From the archives: Harry Potter

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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.


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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Famous last words: nitwit, blubber, oddment, tweak

Tuesday, 17 July 2007 — 9:28pm | Harry Potter, Literature

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows has shipped. Consider this my last transmission in a state of blissful ignorance before I retreat to my hastily prepared hermetic shelter.

There’s been a leak online, and I personally know at least one individual who legitimately claims to have read the book. To me, the next three days are nothing more or less than a treacherous challenge to survive unblemished in a viral world polluted with too much information. I have summarily severed all inbound lines of communication. If word gets out in the next few days that a lit-crazed science camp instructor has viciously silenced a small child or three, you’ll know why, and you can tell it to the cops that I solemnly swear they were up to no good.

Here are my final predictions. I don’t have time to offer as thorough a rationale for each of them as I’d like; some of them are hunches, and some of them are cases of deliberately contrarian muckraking. If I’m right, I promise you I didn’t cheat. If I’m wrong, I’ll look rather silly, won’t I? But just this once, that’s a risk I’m willing to take.

Let’s start with the important questions.

Snape, Snape, Severus Snape. Evil.

I’ve lost sleep mulling over this and flipping back and forth, but after reading through all six of the preceding volumes again, I’m going back to the same initial impression I had when I first read Half-Blood Prince; see this blog’s most (inexplicably) popular post of all time for details. I can understand the argument that Snape killed Dumbledore on Dumbledore’s last-minute orders – making yourself completely vulnerable and committing assisted suicide to plant a double-agent right-hand man? Ingenious! – but I just don’t buy it.

First: Dumbledore wouldn’t order someone to commit murder, even as someone who believes that death is the next great adventure. I really do believe Snape took him by surprise, and that Dumbledore petrified Harry to prevent any interference only when it came to Draco Malfoy – who, as I’ve said before, probably had the right idea about Snape all along. As for the pleading, we may confidently infer that Dumbledore’s condition was something only Snape could properly address. We’ve also been told time and again that an Unforgivable Curse doesn’t work unless you really mean it and take pleasure in the act of violence.

Was Snape just securing himself the advantageous position of Voldemort’s real first lieutenant and “most loyal servant,” the delusion successively held by Peter Pettigrew, Barty Crouch Jr. and Bellatrix Lestrange (and before that, arguably Lucius Malfoy)? I doubt it. Snape, of all people, is in a position to understand that someone like Voldemort doesn’t put much stock in first lieutenants. He’s too cunning to believe that there’s any safety in such a position. I think Snape is primarily looking out for his own survival, the true mark of a Slytherin.

Will Snape end up doing something in favour of the good guys? Almost certainly, whether it’s intentional on his part or not. Will Harry forgive him? Unquestionably, not least because of our boy hero’s continued assurances that it will never happen. That’s something we’ll leave for the action in the seventh book. What I’m far more interested in is the motivation behind what Snape has been up to so far.

I think it’s imperative that we accept that Dumbledore is a flawed character – someone who has a gaping hole in his wisdom because of his willingness to see the best in people. Sooner or later, somebody was going to take advantage of it, and that someone turned out to be Snape. (Ironically, it was Dumbledore alone who saw right through the young Tom Riddle.) I was waffling on this, but what convinced me for good was this article comparing Severus the Half-Blood Prince to Severus in Machiavelli’s The Prince. There’s no way that kind of correlation is just another inconsequential blip on the radar.

Does it impugn Harry’s maturation as a character to say that on some level, he was right to have an irrational dislike of Snape all along? Maybe, but one other thing to remember about Half-Blood Prince is that much of it is a case of the boy who cried wolf: for once, Harry’s intuition is right on the money, but everyone is so used to it being ostensibly wrong that they didn’t take him seriously when it came to, say, Draco Malfoy’s degree of involvement in Voldemort’s cause.

Snape is far more dangerous than we give him credit for. He’s already accomplished two things that Voldemort only ever dreamed of doing: teaching Defence Against the Dark Arts, and getting Dumbledore out of the way. I’m not saying I’d place him as the primary antagonist over Voldemort himself, though others have pursued that train of thought; the symmetry isn’t quite there, and I’d say that even though Half-Blood Prince was named for Snape, the primary contribution it made to the series was its reassertion of a solid and credible basis for believing that Voldemort is as much of a villain as everybody makes him out to be.

I may end up eating crow, of course, and if I do, I think I know why. It’s because we still don’t know why Dumbledore trusted Snape. This is one of the two big uncertainties that characters in the book (never mind the readers) have occasionally mistaken for certainties, the other one being, “Why couldn’t Voldemort kill Harry?” Harry recognizes the sheer implausibility that Dumbledore could be hoodwinked by Snape’s apparent remorse for the deaths of the Potters. Well, it’s not just implausible – it’s impossible. In Goblet of Fire, we learned that Dumbledore testified that Snape defected prior to Voldemort’s fall. That means the defection had to occur before Voldemort marched into Godric’s Hollow. An advance warning? Perhaps, but it didn’t seem to help.

This is literature, folks. The question we should be asking isn’t, “What makes the characters the most clever?” but rather, “What results in the most elegant pattern?” J.K. Rowling may prove me horribly wrong, but I think the answer involves a Severus Snape who isn’t just doing Dumbledore’s bidding.

If we accept my take on things, the biggest question is this: why does Severus Snape feel obligated to protect Harry Potter? Is this of his own accord, or is Snape unwillingly bound through something like an Unbreakable Vow or his outstanding debt to Harry’s father?

Harry will never pull off an Unforgivable Curse. And he’ll never be a murderer. It’s not even a matter of the amount of conviction or hatred he can pour into a spell meant to torture or kill – he’s just fundamentally incapable of the act. Sectumsempra is in all likelihood the closest he’ll ever come to the Dark Arts, and it was in many ways accidental. And this leads to the central curiosity I have going into the final volume: how could Harry vanquish Voldemort without murdering him?

Dumbledore’s dead. He’s been dead for two years now. Get over it.

Who lives? Limiting myself to candidates that may or may not have been bandied about, so I don’t have to comb the dramatis personae all the way down to Dedalus Diggle: Harry Potter, Hermione Granger, Hagrid, all three of the Malfoys, all of the Weasleys (with the possible exception of Ron, but I’ll get into that later), Minerva McGonagall, Remus Lupin, the Dursleys.

Who dies? Lord Voldemort. His greatest weakness is his failure to realize that some things are worse than death, but I think that’s a reason why he will die, not why he won’t. It’s precisely the fate that all of his evil was conjured to avoid. There’s one hitch with this I can see: Voldemort is so resistant to death that theoretically, he’d come back as a ghost. There has to be some reason that his death is permanent, and it’s not going to be as simple as running out of Horcruxes. It probably involves love, but that doesn’t get us any closer to a practical solution, does it.

I’m actually inclined to think that all three of Harry, Ron and Hermione will survive. But I’ll hedge my bets and say that if one of them is going to bite the dust, it’s going to be Ron. It’s the chess game in Philosopher’s Stone that tips the balance. He has a clear arc of character development – individuation relative to his siblings and his best friend – that is reaching its saturation point. Really, what it might come down to is whether or not Rowling intends to rip him and Hermione apart just after they’ve finally gotten together.

If it’s not Ron, who will it be? We’re certain to lose someone near and dear to us, aren’t we? Who’s important enough?

Neville Longbottom, that’s who. I don’t say this on the basis of any evidence in particular, but here’s what we know. He has a score to settle with the Lestranges, that much is clear. There’s already a certain symmetry between Neville and Peter Pettigrew, and I could see a scenario in which the former takes the fall for his friends where the latter didn’t. After all, so much of the series is founded on taking similarities and splitting them in divergent directions at critical points marked by decisions that reflect one’s true character. And let’s not forget Neville’s role at the end of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, shall we?

Among the minor villains, I’m picking Bellatrix Lestrange, Peter Pettigrew and Fenrir Greyback to be out of the picture by the book’s end. Ever since Goblet of Fire, we’ve all been watching Peter Pettigrew to see what he’ll do with that silver hand, and a lot of the money’s on him killing Lupin. I actually think that if Pettigrew does slay a werewolf with a well-placed handshake, it will be Greyback; sure, the history between the characters isn’t there, but let’s not forget about that life debt to Harry.

What about Snape? I think he’s a dead man. Not at Harry’s hands, obviously. Harry will forgive and spare him. I can’t say the same for everyone else.

Ron will finally say the name “Voldemort.” And it’s about time.

Harry is not the last Horcrux. I admit the possibility, but I just don’t see it. This is a piece of Voldemort’s soul we’re talking about. If the Riddle diary was any indication, this is equivalent to an independent instance of Voldemort himself. We saw at the end of Order of the Phoenix that Voldemort is flatly unable to reside in someone who is able to love and be loved in the manner of Harry Potter. When Voldemort possessed Quirrell, he couldn’t even touch Harry with someone else’s hands because of the protection conferred by Harry’s mother. Is it really at all likely that Harry has played host to a shard of Voldemort’s soul this whole time? Not a chance.

The locket and the cup are probably givens. Some object of Ravenclaw’s? Probably, seeing as how there’s already one of Hufflepuff’s. If Dumbledore was wrong about any of the Horcruxes, it’s most likely the snake. But it’s not going to turn out to be Harry.

A brief word about R.A.B. It’s Regulus Black, but it might not be that important that it’s him. We should at least acknowledge, in passing, the possibility that Regulus was framed. For all we know, Snape could have been behind it all along. He had access to Grimmauld Place, he addresses Voldemort as the Dark Lord, he’s a known defector (genuine or otherwise), he’s proficient enough with potions that he could have filled or refilled the basin in the cave, and he is a likely candidate to attempt to subvert Voldemort from the inside. (We are, by now, well out of prediction territory and into the realm of fanciful conspiracy. My actual guess? It’s just Regulus Black.)

Someone we know or recognize will come back as an Inferius. And it will creep us out. But if you’re going to introduce a device like reanimated corpses into your story, why not use it?

Hoggy Hoggy Hogwarts. We’ll see more of it than we expect.

We will pay a visit to Azkaban. Of all the major locations mentioned in the books, Azkaban is the one we haven’t seen (Godric’s Hollow aside, but we know that’s coming). There’s a potential reason for going there, too: if Slytherin’s locket was indeed the one in Grimmauld Place, and Mundungus Fletcher indeed lifted it before being sent to the wizard prison, Harry will be hot on his trail.

The prophecy will be fulfilled, and it will be Voldemort’s fault. In other words, Harry lives and Voldemort dies. Voldemort’s is a case of Oedipal self-fulfilment par excellence. Is Divination still bunk? Yes, and it has always been. But Voldemort acts on its predictions, and has done so to his own peril on at least one occasion. That’s an exploitable trait if I ever saw one.

Sirius Black will not return as an innocent singing sensation. But they’ll finally clear his name.

The bad guys will get lucky. J.K. Rowling has proven time and again that any external utility or supplement that works in favour of the good guys can just as easily work in favour of the bad guys. She did it with Polyjuice Potion, the Invisibility Cloak, the Marauder’s Map and the Room of Requirement, and I strongly suspect Felix Felicis will fall into the wrong hands at some point. Then again, she does have limits; for example, she wrote the Time-Turner out of the story and avoided what could have been a very messy nest of Nargles.

We’ll see more of… Dobby, Kreacher, Luna Lovegood, Buckbeak, Grawp, Crabbe and Goyle, the huge and clumsy Death Eater at the end of Half-Blood Prince, the late Albus Dumbledore (who is unquestionably dead, but his portrait isn’t sitting in Hogwarts and who knows where else without reason). Norbert the Norwegian Ridgeback? We can only hope. What’s Charlie Weasley been up to lately, anyhow?

We may have seen the last of… Moaning Myrtle, Firenze, Rita Skeeter, Cho Chang, Lavender Brown, Madame Maxime, Viktor Krum, Gilderoy Lockhart, Nearly Headless Nick, Peeves, Fawkes (who may have made his final exit alongside Dumbledore), and most of the Hogwarts staff. And again, Dumbledore is not just merely dead – he’s really, most sincerely dead.

Harry will live to teach Defence Against the Dark Arts. I may hold minority opinions on a number of things, but this is not one of them. This is Harry Potter’s most likely fate. Voldemort’s curse on the position is a fairly consequential subplot of its own; who better to break the pattern and restore a settling sense of natural order?

I think that’s all I can come up with for now. I will see you all on the other side, burdened with an inevitable case of post-Potter depression.

Mischief managed?

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Hogwarts, Quahog and the Chinese Room

Friday, 2 February 2007 — 12:02pm | Harry Potter, Literature, Television

I’m quite shocked. I didn’t think she could do it.

A July release date for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows had been rumoured long before yesterday’s announcement, mostly because the prospect of the seventh Potter being released on 7/7/07 (as was often suggested) was too numerologically fortuitous to pass up. There were two reasons I never believed this: first, it coincided with the anniversary of the London tube bombings, and while I don’t like the idea that we’re effectively letting the terrorists win, I can understand the need for sensitivity.

More to the point, though, all indications were that Rowling wouldn’t finish in time. Books don’t get printed and shipped out as soon as they’re done: the fact that the date is now set to 21 July indicates that a complete draft is already in the can. I had no idea she was anywhere close to this. Settling on a title in December was probably the first indication that the book was coming along much faster than I expected, but even then, this is all rather sudden.

It’s encouraging, though. As was the case with The Prisoner of Azkaban, a quick turnaround time means things were tightly planned, things are going as planned, and the author isn’t struggling. It could make for a satisfying finale, to say the least.

By the way: while I have to read The Half-Blood Prince again before I commit to anything, my chips are still on “Harry is not a Horcrux,” “Snape is evil” and “Harry, Ron and Hermione all make it out alive.” All three of these positions are somewhat contrarian, and I wager I’m one of very few people to hold all of them at once, but we’ll see who’s eating crow come Saturday the 21st.

Next item on the agenda: Family Guy.

I make it no secret that I am not at all a fan of the show. In fact, I find it often irritating and outright dumb. After watching a few consecutive episodes one summer, it became readily apparent to me that however fresh it must have seemed back in its inaugural season, what passes for comedy on Family Guy amounts to a bag of three or four basic tricks.

I’m not going to get into details here. I tried once, but I couldn’t get to the end. Just read this guy and pay special attention to #9, #7, #3 and #2. And just know that the moment the show lost me for good was when I realized it didn’t even know how to make a decent jab at The Da Vinci Code.

I only bring up Family Guy now because for all its failings, the one element that never ceases to impress me is the music, be it the nostalgic sitcom cues or the full-blown musical numbers. Sure, like the rest of the show, most of them are merely referential and not parodic, which means that they can be cute, but not necessarily funny. I know at least one person who only knew the great Lerner/Loewe tune “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face” from Seth McFarlane doing Stewie doing Rex Harrison in one of Family Guy‘s more triumphant moments, and not from My Fair Lady; I’m sure he’s not alone.

So what do we make of this: taking the scene from Anchors Aweigh where Gene Kelly dances with the latter half of Tom and Jerry as a palimpsestic surface, so now we have Gene Kelly dancing with Stewie Griffin?

Personally, I find it quite enjoyable, and probably as good as the show is ever prone to get. In fact, Family Guy is generally a lot more tolerable when snipped into little sketches and segments that are placed online. This is one of its better moments, even if it reeks of the problem I mentioned earlier – that the show can’t tell the difference between reference and parody, and often settles for the former.

But as fun as it may be, Steve Worth is on point: “How much ‘thought to animation and choreography’ does it take to rotoscope someone else’s animation and slap your own character over the top of it?… Family Guy deserves no praise for this. A ripoff is a ripoff.”

Then again, even a ripoff is linguistically interesting from time to time.

As an aside, I started sketching this post in my undergraduate class on the philosophy of mind, and it’s slowly dawning on me just how little most people know about computers. I think it’s a problem, at a basic conceptual level, that the average layman wraps his head around computers as if they were only machines that are or aren’t powerful enough to do certain things, and not as theoretical, mathematical constructions – which, when it comes to a philosophical approach to consciousness, is the part that matters.

Generally, this is probably a consequence of the fact that most people’s exposure to science is limited to an exposure to technology. Consequently, it must be easy for them to fall into the trap of thinking that scientific problems, or philosophical ones with scientific elements, can be solved by technological progress alone.

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Constant vigilance

Thursday, 15 September 2005 — 12:12pm | Adaptations, Film, Harry Potter, Literature

Keeping in mind that I’m not a stickler for correspondence to source material when it comes to movies adapted from books – relatively speaking, anyhow – I have a few observations to point out regarding the new Goblet of Fire trailer. Like a lot of trailers for big franchise movies that are near enough to release that most of the effects work is done, it shows everything – so if you don’t want to see everything from Hermione’s pink ball gown (yes, it’s pink here and not blue) to Lord Voldemort himself, avert your eyes.

First of all, the tombstone in the graveyard scene has been fixed. Early promotional images such as this one revealed an egregious error – that is, the presumption that Tom Marvolo Riddle’s dead father was also named Tom Marvolo Riddle, which was from the outset more improbable than the transfiguration of a pair of missiles into a sperm whale and a bowl of petunias, and then flatly contradicted by events critical to Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. Near the end of this trailer there are a few shots from the resurrection in the graveyard (like I said, it shows everything), and the inscription has been corrected.

Much more irritating than anything else – and I suspect this will end up being my greatest annoyance with the finished product when I see it in November – is Dumbledore’s butchered pronunciation of “Beauxbatons”, which is similar to how they pronounce “Baton Rouge” in the drawl of the former Confederate states. Seriously, William the Conqueror died for this? Oh well – I suppose they already neglected to drop the silent T in “Voldemort”, so all bets are off. Now we’ll just have to deal with the premise that a Bulgarian kid learns how to enunciate Hermione’s name but the only one You-Know-Who ever feared stumbles over his French after a century of practice. What would really be upsetting is if the francophone characters do the same.

Like Cuaron’s flying Iceman Dementors in The Prisoner of Azkaban, there are a lot of neat visual inventions on display – Mad-Eye Moodyvision, Sirius Black speaking in the form of the embers in the fire instead of a disembodied head (which makes me wonder what will be done if they keep the scene of Umbridge fumbling about for his presence in Phoenix), and the rippling Jumbotron at the Quidditch World Cup, to name a few. I can see plenty of dynamism befitting the scope of the tale, a pulse that was sorely lacking in the Columbus films. Now that we have a pretty clear idea of the look of the film, the big question mark is the pace.

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I don’t know anything about Horcruxes

Monday, 25 July 2005 — 7:09pm | Harry Potter, Literature

And I wouldn’t tell you if I did.

One of the ancillary benefits of writing about the new Harry Potter book when all the major fan websites and discussion forums are closed for spoiler protection, as was the case last weekend, is that you appear very high in the Google charts for a day or two, and blog traffic jumps twentyfold as if it just had a run-in with a Great American Jackalope. It seems that being on topic, even be it in a disorganized splitter-splatter that you forgot to sweep under the rug before eight hundred uninvited guests crash your dinner party (and your little server, too!), gives SEO scammers the old one-two any day of the week.

I do have some sober second thoughts to offer about Regulus Black, soul-eating lockets, double-crossing Potions profs and the proper care and feeding of a Blast-Ended Skrewt in light of the myriad observations brought to my attention by respondents in the comment box and via e-mail, but not now. But lest thee think the rest of this post is a mistake, it will commence with my talking Potter once more.

Colby Cosh, I’m told, is a somewhat prominent journalist from this neck of the woods whose blog sports a clean wordmark banner in oblique serifs and middleweight traffic to match. Last week he wrote an article for the National Post which basically amounts to “nobody’s going to remember J.K. Rowling decades from now” and 877 words of eloquent padding.

I wish Mr. Cosh the best of luck in beating back the torrential downpour of hate mail, predominantly written by impulsive illiterates that drown out the level-headed critics, that descends from the heavens whenever a writer with a megaphone attacks something popular that may or may not be spectacularly good (and in this case, I think it is). Words of advice that I feel are appropriate here: draco dormiens nunquam titillandus, kiddo.

As for my part in all this – well, given how resident Anglophile Sarah and something-else-ophile Roman have both given the piece a mention, both very much in their own fashions, I couldn’t possibly remain left out.

There’s honestly not much to respond to, though, so this will be short and won’t even require me to speak of the Potter series’ lasting virtues and pervasive universals, of which I think there are many. Cosh’s syllogism, once you uproot the Opinion-page flower garden, amounts to: a) Some incredibly popular authors from the early twentieth century have since been forgotten; b) J.K. Rowling is an incredibly popular author; 3) therefore, J.K. Rowling will be forgotten within the century.

Allow me to introduce you to ∈. My little buddy ∈ is, in set theory, the “is a member of the set” symbol. Yes, sales figures show that Ms. Rowling ∈ the set of incredibly popular authors. Where, though, is it demonstrated that Rowling ∈ the set of forgettable popular authors who don’t outlive their press and contemporaneous relevance?

Okay, I’m not playing fair. You can’t demonstrate such a thing because it hasn’t happened yet, and any claims either way are predictive. But then let’s work by comparison, as Cosh does, and answer his rhetorical question: “What blind god bestows immortality on some authors and consigns others to oblivion?” And just to show that I mean business, a few paragraphs down I’m going to pull out my 3/3, Flying, Trample Raymond Chandler.

The problem with the comparisons drawn in the article is that there are better ones from the same time period, the early twentieth century – not marginally, but significantly better.

Take Agatha Christie, for instance – nobody special, just the bestselling prose author of all time. Like Rowling, her writing has a characteristic, well-mannered British flavour that appeals to the good Anglophile, not just on the level of form, but also on the level of content for the millions who consume it in translation. Like Rowling, her world is a complex construction populated by an assortment of eccentrics that challenge the starring sleuths at every turn; but it is a cozy world where ultimately, the clues and answers draw more attention than the inciting murders do. And like Rowling, she’s a woman, but we’ll not get into that.

The criticisms of either author’s modus operandi run along similar lines: that their stories lounge on chesterfields too comfy to be threatening and thus too unreal to be believable, that instead of doing something wholly original they solo off the leadsheets of others who quaff the same formulae and choose to impress with meticulousness.

Raymond Chandler, noted inventor of the simile-spouting private eye narrator archetype, wrote a seminal critique of the twentieth-century detective story, published in The Atlantic Monthly in 1944 and entitled “The Simple Art of Murder”. (You can see a slightly off-angle PDF scan here, but it is often reproduced in print with a collection of short stories.) Read the essay, as it is one of the most important things ever written about mystery. In it, he writes that the detective story is some of the most difficult fiction to concoct, yet it is at the same time very easily publishable:

The average detective story is probably no worse than the average novel, but you never see the average novel. It doesn’t get published. The average – or only slightly above average – detective story does… And the strange thing is that this average, more than middling dull, pooped-out piece of utterly unreal and mechanical fiction is really not very different from what are called the masterpieces of the art. It drags on a little more slowly, the dialogue is a shade grayer, the cardboard out of which the characters are cut is a shade thinner, and the cheating is a little more obvious. But it is the same kind of book. Whereas the good novel is not at all the same kind of book as the bad novel.

Chandler goes on in this manner and responds to what today, in hindsight, we refer to as the Christie Cozy – the clue-scrubbing deductive puzzles that invariably miss some critical insurer of plausibility beneath all their intricate workmanship. Some of the authors he glosses over in this deliberation – E.C. Bentley, Freeman Wills Crofts, A.A. Milne – we don’t hear much of anymore, at least not in conjunction with mystery. I suppose we still know who Milne is, but that’s because of his kids’ stuff like Winnie the Pooh and not The Red House Mystery. (This will become important.)

So if the detective stories of the day were all chips off the same block, why is Christie synonymous with everything that followed Arthur Conan Doyle? Chandler answers this, but not directly. In rebuking Dorothy L. Sayers for her statement that mysteries, of which she was herself a prolific writer, were intrinsically second-class escapist literature, Chandler goes on to praise Dashiell Hammett and his first-class The Maltese Falcon for introducing gritty gangland realism as the remedy. But observe:

How original a writer Hammett really was it isn’t easy to decide now, even if it mattered. He was one of a group – the only one who achieved critical recognition – who wrote or tried to write realistic mystery fiction. All literary movements are like this; some one individual is picked out to represent the whole movement; he is usually the culmination of the movement. Hammett was the ace performer, but there is nothing in his work that is not implicit in the early novels and short stories of Hemingway.

His argument is, in effect, that authors are not remembered for originating as much as they are remembered for exemplifying. Once the sort of detective fiction that Philip Marlowe’s creator wrote of passed into history, Agatha Christie became the era’s flagbearer by way of such exemplification.

I do not know if, at the time, Chandler realized that his own work would be regarded one day as the culmination of something that Hammett began – the mythos of the quintessential American gumshoe. His work is representative. So, as we shall see, is Rowling’s.

Where Rowling and Christie diverge is that only the former traverses two other spheres that often intersect. The first is children’s fiction, and the second is fantasy.

Good children’s fiction – the kind that adults go back and read – is notoriously unclassifiable. Often, the subject matter resonates far beyond the the confines of the single-digit Flesch reading level, and one is reluctant to call them children’s stories at all for fear that the term is disparaging and exclusionary. Let’s dispense with this in a hurry. Yes, adults read Harry Potter. I read Harry Potter. University professors, God bless them, teach and study Harry Potter. They’re still children’s novels, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

Unlike mysteries, here we deal with authors who write for an audience that doesn’t concern itself with realism simply because it doesn’t have a lot of real-world fact-checking to fall back on. Also unlike mysteries, “children’s lit” is not a genre, since its distinguishing mark is an attribute of form, not content. In contrast, Chandler’s statement that good and bad mysteries fundamentally tell the same stories is an extension of genre defined as fluid form that bubbles around a solid content core, including (but not limited to) a murder and a bowl of petunias.

What we do have, though, is an existing system for passing fiction down from one generation to the next.

How is it that people discover what books to read, anyway? Word-of-mouth recommendations, certainly; bookshop browsing, bestseller lists, movie deals, and allusions from without; in fact, it’s all kind of erratic in a spotty kind of way, which is why it is only in very special cases that everybody reads the same book.

Children’s fiction is the huge exception. Standard curricula, Scholastic book orders, well-read teachers (if you’re lucky) and the active encouragement of doing any reading at all unite with the result of having people read the same books in droves, or at least become aware of them likewise. A lot of books are lost in history because nobody told their kids to read them, and those kids went off and either developed their own tastes, or tragically stopped reading them outright. But the ilk of Roald Dahl, L. Frank Baum and yes, A.A. Milne receive a proper introduction. These books are inherited, as they are easy to leave as cultural inheritance. Without a doubt, Harry Potter ∈ this corpus.

Finally, we turn to the realm of fantasy, which returns us to the generic distinctions assessed of mystery. Just as J.K. Rowling’s brand of sleuthing hearkens back to the Christie Cozy that has long gone out of fashion in mainstream detective writing, Harry Potter marks another sort of representative culmination. It drew adult readers back to the kind of serial fairytale where Magic is fun and (relatively) innocent. Whereas the post-Tolkien “adult fantasy” experiments have drifted off in the opposite direction, churning out paperbacks thicker than they are wide burdened with unpronounceably apostrophic nomenclature, the ever-English Potter breathes some life back into the spellwork of forces good and evil.

History has shown that this is the sort of life that lasts, and I am confident that Rowling’s importance will prove to be historical. A series of books that is this popular, and more importantly, this emblematic, will affect both writing patterns and reading patterns until the Next Big Thing that steps up to bat in the selfsame ballpark – which may not be anything new, but is certain to be the next ripple in a long wave of ripples, the indicator of its precedent’s subsidence.

Rowling works in genres, and a plurality of them at that. Moreover, they are genres that are aware of their own history, and the works of the present propel authors forward, authors who grab new readers by the collar and pull them right back. Cosh’s examples of writers who have faded into obscurity – Harold Bell Wright, Jeffrey Farnol and the American Winston Churchill – dabbled primarily in the historical and the modern, not genres in themselves, where the subject is in flux and there is little propagative continuity in stylistic influences.

I am not saying that novels outside of genre are far less likely to survive; that kind of claim presumes a consistent system to produce a bell of fiction that never stops ringing, and none exists, for physicists have yet to discover the resonant frequencies of written words. But one must admit that Rowling has certain advantages, since she’s more than an author: she’s a movement. Really now, it’s hard to name an author working today who is more thoroughly guaranteed to take the fast-track to English lit’s pantheon.

I suggest that Mr. Cosh take on a certain Dan Brown. There, his argument about press-driven momenta apply just fine, and Brown makes for much easier pickings.

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