August 1, 2007

Expecto Parentis


After all that pre-publication Potter punditry a number of people (one is a number, right?) wanted to know what I actually thought of Deathly Hallows now that I've read it.

First, without giving anything away for those who haven't finished it yet (which is more than J.K. Rowling would do for you — oh, why does she hate Magic?), I happily admit that I found it entertaining throughout, exciting in parts, and basically a satisfying conclusion to the series.

But I have to say there was something deeply odd about that last chapter...


Before I get to that, though, a few quick observations.

Like every one of the Harry Potter books since Goblet of Fire, Deathly Hallows could have benefited by being a third shorter. How many pages of moping around the woods do we really need?

I was watching closely for adverbs used to describe dialogue and found only one — and it was appropriate. That can only mean that Rowling read and heeded Stephen King's criticism, and while this improved the book, it made me sad for the author. If she hadn't fixed the problem, it would mean she didn't care. But since she did, it must mean that she wishes her first six books weren't riddled with this annoying tic. Too late!

As a number of people have observed, the big showdown made no sense. Eh, who cares? Making sense has never been part of Harry Potter's appeal. (That last link is via Eric Berlin.)

And now to the notorious quidditch mom epilogue, in which our heroes for the last ten years grow up to be dull suburban parents who say the kinds of thing that only muggle adults say, like "give our love to..." Rowling fleshed out their adult lives a bit in a recent web chat, but this is beside the point, and doesn't actually help much. Essentially, Hermione becomes a mid-level government functionary and Harry becomes a high-level government functionary. Ron is a small businessman. Really only Luna, who becomes a naturalist, seems to be living her dream.

So what to make of the ending? There are two ways to read it, I think.

The first is that it's a stupid, unintentional betrayal of the spirit that hooked everyone in the first place. The primal power of the Harry Potter story — as of so many like it — is in its archetypal inital conceit: an ordinary child who nobody understands is revealed to be a special person who has the central role in a great battle. On some level, every child (and the child in all of us) identifies with that kid and wants to imagine that they too are secretly special. Rowling indulges them for seven long books only to pull the rug out from under them at the end. You thought you were special? Guess what — no matter how exciting life feels right now, you're going to grow up and turn into your parents. Start measuring your life out in coffee spoons, pal, because in the end, you're gonna be reduced to living vicariously through your children, wistfully rememembering what it felt like to be the hero of your own story.

The alternate reading of the epilogue is, well, pretty much the same, except spun, Victorian style, as a sentimental sop to the grown-ups in the audience. Essentially, it's the ending of Peter Pan: Specialness doesn't come from the fever dreams of adolescence. True joy is in the pleasurable responsibilities of adulthood, and in passing on whatever magic you learned to your children. In the end, the play-acting of youth, with all it's drama and passion, is fleeting — meaningful only as a path to maturity.

Ick. I sure hope it's the stupid betrayal one.

Posted by Daniel Radosh


Or, that the chaos, uncertainty, and pain of a disrupted youth eventually yield to an adulthood of certainty, strength, respect, and family.

Harry's never enjoyed all the drama in his life. That's why he's a whiny git. And why he says to Ron, "This kind of thing always sounds cooler than it is."

There's also the pragmatic message: Rowling chose to give her core audience (children, remember) the satisfying ending that there aren't any more interesting stories about their hero that they're just not getting to hear. So, no reason to pressure her to pick up the quill again...and even if there's drama at some point after the epilogue, who wants to read about the exploits of a middle-aged boy hero? That's what "Breaking Bonaduce" is for.

I forgot to mention that Hogwarts is even more incestuous than Oberlin. Only Luna avoids marrying someone she went to high school with.

Oh right, my other big gripe: No one fucking dies. I mean, no one anyone gives a shit about. OK, Hedwig. But does anyone who's not an obssessive care about Tonks or Lupin or Moody? I mean, this is supposed to be serious business, shouldn't someone important make the ultimate sacrifice? It's such a cop out, like when Goblet of Fire was coming out and there was this big deal made about how a major character is killed, and how will the children take it, and then it's Cedric Digory, and I'm like, Who the fuck is Cedric Digory?

Aaaargh. The dumb cat shit is now officially everywhere.

I quit the Internet.

Wait, I thought using an incongruous big word made it acceptably ironical.

"... Radosh said acceptably."

A high-level government functionary? How awful. That's much more depressing than the future I'd imagined for Harry: a washed-up former superstar, living in the wizarding-world version of Las Vegas, doing a cheesy re-enactment of his lifelong struggle against Voldemort. Family-friendly shows at 2:15 and 6:00 pm (the latter includes dinner), and the adults-only late show at 11:30.

My biggest complaint about Deathly Hallows is that it didn't include enough Snape and that his death was so anti-climactic. I didn't mind the epilogue so much because, by that time, I was just glad it was over.

Shit. That last anonymous post was by me.

don't give up! it gets better. in the postscript to the epilogue, harry and hermione have a sleazy affair, busting up both their marriages and causing a creepy incestuous flirtation between ginny and ron as the siblings commiserate. george magics fred back to life, only to find that zombiefred falls for fleur and impregnates her, killing bill's marriage and spawning the next Dark Lord. a girl! neville is in love with her.

i'm hard at work, writing this now. stay tuned.

By the way...was anyone else slightly disturbed to learn that Dumbledore's brother is apparently a goat-fucker?

I forgot to mention that Hogwarts is even more incestuous than Oberlin. Only Luna avoids marrying someone she went to high school with.

I had a similar reaction, but then I thought it through and remembered that Hogwarts is the only wizarding school in Britain.

No one fucking dies. I mean, no one anyone gives a shit about. OK, Hedwig. But does anyone who's not an obssessive care about Tonks or Lupin or Moody?

You forgot Dobby! I cried during that grave-digging scene. And Fred Weasley probably counts as someone people care about, too -- I've never gotten all that attached to the twins, but I bet some readers have.

ah well, i was expecting no less from the last chapter. i mean, what else could she have done? they don't get married and live happily ever after? I though harry would have ended up a teacher at hogwarts, though. Didn't she say she wrote that final chapter awhile ago, before the rest of the book?

but a couple of observations...

1) this must be the first time in history the movies started having an effect on the books. you can tell she has the specific actors and the characteristic quirks in mind when writing.

2) overall her writing style has improved a bit, but there is something that was lost, to me, the innocence of the inexperienced writer, the charm. this one was all plot. I always thought quiddich was lame, but it was about the only original invention in the books and I almost missed it here.

I agree about missing snape, considering he was the only character that actually had dimension.

as i said elsewhere, the books are hardly literature, but they were fun. she did tie everything up and mostly I'm glad it's over so we can read something more worthwhile, maybe re-read Strange and Norell (my vote for best fantasy literature of the last 20 years)

1. Totally agree re: Snape, always my favorite character.

2. Can't wait for Slutwench's sequel, which I understand is already available in China.

3. JKR's prose style is definitely much better now. Take a quick look at the first book and you'll see, but yeah, there was less original invention in DH.

4. Jake, have you read Gaiman's Stardust? It's light going, but very fun. Ditto Neverwhere.

5. A new gripe: DH had too many new things sprung on us for the first time. If the Hallows were so important, why have we never heard of them before? That's just one example. I can't help but think that a more careful fantasy writer (Tolkein and Asimov were good at this) would have quietly seeded the early books with things that are seemingly just decorative trappings when they first appear, but that become essential as you go on. That's the kind of literary device that really makes a series feel alive. It's the difference between "Oh my God, so that's why Dumbledore's wand was so special" and "Oh, I guess we're finding out after he died that Dumbledore had a special wand."

but daniel, in the first book she planted the seed that Harry was, "the boy who lived," and then in the 7th book, some 5000 pages later, we find out it's because, er, well, what did we find out? oh, yeah something about innocence and love (I guess all the other victims deserved it).

you know, i haven't read the Gaiman novels, i think i've been harboring a secret anti-comic writer prejudice, but i should considering how much i loved BooksOfMagic. (levels above Harry Potter, eh?)

you know we could pick J.K. apart all day, but that fact remains none of us could put it down while we were reading it, eh? I mean they are clearly kids books, and we're all adults!

Neil Gaiman doesn't write comics. He writes graphic novels.

A "more careful writer" than Rowling? I think the exact opposite is true--she's an EXTREMELY careful writer. She created an impressively complex world with (largely) consistent rules, and is possibly the most populist writer ever, including Goebbels.

In the last book, EVERY character introduced in the previous seven books makes at least a cameo appearance. EVERYONE's favorite character gets at least a moment, and a resolution. She met all the challenges that her fan base demanded, and also wrapped up dozens of loose ends neatly.

It's clever, without being brilliant; compelling, but workmanlike.

There are far worse things to be, though.

Well, she's thorough, but that's not the same as being careful (nor is being populist, of course). I just think that with a little more foresight she could have created a more unified story.

In her defense, she did do that with Gringotts. Paying off the inpenetrable bank set up with a robbery pay off seven books later was pretty cool. I just wanted to see more of that.

this must be the first time in history the movies started having an effect on the books

Ian Fleming made James Bond part Scottish after Connery started playing him on screen. Bet there are other examples too.

Ugh. Humiliating confession: I've been misusing the word "populist." I thought it meant "skillfully identifying public desires and then pandering to them." What can I say, I was a biology major and then went to law school.

But Radosh, I think you're underestimating Rowling's ahievement. Her audience wanted the last book to:

1. Tie up about a hundred loose ends
2. Give each one of literally a hundred characters a key role and appearance in the last book
3. Detail a quest spanning not just the One True Ring, but four MacGuffins, something that I would have thought would take another five-book series to accomplish in a satisfying way
4. Give the series finale greater portent than the internecine struggles of a single institution--which she did by creating conditions necessitating that most of the book appear outside Hogwarts;
5. Feature Hogwarts prominently, because her core readership can most closely identify with a school setting and has come to care about Hogwarts in particualr;
6. Maintain a sense of tension, which she did by creating the whole "I may or may not kill Harry" trope;
7. Give that trope legitimate heft by getting the reader to believe that he may be killed...

I could go on this way for a list much, much longer. She had serious logistical challenges to meet, which she did by planning out and executing the last book very, very carefully.

As further evidence, Rowling anticipated and thought through much additional material that never made it into print, and wasn't too coy to share that with her fans, which I think, again, shows a degree of carefulness, and savvy, that I'm truly impressed by (and I say this as only a moderate fan of the books)!

I could say more, but then we're into "Kirk or Picard" territory, and I think I'm already there.

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