it without a bout of really sad tears.

I was a bit sloppy when I said I finished LotR feeling joyful. At the end it was bittersweet and I felt tired. The specific joyful moment was when Eomer was getting ready to go down fighting, and then all of a sudden he throws his sword in the air and sings because the black ship unfurls the standard of the King of Gondor. The moment the Ring was destroyed was important; the moment where Sam wakes up in Imladris and sees Gandalf was glorious. I guess LotR lets you down more gradually than HP; it ends with a series of emotional highs that trail off slowly.

As for Daniel Radcliffe... J.K. Rowling is definitely not past working fan responses and stuff into her books, but that's quite a long shot! Though she *has* made sure that Mr. Radcliffe will be acting minus his clothes at least twice in the seventh film.

some guy on the street said...

...when Eomer was getting ready to go down fighting, and then all of a sudden he throws his sword in the air and sings because the black ship unfurls the standard of the King of Gondor.
Yeah, that's a cool moment!
Myself, I love when the eagle comes to Minas Tirith to sing his good news.
(You mean Ithilien, I think?)
...it ends with a series of emotional highs that trail off slowly.
As Frodo says, like going back to sleep.

And re clothes, Perhaps I'm just too much attuned to the indecencies we live amidst in this deadly culture.

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