Tuesday, July 31, 2007

“Bellatrix are for kids” — now with SPOILERS!

WARNING:
In case it wasn’t obvious from the title of this post, I’ll be spilling the beans here, in toto, so if you haven’t read Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows yet and don’t want anything spoiled — then bail out now!
For those on the edge of their seats to read my thoughts on the final installment in the Harry Potter heptology (yes, I stole that from Jon Stewart — and no, I don’t think it’s a real word :), I apologize for the delay in the promised post(s). Of course, I may be flattering myself to think there’s anybody out there at all, but just in case there is, I’m going to take a crack at putting down some reactions. I’ve been jotting down notes for the last week, and so let’s see if I can make sense of any of them ...

There’s so much to say, really, that I’ve decided to start by offering a rebuttal to some of the criticisms I’ve been reading since the book came out. Rowling herself was well aware that she couldn’t possibly please everybody with her last Harry Potter novel — that it was the last was already a strike against her! — but I have still been rather surprised at the number of mixed, or even outright negative, reviews. As I’ve perused them, I’ve noticed that the same complaints seem to crop up again and again.

This, that, or the other death was pointless or unnecessary. Hedwig and Colin Creevey are most often given as examples of the “gratuitous” murders rampant in the book, but I’ve also seen the same complaint made of Fred, Lupin, and Tonks. And even some of the other characters, like Mad-Eye Moody. I have a couple of responses to this complaint. First, I’m not sure these deaths are pointless or unnecessary. But second, and more importantly, if they are, well, isn’t that the point? Isn’t that war? By definition, death is part of all life-and-death struggles, and very often, the innocent die ... often unexpectedly, without fanfare, and even without “taking the bad guy with them.” Such murders may even underscore the wanton evil that is Voldemort better than so-called “meaningful” deaths, I think.

Speaking of deaths, Snape’s was lame, and he didn’t get to do enough in the book. Again, I disagree with this gripe. Snape’s death was another of those moments of lurid violence that only Voldemort is capable of, and the suddenness of it emphasizes Snape’s sacrifice all the more. Some readers have been grousing that Snape “ought to have had something more important to do.” Well, he may well have — it seems that Dumbledore expected Snape to be the inheritor of the Elder Wand, with which he would presumably have “had a job to do” in facilitating Voldermort’s downfall — but the unexpectedness of his demise makes it all the more tragic. And another related complaint I’ve read is that Snape’s portrait ought to have appeared in the headmaster’s office at Hogwarts. I even thought the same thing when I read the book. Well, in an online chat with J.K. Rowling that I participated in yesterday morning, she answered this question, saying “[i]t was deliberate. Snape had effectively abandoned his post before dying, so he had not merited inclusion in these august circles. However, I like to think that Harry would be instrumental in ensuring that Snape’s portrait would appear there in due course.” That’s good enough for me.

Speaking of Snape, what was with his being in love with Lily? And it was lame that we learned about this through a long series of memories viewed in the pensieve. It wasn’t lame at all. I liked that method of revelation because Snape was gone. It was done, all in the past, fait accompli. There could be no debating, no discussion, no questions, no recriminations. It was just revealed, purely on Snape’s terms. And I especially liked seeing a snippet, once again, of “Snape’s Worst Memory,” which we now learn was not the humiliation he felt at James and Sirius’s mistreatment of him; his worst memory was calling Lily a Mudblood and driving a permanent and irrevocable wedge between them. I found his feelings for Lily completely unexpected (though I understand many readers saw this coming), and I loved that choice. It was touching that the silver doe was Snape’s patronus, because it had been Lily’s. Snape’s feelings of love for Lily and guilt over her death were indeed sufficient cause for Dumbledore’s never-wavering trust. And that Snape wanted to leave his life with his eyes on Lily’s (in the face of her son, Harry) is a testament to his enduring love and loyalty to her memory.

Why did we need yet another magical object, in the form of the Hallows? Weren’t the Horcruxes enough? No, because the Hallows represented temptation for Harry. If he simply had his mission (to destroy the Horcruxes), then the plot might have been one-dimensional indeed. Besides, if you complain “not another magical object,” then you may as well get rid of Sirus’s mirror, the deluminator, the Vanishing Cabinet, and the pensieve, among many other such objects, that have appeared in each book. Pretty much every one of the seven introduces some new magical object, often more than one. But returning to the Hallows, hasn’t Dumbledore always said that it’s an individual’s choices, more than any particular abilities, characteristics, or birthright, that determine whether he is good or evil? And that the ultimate character-defining dilemma comes down to doing what is right or doing what is easy. Harry needed the Hallows to offer him something “easy”, a temptation not unlike Satan’s temptation of Jesus for forty days in the wilderness. And speaking of those forty days, ...

What was up with the boring, plodding, dragging mess in the middle? I didn’t think it was a mess, myself, though I will allow that it certainly did slow down the pace of the book. But wasn’t this just the calm before the storm of the Battle of Hogwarts, which more than made up for it in excitement? I think this was an important period in the narrative because it gave Harry the chance to catch his breath and really think about his next move, as opposed to merely reacting to events outside his control. It introduced the Hallows and offered Harry a temptation, one that Voldemort would certainly have taken in Harry’s place. The fact that Harry, in the end, turns his back on the promise of the Hallows proves him worthy to destroy (rather than replace) Voldemort. Some readers suggest that the middle “400 or so pages” should have been collapsed down into about 100 or so (just three, maybe four chapters). Frankly, I think that’s much too severe. We had to have time to see how the Locket horcrux was eroding Harry, Ron, and Hermione’s resolve; we had to have time for Ron to leave, to learn about the Snatchers and the deluminator, and to return — just in time to be instrumental in the destruction of the Locket; and we had to have time to take a deep breath before plunging back into the action. I found the “pause” in the middle to be pretty effective, overall, and I don’t think I’d presume to suggest any changes. At least, not on the strength of my one reading.

And finally, the Epilogue sucked! It was twee, treacly, superficial, and we didn’t even learn nearly enough about what everybody is doing now. I liked the Epilogue, and I don’t consider myself overly susceptible to emotional manipulation either. The focus is on the core group, which I think is appropriate. It’s on family, which bookends the lack of a strong, loving family with which the series opens. It’s on unity and reunion, and it’s on the return to Hogwarts. Some readers wanted to know all about Harry, Ron, and Hermione’s jobs. But while we can all be curious (and Rowling has since answered all these questions and many more), it’s not important to the end of this novel. Harry, who’s always been so uncomfortable with his fame, is now a father, husband, and all around “normal” guy. Some readers complained that Luna should have been mentioned in the epilogue, as well as George, and any number of other characters. I don’t think that was necessary, myself. After all, this isn’t the coda to the movie Stripes, where you see a cheesy snapshot of each and every character with a goofy curriculum vitae of the rest of their lives. Personally, I felt that the balance between what was made clear and what was left unsaid was just right. Moreover, Harry’s praise of Snape (whose name, Severus, he gave to his second son) brought a heart-swelling and very satisfying closure to his combative relationship with the man. That revelation made even me cry — which is not an easy thing to do!

So, your turn! Anything you really didn’t like? Anything you’ve heard others complain about that you want to rebut? Agree or disagree with me on any of the points I’ve made here? Bring on the comments!

14 comments:

  1. Hey Jason

    SPOILER ALERT - this posting contains comments about Deathly Hallows which may given aways secrets to readers!!!

    Great thoughts on Deathly Hallows and thanks for posting the online chat with JK very interesting. I agree with alot of what you say. I thoght its the best of the books (although I have fav scenes from each) and liked that fact that such characters as Hedwig and Tonks did die - like you say this is a war and in wars people die. I did cringe for a minute with the Kings Cross scene but after reading it thought they way JK handled it was masterful. I though the epilogue was also very good as it (like Wagner's Ring) brought everything full circle with a aense that there were some lessons learned and that that rhough courage, self sacrfice, friendship and the gaining of knowledge the world is a bit better place (but as JK says evil still exists pace Alberich in The Ring). I have a lot more to say about the book and parallels with others (especially Tolkien - I'd love to explore the Snape/Gollum angle - I am also intrigued by JK's reference to the Chaucer's Parodoners Tales for the horacruxs (religious items will have to re-read). I went to see the current Harry Potter movie this weekend (after finishing Deathly Hallows). I was interesting to see this story played out knowing the ultimate end of the books - and I wonder how much (if any) advance info JK gave the cast when filming (for example they way Rickman plays Snape - does he know his true motivatios or is he playing it as he appeared in that book?). If I ever meet him I will try to ask him that (he will probaby call security!). Look forward to more of your comments - you have a great blog and very interesting topics- kep em coming!! Take care, Andy

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  2. Thanks, Andy! I appreciate the compliments and feedback! :)

    I did cringe for a minute with the Kings Cross scene but after reading it thought they way JK handled it was masterful. I though the epilogue was also very good as it (like Wagner's Ring) brought everything full circle with a aense that there were some lessons learned [...]

    Yeah, that’s right. The idea here is that it’s really sort of a mythical, archetypal series. If it were meant to be completely adult, completely realistic (as opposed to magical realism, literally!), then Harry probably would have died. But we adult readers have to remember that the books are also meant to convey lessons to children. We adult readers might have been able to handle it if Harry had died, but a 12-year old kid probably couldn’t. At the same time, though, over the course of the series these lessons have moved more and more toward the mature, practical “real world”, though perhaps still an idealized world. As such, Rowling’s obviously having a little fun with the Tales of Beedle the Bard as representative, metafictionally, of her own “children’s” series. Both are, on the surface, meant “for kids”, but both contain valuable moral truth.

    I'd love to explore the Snape/Gollum angle [...]

    I’ve been hearing that from other corners of the Web also. But they really aren’t that similar, are they? Their motives are completely different. Snape was always good; Gollum remains inveterately unredeemed. I think a better comparison is Gollum and Wormtail (Peter Pettigrew). In both cases, they have a fleeting thought of redemption, brought about by pity and mercy; and also in both cases, they remain wicked despite that pause, yet effect a eucatastrophic turn to good in the end.

    I am also intrigued by JK's reference to the Chaucer's Parodoners Tales for the horacruxs [...]

    Me too! I’m going to have to go back to my Chaucer and check this out!

    Thanks again for the comments. :)

    Jase

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  3. I haven't read the Potter books or any reviews but yours, but I have a thought on this rebuttal:

    "This, that, or the other death was pointless or unnecessary.
    ...if they are, well, isn’t that the point? Isn’t that war? By definition, death is part of all life-and-death struggles, and very often, the innocent die ... often unexpectedly, without fanfare, and even without 'taking the bad guy with them.' Such murders may even underscore the wanton evil that is Voldemort better than so-called 'meaningful' deaths, I think."

    Random deaths may be war, but Deathly Hallows is not war but a book about war (or so I gather). In which case, Rowlings selected the characters you mentioned over other characters to give the sense of random death. Did she select the ones that best convey that effect?

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  4. Excellent post, Jason!

    N.E. Brigand said:

    Random deaths may be war, but Deathly Hallows is not war but a book about war (or so I gather). In which case, Rowlings selected the characters you mentioned over other characters to give the sense of random death. Did she select the ones that best convey that effect?

    I think they were effective and suitably tragic. I hate to see characters I am fond of die, but that's what happens in war, and the fact that some were innocent (like Hedwig and Colin) emphasizes her point.

    Other things I really liked: the irony that Voldemort actually kills himself (unintentionally, of course) and Molly Weasley's big moment in the battle.

    The latter raises one question for me: did she use an unforgiveable curse? Are unforgiveable curses OK in war? Molly's not the only good character who resorts to them in great need.

    I found the whole book satisfying and a good conclusion to the series. Jo wraps up everything nicely. I found the Epilogue and the info in her online chat especially satisfying -- but I still want more books. :)

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  5. N.E.B., yes, this is an important distinction. We have to remember, however tempting it is to argue from a story-internal point of view, that novels are deliberately constructed works. There can be no true “fog of war” — not unless the author has abdicated her responsibility. But to respond to your point / question. Yes, remember that I said in my original post, “First, I’m not sure these deaths are pointless or unnecessary.” In fact, I think Rowling’s choices were usually much more than the random collateral damage of war.

    The deaths of Lupin and Tonks (a married couple with a small child), for example, leaves yet another orphan in the Harry Potter universe (like Harry and Voldemort before him). But the difference, in this case, is that the orphan will grow up surrounded by love. Moreover, Harry is Teddy Lupin’s godfather, healing Harry’s loss of his own godfather (Sirius). And as if that weren’t enough, with Lupin’s death (following a few hundred pages after Wormtail’s), the entire previous generation of friends is gone, “making room” (if you will) for the new generation to effect real change in the wizarding world.

    And that’s just Lupin and Tonks. I think you can make very good cases for all the deaths. Shall I? This might be a good topic for a new post.

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  6. Cat Bastet, thanks! And you asked:

    The latter raises one question for me: did [Molly Weasley] use an unforgiveable curse? Are unforgiveable curses OK in war? Molly’s not the only good character who resorts to them in great need.

    You’re right. Harry uses the Imperius Curse in the Gringott’s episode, followed by the Cruciatus Curse later on in the Ravenclaw Common Room. Right after that, Professor McGonagall uses the Imperius Curse herself. And these are not even to be justified by the excuse of “war”, as the real battles have not yet begun. Rowling, by the way, talks about Harry’s use of the Cruciatus Curse in the online chat.

    But returning to Molly, my own view is that she was not using an unforgivable curse. Had she been, it could only have been the Killing Curse — clearly the worst of the three — because we’re told that she and Belltrix were “fighting to kill”. I think there must be many curses that could result in fatality (e.g., Sectumsempra, which though certainly dark, is not unforgivable; or the “purple curse”, whatever it was, that Dolohov attempted to use on Hermione in Order of the Phoenix). I figure Bellatrix was using the Killing Curse, but Molly was using something else. There’s no way to know for sure, though.

    Are they excusable in war? Maybe. Maybe not. Of course, as corrupt as the Ministry of Magic had become, I don’t think it would have been in a position to prosecute anybody. “Let he who is without sin cast the first, err, spell", I suppose. :)

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  7. The FishWife8/02/2007 1:58 PM

    "Some readers complained that Luna should have been mentioned in the epilogue...I don’t think that was necessary, myself. After all, this isn’t the coda to the movie Stripes, where you see a cheesy snapshot of each and every character with a goofy curriculum vitae of the rest of their lives."

    The FishWife wanted Luna in the epilogue, yes. The FishWife feels lumped in with "some readers." The FishWife is potentially "cheesy?!" The FishWife thinks the FishHubby is skating on thin ice with her. The FishWife thinks maybe the FishHubby should be bringing a conciliatory and very pretty rose home with him this evening. Or he might wake up hearing a bit of "hem, hem." That is all.

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  8. The FishWife refers to herself in the third person like The Jimmy from Seinfeld, hahae. I hope she doesn’t take any further, err, umbrage at the comparison. :)

    (Une seule belle fleur, oui, je comprends parfaitement.)

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  9. The FishWife8/02/2007 2:54 PM

    The FishWife feels understood and satisfied. She loves her husband and his blog, yes she does! :)

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  10. I’m so glad to hear that! :)

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  11. Gary Schmidt8/06/2007 6:23 PM

    Well, well ... I've finally finished reading it. I guess I was a bit of a laggard, but not too bad considering the book has only been out a couple weeks. :)

    I'm generally in agreement with you, Jason, about everything you said here. I must say that Snape's undying love for Lily strained credulity a *little* bit, and the 19-years-later ending *was* a bit treacly (I half expected Ron and Hermione's kids to be named Dobby and Kreacher, hahae, or failing that, Scabbers); but I really can't complain; I thought the book was fantastic.

    As for the ref. to Chaucer's Pardoner's Tale, it's intriguing all right (and I bet some busy academics are racing to see who can get an article on that connection published first) -- so let me speculate on a few possible connections. The basic plot of three men trying to cheat death (misunderstanding the nature of their quest entirely) is there, and the Pardoner is known for his "fake relics," which makes me think of the endless proliferation of fake and real magical objects in HP7 (Regulus's locket, the fake Gryffindor sword, Xeno Lovegood's imitation diadem); but if anything, then, the narrator of the story (the Pardoner) is like Voldemort, misunderstanding the nature of these items himself because of his own spiritual bankruptcy. Voldemort doesn't seem to understand what his own Horcruxes -- the ring, or Harry himself, 4x. -- are, nor does he intuit the "true meaning" of any other magical object he seeks, such as the Elder Wand.

    The old man who sends Chaucer's three rioters in search of death is himself longing for death, living in a strange kind of half-existence like Voldemort when we first meet him. He longs for death but can't have it -- hence (to refer to an earlier post of yours about the meaning of the name "Voldemort") I like to think of You-Know-Who's name as meaning "death wish".

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  12. Excellent comments, Gary! Thanks for adding them to the discussion, to the benefit of other readers. Highlighting the proliferation of “fake relics” — that was an especially good point. (Remember the roaring trade in fake protection amulets running around Hogwarts in Half Blood Prince?) I’m sure you’re also right about the race to publish on the subject of The Pardoner’s Tale — but your comments here establish you as one of the first. High five! ;) Another connection deserving a closer look: the ominous epigraphs with which Rowling opens the book, particularly The Libation Bearers. I may post on this topic in the near future, but in the meantime, here is something to tide you over.

    BTW, for other readers, I thought I should explain that Gary’s abbreviation “4x” stands for “for example”. It’s a bit like “hahae”, something we invented (I think) and have been using for a long time now, forgetting that others may have no idea what it means.

    I did want to delve a little into a couple of things you said in your comments. You say, “Voldemort doesn’t seem to understand what his own Horcruxes [...] are,” but what do you mean by that, exactly? Doesn’t he?

    You also say you like Voldemort = “death wish”, but on the strength of what I think must be a mistaken comparison between Chaucer’s “old man who [...] longs for death but can’t have it” and Voldemort, who is as far from “longing for death” as it is possible to be. No?

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  13. Gary Schmidt8/07/2007 12:14 PM

    Let's see ...

    You say, “Voldemort doesn’t seem to understand what his own Horcruxes [...] are,” but what do you mean by that, exactly? Doesn’t he?

    Well, in fairness, when it comes to the Gaunt ring/Resurrection Stone, I'm sort of conflating two things from the King's Cross chapter: Dumbledore's statement on p. 719 ("I quite forgot that it was now a Horcrux, that the ring was sure to carry a curse") and one regarding Voldemort on p. 721 ("he did not recognize the Resurrection Stone he turned into a Horcrux"). Regarding Harry as the seventh Horcrux, see p. 709: "You were the seventh Horcrux, Harry, the Horcrux he never meant to make .... And his knowledge remained woefully incomplete, Harry! That which Voldemort does not value, he takes no trouble to comprehend. Of house-elves and children's tales, of love, loyalty, and innocence, Voldemort knows and understands nothing. Nothing."

    One of the points about the old man in the Pardoner's Tale is that he longs for death, longs for his mother earth to open up and swallow him -- *but*, like the Pardoner (who fakes spirituality to bilk his parishioners, but actually repeatedly shows his ignorance of true Christian spirituality), he never even thinks to entertain the idea of actually submitting to Christ and seeking salvation that way. It should be obvious, as it is to the Christian pilgrims and to the reader of the Canterbury Tales, but of such matters the old man himself knows nothing. Nothing.

    So if our villain's name is Voldemort qua "death-wish," then the name makes sense ironically: he surely wishes the death of others, but in his arrogance, he doesn't realize that almost everything he does leads him closer to his own spiritual death and the ruin of his soul -- almost as if he, or the universe, were wishing for it, pushing it inevitably to happen.

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  14. Ah, now I see what you meant. Voldemort, of course, understands what a Horcrux is / does, but the subtleties and spiritual consequences of making one (let alone seven!) are either beyond him or of no interest to him. And as we know (and Dumbledore said he suspected so in Half Blood Prince), Voldemort can’t “feel it” when one is destroyed. But neither can he “feel it” (i.e., recognize it) when he’s actually handling one of the Hallows either (getting to your point about the Gaunt ring / Resurrection Stone). In fact, he doesn’t seem to know anything about the legend at all. No surprise, given his Muggle youth in the orphanage (just as Harry, likewise, doesn’t know the Tales of Beedle the Bard*).

    As to the possibly ironic interpretation of Voldemort as “death-wish”, that’s an interesting idea. In a metafictional sense, this makes good sense, and many others of the names are like that, too (e.g., Remus Lupin). They seem endowed after the fact (as many of the descriptive names applied to mythological heroes retroactively). The case of Voldemort is a little bit trickier, only because of the fact that the name is self-chosen. But I think your idea still works. But for my part, I like the idea of there being a cluster of possible interpretations.

    * For some reason, the character of Beedle the Bard keeps making me think of Fflewddur Fflam. Come to that, isn’t Dobby a sort of Gurgi? And Dalben, Dumbledore? And the parallels continue. I feel a paper coming on! ;)

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