Monday, 23 July 2007

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

preliminary review, as I only read it yesterday, (except, for reasons I'll make clear, I may not bother ever considering it further):

The quotes that begin this book tell how seriously JK is telling it as she invokes the authority of no less than Greek tragedian Aeschylus’s grinding scream of death, before leading into a first chapter filled with issues critical to the future of witch and humankind and the secrecy with which we are familiar, invoked by that most English of defenses; the hedge. The book is not all disappointing. Although, after the exuberance of the early books, imaginative possibilitis seem to occur with pitiful rarity, here we do have dragonpox leaving pock marks and green hued skin (p21) and Hermione has perfect answer to tiny evening bag problem in her. extension charm. It seems literally anything can fit into her beaded purse from invisibility cloaks to tents to paintings and a library of books(p135).. For first time since flying broomstick, I think I want one of those. And there continues to be an interesting interaction between the magical and the muggle worlds which, despite the nonsense of so much else in the book, might keep children intrigued, such as magically tied laces that take ages to untie by hand (p96).

It’s not surprising that tying things up is an early image; Rowling uses much ink tying loose ends. For instance, now we don’t need them any more, because there are really bad baddies, the Dursleys are reducing them to rightful place as Harry’s relatives (p36). It’s a nice surprise that Dudley seems to grow up O. K, and that Harry is given a way to see his mother as a child (p532) and to realise his aunt’s hatred was partly routed in envy. She, too, wanted to go to Hogwarts (p537) and that Snape had not disappointed Dumbledore after all (p548).

Her book explains some mysteries of muggle tragedy that we attribute to ordinary bad luck, negligence or misadventure, transferring them to a world where such accidents are granted meaning. For example, wizard-caused deaths are seen as train crashes (P.34) and gas leaks (p356). Shifts in cultural mood can be attributed to the presence of dementors, whom muggles can’t see though we can feel their despair (p235)

Yet, the more you read the easier it is to believe that the author has lost control of her material. For instance, upon his first appearance, Harry cuts finger and reveals that can't heal even small wound (I wondered if this is his flaw? Or a challenge he will face?). Twice we are told how dangerous life will become for him in 4 days, creating a ticking bomb that is oddly dissatisfying. Perhaps Rowling could argue that she’s subverting convention, but there are other elements of the story that made me wonder if she really had time to imagine the most dramatic ways to use the material she invented. I will get to those in a moment. First, given what seems to be a staggering collapse of imagination, I want to look at where the interesting elements of the story come from? This might be a diversion but it won’t take long.

As befitting a book in the Biblical place of Revelation, the Deathly Hallows contains many, many images borrowed from eschatological (specifically, Christian) mythology, chiefly the rooting of the story in prophecy that the dark lord will, Messiah-like lead wizards to rule muggles and mudbloods (pp 158-9). Lessons about the power of the truth are told when Voldemort is revealed as the great deceiver, lying that Harry died running away (p583) Despite his split soul, we learn that Voldemort could be healed if he learned to feel remorse (p89) If he asked for forgiveness, is there a hint of possible redemption for Voldemort? An I am your father, Luke moment? No, Voldemort has already gone much too far for this. In the first scene, a prisoner hanging upside down from invisible rope like curing bacon or Satanic crucifixion. (There is a message in this image, meat is hung like this, and Voldemort has reduced the human to meat, later confirmed when he feeds his victim to his snake.)

Harry, of course, is the Good versus this Evil: there is even essential goodness in how he fights, refusing to invoke an unforgivable curse unless absolutely necessary (p64) and actually recognised by this attribute, which is a hint that Voldemort’s over-willingness to kill will be his undoing. And Harry suffers real, almost Christ-like despair in facing self-sacrifice after knowing for years that he might die. (p521 and 555 where he faces his inevitable death -- because part of Voldemort soul lies within him -- and feels forsaken) . There are signs that all is not completely lost when Harry asks his dead loved ones if death hurts and they think he means for Voldemort (p560) Satanic sacrifice is made; Voldemort kills the man who sits at his right hand (p527)for own power and for the opposite of salvation. Snape bleeds a substance that is not blood. Eucharistically, Harry consumes his memories from a magic cup.

But there is just as much, if not more, Arthuriana in the book as there is Christianity. The three children are on a quest for three objects, as on a grail quest (pp332-3). When Harry has to find out about them for himself (p351) this is very like having to ask the right questions (Parsifal’s task). Earlier, it is Ron who successfully pulls a sword from a lake (p303 -- where is the lady of the lake?) Later, disappointingly, the sword is simply stolen by a goblin, because it’s the Merlins, not the Arthurs, who are at the centre of this tale. (Am I alone in finding the human more satisfactory than the magical, after all?)

Perhaps most interestingly, Rowling disconnects the grail from the cup imagery and returns it to the stone it is in Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival (p 436) This is related to a huge disappointment in the book, and I wonder if Rowling might have been laying the groundwork for a more interesting story that she later abandoned? Because Percival is also the name of the oldest Weasley child, who separates from them but comes good in the end, prodigal-son-like. Ron Weasley has shown surprising powers of leadership right from the first book where he imagined himself as Quidditch captain (couldn’t Rowling have let him do this?). The Weasleys are purebloods, and as I mentioned, it is Ron who withdraws the sword from the lake. It seems as though they were being set up to be revealed as the rightful kings. But this story is not pursued.

This has to be considered as a book intended both for adults and for children. For younger readers, there are some empowering messages and ideas, for instance, that people’s nature or essence affects things (polyjuice potion to look like Harry is clear gold , and a bodyguard reveals that looking after a child can be more important than guarding the prime minister (p44). I wonder if under age wizards should drink firewhisky (p70) (as I recall first tastes, all whisky was like fire or maybe that was my conscience, since I stole it from my Dad and topped up his bottle with water so he wouldn’t notice. Clearly, I am more Voldemort than Potter.)

And there are some interesting ideas about growing up. Although Harry and his friends pack differently, they never really 'put aside childish things' (p74) and lessons from their childhood come in useful as adults. Harry has a new modesty and says that his stripping doppelgangers should respect his privacy (p49) He realises that you can’t go home again (p45), that good people are not all good (p164, Sirius is unkind to an elf and must suffer the consequences), Ron reveals himself as a talented leader (p354); and thinks of others less powerful than himself (the elves p502). He saves the boy who teased him – Draco – not once but twice (p518) After all this, Harry is now identified as the man with the lightning scar (p359).

But there are substantial elements of the story that only adult would understand, for instance author Rita Skeeter is secretive about her new book – Rowling indulging in a little self-mocking? (p27) and Vernon Dursley worries about real estate value (pp 32-3). Yet Dursley’s foolish establishment ideas are set up against some fairly serious issues. Chief amongst these is racism (it’s interesting that it was a German wizard school that also produced a dark one whom Dumbledore defeated and whose followers wore signs (p 125). The series is founded upon a timely anxiety about genetics, and eugenics (or maybe this is always timely). There are many racial categories in the Potterworld, not just purebloods, and mudbloods, also blood traitors and other magical beings like goblins and elves whose full powers aren’t taken seriously. Enmity and distrust between the races is returned. Goblins call wizards wand carriers and don't expect respect (p394). The twentieth century provides perfect models for political power based on insane racist ideas (p172) and what what’s perhaps most frightening within the book are images borrowed from real history: totalitarianist statues for example. Enemies of the state use the word resistance (p360) and there is illegal radio, on which they listen to Potterwatch .

The extent of Harry’s despair, which I mentioned above, and which begins at the side of his parents’ graves (p269), might well be hard for young children to read. (This was the first time I realised they were only 21 when they died. Why do witches marry and have children so young??) As would the crisis of disillusionment Harry undergoes when losing his faith in Dumbledore (p293). Yet there is a lesson for them too; Hermione is right in believing that people can change (p295) as is seen in Percival’s return (p487) which is related to another of the major Potter themes, that has run through the entire series; the power of love between parents and children. It is a love that Voldemort, an orphan, cannot understand (p282). Dumbledore himself doesn’t pity Voldemort when he’s reduced to being a half-flayed infant. (I found this very disturbing, especially since Dumbledore’s own tragic family background is revealed here for the first time p129). Other parent/child relationships show Harry betrayed by Luna’s father because of his love and fear for Luna (p340). Some balance is achieved later when Narcissa Malfoy lies to save her son (p581, incidentally saving Harry in the process)

The book does contain some good lines, for example, Hermione says, about the locket; There’d be some sign of damage if it'd been magically destroyed (p227); they realise their own limitations; they were three teenagers in a tent whose only achievement was not, yet, to be dead (p253); Dumbledore says to Harry; 'Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?' (p579) But there is some really bad writing, too, some of which I’ll go into below after quickly noting my frustration at the pointlessly stubborn refusal of an educated woman to use the subjunctive (eg if she was a witch p273) JK: why?

I don’t want to make too much of grammar, though, because the book is truly awful in ways that mock that. Here are just a few of my main objections:
Bewildering lack of drama: Sometimes possibly connected to awareness of juvenile audience: Hermione is tortured but this has to be upstairs and out of sight. But there are too many other times when all we see is characters sitting around talking about what’s happening instead of actually doing it, or with Rowling suddenly telling us the action of weeks that we didn’t see(p190) Eventually a pattern in the narrative becomes clear. The three go to the Burrow. Stuff happens (mainly chatter, otherwise just as dull). The same (doesn’t) happen at Harry’s inherited house. Other people, and occasionally elves, pop in to fill in yet more of the backstory. There is precious little actual progress. Harry overhears that Ginny tried to steal the sword (p245) from new head master Snape's office – this would have been much more interesting to see than what we were shown. And very annoyingly, the most interesting thing to happen so far (the fall of the Ministry of Magic) happens off stage while we watch never-ending chatter and hand holdings. Which brings me to:
nauseating romantic relationships: dressing her couples in the literary equivalent of matching sweaters (p67-8) Rowling can never resist an opportunity to point out who is with whom. By the time Ron trying to get arm around Hermione (p107) I just wanted to yell, enough already! And fair enough, every long story needs a wedding and the protagonists being too young (in Rowling’s world, only just too young) Ron’s brother Bill and the irritatingly Rene Artois--accented (p 71) Fleur step in to fill the void. Real weddings are bad enough, this one is tedium infinitum (or it might be if there were a spell to create it, but why would anyone bother?) Worse still are
inconsistencies in Rowling’s conception of death: Rowling doesn’t seem to have a strong idea of what death actually means in her imagined world. She can't hold back from over- simplified expressions, for example, death is like a nightmare (p386) she writes at one point, which is utterly ridiculous. What must be one of the most real human experiences is best described as something that is unreal, and common? Rowling’s nightmare image strips the ultimate crisis of meaning and dignity and she fails most in her apparent unawareness of this. Later, despite continuous warning that death is the end and you can’t bring people back, when ever they are needed, the deadest of characters (Dumbledore, Harry’s parents) always – though cold, and not belonging (p332)manage to turn up.
How many times do we need to hear Hagrid's hankies are tablecloth sized? Editor, please! And especially, the
repeated use of Polyjuice potion: This transforming potion was refreshing when first used -- and Hermione accidentally turned into a cat -- but it’s past its use by date now, becoming as much of a get out of jail free card as Doctor Who's Sonic screwdriver and it's a relief when it runs out and fails though it doesn’t happen soon enough. And why do Harry’s enemies never figure it out or make some for themselves?
Disappointments: for instance the domestication of the main characters. Fleur, who once represented her country in the tri-wizard tournament is last seen worrying about dirty dishes and about where her houseguests should sleep. No, Fleur, no! Be haughty and superior and French and don’t do this! Please, JK, have something better in store for Harry, Ron and Hermione! (The ‘nineteen years later’ bit stuck at the end seems almost tragic).

Another most adult image that sits very oddly with the tediously juvenile romances is the phallic symbolism of the wand. I’ve never tried, but I imagine it would be hard to write a wand that isn’t phallic, but the extent to which the psychological manifests itself in this book is almost blush-worthy. In the first chapter, Voldemort demands Lucius' wand and compares its length to his own. Soon afterwards, an enemy conjures a white handkerchief from end of his and came quietly (p28). For his birthday, Harry receives a book from Ron: how to charm witches and proclaims with all the excitement of adolescent discovery, that ‘it's not all about wandwork' (p97) . Wands are put to other uses in the story (Harry’s has unique powers (pp73-4) Voldemort thinks his problem is his wand). But then we have wizards boasting of their wands (p337) in ways that make it surprising that it was written by a woman. Could it be an expression of penis envy? I really don’t think so, having lost faith in Freud after first hearing of this ridiculous idea (like Seinfeld's Elaine on learning about shrinkage 'I'm glad I don't have one of those' -- no psychologist needs to project his own fear of castration onto me ;) ). Despite knowing the power of a particular wand, Voldemort believes he can just break into Dumbledore's tomb and walk off with it. Of course that won’t work. But by the end, there has been so much discussion of wands, of what wood and which hair they are constructed from, that I couldn’t help but thinking of Tom Cruise’s character in Magnolia. To misquote; Respect the power of the wand. JK, how could you?

Is there a moral to the story? How could there not be? Despite the death that Harry makes the most fuss off (throwing himself into digging the grave! Rowling can’t think he’s Hamlet, can she? This might go some way towards explaining the lack of action) that of the house elf Dobby, which is no great loss. Despite the lack of action, before many more than 500 pages have passed, we realise we must be nearing last battle, returning to the location of Harry’s earliest scenes. There, he wins, of course, learning that grief / love / loss protects him, though there are things worse than death. (I wonder if one of those is tedious domesticity?)

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