Sunday, July 22, 2007

The end of Harry Potter


Occasionally, I run into references to J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series being poorly written. Most of these seem to come from people who are either of college age, where they have that need to believe everything short of Chekhov or Dostoevsky is invalid as writing or, more often, people who, outside of their judgment of this series, demonstrate little or no ability or interest in literary discernment.

The people I know whose ability to recognize and appreciate quality of writing I recognize and respect are all either actively fans of the series, respect them as well-crafted versions of something they don't care for or simply weren't interested in them to begin with. As someone with a specific interest in the kind of storytelling utilized in them, as well as someone who has done a fair amount of reading in his day... although not nearly enough in recent times, I admit... I find them to be an excellent example of juvenile literature, of fantasy storytelling, of myth-making....

If their phenomenal success distracts from that now, I understand. I've stood on that other side of the popular successes any number of other times. I find the Matrix movies positively dull, which is supposedly the opposite of their appeal.

And now it comes to the end, for better or for worse... for better and for worse. The movies will extend out the media hype another couple of years, but in point of fact, you'll be free of the hype and onto the canonization, which will be more or less annoying depending, I'm sure, on your position, but it will no longer be aggressively in your face and more just a part of the culture.

As I've said, this book is the seventh in the series. If you haven't finished reading it, you have no business reading further. You have had 10 years to decide whether to pay attention to this series. You don't need my recommendation. All that remains is to discuss the details.

First of all, I'm unsure of how these things work, but I want to know how the betting on Harry's fate was phrased. I can tell you that if I'd bet that Harry would die - which was not my prediction - I would be insisting that I'd won that bet.

As to the book itself, I am overall more than satisfied. Mind you, like Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets and Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix before it, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is one of the least satisfying as an individual books. They are very much part of the broader series, and, as such, seem to live in memory better than they are as singular experiences. In this case, I was expecting it more than I had with the two previous entries. This had to resolve all of the issues remaining from six preceding book, which was no small task.

The remaining revelations regarding Professor Dumbledore were made into an important part of this story, which made those answers very satisfying within the context only of the book. The revelations regarding Severus Snape, however, were not quite so natural and deft.

On the other hand, the backstory of Snape, in the context of the whole series, was poignant and beautiful, extended almost perfectly out of what we had learned before. No small subtext forces the reader to confront the idea that, on a very real level, the reviled Snape was most likely a better man than James Potter, who, from what we have learned, seems unlikely to have dedicated his life to protecting and even, in most ways, loving the child of another man, especially one who had indeed been so cruel to him, for love of Lily.

It was at least as compellingly readable as the previous entries, and probably the weepiest of all. Not only because of the many deaths that occur, but because of how stories and relationships resolve.

The second two chapters beautifully capture the feeling of leaving behind his Muggle family, who he didn't like one bit more than he ever had, but for whose safety he had a human and familial concern, as well as some familial emotion that neither he nor they had any real way of expressing, until Dudley extends his hand awkwardly...

The most heartbreaking chapter, however, involved the death of Dobby, the house elf... I mean free elf. I'm putting my guess down that this was one of the deaths that Rowling has not planned for - She said there were two (as well as someone she expected to die did not) - as the scene feels particularly shocking and the aftermath reads with an unusually raw quality.

This book brings to full fruition what they are all about. The fact that great things are rarely achieved by great acts. They are accomplished with any number of good acts that come together a "sound cooler when you say it that way", as Harry and Ron discuss in one scene.

As to this, the characters of Neville and Luna, the loser and the flake, who develop here into warriors is quite powerful.

The series has long developed a metaphor, that could be applied to racism and many other kinds of witchhunting, so to speak, many of which are going on here in the United States in years that have passed since the destruction of the World Trade Center. In the end, Rowling shows, the only place these things can go is to be quashed or they will slowly rot the core of everyone around.

Mind you, I'm not fully behind the morality of the stories. The rather banal epilogue shows everyone to have married their high school sweethearts, as nearly a matter of course, which is a happy end for us as readers, but is increasingly unrealistic, and in many ways undesirable, in the age in which we live. Not to mention the fact that Ginny Weasley has been hopelessly underdeveloped in recent books.

As a whole, however, Rowling has created an entire world, separate from our own, that is incredibly believable to read about. A world where things don't always work the way their supposed to, where people live and struggle, love and hate, for the wrong reasons as well as the right, where even the worst of people are imbued with some light, some charm and much truth and even the best must struggle not only to do the right thing, but to know exactly what that is.

Heroism in Harry Potter's world is not something come by easily or without cost, and while, perhaps in the case of its lead character, it's thrust upon him in many ways. For every other character, a choice needed to be made to even try to do the small things that add up, and only occasionally the grand gestures, and ultimately, when viewed correctly, Harry's struggle was less the challenge of fighting Voldemort and more the struggle succeed at those things that had been thrust upon him.

Yes, that's merely the familiar hero's journey, in which the hero must first reject his quest, but here Harry is drawn with such an extraordinary ordinariness that it becomes like looking at the whole concept for the first time.

So, my final thanks to two Jos. My dear friend Jo, who introduced me to the books, and Jo Rowling who managed to successfully write an epic seven book tale that impressed and delighted me in dozens of ways and disappointed me in very few.


5 comments:

Lenoxus said...

Well done; bravo; I concur on most every account.

Becca said...

Yes excellent post. I think my favorite part was Snape's story it was wonderful to get a look at the man's life after so many books. Such a sad tale.

I enjoyed the book as well and even though I thought Harry would probably end up dying at the end I'm glad he didn't...and I'm glad we got to see Dumbledore and Lupin again.

Neil Sarver said...

Lecoxus, thanks.

Becca, thanks. I totally agree about Snape. I may eventually even do a full post just on his character and the revelations regarding him. I think my comments may have come across as more idealizing the character himself than I intended out of excitement over how magnificent the characterization was. That said, this was a major element that I was glad my predictions weren't wrong on. I felt, and feel, that making Snape a villain, or someone simply understood, would have lessened the whole series, especially the first book.

I had expected that Harry would live, but was surprised that the whole lead triumvirate managed to survive, although less disappointed in that then I would have expected.

Daniel Vella said...

Good post; I more or less agree. I felt the seventh book added quite a bit of depth to the story as a whole, improving the earlier volumes in retrospect and making it very evident that the bigger picture existed in Rowling's head all along.

One thing I will say, in reply to your opening comments - I feel that Rowling is an immensely talented storyteller, but not as great of a writer. She has come up with an incredible, brilliant story, but her prose is never much more than functional, which could be what puts some people off.

Neil Sarver said...

Daniel, thanks for your comment.

As to her writing, someday I may write a more vigorous and thoughtful examination of her writing. I'm currently in the mood to re-read the entire series some time soon, but I may very well wait until after I've found a way to purchase this set.

But I think writing is always a function of storytelling and vice-versa. I don't think these stories, which are indeed rich and imaginative and charming, would be better served by a significantly different prose style. There's something so enthusiastic and engrossing about it.

But, as it goes, I think the reason I felt compelled to bitch is that I'd recently read some people complaining about the horrible writing that were clearly the sort whose only source of comparison was Robert Jordan... or those of that ilk... and I found their complaints to be, as such, without much in the way of merit.

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