Well Saturday, as part of my “at least a half day off” kick, I bought and read the last Harry Potter novel. I stayed up late to finish it, forgoing the possibility of a morning ride with a group from a bicycle shop. That’s probably just as well – I’d like to get a couple of 20s under my belt this week before attempting anything more ambitious.
But, as to Harry Potter. Ah. I wanted to like it far more than I did. While on some level, I wanted to be mindlessly entertained, I had also hoped that Rowling would use her big stage for something spectacular. Instead it was kind of ho-hum. Not very much was entertaining or profound.
I come at this from a slightly jaded angle, having read lots of fantasy and “young adult” literature. I realize most of it is bad, but the high water marks (e.g., The Lord of the Rings, Earthsea, The Dark is Rising, A Swiftly Tilting Planet, Prydain, The Wizard of the Pigeons) are really quite something. Often times the climax of “young adult” literature that’s keenly written (not written “down” to those young adults) has a kind of beautiful and brutal transparency to it, often built on the theme of sacrifice – which is really a turning outward of the hero, the pinnacle of the bildungsroman.
This kind of sacrifice, often turning out well, but not by pure design or guarantee (Tolkien called it the “eucatastrophe”) is often seen in main character’s actions. Sometimes you get to see it in secondary characters – as in The High King, when the hapless Rhun dies, or when Fflewddur Flam smashes his harp for a handful of firewood. (Actually the body count in those last two books is rather appalling.)
Rowling, on the other hand, sort of attempts that, but it fails.
I don't want to completely knock her or the series; she does a few odd and interesting things which I haven’t quite figured out how to articulate properly.
First off, Rowling takes the whole mangled Victorian mess of “magic” – the black cats, the cauldron, the broomsticks, and simply goes with it, creating a parallel magic world within our own. Other authors have, of course, worked with the idea of “magic under our noses” (e.g., Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising). But I can’t think of one that simply just took the whole mass of “popular” witchcraft and ran with it (even if it became a bit cutesy at times.)
Second, Rowling never really has her characters develop much. Yes they age, and sometimes switch alliances. But by and large the characters in the book are more or less the same from start to finish. You get some complexity added to the dead Dumbledore, some more tarnishing of James Potter, some bolstering of Snape, but really – does anyone really grow into anything but more adult versions of themselves? I’d submit that Rowling uses many characters to show the different faces of vice and virtue – the evil that is Pettigrew is not the same as the evil that is Bellatrix or Lucius Malfoy. There are many parallels to be drawn between the characters – Draco might be like a young Snape or a young Dumbledore. . .but we never get to see the transformations happen. Pettigrew is Pettigrew. Snape is Snape. Harry is Harry. Unfortunately the result is like wind-up toys – Rowling sends all the characters marching against one another and we see what happens as each interacts.
(Interestingly, Nevelle Longbottom might be the character that develops the most. But Harry is as Harry does – it’s hard to see the Harry from the first book being in the same circumstances as the Harry of the last book, but you know he’d make the same choices for the same reasons.)
I think that mechanistic, non-transformative element was the most offputting part of the last book. There’s a certain forced quality to the way the plot unfolds, a kind of rule-boundness to the magic, as though it were a video game or something. If only Voldemort had defeated Malfoy, things would have turned out differently. Sigh.
I think this kind of mechanical writing is most evident in last battle, which seemed only to “sort” the characters into the virtuous and non-virtuous. There was one point where the house elves were slashing at the ankles of the death eaters and I realized that I couldn’t “see” the scene anymore. It was just a naming of each character and a few lines about whatever good thing they were doing on the side of right. I don’t recall anyone screwing up or panicking and running – it all just seemed unreal. Or perhaps it seemed like a movie script. We’ve got to include Trewalny with her crystal balls. . .
And the epilogue – eh. Again, just just-rewards and all that. There seemed to be no consequence to any of the preceding thousands of pages – no idea as to what changes (if any) had come about from the events we read about. And it’s that kind of clinging to an idealized vision/pattern that undoes Rowling in the end. You get the feeling she does not want the books to end, or that she’s unable to change the world she created – the pattern continues with new kids, but we never really learn what it costs to keep it going, or if it’s valuable.
The final line of the book seemed to have odd echoes to Tolkien’s understated last line in The Lord of the Rings.
Rowling: "The scar had not pained Harry for 18 years. All was well."
Tolkien: He (Sam) drew a deep breath. 'Well, I'm back,' he said."
Of course, Tolkien’s is prefaced on Sam returning alone – Frodo, who actually feels the pain of his scars, his burdens and experiences, has left the Shire for good after this exchange with Sam.
‘But,’ said Sam, and the tears started in his eyes, ‘I thought you were going to enjoy the Shire, too, for years and years, after all you’ve done.’
"So I thought too, once. But I have been too deeply hurt, Sam. I tried to save the Shire, and it has been saved, but not for me. It must often be so, Sam, when things are in danger: some one has to give them up, lose them, so that others may keep them. But you are my heir: all that I had and might have had I leave to you. And also you have Rose, and Elanor; and Frodo-lad will come, and Rosie-lass, and Merry, and Goldilocks, and Pippin; and perhaps more that I cannot see. Your hands and your wits will be needed elsewhere. You will be the Mayor, of course, as long as you want to be, and the most famous gardner in history; and you will read things out of the Red Book and keep alive the memory of the age that is gone, so that people will remember the Great Danger and so love their beloved land all the more. And that will keep you as busy and as happy as anyone can be, as long as your part of the Story goes on."
And that kind of understanding is really the difference between a mature work of Fantasy, and what Rowling wrote.