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Sunday, July 17, 2005

Half-Blood Prince Review: Up to the Next Level

Let's get the obligatory review paragraph out of the way first. I agree with Melissa (who finished the book about 8 hours after I put our copy down): this is the best book in the series since Prisoner of Azkaban. The story J.K. Rowling wrote for this volume is both thrilling and tragic, and more importantly, it does exactly what it needs to do: it takes to the whole tale of Harry Potter to the next level, and beyond....only you may not realize it until you're nearly finished with the book.

Okay, now on to discussion. There's a lot that needs to be said about this book, and you can't say it while worried about spoilers. You've been warned.


I mentioned in my "Pottermania" post last year that:

"the next book simply must be some kind of 'Battle for Hogwarts'-type story....[H]ow could Rowling make us believe that another year could go by, with Draco and Co. occasionally attempting to kill Harry, or at least being suspected of such, without everything coming to some sort of crisis? I can't see how she could do it; for Rowling to put off some sort of internal Gryffindor/Potter/Slytherin/Malfoy showdown (with Snape playing a fascinating, unclear role) until the seventh volume would be untrue to her overall story, to say the least."

My reasons for feeling this way were numerous, but they all boiled down to my conviction that ever since Voldemort was resurrected at the end of Goblet of Fire, the wizarding world, and in particular Harry Potter's part of it, was living on borrowed time. He's here, and determined to kill Harry Potter--even with the protection of Dumbledore and all sorts of powerful magic, how can the world of Hogwarts, the environment through which Harry moves and grows, remain an oasis? In Order of the Phoenix, Rowling was able to stretch things out by creating dissension among the ranks of wizards; in terms of the overall plot, the fate of Hogwarts and Malfoy and Snape and all the rest of the elements of Harry's world were caused to teeter but not go over the edge, solely because Voldemort was presented as wishing to make use of the doubt surrounding him and Dumbledore. The result was a satisfying, but also frustrating, adventure: you kept waiting for everything to come crashing down, and in the meantime so much of the book, despite brilliant characters and plot devices, seemed plodding and overwrought. The final climax, with the fight with the Death-Eaters, Sirius's death, and the revelation of the prophecy by Dumbledore to Harry, gave us what was necessary, but not what was sufficient. My impression, and the impression of many others, was that Order of the Phoenix was about clearing away brush, getting the final stage set up. It was good, but too long and not terribly rewarding; still, it got the job done and now, finally, with the sixth volume, we'd see Harry's world truly change.

By the time I was more than halfway through Half-Blood Prince yesterday, I thought Rowling wasn't pulling it off. Yes, I was intrigued, excited, and gratified by all the scenes with and information about Snape, Malfoy, and Voldemort; learning about Tom Riddle's history was fascinating, the introduction of the horcruxes was mysterious, and the tension with the Ministry over the war with Voldemort's followers was persuasive and affecting. But still, this exposition-heavy tale seemed sometimes like a retread from the first three books of the series: Dumbledore mysteriously sharing, and then withholding, of information; Harry's friends and allies still misunderstanding or distrusting one another; etc. I thought: Rowling doesn't get it; she doesn't see what kind of action she needs to bring on to live up to the stage she's unintentionally set; she still wants it to be a nice kids-at-school, growing-up book, when actually she's taken apart every reason to believe such an environment could sustain the weight of Harry's story; and so forth. I was liking it, but I was also disappointed in it. Despite all the new stuff--the appearance of new characters and relationships, and the sidelining of others--a lot of it felt like another Order of the Phoenix or worse: just treading water, while we await some new marker to tell us that the real finale is that much closer.

And then I hit the mid-point of chapter 25.

From that point (Harry's conversation with Trelawney) until the end, without let-up, Rowling rips one assumption (delusion?) out of the way after another. We learn that Snape's betrayal of Harry goes back to the original, fatal betrayal of his parents; we see Dumbledore weak and fearful in a horrifying scene of evil magic in the cave, and dependent upon Harry to complete his task; finally we see that everything that Harry has been obsessing about and warning people about for the entire book--and really for the entire series if you think about it--is correct: Snape is an agent of Voldemort, his betrayal is total, he has been guiding and manipulating Draco, and who knows who else, against Voldemort's foes from the very beginning. I re-read chps. 27 and 28 over again, searching for any sort of hint that there is some level yet hidden, some machination guiding the action. (Perhaps Dumbledore was pleading for Snape to kill him, because the potion he had drunk was slowly and painfully killing him? But that doesn't sound like Dumbledore at all, and anyway, how would Snape have known where Dumbledore and Harry had been?) I don't think there is. I think Rowling told us the score right from the book's beginning, when Snape makes the Unbreakable Vow to complete Draco's task; it is we, the readers, who listened to Dumbledore and trusted him, and assumed--along with everyone else, except Harry--that such an evil pact must not be the whole story, that the truth is yet to be discovered, the last shoe yet to be dropped. Well, guess what? Harry was right, we--and everyone else--was wrong. Harry had made the leap to the next level; it was the Ministry, Professor McGonagall and all the rest of the Hogwarts faculty, even Ron and Hermione, even Dumbledore himself, with all his lectures and assurances, who hadn't. I think this is something Rowling intended us to realize, once everything (literally in the case of the tower!) came crashing down: we readers were looking for something that was right in front of our eyes all along, which we still didn't see, because we allowed ourselves to believe (for reasons not dissimilar to those of all of Rowling's fictional characters) other than our most obvious impressions. The incredible, tour-de-force chapter "The Flight of the Prince" might be the best thing Rowling has ever written--yes, in a sense it's just another magical shoot-out, but thematically, with the chaos and confrontations, the fires and explosions, Snape and Potter screaming defiantly at one another, tearing away at every duplicity and bit of false decorum that Rowling had woven into their relationship for six years....it left me in shivers. Yes, she takes it to the next level all right, and does it in a way that leaves as shocked and wounded as her characters themselves. I couldn't have asked for anything more.

As for details--well, obviously my guess about the identity of the Half-Blood Prince was completely off. Snape was one of my suspects, but I was thinking about the prince as someone related to or involved in Voldemort's immortality; that he would have an entirely different significance in the book was completely off my radar. I was gratified that Draco's fate was made so central to the story, since I would have loathed for Draco to senselessly remain a bit player in Rowling's story (and I'm very anxious to see what becomes of him; like Peter Pettigrew, I suspect that he may, in the end, turn out to be an ally). The horcruxes are close enough to the means I imagined for Voldemort's immortality that I'll claim I got that one right. And, of course, with Dumbledore dead, Draco and Snape having fled, and Harry determined to move on, the central complication of Hogwarts in the story has essentially been resolved (or at least rendered moot). But who cares about all that now? What of the final volume?

Melissa reminds me that there are still a couple of important things we need to learn about Snape before the end. In particular, while we agree that Rowling is not pulling readers' legs, and really does consider Snape to have been essentially and fully revealed, it think it may be still important to understand how he came to take that Unbreakable Vow: was he happy to assist in Dumbledore's murder, a true "believer" in Voldemort, or was he a selfish and wretched man who kept playing both sides, until in a moment of challenge (Narcissa's pleading request, with Bellatrix suspiciously watching) he committed himself because he could imagine no other choice. (Perhaps part of the loathing Rowling says was in Snape's face when he killed Dumbledore was a hatred that comes from his self-deluded belief that Dumbledore's (mis)use of him had brought this on himself?) I also suspect that somewhere along the line, it'll be revealed that Snape, back during his student days, had been crazy about Lily Evans--and perhaps had hated himself for loving a Mudblood like her--which of course made her marriage to James Potter, Gryffindor hero, all the more galling, and his particular hatred of their son that much more clear. (My evidence for this guess? Apparently, Lily was very good at potions, Snape's area of expertise....) Of course, there is also the new mystery of "R.A.B.," who we learn has already stolen one of Voldemort's horcruxes and (perhaps) destroyed it. My guess is that it will be someone we've never heard of before, someone utterly disconnected from Harry's and the Ministry's world. And why not? Are we to think that Voldemort, through all his years of terror, made no other crusading, determined opponents besides those associated with either the Ministry of Magic or Hogwarts? Speaking of which....I think Rowling will have Harry be true to his final words in Half-Blood Prince; I think that Harry's relationship with Hogwarts in the final book will be, if not merely marginal, than highly unusual: perhaps he'll become a teacher (someone has to replace Snape!), or will only use it as a base of operations. I just don't think Rowling, having delivered this powerhouse wallop, will back off and return her story to "normal"; I expect the final volume to feature a very different Harry, acting on his own or with his friends and allies (perhaps a reformed Draco? a revealed R.A.B.?) to carry out his mission. Freed from the Hogwarts routine, I hope we finally see a lot more of characters who deserve a chance to shine: the now wounded Bill Weasley and all the rest of Ron's older brothers, Luna, and Neville, who I strongly suspect and fear is down on Rowling's "won't-make-it-out-alive" list. (And while we're at it, bring back Victor Krum!) Harry Potter, badass? Well, after this book, I think it's about time, don't you?

Friday, July 15, 2005

Regarding Harry...

Just a few more hours until Melissa and I can pick our copy of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, and we're pretty excited about it. Should we snobbishly hold ourselves above the hype? Of course not! Being opposed to commercialism doesn't mean that we are obliged to swim against the tide of everything and anything that the culture decides to commercialize, especially if it just happens to be something as wondrously fun as J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter books.

Over the last couple of days, this old post of mine has gotten a fair amount of attention, thanks to this link from my fellow Times and Seasons co-blogger Gordon Smith, who was kind enough to share the results of my snooping with the world. You can expect a review of Half-Blood Prince soon, probably by late Sunday evening. In the meantime, a couple of Potter-related reflections:

1) Back in that old post, I talked about how Pottermania descended upon our home last year, when over the summer I read the first three books to our oldest daughter, Megan (now almost nine). It was a wonderful summer of joint reading and imagining, one that I hope can perhaps be repeated with our other children someday. Unfortunately it'll have to be with different books, since Megan has shared most of the secrets of Rowling's world with her five-year-old sister. (I suppose she'll still want to read them someday, but it won't be with the kind of thrill and self-discovery that attended Megan's and my journey through the books, I'm afraid.) In fact, containing Megan's excitement has actually become something of a running battle in the Fox household. We stopped at the third book last year; she bought her own copies and read and re-read them to death, and desperately wanted to go on. Melissa and I both thought that Goblet of Fire, with Cedric Digory's death and with its cliff-hanger ending which drives you right into Order of the Phoenix, was something we needed to keep her away from for a while. And we tried...but ultimately to no avail. She picked up details from friends, teachers, cousins, and stray comments from Melissa and I. She obsessively pestered us with questions, and crowed with joy at every little detail she was able to discover about who died or what the Triwizard tournament was and so forth. Finally, after several months of standing firm, introducing her to many other books, and telling her to be patient, a school librarian gave her a copy of Book 4, telling her she was more than ready for it, and all our plans fell apart. Melissa in particular was put out, but we didn't want to Megan into the situation of feeling guilty for responding to a friendly librarian's well-intended act. And so we allowed her to finish the book (she'd already absorbed several chapters by the time she somewhat shamefacedly told us what was in her bookbag).

As it turned out, Melissa and I know our daughter pretty well--she did read all of Goblet of Fire, but not without some terrors. At about 10pm that night, she came out into the living room, scared but putting up a brave front: she couldn't bear to put down the book (she'd gotten to the final climactic encounter with the resurrected Voldemort), but was almost paralyzed by what she was reading. I took her into our room, and read the rest of the chapter to her, with her hugging my side. Then I talked to her until she fell asleep. It was a sweet reminder of the our experience the previous year, but probably my last one. She's off into the wide world of literature on her own now, and losing that closeness was inevitable. We haven't let her read Order of Phoenix yet, but I wouldn't be surprised if she does so by Christmas; when she does, she'll encounter new terrors and wonders, and I suspect this time she won't need me at all. (Good girl, he says with a sniff.)

2) Pope Benedict's condemnation of the Harry Potter books made "The Daily Show" last night, so I suppose most anyone who cares has heard about it by now. Given my own religious commitments, the pronouncements of this pontiff, as much as I respected his predecessor, don't weigh on me authoritatively. Plus, to be frank, going off what little I know about how large organizations respond to cultural events, I dare say that if Pope Benedict could demonstrate to me that he, personally, has in fact read so much as a single word of any of the Harry Potter books, much less Rowling's whole oeuvre, I'd eat my hat. (Or better, his.) This news event has a lot more to do with the agenda of crusaders like Michael O'Brien than anything else.

That said, there is something to consider here. Much of the stuff out there about Harry Potter and Christian attacks on the series is just groundless and silly, either trumped up out of nothing or clearly emerging from some bizarre evangelical margin. But there is, at the same time, a core of Christian parents who have genuine and legitimate concerns about introducing only morally-uplifting and faith-affirming (or at least not faith-denigrating) literature to their children. Clearly, Harry Potter isn't The Chronicles of Narnia; Rowling's adventures take place in the modern world, and her heroes and villains interact against, and are thematically shaped by, the essentially secular background presumptions of modernity. But that hardly means that they are bereft of moral worth, or inappropriate for even the most committed New Pantagruel-reading antimodern. Regina Taylor, a Christian fantasy author who speaks directly to this audience, makes the the case for Harry Potter here (link via the always insightful Caelum et Terra blog). I think everything she has to say deserves close consideration, especially the way she smartly shows how critics of Harry Potter have greatly overdrawn the supposed moral differences between Rowling's "magic" and those who employ it, and the situation of magic in J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy (points 1 and 2), as well as how Rowling actually employs a consistent and admirable moral imagery throughout the books (points 4 and 5). I really couldn't add anything more to all that. But insofar as the complaint that Harry Potter himself, as a character, is just another banal modern boy, offering nothing insofar as moral aspiration goes, let me make one point.

Yes, in the course of his adventures Harry Potter lies, defies authority figures, breaks rules, and generally is presented as a figure for whom progress is tied to individual development and a celebration of his "true" self. He has to find his own way, his own heart must be his guide, he must break with tradition and discover the truth, etc., etc.--the same old liberal pieties, right? Well, yes. But it is much too easy to think you can leave things off there. If you're a committed antiliberal, and are going to attack Harry Potter as a species of the literature of modernity, as being flat and empty and open, without any reflection of the actual (from a religious point of view) created moral universe, let's be clear on what you're attacking. Among examples too numerous to list, you're attacking The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn--another story of a boy who is cast out (or casts himself out) onto a wide, open, flat world, which flows past him without guideposts and within which he is nonetheless called by the lives and actions of others (first and foremost Jim) to make, with only his own soul as a resource, judgments about right and wrong. If you insist on saying that Harry Potter's manifest goodness and courage is compromised by its being part of a banal and individualistic, rather than a richly detailed and naturally determined, moral universe, well, more power to you--but I think you're greatly underestimating the degree to which the divine order depends upon an original interiority, an acceptance that morality, and the world it subsequently shapes, is larger on the inside than on the outside. Harry Potter isn't a Christian hero, any more than is Huckleberry Finn, but the modern world they inhabit is not essentially lacking as a route to the recognition of truth than anything by C.S. Lewis. Even on the most shrunked moral stage a noble heart can beat out a path to a larger world. It's a path my oldest daughter plainly discerns in Rowling's books, though she couldn't articulate it that way; and to the extent other children are having the same experience, I would have to say that world is a better place for the fact that so very many children haven't paid much attention to over-enthusiastic interpreters of Pope Benedict's counsel like O'Brien, and apparently have no intention of doing so anytime soon.

Monday, July 11, 2005

My Homeland, the 51st State (and Why There Should Be Even More)

We got back from another one of our semi-regular pilgrimages to the Fox family home in Spokane, WA, last week. As usual, the vacation was a delight. (Many photos available here.) First and foremost for family reasons--I'm the only child of Jim and Kathleen Fox to live further east than either Washington, Oregon, Idaho or Utah, so we aren't able to get together with my family and in-laws, and our kids aren't able to spend time with their Fox cousins, nearly as much as we'd like. Big vacations like these can't erase that distance, but they go a long ways towards building connections that mitigate it somewhat. The fact that my folks have been fortunate enough to be able to build a family cabin big enough to contain us all, on top of a hill (dubbed "Fox Hill") that will likely stay in my family's hands for years to come, only makes these occasional gatherings even more fun. And, of course, the reason for this gathering--honoring my parents' 40th wedding anniversary--was a special one.

But completely aside from family, we also like visiting Spokane because it gives us a chance to ramble around Washington and other parts of the Pacific Northwest with our kids. We've taken them to Seattle and Portland and Coeur d'Alene, and driven back and forth along the Columbia River Gorge; this trip, we made it to both Mount Rainier and Mount St. Helens. (I particularly wanted to visit the latter, since this year is the 25th anniversary of the 1980 eruption which I remember well.) Whenever I return to Washington, I'm always struck once again by the diverse beauty of its environment: the Cascade Range, the Yakima River Valley, the Palouse Prairie, etc. And, of course, I'm reminded of how much I'd like to divide it up.

The ambition (mostly humorous, but sometimes serious) to carve a new state out of parts of Washington, Idaho, and a little bit of Oregon has been around for a long time; I remember people talking about it when I was a kid. The most reasonable plan usually calls for taking the region often referred to as the "Inland Empire" (here's a rough map) and renaming it "Columbia," with Spokane as its capital, bordered by Canada on the north, Kalispell and Missoula, MT, on the east, Wenatchee and Yakima, WA, on the west, and maybe Baker City, OR, on the south (just so long as we get Hells Canyon). Granted, most of the local people who talk about creating such a state are doing so only because they want to make some sort of point about the ideological divide between the liberal, metropolitan enclaves of Seattle and Portland, and the conservative, mostly rural territory which those areas politically dominate. But if you look at it that way, you force the question of who is really being "served" or "represented" by whatever strange ideological combinations the boundaries of Washington (or any state, for that matter) call into being--and by that standard, poor Eastern Washington benefits a lot more from wealthy Western Washington than local politicians care to admit. Which means, of course, that the debate founders on the usual dispute over economic advantage vs. political liberty, with plenty of mockery and cheerleading to be found on both sides.

I don't see it in those terms however; my concern is more cultural and civic. The whole theoretical point of granting substantive political power to individual states--given that the logic of "one man, one vote" suggests that we ought to actually abolish both the electoral college and the U.S. Senate, and turn the whole United States over to a single unicameral legislature--is the old republican notion (as transformed by James Madison and Co., of course) that people will take their democratic duties as citizens more seriously when they feel a greater attachment to that public of which they are a part. Of course, that's only part of the issue--the historical reason for granting substantive political power to the states in the U.S. had little to do with theory, and a lot to do with the fact that distinct sovereignties existed along the eastern coast of North America, had existed for quite some time, and couldn't be gotten around in any imagining of a new American polity. But still, that factors into the theoretical concern--if you have historical localized attachments, then they need to be constructed, legitimated, and assembled in such a way as to preserve their function in the larger whole. As the country has developed, much of that function has broken down, at least in part due to the unweildliness of certain state boundaries as they've developed over time. Spokane (despite what some of its boosters claim) doesn't dislike Seattle, anymore than Pendleton dislikes Portland or Bonners Ferry dislikes Boise. They just don't have a lot of mutual affection for each other, that's all. So, why not divide up certain boundaries to reflect the developed history of these places? The result would be along the lines of what Michael Lind suggests: more states, making for more and more balanced representation.

Okay, I admit, Lind's vision of 75 states is a little much. Moreover, Lind is, as always, a purely civic nationalist; his vision is entirely wrapped up his drive to make the American nation a more unified and democratic political body. I'm sympathetic to such republican concerns, obviously, but I also think that Lind's proposal foolishly ignores the cultural and historical aspects of belonging. You can't just divide up states left and right for the sake of representational equivalence, however worthy the goal; the roots of identity begin locally, not with lines drawn for wholly political purposes. Sure, politics is part of it--as I've discussed before, boundary-drawings, like all foundings, is a complicated affair, with outright acts of political will balanced against the pre- (and non-)political elements of "people-making," whether linguistic or geographic or cultural or otherwise. But nonetheless, the affective aspects of identity, as they grow (and change) over time, need to be considered. Which just means that it'd obviously be plain electoral suicide to try to get the Great State of Texas, with all its myth and history, to submit to a break-up. If you're going to be that crazy about it, you might as well throw your lot in with those who advocate annexing British Columbia and Alberta as well. I don't think a purely representative calculus will serve America--to say nothing of eastern Washington--very well. The goal shouldn't be achieve a perfectly responsive representativeness (we arguably already are too addicted to that chimera anyway, what with recall elections and ill-considered election laws hampering the overall process); rather, the goal should be more representation in general. Where possible, where the people's sympathies clearly support it, let's have more states, with a larger Congress and more representatives serving the people on a smaller, more affective basis. (Which will also, I think, also turn out to be more effective--but that's, as I say, a separate matter.) Moreover, let's start with my Inland Empire homeland (and let's do it soon, before my father is too old to run for governor).

What other new states do I think are plausible? Well, Lind's list, over-enthusiastic as it is, contains some obvious possibilities. Clearly, California should be split up--it's too large, spread out and disconnected as a population for current arrangements to be defensible. Plus, there's precedent for northern California separating itself; consider the proposed state of "Jefferson". Splitting up New Jersey, perhaps in conjunction of some redrawn boundaries within New York and Pennsylvania, would follow natural population lines. (No doubt Long Island would love to be its own state.) I'd personally like to give Michigan's Upper Peninsula back to Wisconsin, since that makes more sense geographically, but dividing the state along a north-south line, giving the U.P. to the west half and forming a new state out of the Detroit area and the "thumb" probably wouldn't cause too many tears (at least not if my Ann Arbor-raised wife's opinion is any indication). And that doesn't even begin to address harder cases, like Puerto Rico. But this would give us 5 new states, and they'd be fairly evenly divided between "red" and "blue" too, on my reading. Why not 55 states? We could add another line of stars to the flag, don't you think?