Monday, July 23, 2007

Revelio Totalus!

I finished Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows yesterday in the early evening after a couple of marathon reading sessions Saturday and Sunday (not counting reading the first three chapters when I got home from picking the book up at midnight). Jennifer finished it in the wee hours this morning.

All I can say is: it’s lucky I’m not a house elf, because it absolutely blew my socks off! :)

Seriously (or should I say Sirius-ly? :), an incredible conclusion to the series. An imaginative triumph, answering all the outstanding questions in (to me) a very satisfying way. Full of harrowing, tragic events, scenes of unprecedented suspense and excitement, and a beautiful symmetry befitting everything that has been leading up to these final pages over the last ten years.

I’ll be blogging about it in detail over the next few days, I expect. I’ll continue to warn about spoilers for a little while, since I realize many people will not have finished the book yet. I’m also planning to read it again next week.

I might also point out that even though some people think I’m a robot, the book brought tears to my eyes — more than once. Well done, Jo — well done!


  1. As I said a while back, I tried the first hundred page or so of the first book and it never took off for me. Reading your post just now got me thinking a little about what /does/ do it for me, in fantasy. One thing that much of the fantasy I /do/ love has in common, is a special feeling for the outdoors. Tolkien has it, obviously; the often-cited passage from The Feollowship of the Rings about the willows is a good brief example. Something of the sort comes through much of Lewis's writing, too; e.g. Jane's observations on her train ride to or from St. Anne's, in That Hideous Strength; many passages in the Narnian books. Alan Garner's The eirdstone of Brisingamen, which he says somewhere was, with its sequel, a "scream about landscape." It is this quality more than anything else, perhaps, that gets me to return every couple of years or so to Arthur Machen's horror story "The Black Seal" - - perhaps I don't even finish it; but that passage in which the heroine gazes at the winding river, etc. is something that won a place in my personal anthology ages ago. The Danubian scenes of Algernon Blackwood's "The Willows," and the myriad lakes of his "The Wendigo." Also, and here we leave Fantasy, the moors in The Hound of the Baskervilles.

    This was something that is absent, so far as I know, from the Potter books. My guess is that the authors cited above were writing about something they had experienced that Rowling perhaps has not experienced.

    Perhaps Rowling does have it when it comes to a certain way of writing about indoors scenes, in old houses. (But I doubt it!) Here my examples would include Princess Irene's wanderings in the neglected hallways of The Princess and the Goblin; the old house that Lucy wanders in, in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, etc. Also the exteriors of old houses. I can enjoy some of Lovecraft's descriptions, where I find I hardly ever reading any of his stories to the end now.

    Part of the thing is that these authors probably grew up in or around houses that could have a certain charm when they had deteriorated. An old wood-and-stone-built house can have a charming quality when it is past its best condition. But the kind of house I and most of us live in doesn't have much if any of this quality, as I had occasion to think last week when painting some beat-up masonite siding. Beat-up masonite siding goes from looking okay when it's new directly to looking crummy when it's in shabby shape; it never looks picturesque. The same is true of alumnium siding, etc. There are some new and moderately expensive houses near where I live. I cannot imagine that they will eve have this charming quality.

  2. Dale, I think you’re probably right, in large part, about Rowling here. At least, as far as the “great outdoors”. But she’s definitely got a knack for the vivid depiction of old houses (e.g., Number Twelve, Grimmauld Place in Order of the Phoenix, or the Gaunt House in Half-Blood Prince). And even talking of wild scenery, there are exceptions. But I think you’re right that Rowling doesn’t revel in such scenery the way some of the authors you mention do. Richard Adams is another whom you didn’t mention.

  3. And I forgot to mention The Shrieking Shack as well. :)

  4. It's not only "scenery" but quite close-in description that I cherish in the authors I mentioned, but find missing in nearly all post-Tolkien fantasy. For example, there's the feeling that comes across in the episode in THAT HIDEOUS STRENGTH in which Jane and the Dennistons park the car in a foggy wood and eat sandwiches.

    It might be that part of what is going on is that the older authors experienced more unhurried self-forgetful moments than the newer ones do. Their lives were paced differently. For Lewis and Tolkien, the leisurely ramble in the British countryside was a normal part of life. You can see that in many letters that Lewis wrote. They didn't, so far as I know, spend a lot of time thinking, "Oh, Here I Am, Out In Nature," etc. Another difference is that the more recent authors have grown up on TV and movies, so that their feeling for what a story should be is: a fairly fast-paced sequence of events, plenty of 'em. Tolkien and Lewis and the others grew up accustomed to the more ruminative pace and expectations of books. When I read those hundred or so pages of the first Potter book, they seemed to me to have a cinematic feeling; right out of Spielberg in his more whimsical side. So right away there was I felt like I'd "seen this before."

    I don't think we are going to have any more fantasy with that quality, however one defines it. We will have fantasy that contains lots of descriptions of natural scenes, but the author will not come to the writing of such scenes with the temperament of a Tolkien or a Lewis or a Garner. I am saying that nobody experiences nature quite the way they did any more (probably), hence no one will write the way they did. It's over; we can get it only by going to the old books. Since that is one of the things I love most in the fantasy I love most, I will have to read those favorites again.

    Of course I'd be happy to turn out to be wrong about this gloomy prediction.

    One possibility is that there is some homeschooled or counterculture-raised young person out there who did grow up with an experience of the outdoors (both close-in and "scenery") akin to that of Tolkien and Lewis. If the public schools don't get their claws on him or her there might be hope that he or she will wrote something new for us. But I fear that Lewis is right, that the modern world hates, fears and seeks to destroy the kind of solitude, contemplativeness, etc. that probably nurtures this "Tolkienian" experience.

    What will we get instead? Coming up.

  5. What will we get instead?

    Whimsy, CLEVERNESS (allusiveness, self-consciousness, irony), etc. on the one hand, and, on the other, horror.

    Tolkien, Lewis, Garner, Machen, Blackwood, Doyle, and others were not CLEVER.

    Cleverness is what the modern world can deliver. Think of the reviews you have seen of the notable fantasy of the last 25 years. I'll bet you dollars to doughnuts that almost always, the reviewer praises the author's cleverness.

    That is what "postmodernism" tends to give you.

    Not wisdom. Tolkien, Lewis, and the others I think have at least some element of wisdom because they are more childlike that the postmoderns. That is, they believe without perhaps thinking about it, in the value of story and of the evocation of imaginative states such as I have described. This kind of thing can coexist with a certain "naive" cleverness such as we get in The Hound of the Baskervilles.

    The postmodern author provides a glut of cleverness. Often also of anxiety. He or she is accustomed to thinking of human beings from the point of view of psychology. Psychology tells us that the psyche is "clever" in playing games with itself: hiding its real fears, real desires, from awareness. Ah; so then you use your cleverness to outwit it. Much modern criticism does this kind of thing: it "unmasks" things that the author didn't/couldn't deal with in a straightforward way. Also it shows how slippery words themselves are.

    The earlier authors believed in words. Read a passage of Machen or Blackwood. These men believed in the written word.

    Postmodern writers don't; but they do believe in cleverness.

    I know I am ranting a bit. One thing that makes me suscpetible to this outlook is the fact that I'm a teacher. Students are ready to be Clever; but one sometimes feels that very little of what's there in the old books is speaking to them.

    So we will have plenty of clever writers, which is what I sense Rowling is. But no more Machen, Blackwood, CSL, Tolkien, et al.

  6. Dale, your criticism of cleverness reminds me of those Jasper Fforde novels, like The Eyre Affair. Know them? That’s exactly what they are — clever. But not particularly satisfying otherwise. (But Rowling, I must object, is much more than simply clever.)

  7. No, don't know 'em; will avoid! :)

  8. More thoughts...

    There really does seem to have been a "window" for the type of writing I've been indicating. I don't know that one sees it much before the late Victorian period; nor after Garner's period or thereabouts?

    I know that sounds kind of far-fetched, but I think I can support it a little by pointing to kindred qualities in music. Approximately the same period for this writing gave us composers such as Sibelius. Do this sometime: read Blackwood's "Wendigo" unhurriedly. Within a few hours or days, listen without distractions to Sibelius's "Tapiola." I certainly don't say that Sibelius had read or even heard of Blackwood, or that one should listen to "Tapiola" as "soundtrack" for "The Wendigo." But tell me there isn't affinity if you can!

    Now, if you grant that there is, I would say further that I don't think we hear music quite like that before the late 19th century or so. And by the time of his death in around 1950, Sibelius was considered old hat by many. What were they promoting instead, in the musical world?

    Bingo! Cleverness! (a.k.a. serialism, 12-tone, etc.)

    So what was going on?

    Very tentatively - - as I place one more card atop the house I have been constructing today: I think before approximately that late Victorian era, a great deal of the thinking that people had about the land was as the scene of hard work, something you wrested a living from. There was, true, the Romantic sublime for some, but that has a quality of remoteness. Now what I have beentalking about, both with regard to fantastic writing and with regard to music, is actually something with a rather "intimate" quality. Just read Tolkien's Old Forest sequence and listen to some Sibelius, such as the 6th Symphony. Okay, so then we have that hard-work scenario (and Romantic sublime) before the late Victorian era. Now, on /our/ side from the era of Machen, Tolkien, Sibelius, we have people who think of nature as scenery and as cause. There isn't the sense, for us, of the naturalness of "being in nature" that there was for Sibelius, Lewis, et al.

    I have come to think that this quality is something precious to me, but apparently quite rare, and perhaps hardly possible for writers and composers who are to come.

    I'll leave off for now with just a few more possible references. Stevenson's Kidnapped. Ralph Vaughan Williams Symphony #3. ...Oh, a tangent: read the passage in The Silmarillion about Feanor at the Helcaraxe (if I am remembering aright). Now play the Landscape (lento) movement #3 of R Vaughan Williams Symphony #7. Akin?

    Such things there are in the world!!

  9. PS - - Play that RVW Symphony #7 passage fairly loud, preferably with your eyes closed and no distractions.

    Incidentally, we can talk about it later, but Lewis was an admirer of music by RVW, Sibelius, and Holst (The Planets).

  10. Funny you should mention Ralph Vaughn Williams — he’s one of my favorites! Yours is an interesting idea: comparing / contrasting musical movements with literary ones. There could be something to that, though it would be quite an undertaking to establish anything other than coincidental similarity or affinity. (More in the direction of your postscript about Lewis.)

  11. I don't know if a great deal more can be done than this: to say to someone else, "It seems to me that these things XYZ have something in common, which might be suggested by words such as 'mystery' and 'intimacy.' Do you feel that they have something in common that could be suggested by those words?"

    And then: "You /do/? Ah! Then my next question is: do you know of other works of music or literature that seem to have that quality?"

    And the other question is: Supposing that these works XYZ have quality/ies in common, do we find that the works all tend to fall within a period running from approximately the late 1800s to the mid-1900s?

    And then, if so, one can speculate about why this is so. And again, my hypothesis is that the period just indicated was one in which, for literary and musical people, "the land" did not have a strong suggestion of hard work and uncertainty; did seem something that it was natural and ordinary to experience; was not something about which they were terribly self-conscious.

    And then, if all this is so, then finally I am brought to doubt that we will have much more writing with this mysterious quality because relatively few or no literary/musical people will have the experience or at least have it so often.

    So one might compile a list of touchstone works. Incidentally, I think the visual arts could be brought into discussion. I will throw this out for consideration: Is there something that, say, Arthur Rackham's drawings have, that perhaps N. C. Wyeth's illustrations have, that D. Watkins-Pitchford's illustrations for his book The Little Grey Men have, etc., that one doesn't see in art prior to the late Victorian period; and that is missing in the fantastic art of such names in our own time as Alan Lee, Ted Naismith, the Brothers Hildebrandt, etc.? Not to lump them together!

    Sibelius rules!