Sunday, July 22, 2007

It Ends

That's a pretty pretentious title for a review of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, isn't it? Yes, it is--but then, all of us got at least a little pretentious in regards to the Harry Potter books, didn't we? Sometimes? Alan? Tim? Or maybe it was just me. And maybe all that pretentiousness was generated by my head, never the books themselves. Because I must admit it--I finished Deathly Hallows at about 9:45am Saturday morning (got home from the bookstore at about 1am, read until 4am, tried to sleep for an hour, then got back up and read until I was done), and the very first coherent judgment I could come to was "Huh. A children's story after all."

[From this point on, spoilers abound. You've been warned.]

Please note: I am not saying "children's story" with anything like a sneering or condescending tone; I am not saying that Deathly Hallows reveals the story of Harry Potter to be simplistic or childish or immature. Far from it! But I am saying that, somehow or another, over the last two years--led along, I suppose, by my own outrageously detailed predictions, which of course proved to be almost entirely wrong--I talked myself into seeing these books...differently than I had any right to. I read too much that was epic into them, too much that was mythological and psychological, too much that was adult. I wrote before, both here on my blog and on many comments on many others' posts over the months, that if Deathly Hallows turned out to be a book in which Harry and friends have to run through one more puzzle, figure out one more trick, reveal one more twist in Snape's character, learn one more lesson, all to find Dumbledore proudly waiting for them one more time at the end--in others words, if it turned out to be one more step in a long bildungsroman, a bildungsroman that I was convinced had come to an end in the last book--then I would be immensely disappointed. And...well, it did turn out to be a story with new puzzles for Harry, Ron, and Hermione to solve (figuring out the mysterious gifts left for them by Dumbledore), another trick for them to negotiate (the mystery and temptation posed by the Deathly Hallows), one more surprise revelation about Snape (though admittedly this was the biggest of them all), one more difficult lesson taught (Harry's realization that he had to die), and yes, it even had Dumbledore: not just--as we learn at the end--having orchestrated the recovery of the Sword of Gryffindor and much more via Snape from his half-life in his portrait in the headmaster's office, but even showing up for a heart-to-heart with Harry in the afterlife! And yet...I'm not disappointed at all. In fact, I loved it, and turned the last page aching for more.

Surprisingly enough, I should have let the movies call me to my senses. When Melissa and I went to see "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix" the Friday before last (just last week! how the past day and a half have seemed to stretch time...), we walked out of theater thrilled. No, of course it's not some cinematic masterpiece, but it is a great, exciting, affecting fantasy film, and we delighted in rehearsing our favorite scenes. But then, just as quickly we were talking about all the great scenes they left out, all the ways in which they failed to "properly" advance the story, all the misfires in their adaptation. ("As usual, they aren't providing what the story requires to make sense of Snape!"--that sort of thing.) As I turned it over in my head, I could only see more and more holes. But then I wondered: if it, like the other films, had manifestly failed, why did I like it so much? Low expectations? No...it is genuinely a good film on its own terms. And that's when it struck me. What are its own terms? Why, the story of Harry, of course--the Boy Who Lived, the boy who is blessed and cursed and destined to love and fight and lead. A hero, in other words. A boy hero, who must grow to be a man. "Order of the Phoenix" gave us a rousing, powerful, heroic final (yet we know far from truly final) temptation and battle, with everything resting on Harry; it was fantastic. The filmmakers (under J.K. Rowling's watchful eye, perhaps?) have never forgotten, whatever their other mistakes, that this is Harry's story. Me...well, let's say that I probably sometimes let that slip my mind.

And so, of course Harry would live; of course he would go beyond but then come right back again. He's the young hero, the one who by being willing to accept his own death, by growing up, surprisingly (or is it, really?) undoes the last sure magic keeping Voldemort, the enemy of all life, himself alive! No tragic, overarching, transhistorical doom here--Harry is not Frodo, a man who must unknowingly ruin himself for the sake of something larger than himself. Neither is Dumbledore Gandalf, an awesomely powerful agent of those larger things, who is nonetheless himself also in the thick of the battle. No, Dumbledore is the father figure who plans and hopes and risks the best way he knows how, the teacher who must plot and trick and sacrifice so his students can learn what they may and then teach themselves the rest. But also unlike Gandalf, Dumbledore is like an ordinary father and teacher in other ways: a man whose knowledge is limited, who is haunted by his own past, his own failures, his own pre-occupations, who is, at best, only guessing (though his guesses are usually good!). Gandalf could never have a brother like Aberforth, and why would he need one? J.R.R. Tolkien was charting the passing of an age; such stories do not require wizards with existential dimensions. But Rowling has charted the arc of a boy as he grew to become a prophesied hero. His most proper parallel (and this has been noted by many, though never, I think, to my embarrassment, by me) is Taran, from Lloyd Alexander's classic Prydain stories. A boy in love, a boy who doubts, a boy with confused yet fiery ambitions, a boy destined to be high king....but only if he can grow and learn the lessons and accept the help and show the courage he must. Which he did (of course he did; it's a bildungsroman, after all!)--and so did Harry, thus doing exactly the growing up which the books had intended of him all along.

Does that forgive all? Not at all. The comparison with Alexander's compact, tight Prydain novels is a good one: if we were not, in the end, to be led to an epic clash of the best and worst of the wizarding and Muggle worlds and the resulting transformations (and while that door remains open, there is nothing in the final chapter or the epilogue of Deathly Hallows to suggest that much is fundamentally going to change--twenty years later they're still sorting people into houses and inspiring rivalries at Hogwarts, for heaven's sake!), but rather, to be led to a concluding series of tests and choices in the life of the Chosen One, and the hard-won victory which follows, then Rowling really could have and should have written shorter (dare I say less "pretentious"?) books! Yet I bite my tongue in even saying that...because if Rowling is anything, she's a charmer of Dickensian proportions. Her scenes, her characters...gosh I wanted more! I wanted to see Ron and Hermionie abruptly decide to get married while on the run with Harry (dude, if you're living practically alone in a tent for weeks and weeks...). I wanted Regulus Black himself to pop up, somehow or somewhere. I wanted Harry to twist the Resurrection Stone one more time, and have that final (necessary, I insist, necessary!) face to face with Snape, in the presence of the ghosts of Snape's greatest enemies and his only love. I wanted to see Horace Slughorn lay it on the line to the Slytherin students, shut Pansy Parkinson up, and demonstrate (as Phineas Nigellus insisted) that there's a real reason for Slytherin House after all. So, ultimately, Rowling the author puts my thinking at cross-purposes: she has given me a work of fiction that in its themes and intentions are really much simpler (though no less worthy and powerful on their own terms for all that) than all the plots and points of view she has loaded her books up with implied, with imbalanced results...and yet contained within all that pretentiousness was stuff and more stuff, not one bit of which I'd want to lose.

Okay, enough with all my ruminations on the big themes. How about my predictions? Well, I was totally wrong about Harry and Snape and Luna and Viktor Krum and Azkaban and the Order of the Phoenix and the Malfoys and Hogwarts, 99% wrong about Percy and Peter Pettigrew and Slughorn and pretty much everything else. I suppose I could claim a few small, small accuracies here and there, but let's face it: I completely blew it. Oh well, no future in teaching Divination for me. How about the good bits in the book? Well, there are no less than three truly spectacular set pieces: the infiltration of the Ministry of Magic, the gloriously wild break-in to (and break-out of) Gringotts, and of course the Battle of Hogwarts--which blew every previous battle in the book away, and intentionally so, as this was Rowling's big chance to bring everyone on for a final bow. (Yes! Percy and Charlie Weasley! The old Quidditch crowd, Angelina Johnson and Oliver Wood! Neville's grandmother! Sir Cadagon! Bane! Buckbeak! Firenze! Kreacher leading an army of house elves! The Molly Weasley-Bellatrix Lestrange showdown, complete with a hat-tip to Sigourney Weaver in Aliens! And Colin Creevy....damn, why did poor Colin's death hit me like fist to the stomach? To say nothing of Fred, Remus, and Tonks!) And that leaves out the escapes from Malfoy Manor (Dobby! You were a free elf, indeed!) and from Nagini at Godric's Hollow. And if battles aren't your thing...well, the departure and return of Ron in chapters 15 and 19, climaxing with Ron's emotionally shattering confrontation with the Horcrux (the only time in reading Deathly Hallows when I did not merely sniffle and tear up, but truly wept), not only provided a payoff to all those who had speculated that, before the end, the one member of the Big Three to whom Rowling had given truly ordinary fears and weaknesses would be forced by Voldemort to face them openly, but also proved to me that if she ever decides to try her hand at adult dramatic or romantic fiction, she definitely has the chops. And how about the comedy? Not much in the middle and latter parts of the book, but the wedding, before everything went to hell, was as witty as all get out (I loved George's suggestion that he teach their new veela cousins "English customs"). And as for quiet pathos, only the hardest heart could fail to be moved, I think, by Rowling's description of the meeting of Harry and Neville before Harry left Hogwarts to meet Voldemort and his death. ("We're all going to keep fighting, Harry. You know that?") So yes--leaving aside what kind of book it was, and whether it should have been or could have been a different book, what it was, was...well, not perfect. But very, very, very fine.

And what next for all of us who gulped down Deathly Hallows madly, desperate to find out how it ends, and now find ourselves satisfied yet sad, wondering about what might have been and making our peace with a story now done? I wandered a bit around the house Saturday morning, exhausted and elated and a little empty--and then into my head popped the final lines of Norton Juster's The Phantom Tollbooth, a youth fiction classic that reflects upon deep truths as powerfully as...well, as Alexander's Prydain and now Rowling's Potter books do, too. Milo, the book's young hero, having had a wonderful, dangerous adventure just the day before, rushes home from school to take another trip through the Tollbooth which had mysterious appeared in his bedroom--but instead finds:

[I]n its place was [a] bright blue envelope, which was addressed simply: "FOR MILO, WHO NOW KNOWS THE WAY."
He opened it quickly and read:

Dear Milo,
You have now completed your trip, courtesy of the Phantom Tollbooth. We trust that everything was satisfactory, and hope you understand why we had to come and collect it. You see, there are so many other boys and girls waiting to use it, too.
It's true that there are many lands you've still to visit (some of which are not even on the map) and wonderful things to see (that no one has yet imagined), but we're quite sure that if you really want to, you'll find a way to reach them all by yourself.
Yours truly,


The signature was blurred and couldn't be read.


Thank you, J.K. Rowling, for showing us the way to, if not the best place ever, then at least a very, very good place indeed. And now that you've taken us all the way to the end, well, we've got seven hardback novels on our shelves (and Megan has a bunch of paperback novels of her own!), to help us get back there on our own--though you know, if you ever decide to come back and add a little more to the world you've made, please don't let this benediction stand in your way!

59 comments:

Rob Perkins said...

You got a paperback version already?

I finished it late Saturday night, under the pressure of a very very needy 11 year old girl, who kept "just checking in!" to see what chapter I was on.

I agree generally with your review. It was a good ending. As to your comment about the fact that it was a children's story after all, I'll say this: I have been reduced to tears (or could we say elevated to tears? Like any work of art or Spirit, good literature should evoke feeling, after all) only twice in literature: The closing two chapters of Orson Scott Card's Lost Boys, which rends the heart, especially for a parent like me, and Katherine Paterson's Bridge to Terabithia which tore me completely to pieces with grief.

(Terabithia also completely underscores the difference between what the American Library Association used to award its Newbery medal for, and more recent awards for style-over-substance offerings like DiCamillo's The Tale of Despereaux, which, while entertaining, calls more attention to the author than the story the author is telling. In comparison, we lose track of the fact that J.K. Rowling is the author of the Potter books.)

As you know, Terabithia is categorized as a children's story. And I think it's the most powerful kind of story, an attempt to give us scripts we can use to deal with life's greatest challenges.

So, where does that leave me with Rowling's tome? The clear themes are what she said they are (in the voice of Dumbledore), that the choice between right and easy reveals what is best or worst about us. That the deepest and most fundamental good is love of fellowman. And loyalty to that love.

Of course, all of that has been discussed to death by better men than I.

Meg Q said...

Just a couple of comments.

I'm so glad that those of us who always hoped that Snape was ultimately worthy of Dumbledore's trust, had our hope fulfilled.

I'm so glad that Harry's final battle with Voldemort/Riddle was, for Harry, all about offering even *him* redemption, even knowing it would probably not work, that Riddle would almost surely not understand, still, telling him how to do it.

I'm so glad that Miss Rowling gave me both things I wanted from Harry - to offer himself up as a sacrifice for others, and yet to live a long and happy life . . . :^) .

And don't worry about "overanalysis" - my husband, a Tolkien scholar, often observes that these days, in literature, to write about deep and ultimate themes, it is almost impossible to do so in, say, poetry or "adult" literature and be taken seriously - for that, you must write in fantasy and/or children's literature - and then your readers will find you.

Russell Arben Fox said...

Rob and Meg,

No, sorry Rob, of course there isn't a paperback version available--I was just waxing lyrical there. Not that Megan (our own almost-11-year-old) won't buy her own copy the minute the paperback hits the shelves!

Let me repeat and agree with the points you both make: that there is nothing whatsoever inherently limited or false or weak about children's/youth fantasy/bildungsroman-type stories. Those can be stunningly powerful and deep stories--in fact, my wife would agree with your husband, Meg, in thinking that these sorts of "children's books" have a better chance of pulling off serious themes successfully than perhaps any other genre of "serious literature" today. All I mean to say is that I had, in my predictions and interpretations and analysis, got myself to the point where I was seeing Deathly Hallows as necessarily having to be a different sort of book, a fantasy shooting for the epic and tragic and mythological and adult. I just didn't think we were still going to be treated to a hero-growing-up story; I thought it would be massively disappointed if we were. I was wrong. So wrong!

scritic said...

I had exactly the same reaction as you did, Russell: that it was a children's book after all, and again, like you, in a completely non-pejorative sense. I had let myself be carried away by all the hysteria (will Harry die? is Snape good or bad?) and I'm happy Rowling kept her cool and wrote a conventional (non-pejorative) conclusion to the series.

Like you, I also wanted more at the end. I wanted more revelations about Lord Voldemort, why he became what he was -- something Rowling did so superlatively in Half-blood Prince. I do think that Rowling made Voldemort a little too shrill -- he seemed to have lost the mystique that made him chilling in the first place, although his killing sprees remain shocking. But most of all, I wanted a final heart-to-heart between Harry and Snape, in the light of what we know about him in Deathly Hallows. I was pleased though that Harry had named his son after him but I still wanted Snape to be thanked!)

And I choked up on the epilogue ("19 years later...") and the last line. It's been ten years since the first Potter book and life has changed -- what happens in another 19 years to us all?

Alan Jacobs said...

I know what you mean, Russell, in saying that "it's a children's story after all," and I understand perfectly that that's not in any way a dismissive comment. But the books -- especially this last book -- do all sorts of things that children's books just don't do. One death after another, each more painful than the last, plus exposure to every sort of horrific cruelty. I think we may have something here that it truly sui generis.

I have already heard a number of people say what scritic says, that they wished for a heart-to-heart between Snape and Harry. But what would they have said to each other? Snape never changes his mind about Harry: he always thinks of him as an arrogant little jerk like his father, and nothing could ever have changed that. He doesn't draw Harry close to him at the end because he wants to say anything to Harry, but because he wants to look one more time into Lily Evans's eyes. He would very happily and without qualm have sent Harry and James to death if he could have saved Lily, and I don't think that ever changed.

I can understand why Harry comes to be reconciled in some sense with Snape -- Snape *was* a brave man, and took risks that no one else took, even if he took them merely to get revenge on the murderer of Lily -- but to name his *son* after Snape? That I don't get.

Russell Arben Fox said...

Scritic and Alan,

"I'm happy Rowling kept her cool and wrote a conventional (non-pejorative) conclusion to the series."

Yes, yes--exactly! Conventional! Look at that epilogue--moms and dads talking about driving tests and sending their kids off to school. Harry grew up, he did a great and good thing, he was a hero...but not, not really, some world-historical figure, as much as some of us thought to read Harry (and Hermionie, and Ron too) that way. Heroes go home when their job is done (Sam went home..."I'm back" and all that), and that is exactly what Rowling allowed Harry to do.

"But the books--especially this last book--do all sorts of things that children's books just don't do. One death after another, each more painful than the last, plus exposure to every sort of horrific cruelty. I think we may have something here that it truly sui generis."

Could be, Alan, I cannot deny it; maybe what I called a little "imbalanced" was in fact a step towards an entirely new (more epic? more "pretentious"?) way of tellings these sorts of stories. Then again, I don't think we should be quick to assume that Rowling's cruelty and deaths are totally original; note Rob's invocation of Bridge to Terabithia, whose single tragic, ugly death has nonetheless broken the hearts of millions of readers.

"I have already heard a number of people say what scritic says, that they wished for a heart-to-heart between Snape and Harry. But what would they have said to each other?"

Well, the heart-to-heart I imagine is one after Snape has died. And if we take Rowling's word for it, and those brought forward by the Resurrection Stone really have "gone on," then it would have been an encounter that would allowed his ultimate reconciliation with Snape to begin. I imagine a conversation beginning with a question from Harry: "Why couldn't you have let anyone know?" or "Did you want me to hate you? Was that part of the plan, or your own choice?"

I should note, however, that my wife agrees with you: such a conversation, before or after Snape's death, would have been pointless; there would not have been anything to say. She argues that his appreciation of Snape only could have come with marriage and children and years of time; nothing could have been said at the time.

Daddy Democrat said...

I can understand why Harry is reconciled with Snape. It's precisely why Dumbledore looks up to Harry so much. His compassion. Harry helps Malfoy and Goyle even after they try to kill him. At King's Cross, he wants to help the destroyed child. He puts trust in Kreacher.

Harry has to come to grips with the fact that nobody is perfect. Not his father, not Dumbledore. Snape can be pitied, but in the end, he bravely faced the same kind of brutal destiny that he himself had to face.

Totally makes sense to me that he could reconcile himself to that memory.

Alan Jacobs said...

I totally see and believe in the reconciliation, and you're right that that compassion is one of Harry's defining traits -- perhaps *the* defining trait: think his he risks his life to save Draco and Crabbe and Goyle (to Ron's comical annoyance). But I can be reconciled with all sorts of people whose name I wouldn't give to my son. . . .

Karl said...

I agree that a final conversation with Snape would have been pointless. As Alan rightly points out, Snape never stopped hating the son of James Potter. Snape's love for Lilly and continued devotion to that love was and remained "the best of him" as Dumbledore said. But the REST of him was much closer to the Malfoy/Voldemort crowd than the Dumbledore/Evans crowd. A final conversation, if true to the characters as they have been revealed, would have been awkward, unpleasant and depressing. I think Snape was as "redeemed" as he was going to get.

Yet unlike Alan, I think Harry's ability to not only forgive Snape but to name a son after him, makes
perfect sense. Harry is more selfless than most. The fact that Snape hated him, Harry, means little. What matters to Harry is that Snape loved the person who Harry loved most in the world - the mother who sacrificed herself for him. Harry understands a little about true courage, and realizes at what cost Snape remained faithful to his love for Lilly Evans and protected her son, even though he loathed the son. I disagree with Alan's suggestion that Snape's motivation was simply revenge on the murderer of Lilly. Dumbledore tells Snape that if he truly loved Lilly the way forward for him is clear. He must further the cause for which she fought, protect the son she died to protect. That is more than revenge. Secondly, as a result of his love for Lilly and decision to take that "way forward," Snape was also loyal to Dumbledore, Harry's loved surrogate parent. Harry's witness of Dumbledore's last interactions with Snape, his commendation of Snape's courage and his comment that perhaps we sort too soon (implying that Snape, like Harry, might have done well in a different house), all factor in to Harry's final judgment of Snape.

From the moment Voldemort appeared "flying like smoke on the wind, without broomstick or thestral to hold him" I knew JKR still had the magic. V's early appearance (not just a glimpse into what he's up to but actually engaging in conflict with Harry and members of the order in an early chapter) combined with the death of mad-eye and George's lost ear to show that, as Ron might say, she's not effing around this time.

The Prydain books have been the closest analogue I could think of to the Potter stories all along. But rather than thinking Rowling's books should be pared down to be more like Alexander's, I agree with Alan's judgment that they are like, but more than, that series and the genre of children's stories as a whole. Perhaps somewhere between Prydain and Middle-Earth, with original JK Rowling-created territory carved out such that they stand on their own.

Alan Jacobs said...

You make a good case, Karl -- perhaps Harry (and JKR) are just more compassionate and forgiving than I am.

Clearly what JKR wants to suggest here is that love is the one truly redeeming force. Voldemort never loved anyone, and Snape would have been just like him except that he loved one person, and that love ended up giving him courage -- courage worthy of Gryffindor House -- and determination. But I think we have to agree that it was a very limited kind of love, and not just because Snape never loved anyone else. After all, Snape did not love Lily enough to break with the Death Eaters -- even when that caused her to turn her back on him.

It's all very curious, and I need to think about it more.

Karl said...

I agree with you there Alan, that Snape's love was of a very limited kind. I think the final judgment on Snape when he appears in the place Harry briefly met Dumbledore may remain a bit of an open question. Does Rowling believe in Purgatory? (j/k).

Leaving that kind of final judgment and what JKR might say about it aside I do agree, as I mentioned, that the rest of Snape remained a pretty nasty person. One who Dumbledore remained saddened and disgusted by, although he eventually grew to admire and perhaps even have affection for Snape due to his 16 years-long demonstration of courage and fidelity to Lilly's memory. Witness Dumbledore's weary sigh when he asks if Snape wants to give Harry detention yet again. He is under no illusions about the nastiness that remains. Nor, I think, is Harry. Yet Dumbledore and Harry are both aware of less-than-desirable actions and motivations of their own, and may judge others less harshly as a result. And they know of the lonely wounded child that Snape was. Harry, once cruelly bullied by Dudley, empathizes with Snape who was bullied by James and his gang - and understands how one could have a hard time not carrying lifetime bitterness toward the bully. Objective readers can see the enormous differences between Harry and Snape. Snape was incapable of the kind of empathy toward others that Harry has toward him. As JKR has reminded us it is our choices, more than our abilities, that make us what we are, aftter all. But within the confines of story and the characters in it, Harry's embrace of the memory of Snape and his noble sacrifice (Harry doesn't have to live with the nasty actual person anymore, after all) makes sense to me.

Russell Arben Fox said...

Karl, Alan,

Excellent and thoughtful exchange; I think you've convinced me that my wife is right, that there was no other way for Harry to learn the truth save through the Penseive, as no other kind of conversation between them would have been possible (or plausible, for that matter). I just wish some of the little things packed into those memories, all revealed in a rush, could have been foreshadowed or built upon a little bit more. And I think this goes to my abiding frustration (a frustration not entirely justified, I recognize, because I see that this was not the sort of story Rowling was telling) that the dynamics of Slytherin and the other schools, and the sorts of personalities placed into them, were never made explicit. Lily could have been a part of that: a Gryffindor whose true, best friend, for years anyway, was a Slytherin. What does Slytherin have to offer--and Gryffindor too, for that matter? Why are they there, anyway? Did you catch that line, from when Snape and Lily were aboard the Hogwarts Express, and met James and Sirius for the first time? Harry's father, a boy with "that indefinable air of having been well-cared-for, even adored, that Snape so conspicuously lacked." There's a story there, a story begging to be told. It just wasn't Rowling's story, I guess.

Alan Jacobs said...

Don't you think, Russell, that Rowling has told a lot of that story? I mean, Snape's judgment of Harry's character is totally wrong precisely because Harry did not grow up "adored," as his father had. Harry's upbringing was much more like Snape's -- which means that that Harry could respond to Snape's memories in the Pensieve (the ones he sees in OP) with such compassion, and could immediately see what was wrong with his father's behavior. But Snape had already constructed a narrative about Harry -- a narrative built on his inability to forget that the person he loved was dead because of Harry -- and that narrative was immovable, unrevisable.

What I find missing in the story is the change of James Potter from an "arrogant toerag" -- that's what Lily calls him -- to someone that Lily could marry. Sirius and Lupin chalk this up to simple maturation when Harry asks them about it in OP, but I think there's more to it than that. I think we have reason to guess that James Potter loved Lily Evans enough to change for her, in order to win her; Severus Snape did not. It would have been nice to learn more about this, though.

Alan Jacobs said...

I should clarify what I mean: the story of the differences between James Potter and Severus Snape is (to some degree) told. But the larger story of the different houses, and the personality types that gravitate towards the different houses -- it's true that that isn't told. But it doesn't seem that there's any connection between neglected children and Slytherin -- if any kid is "adored" as much as James Potter it's Draco Malfoy (and for that matter Dudley Dursley). Other Slytherins seem to come from stable, if arrogant and status-conscious, families.

After the great Battle of Hogwarts the tables are returned to the Great Hall, but JKR tells us that people aren't sitting according to house, but rather are all jumbled together. Yet in the Epilogue it's clear that the House system is working just the way it always has. I wonder if JKR wants us to deplore that, or at least to be a little sad about it.

Karl said...

Russell, I would love a crack at the pages and pages of "backstory" that JKR has said she has on each character, wouldn't you? I imagine bits and pieces will come out as she now will likely be more forthcoming in answering such questions from fans on her website, in interviews etc.

Alan, I think Snape's already-created narrative re. Harry is as much or more about his hatred of James. He understands (I think) Lilly dying for her son. I am sure there is bitterness there that she is dead while Harry survived. But it is the fact that Lilly's son is the son of James Potter that really pushes him over the edge in his hatred toward Harry, don't you think? i.e. even if Lilly and James hadn't died, Severus Snape would hardly have hated Harry Potter any less when he arrived at Hogwarts, would he?

I agree there is a gap in the story re. just how Lilly came to fall in love with James, and what James' maturation/transformation looked like. I am guessing the adult James was probably a lot like the adult Sirius Black - with the added dimension of his love for Lilly and hers for him. Dumbledore does tell Snape that while Harry may carry the physical image of James, his true nature is more that of his mother. Remember Sirius telling Harry with some bitterness "you aren't as much like your father as I thought."

Alan Jacobs said...

But it is the fact that Lilly's son is the son of James Potter that really pushes him over the edge in his hatred toward Harry, don't you think? i.e. even if Lilly and James hadn't died, Severus Snape would hardly have hated Harry Potter any less when he arrived at Hogwarts, would he?

Agreed -- but I think that hatred could just possibly have been susceptible to revision were it not for the fact that every time Snape looks at Harry he thinks, "But for you, my beloved would still be alive."

Karl said...

Alan, I'm sure you have read the JKR interview with the webmasters of her two biggest fansites. There are some snippets in there re. her view on the 4 houses and why they exist. Also on the question of "how did James and Lilly end up together?"

Re. the Slytherins and why they are allowed to exist:

JKR: But they're not all bad. They literally are not all bad. [Pause] Well, the deeper answer, the non-flippant answer, would be that you have to embrace all of a person, you have to take them with their flaws, and everyone's got them. It's the same way with the student body. If only they could achieve perfect unity, you would have an absolute unstoppable force, and I suppose it's that craving for unity and wholeness that means that they keep that quarter of the school that maybe does not encapsulate the most generous and noble qualities, in the hope, in the very Dumbledore-esque hope that they will achieve union, and they will achieve harmony. Harmony is the word.


. . . It is the tradition to have four houses, but in this case, I wanted them to correspond roughly to the four elements. So Gryffindor is fire, Ravenclaw is air, Hufflepuff is earth, and Slytherin is water; hence the fact that their common room is under the lake. So again, it was this idea of harmony and balance, that you had four necessary components and by integrating them you would make a very strong place. But they remain fragmented, as we know.


Re. James/Lily

MA: How did they get together? She hated James, from what we've seen.

JKR: Did she really? You're a woman, you know what I'm saying. [Laughter]

I think the romance was a combination of James maturing as he got older (I knew plenty of guys who were jerks in high school and college who largely grew out of it), James changing some due to his love of Lilly, and Lilly's attraction to James's many good qualities, his rakish Han Solo-ish personality (once toned down a bit) and his relentless pursuit of her in spite of a couple of years' worth of rejection. But yes, it would be nice if JKR filled in some of those holes rather than just leaving a few clues to be pieced together.

Russell Arben Fox said...

The story of the differences between James Potter and Severus Snape is (to some degree) told. But the larger story of the different houses, and the personality types that gravitate towards the different houses--it's true that that isn't told. But it doesn't seem that there's any connection between neglected children and Slytherin.

Right, and I don't necessarily mean to imply that there must be in order to make the differences between the houses sensible, to work them into a reason for their exist except narrative demands and an accident of plotting. The thing is, I'm not sure what would make them sensible. Shouldn't there be flaws to courage, the Gryffindor virtue, just as there are to the survival instinct, the Slytherin virtue? Certainly such flaws (though not always labeled such) have been pointed out to us several times through the books, as we've looked upon the arrogance of James and Sirius, a headstrongness that Harry himself has revealed many times? But what is its counterpoint? Why is Slytherin its great enemy? What did Lily bring into the Gryffindor-Slytherin dynamic that James was capable of responding to, but Snape was not, and why?

(And all this talk of faults and false judgments makes me wonder...wasn't Dumbledore himself also Gryffindor? Could there have been a desire on Rowling's part that we see, in the background of Dumbledore's conclusion that Harry really is a better man than he, that in ultimately taking--as Karl wisely notes--more after Lily than after James, Harry is outgrowing the limits of his house, to a greater extent than Snape or James or even Dumbledore himself ever did?)

I think that hatred could just possibly have been susceptible to revision were it not for the fact that every time Snape looks at Harry he thinks, "But for you, my beloved would still be alive."

Yes! It's sex and death--James stole away Lily's heart, married her, had a son by her...and then that son is what led to her death (oh, yeah, Snape says dismissively, and James's too). When Snape looks at Harry, he's sees not only his own despair, but his own inadequacies--his own inability to change, to grow up and be a man, as Alan suggests perhaps?--as well.

Karl said...

Russell, I think in this talk of the various houses we have to hold in tension two truths. One is obvious, that there are certain innate character qualities that are representative of the houses, and without a strong dose of the quality valued by a given house, a student won't be sorted into such house.

Two, that nearly everyone is a mixed bag of gifts and deficiencies, and many if not most will have character traits that might make them able to "do well" in more than one house. Apparently the sorting hat would have been willing to put Harry in Slytherin, where he could have gone far. Snape might have made a good Gryffindor. Hermione, with her brains, seems well suited to Ravenclaw. At times Ron (and even more so, Neville) seems more like a Hufflepuff. Harry tells his son that if you want, the hat will take your preference into account. It is our choices, as much as our abilities . . .

Of course there are some whose combination of innate character traits/abilities and choices make their sorting inevitable. The hat had barely touched Malfoy's head before it screamed "Slytherin!"

I think a key word in Rowling's discussion of the houses is "harmony." I don't think she envisions a Hogwarts with no sorting into houses as being the ideal. I think harmony and unity of purpose between the houses, each bringing its own strength to bear, is her ideal.

Karl said...

I'm back to back posting here, but did anyone else notice that the cover art for the book (American edition) is off?

One of Harry's hands is extended to catch the out-of-the-picture Elder Wand but his other hand is empty. He's supposed to be holding Draco's wand in his off-hand, per the story. I wonder if that was a conscious decision, JKR feeling that showing a wand in his hand would somehow give something away? Or just an oversight. I am guessing that it was intentional. Showing Harry with a wand and Voldemort without one, would tell savvy observers too much.

Alan Jacobs said...

I'm back to back posting here, but did anyone else notice that the cover art for the book (American edition) is off?

I did notice that, and mentioned it to a friend. I understand that it would have given to much away to show Voldemort wandless and Harry with a wand, but after I saw that cover I started trying to figure out what situation might lead to both of them being deprived of wands -- which led me to speculations about something taking them both beyond the Veil in the Dept. of Mysteries.

Western Dave said...

Well, I got my gnostic Snape. And I was almost right about two loves. I was a bit disappointed in Snape being somewhat one dimensional in never moving past Lilly. I was right about love (welcome back, Percy!) but wrong about the context of the final battle and the role Mrs. Weasly would play.
About halfway through, right after Dobby kicked it (which totally had me in tears,), "man, who isn't she going to kill?" I loved that Dumbledore was made human. It always annoyed me that we his only fault was an affected eccentricity. He's much more likeable now. If J.K. returns to this world it is to tell the story of the founding of Hogwarts.

Russell Arben Fox said...

As always Dave, it's good to hear from you.

I was a bit disappointed in Snape being somewhat one dimensional in never moving past Lilly.

I can see your point, but then anything more than a cramped, hoarded-away love and longing for Lily would made it even harder to explain why Snape chose to be the person he was--a person who was determined to hide that which was best and most courageous about himself, a man who purposively made himself hated and hateful. No, this was a genuine, perhaps even saving love, but it was also a curdled one nonetheless.

I was right about love (welcome back, Percy!) but wrong about the context of the final battle and the role Mrs. Weasly would play.

Yeah, but you know what? Molly Weasley as Lt. Ellen Ripley was ten kinds of awesome.

If J.K. returns to this world it is to tell the story of the founding of Hogwarts.

That I would indeed love to read. It might even finally answer some questions of mine...

tom brandt said...

Russell,

I think this is the first time I have commented on your blog.

tDH was for me the most emotionally wrenching book of the seven. It was a shock when Hedwig was killed, and this was a hint of what was to come. I actually cried when Harry buried Dobby. And the scene when Harry was walking through the forest to his death accompanied only by the ghosts of his parents and others was genuinely heart-wrenching.

It was cool that Molly dispatched Bellatrix, but she did it after Bella went after Ginny. Parents going to any lengths to protect their children is a recurring theme in the Potter books.

My sister told me that Rowling said in an interview that she may not be done with the Wizarding world, so we may learn some of the backstories of some of these characters.

Karl said...

Alan, I read your post(s) on the Easily Distracted blog but couldn't reply there as I'm not registered to post (tried to but still haven't received a password).

You wrote "Presumably the raw baby that shows up in King’s Cross with Harry is Voldemort’s soul, or rather, the fragment of it that’s still in his body."

I'm not sure I agree. I thought the raw baby in King's Cross was the soul-fragment horcrux that previously resided in Harry. The one that Voldemort inadvertently placed there the first time he tried to use Avada Kedavra on Harry, and has now inadvertently killed the second time he hit Harry with that curse.

Which opens up a question I mentioned a few weeks ago:

"When Voldemort's avada kedavra curse rebounded off one year old Harry, didn't that "kill" one of the soul-fragments - the one in Voldemort at the time? The description of the event and its effects on V certainly sounds like it. If not, how/why not?"

I think the answer to that question may bear on the book 7 encounter in the Forbidden Forest in some fashion. But when Harry willingly allows the Avada Kedavra curse to hit him this time, it doesn't rebound back on Voldemort - does it? It kills the horcrux in Harry, knocks Harry into limbo/King's Cross, and somehow Voldemort is knocked senseless. But is the disfigured soul still in Voldemort's body temporarily killed and/or sent to limbo also? I don't think so, but am having trouble fitting the pieces together. I hope Rowling (or a more astute reader than I) will fill this in for me.

Russell Arben Fox said...

Tom, always a pleasure to welcome a new reader. And I hope your sister heard right--there are so many backstories that I would love to have Rowling tell!

Karl, I'm afraid you're own when it comes to King's Cross. The more I think about it, the more confusing it becomes for me.

Karl said...

I think part of the dilemma is that Rowling hasn't explained just how the horcrux mechanism works on the back end. We know enough about how one is created. But then how is it "used" when needed? Here is my take on it:

Immediately before one year old Harry was attacked, Voldemort's soul was apparently in seven pieces, as follows: Riddle's diary, Marvolo's ring, Slytherin's locket, Hufflepuff's cup, Ravenclaw's tiara, Nagini the snake, and an, unstable and mangled soul remaining in Voldemort himself.

Voldemort then tries to kill Harry and unknown to him, his unstable soul is further fragmented, with a fragment ending up inside Harry. Voldemort himself is blasted into bodily nothingness, less than a ghost. But apparently, even though hit by his own avada kedavra curse, he retained that mangled bit of soul. Indeed, that was apparently all that he retained and that mangled soul is what he refers to as being less than a ghost.

It took me a while to arrive at that conclusion. Initially I thought that when the body of a wizard who had created a horcrux was "killed" he had to go and re-fill himself with the soul-fragment residing in the horcrux, having "lost" the soul fragment that previously resided in his body. But apparently even if your body is killed, your mangled soul survives as long as you have a horcrux stashed somewhere. Otherwise there would have been fewer horcruxes to locate, Voldemort having had to use one to replenish the bit of soul he lost when he tried to kill baby Harry.

Which brings me back to King's Cross. If the above is true, then Voldemort's mangled soul remained in his body on the floor of the Forbidden Forest. But he blasted the soul fragment that was inside Harry into King's Cross along with Harry (or Harry carried it with him).

I haven't checked to see if they match exactly, but it was interesting to see the physical similarity between Voldemort as he appeared in GoF before receiving his new body, and the whimpering thing Harry sees in King's Cross. That similarity combined with Harry's post-resurrection statement to Voldemort something along the lines of "I've seen what you are..." seems to weigh on the side of Alan's interpretation - that the thing in King's Cross was the the soul-piece from Voldemort's body. But that just doesn't seem to fit with what has gone before.

Drew Miller said...

TOTALLY agree about slughorn. After the battle I can't believe they even had a slytherin house in the epilogue.

Wax Banks said...

Russell -

Thanks for your response to the book, which put into words ('It was "only" a children's book') what I'd felt but couldn't articulate during Harry's solitary journey into the forest and afterward. Mrs Weasley's duel with Bellatrix only heightened that feeling: 'This I would do for you,' Rowling seemed to be saying at that point to her Ideal Readers (her own children). I teared up at that moment as well, though I was jarred by the word 'bitch,' which Rowling presumably intended but which chipped at the edges of the story's readerly safety nonetheless.

I was surprised at first by Snape's absence from most of the book, but by giving him all of one of the final chapters, Rowling more than made up for it. He was spent by then, of course, and doomed, and only in retrospect could the reader and Harry plausibly have forgiven him.

It's almost unbelievable that these books are as good as they are: that sort of thing is supposed to be impossible nowadays. I'd have taken a rougher editorial pen to parts of the book (banging the 'You should've learned Occlumency!' drum so often?), but by God I raced through those last 200 pages heart pounding. What a thing to have been part of, for a time.

Doug T said...

Just to pull on a side point you made in an earlier comment about heroes going home when the job is done, probably my favorite scene in the whole series is after Ron has destroyed the horcrux, and Harry is telling Hermione about it. Then Ron gets embarassed and tries to play it down, saying it wasn't nearly as heroic at the time as it sounds, and then Harry replies, "That's what I've been trying to tell you the past few years."

Not only is that a great scene for the characters, I think it directly addresses Rowling's portrayal of the hero not as a grand Achilles type figure, but rather as the everyman. Heroism is more than just showing up, but that's a big part of it, and it's essence is not something unreachable but "merely" the noble qualities that we all have and can show--love, compassion, friendship, self-sacrifice.

My biggest complaint with the book, which is touched on in passing here, was the thin-ness of the epilogie. After 750 pages of this book, and 6 big previous books, a 3 page epilogue that conveyed little more infomraiton than the marital status and number of kids of the main characters felt distinctly underdone. I would have liked much, much more of the "where are they now" bits.

I also admit that I was absolutely convinced that Harry would end up as the Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher at Hogwarts, and was somewhat disappointed that didn't turn out.

Russell Arben Fox said...

Karl,

I agree with pretty much your whole breakdown, except that I would argue that when Voldemort "killed" Harry, the part of Voldemort's soul that was in Harry was also killed; it was gone. The only reason Harry was still alive was because Voldemort still was--and I think the wounded baby we saw at King's Cross was Voldemort himself, laying unconscious on the floor of the forest, out of reach of anyone's help...except his own. Once Harry chose to come back, and Voldemort died, he was fully free of Voldemort's soul, and I assume would live an ordinary life, his last taint of "Voldy-ness" having gone away when Riddle's body--not his divided soul parts, but the actual body which held some of Harry's blood--was killed.

My big question is, why did Voldemort's final curse rebound? More of that confusing wand stuff, I suppose? I think it would have been better if Neville had just stabbed him.

Russell Arben Fox said...

Drew,

Yes! Oh, how I wish Rowling had given us more Slughorn, and done more with Slytherin!

Wax,

Glad my thoughts helped you pull some of your own together. And I love your much more maternal reading of the Molly-Bellatrix showdown: "this I do for you." But that doesn't stop me from also appreciated it as a kick-ass moment.

Doug,

Another great line from the book; thanks for reminding me of it. Yes, it really does fit in the whole feel of the book as one designed above all else to teach us about ordinary, intimate, growing-up heroism.

I've seen some good defenses of the epilogue, as having been written primarily to close (or repair!) the circle: to show Harry, who as a boy went to Hogwarts without family or friends, now a grown man sending his own son to Hogwarts, surrounded by friends and family. But you know...I want more of an epilogue too! Which is why this news has me jumping for joy.

Karl said...

Russell, I love your idea of Neville stabbing Voldemort. That possibility actually occurred to me too. What if she had had Neville stab Voldemort, throwing the whole prophecy issue into confusion - was it referring to Harry or Neville after all? Or both? Or neither? It's moot of course, as that's not the way she wrote it because she's big on the idea that "prophecy" is really only what we make of it. She sees the future shaped by one's choices, not some predetermined fate.

What you and Alan say about the wounded baby being Voldemort's remaining soul is beginning to make sense. I can see your point about the horcrux that had been in Harry having been truly killed at that point. But then, how and why did V's soul get to King's Cross? My guess is it has more to do with the "deeper magic" of Harry's willing self-sacrifice and their shared blood, than it has to do with mastery of wands or rebounding curses.

The final curse/rebound I took to be the result of their spells colliding in midair, and Harry's spell carrying the greater force by virtue of his mastery of the elder wand, his shared blood with Voldemort, the protection of his willing sacrifice, etc. (i.e. "all of the above")

Doug T said...

I think the wounded baby in King's Cross was the fragment of Voldemort's soul that had been lodged within Harry, rather than Voldemort's remaining soul. Two peices of evidence for this.

First, Dumbledore said that there was nothing Harry could do to help it. Which means it couldn't be the soul remaining in Voldemort's body, since Harry still, when they faced off, held out the possibility of Voldemort giving up and gaining some shred of forgiveness or redemption.

Second, Dumbledore also said that whole scene took place in Harry's head. SO the baby should be something that was also in Harry's head, the small piece of soul, rather than full soul remaining in Voldemort's body.

Sarah said...

Bottom line on the epilogue is that it's been written for ages. It's pretty much at the exact same level as an 11-year-old boy who sees the family he's longed for his entire life, and mostly just notices people with the same physical features he has. Rowling wrote that chapter as a promise to herself; to have grown it up to reach the complexity of the relationships in books 3 through 7 must have seemed like betraying her youthful self or something.

Mostly I was disappointed in this text because I'd already read so many really compelling fanfiction versions of it (what else was I going to do between books 4 and 5? The Star Wars prequels just didn't hold my attention, okay?) I was hoping for something Truly Amazing and Special, and well, something that not one of the dozens of talented and imaginative writers whose alternate endings I've read could have come up with. When you consider that I read a fan's version of the fifth novel, more than a year before it was released, which actually began with Harry sitting in a flowerbed (just as he does in the novel), I should have realized my error.

I'm also disappointed in Snape turning out to be just another incredibly flawed, desperately immature member of the Hogwarts class of 1977. I'm not entirely certain anyone from that group other than Lily Evans ever actually grew up; for anyone who didn't get the memo, bullying a helpless 11-year-old on the grounds that his dead father was a jerk to you in school is Not What Grown-Ups Do. Neither is pretending you don't know your former best friend (who you think is a murderer) can turn into a dog and knows of at least one secret tunnel into your school. Nor is promoting an impressionable child to the post of Best Friend And Comrade-In-Arms for the purposes of reliving your school hijinks. Snape (and Lupin, and Sirius) is arguably less of an adult than Draco Malfoy or Ron Weasley at the age of 15, and neither of them were all that mature.

I also got some more basic "sheesh, think you've introduced enough elements yet," gripes, but in the end, it really comes down to hoping for "transcendence" and getting something "pretty good" instead.

Alan Jacobs said...

I think the wounded baby in King's Cross was the fragment of Voldemort's soul that had been lodged within Harry, rather than Voldemort's remaining soul.

But Doug T, Dumbledore tells Harry quite explicitly that the part of Voldemort's soul inside Harry has been destroyed.

My big question is, why did Voldemort's final curse rebound?

Two reasons, I think. First, the Elder Wand will not kill its own master. Second, and more important, Dumbledore explains (in that same "King's Cross" chapter) that when Voldemort used Harry's blood to reconstitute his body, he took into himself the power of Lily Potter's sacrifice -- so that a curse directed at the one for whom the sacrifice was made could not be rebound on the curser.

Does that satisfy you, Russell? Or are there still puzzles?

Alan Jacobs said...

could not be rebound on the curser

I meant, "could not BUT rebound on the curser."

Anonymous said...

Here's a question: why didn't Harry's wand fight Voldemort of its own accord in the Ministry of Magic at the end of OOTP? What differentiates that situation from the flight at the beginning of Deathly Hallows?

Anonymous said...

"Huh. A children's story after all."

I just finished reading the 7th book. I decided to post a one sentence review, 'It was a children's story after all," but I thought I'd read your review first. Huh.

I'm not criticizing, because, like you, I think the blame is mine for talking myself into thinking the books were more than they were. But, unlike you, I am disappointed. The ghost of the book I wanted kept hovering about, especially in the sections with Snape. I didn't have a real preference between GoodSnape or EvilSnape or MachiavellianSnape or ConflictedSnape, but I wasn't prepared for goodsnape with no capitals.

-Adam Greenwood

Anonymous said...

but in the end, it really comes down to hoping for "transcendence" and getting something "pretty good" instead.

That's me all over. Probably won't read them again, because 'pretty good' isn't worth the few thousand pages, but I don't feel I've wasted my time.

-Adam Greenwood

Doug T said...

"But..Dumbledore tells Harry quite explicitly that the part of Voldemort's soul inside Harry has been destroyed."

Right--and the King's Cross station is the antechamber to the afterlife. Things that get there are supposed to be dead, although Harry isn't, either because of his remaining connection to Voldemort or his mastery of the Deathly Hallows, or both.

On the prophecy and Neville, I agree with the argument that Voldemort's choice defined Harry as the chosen one, and that Rowlings is not interested so much in fate and the sort of inevitability or unintended consequences of prophecy that you often see in myth.

However, I do think that Neville's heroism at Hogworts and in the final battle show that he had the same potential to be what Harry became. Had Voldemort chosen Neville instead of Harry, the same outcome would have ultimately happened, only they would have been the Neville Longbottom books instead of the Harry Potter books, and Harry would have turned out as the bit player.

Alan Jacobs said...

Things that get there are supposed to be dead.

Are they? I don't think so.

Had Voldemort chosen Neville instead of Harry, the same outcome would have ultimately happened.

Not unless Neville had the same protection of a mother's sacrificial death. Harry would have been helpless against Voldemort except for that.

Mike said...

The Molly Weasley-Bellatrix Lestrange showdown, complete with a hat-tip to Sigourney Weaver in Aliens!

To me, it brought to mind another fantasy hero's declaration of muderous intent:

"I want Domingo Montoya, you son of a bitch!"

Russell Arben Fox said...

Sarah,

Thanks for coming by to comment!

"Mostly I was disappointed in this text because I'd already read so many really compelling fanfiction versions of it..."

I cannot deny that some of my frustrations and longings in regards to what this book could have been (despite my respect for what it actually is) have led me to go beyond working out plot points in my own head, and actually start reading some of the thousands of alternatives online. Man, there's some good stuff there. It starts wheels turning in my head. Rowling's comments in her Today show interview about how, against her expectations, she started seeing something to the Neville-Lune pairing after all, has weirdly enough brought Mulder and Scully to mind. She's a freeland explorer and naturalist, he's a herbology professor, she's the insane visionary, he's the logical one with the steady job...there are possibilities there.

"I'm also disappointed in Snape turning out to be just another incredibly flawed, desperately immature member of the Hogwarts class of 1977."

Oh man, that comment cracked me up. It's unfair, I think, but there's truth there; I wonder if Rowling herself knows how much. Obviously James grew up a fair amount, the evidence being that the apparently mature and loving Lily Evans fell for him. But all the others were, in so many ways, just in orbit around that couple, weren't they, either negatively or positively, and their murder ruined them all. Sirius never stopped obsessing over and trying to recreate that lost moment of joy he had when he was 15. Remus, supposedly the most responsible one, becomes a decent, yet fearful, hesitant, sometimes self-pitying soul without the constant attention of James. Snape, of course, is morally destroyed by his long-ago teen-age heartbreak. And Peter Pettigrew? Sheesh. So yes...the Marauders had terrible things happen to them, and I won't judge them, but in the end, not (with the arguable exception of Lily and James) an especially impressive bunch, were they? II wonder if Neville's parents, by comparison, had their heads screwed on much more straight.

Russell Arben Fox said...

Alan, Doug,

"The King's Cross station is the antechamber to the afterlife. Things that get there are supposed to be dead, although Harry isn't, either because of his remaining connection to Voldemort or his mastery of the Deathly Hallows, or both."

I continue to agree with Alan, Doug. I think you may be demanding a little too much theological specificity of Rowling here. Is it "the antechamber to the afterlife"? Is it all in Harry's head? Both? I think that Rowling intends for us to see the bloody, wounded baby as Voldemort himself, what's left of his ruined life, and whether he's "dead" while lying there, dependent upon the "dead" Harry's ultimate decision, or just a representation of the ugly, pitiful life which is left to him, is indeterminable. All that matters is that the "living" Voldemort--at that moment apparently unconscious on the forest floor, same as Harry--is keeping Harry alive, via the enchanted blood still in his veins, while somehow or another the issue of the bit of Voldemort's soul in Harry is resolved by Voldemort's casting of the AK spell.

"Not unless Neville had the same protection of a mother's sacrificial death."

Yes, Alan, true--except that if the prophecy is a true one (and we are expected to assume it is), then should Voldemort have chosen Neville Longbottom as the one to destroy, then something would have happened to tie them together the way Harry and Voldemort were. So I agree with Doug here; I'd like to think that Rowling, on some level or another, was intending to show us through Neville's actions at Hogwarts (taking the lead in the resistance, mastering the Room of Requirement, slaying Nagini, etc.) that Neville did have it in him to be Harry, had that been thrust upon him.

Alan Jacobs said...

should Voldemort have chosen Neville Longbottom as the one to destroy, then something would have happened to tie them together the way Harry and Voldemort were.

If I may continue to be disagreeable and argumentative: no, I don't think so. When Dumbledore discusses this matter with Harry in HBP, he is very insistent that Voldemort made the prophecy come true by his decision to act on it. He specifically tells Harry that there are many prophecies kept in the Department of Mysteries that have not come true and never will. The importance of the prophecy is not that it inevitably would have come to pass, but that Voldemort believed in it and therefore tried to head it off. So I think Rowling is showing us that Voldemort and Harry were "tied together" not because it was inevitable, but because Voldemort, in his superstitious power-hunger, acted in such a way as to tie them together. He created his own worst enemy and gave that enemy power against him, Dumbledore says. If Voldemort had ignored the prophecy and not tried to kill a baby, he might well have continued his reign of terror and his rise to ultimate power. The Order wasn't doing a very good job against the Death Eaters, you know: "They were picking us off one at a time," one of them says in an earlier book. It wasn't the prophecy that determined Voldemort's downfall, it was his own unwise actions. But if he had tried acting against Neville instead, there's no reason to think that the outcome would have been just the same.

I wonder if Neville's parents had already been tortured into insanity by Bellatrix at the time that Voldemort kills the Potters. I'm sure we're told that somewhere, but I can't recall.

Karl said...

I am pretty sure the torture of Neville's parents came after the murder of Harry's. We are definitely told that the trial of the Lestranges and Barty Crouch, Jr. takes place after Voldemort's death. I think we are also told they were trying to locate Voldemort and assist him to return to power, and tortured the Longbottoms in an effort to find whether the Order knew anything about his location.

Russell Arben Fox said...

Alan,

"I think Rowling is showing us that Voldemort and Harry were 'tied together' not because it was inevitable, but because Voldemort, in his superstitious power-hunger, acted in such a way as to tie them together."

But why wouldn't have Voldemort's "superstitious power-hunger" have led him to act in such a way that Neville and he wouldn't have been tied together? Maybe this is a latent Calvinism coming out, but it seems to me that you're downplaying the possibility that the prophecies, while admittedly all gigantic "IFs," nonetheless may well be assumed to roll forward when those IFs are acted upon, however they may be.

Now, of course, Rowling could have fixed all this for us if she'd actually given us a reason for seeing why Dumbledore wanted Voldemort to choose the Potters as the source of the threat he discerned in the half-overheard prophecy relayed to him by Snape, but so far as I can tell, she didn't. Voldemort just chose, and Dumbledore just responded. And since he just chose, I'm not sure there's any reason not to believe that a different choice couldn't have resulted in the prophecy being activated against Voldemort anyway--in a different manner, surely, but rolling forward nonetheless.

Alan Jacobs said...

Rowling could have fixed all this for us if she'd actually given us a reason for seeing why Dumbledore wanted Voldemort to choose the Potters as the source of the threat he discerned in the half-overheard prophecy relayed to him by Snape, but so far as I can tell, she didn't.

Yes, that would have helped!

Voldemort just chose, and Dumbledore just responded. And since he just chose, I'm not sure there's any reason not to believe that a different choice couldn't have resulted in the prophecy being activated against Voldemort anyway--in a different manner, surely, but rolling forward nonetheless.

Could be. It's hard to reconcile certain things here. On the one hand, there's all kinds of stuff that suggests some kind of inevitability to Harry's role in this story. Let's start with the fact that Harry and Voldemort are both descendants of the Peverells (which presumably accounts for Tom Riddle's comment in book 2 that they look alike) and the fact that, as the descendant of Ignotus Peverell (whose Cloak he has inherited), Harry is in some fundamental, mystical sense the Third Brother of the tale. Then's there's the matter of the twin cores of the wand. (And why, by the way, is mor enot made of the fact that the core of Volemort's wand comes from Dumbledore's bird?) None of this stuff would have been true of Neville.

On the other hand, Dumbledore is almost Rortyan in his insistence on contingency: it "just happened" that Voldemort chose Harry instead of Neville. And he is really forceful on this point. But maybe he's wrong. . . .

karl said...

If Dumbledore hoped Voldemort would identify the Potters as the ones referred to in the prophecy, wasn't that because of their connection to the Peverells and the Deathly Hallows, with James and Harry being descendants of the Third Brother, who defeated death? Presumably Neville had no such connection, although in the wizarding world it seems nearly everyone is related somehow.

hoodawg said...

Very, very insightful commentary -- it's been a pleasure to read it all. My primary irritation at the book (overcome by tons of satisfaction, I might add) was how the "Unforgivable Curses" were suddenly acceptable for the "good guys." You have Harry using Crucio against Pettigrew and Imperiusing his way through Gringotts; you have McGonagall using the Dark Arts with abandon in Hogwarts; and it's apparently OK for Mrs. Weasley to go no-holds-barred on Bella when her child was involved.

I understand the narrative attractiveness of each of these decisions, and I certainly didn't think they were unusual choices for the people involved. But the lesson I took from the earlier novels was that using the Dark Arts harms the user as much as the victim. Indeed, Harry even makes this point early in the novel when he's chastened for using "Expelliarmus" instead of "Stupefy" against a flying Death Eater -- that he isn't going to sink to their level and kill people, merely because he's in peril.

Is the message by the end of the novel that, if you "really mean it," and it's really necessary, the Dark Arts are both acceptable and without consequence for the wizard? That would be disappointing. One of the stronger themes I took from the series was that evil as a means of doing good is never acceptable. In its critical citation of utilitarianism, this novel appears to want to further that very message. But how can the characters of this novel employ what the Potter universe had determined to be "evil" magic in furtherance of good aims and still expect to have credibility on that count?

Mary said...

I think it is quite clear that Kings Cross is death, or at least a waiting room for death. Harry's nakedness, the perfection of his skin and lack of scar, and the presence of Dumbledore point to this, and it is the only thing that makes sense to me given what Dumbledore explains. Voldemort has just "killed" both Harry and the fragment of his own soul that resides within Harry. The soul fragment is the wounded baby. Harry can go back because of the love he has shown through his willingness sacrifice - I believe Dumbledore says something like the sacrifice will "do the trick" for keeping Harry alive. It ties Harry to the enchanted blood, still flowing in Voldemort, so Harry can return. The piece of Voldemort's soul, without any such act of love, will be moving on to permanent death. Later, Harry is speaking the truth when he tells Voldemort that a little "remorse" would help him; if Voldemort could embrace a little love, he might also be able to "come back" even if killed, because of the enchanted blood that would still be in Harry. Both things appear to be needed: the blood, and the love. This explains Dumbledore's statements to the effect that Voldemort will still have a chance. (This is all separate from the Elder Wand/hallows layer.)

Hellmut said...

Great review, Russell. I do think that the book's theme is sophisticated.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows are about heroics but the heroes are not superhuman.

Harry cannot do it without his friends and has to rely on the memory of his parents, god parents, and mentors. Dumbledore is susceptible to the corrupting effects of power. Neville could have substituted for Harry. The greatest jerk in the tale, Snape, turns out to be the most courageous character in the book.

Emphasizing mortal and fallible heroes, Rowland's message is deeply committed to democracy. Unlike the Founding Fathers, who appreciated the limitations of human nature but housed our government in Greek temples, Rowland has the courage to celebrate humanity's potential while acknowledging its limitations.

Her pathos eschews the romantic temptation of hero worship. In the process, she also dispatches the various Nitzshean approaches to heroism that continue to plague us in various posty versions.

Unlike the philosophers Joseph Ratzinger and Gertrude Himmelfarb, J.K. Rowling has learned the lessons of the twentieth century without having to resort to stale traditionalism.

Her recipe tempers the arrogance and idolatry that often accompanies courage by shining a bright light on the self. If there has been a problem with western civilization, it is the propensity of the bourgeois mindset to indulge into self-righteousness and hypocrisy. In that respect, J.K. Rowling's message is actually quite remarkable.

Matt Powell said...

You can tell that the Deathly Hallows is a children's book because it's so good, yet it repeatedly disrespects the integrity of the plot/characters. I've greatly enjoyed reading the comments here, but nobody has observed one of the more annoying (to me) flaws in the plot. Dumbledore instructs Harry to keep the Horcruxes secret to limit the chance that Voldemort will learn of his quest. Its hard for me to imagine that Harry would not understand this point. Once he gets to Hogwarts he already knows that Voldemort knows what he is doing- there is no reason to keep it a secret anymore. In fact, by keeping it a secret he is dramatically increasing the risk that it could die with him, Hermione and Ron. And once he knows Voldemort is actually on his way... then it becomes silly not to tell everyone about the final snake/horcrux. The weird thing is, I'm not even sure what Rowling gained in terms of plot advancement by doing this. Did she just overlook it?

This is one of my favorite things about George R.R. Martin. He does a much better job of catching these kinds of things. It also is why I think Rowling would not be more than an average adult fiction writer. I think it is much more important that your characters consistently do the things that they would, given who you have made them out to be.

Karl said...

Has anyone else noticed the parallels between Regulus Black and Draco Malfoy?

Both come from a dark-supporting pure-blood family with deep Slytherin roots. Both play seeker for the Slytherin Quidditch team. Both become death eaters at age 16 - before coming of age (quite an honor). Both have second thoughts after seeing firsthand what Voldemort is really like.

But Regulus breaks loose and sacrifices his life to weaken Voldemort, whereas Draco remains trapped and torn - apparently denying that he recognizes Harry when he's brought captive to Malfoy Manor, but later trying to kill Harry during the Battle of Hogwarts.

tom brandt said...

I was not bothered by Harry's use of the Unforgivable Imperious curse in Gringott's. In the real world (like this is the real world!), morality is sometimes messy. His use of it was absolutely necessary to capture the Horcrux, he used in a limited way and was good to the victims of it as he could possibly be.

I was very bothered by his use of the Cruciatus curse against one of the Death Eaters - it seemed completely gratuitous, and therefor evil. I was also bothered by his planned double-cross of Griphook.

I am not sure about Molly's use of the Killing curse against Bellatrix. On the one hand, this is an evil curse. On the other, Molly was protecting her daughter.

Western Dave said...

Molly did not use a killing curse. She gave a stunner straight to the heart which kills. Malfoy did not try to kill Harry and tries to stop Crabbe and Goyle from so doing. RE: the emotionally stunted class of '77. Isn't this what often happens? Dysfunction breeds dysfunction with everyone coming out more damaged in the end? It's what makes Harry and his cohort all the more remarkable, but their understandings of the enemy and the war are different too. His ability to forgive Draco (which Ron and Hermione understand and consent to) shows that they can move beyond their own damaged lives to see the larger picture. One thing I loved about the last book is how Voldemort becomes more and more human and less archtype figure of evil as the book progresses.

karl said...

"Malfoy did not try to kill Harry..."

I will have to go back and check on that one. I thought he was firing killing curses at one point in there. At the very least, I think it's safe to say that he wasn't there waiting at the room of requirement in order to help Harry. Thus differentiating hims from Regulus.

Another question that has occurred to me: if Harry's invisibility cloak is such a one-of-a-kind item, so unique as to be thought a mere legend, then why didn't Snape spot it as something extraordinary when he picked it up and used it in Prisoner of Azkaban? Is Snape the only adult character who sees the cloak in the books, outside of James Potter and Dumbledore?

Alejandro said...

Rowling answers dozens of fan questions -basically, everything you could still want to know.

http://www.the-leaky-cauldron.org/2007/7/30/j-k-rowling-web-chat-transcript

Thought you might be interested...