Hard-Boiled Potterland and the End of the World

Saturday, 21 July 2007 — 6:16pm | Harry Potter, Literature

(“Potterdammerung” was already taken.)

I did it. I made it through to the end of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows completely unspoiled by external sources. Well, almost completely – while I never received any confirmation of some of the critical details, I was surprised by how easily the public consensus predicted them in the more popular speculations I was so quick to dismiss as “too easy.”

It’s still a remarkable feat, because the conduct of the Muggle mainstream press throughout this entire affair has been completely unacceptable. Having read the book, I’ve now looked at some of the articles that have been run on the front pages of several newspapers, and I am astounded and appalled at how much they reveal. In some cases, the articles amount to no more or less than summaries of the final chapters.

How does this pass for news? What purpose does a paper serve by publishing this aside from being a bunch of complete wankers?

Okay, now let’s talk about the book.

Do not read below this point if you have not read Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.

Ready?

I loved it.

If there was a single speck of disappointment that blemished my initial experience of the final Harry Potter volume, it’s that so many people figured out the answers to some of the major questions so far in advance. It’s very unlike J.K. Rowling to actually deliver precisely what her readers expect. She doesn’t do that throughout the book, mind you; I think I may confine that impression to the chapter entitled “The Prince’s Tale,” in which we find out…

(If you haven’t read it, go away. And if you’re going to read on anyway because you don’t really care to read the Potter books yourself, I’d hate to be blunt, but we’re simply not going to be friends.)

… in which we find out that Snape was acting on Dumbledore’s orders all along, Harry is a seventh Horcrux, and Snape’s primary motivation was his lifelong love for Lily Evans.

I was a resident contrarian on the first two counts and possibly (but noncommittally) the third. It didn’t seem to click in theory. I’ve offered a few arguments to that effect, but the hidden, irrational hunch behind it all was that I simply didn’t believe Ms. Rowling would be that predictable.

It doesn’t matter, because the execution was superb.

The primary basis for my belief that Snape was first and foremost on a side that wasn’t Dumbledore’s was that on a purely literary level, I thought it necessary for Dumbledore to have some ultimate imperfection that prevented him from deterministically orchestrating Voldemort’s downfall all by himself. It was essential that Harry had some knowledge or intuition that Dumbledore did not to truly call Voldemort’s defeat his own. To me, that meant Dumbledore had to have overlooked something, perhaps in the form of a misplaced trust.

So my reaction to the idea that Dumbledore ordered Snape to kill him amounted to, “That wouldn’t make Dumbledore terribly interesting.”

In The Deathly Hallows, Rowling gets away with it by giving Dumbledore a far more interesting character flaw than simply being too trusting, and one that sheds new light on Dumbledore’s chat with Harry at the end of The Order of the Phoenix: Dumbledore struggles with the balance between impassionate tactical genius and passionate concern for those who are to actually carry out his orders. Unbeknownst to Harry and thereby, the reader, that’s the real developmental path that Dumbledore follows over the course of the first six books.

More importantly from a narrative point of view, even up to the point of Snape’s death, there’s virtually nothing that assures the reader of a certain answer. I started to have an inkling I might be wrong about Snape when I saw just how much thought and preparation Albus Dumbledore had put into his will in order to lead our heroes on the trail of a Grail Quest we didn’t know existed.

As for Harry being the last Horcrux, Rowling met the necessary conditions with what I considered the only possible route for that to be the case: it was extraneous to the six that Dumbledore suspected, it was unknown to Voldemort himself, and its creation was an entirely accidental result. Now, here’s the rub: how long had Dumbledore known? If anything, Harry’s last scene with him in the limbo of King’s Cross reveals that the infamous “gleam of triumph” in The Goblet of Fire manifested Dumbledore’s realization that there was a way of removing Voldemort’s soul fragment from Harry without killing the latter.

Then why deliberately feed Snape misinformation about how Harry has to die? The two reasons I can think of are the obvious ones. First, the reader has to believe that it’s a definite possibility that Harry must perish. Second, it’s with the understanding that Snape’s memory of Dumbledore’s orders will eventually reach Harry, and the plan only works if Harry faces Death confidently and in good faith.

All in all, it’s really the new material – most prominently, the Deathly Hallows and the background surrounding Dumbledore and Grindelwald – that makes the book. At around the halfway mark, one wonders when Harry is actually going to get around to stomping some Horcruxes, but that only amplifies the degree to which one can sympathize with Ron’s impatience with the lack of any apparent plan of action. And although Ron and Hermione don’t get nearly as involved with the final climax as one would reasonably expect, Ron’s return in the chapter entitled “The Silver Doe” may be the best scene in the book – every bit a true fulfilment of the character’s personal journey as that later incident involving the Sword of Gryffindor, Neville Longbottom and a more than nearly headless snake.

As a completely tangential aside: when I first read that one alias of the Elder Wand was the Deathstick, all I could think of was Ewan MacGregor’s Obi-Wan Kenobi: “You don’t want to sell me deathsticks. You want to go home and rethink your life.”

I do have one concern. It’s a concern, not a complaint, but I think it’s worth mentioning. It’s really not until this book that it becomes clear that Unforgivable Curses (with the possible exception of the Killing Curse) are entirely a legal matter, not a moral one. It was certainly discomfiting to see Harry tossing them about willy-nilly in places, even if they were out of necessity, as in the Gringotts robbery. It was an unexpected direction for Rowling to take, and creates a certain ambiguity when it comes to defining what the criteria are for considering a spell to be one of the Dark Arts. Is it based on means or consequences? Certainly, the “good guys” kill, maim or torture just as readily, though there’s a certain poetry to how Voldemort finishes himself off because he runs into a disarming spell.

One last thing (for now, as there’s a limitless supply of material to discuss now that there’s no more Potter coming): I remember reading that Rowling wrote the last chapter (which I take to be the “Nineteen Years Later” epilogue… why nineteen?) way back near the beginning and stowed it away. It shows, and I say that with the utmost ambivalence. The writing abruptly jerks you back to the innocent tone of the first two books, almost as if the series never really developed in scope, and renders the entire segment a tad out of place. I suppose that’s the benefit of restoring some semblance of natural order to the Potterverse, but I would have preferred a more reflective present-day denouement, especially after the excellent ones that capped the fifth and sixth.

Then again, for all the mundanity of an ending where the happy high school couples stay together, live happily ever after and see their kids to school has a certain assuring tone to it: unlike their father, Harry’s kids get to be sent off to Hogwarts by their loving parents. That’s a difference worth remarking upon, is it not?

Primary unanswered question (and I’m sure others would agree): what horrific memory did Dudley relive in the Dementor attack in The Order of the Phoenix? Answer: unknown, but I’m not sure it’s so relevant now that we know his shock and silence was probably not at the Dementors themselves, but the fact that Harry stuck his neck out for him. I was wondering how Rowling would send off the Dursleys, and I can’t imagine her doing it any better. The clincher was when Harry called Dudley “Big D” in earnest. When you’re reading a book, it’s that kind of moment that makes you feel like a boy who lived.

It’s not until a few hours afterwards that the post-Potter depression really sets in.

We’re done. Life goes on. And at the end of all things, nobody tickled a sleeping dragon.

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