August 11, 2007

I Just Finished The Deathly Hallows.

Which means that I finally dared to read Caltech Girl's review, though she does keep it nicely spoiler-free. (The link, of course, does contain spoilers.)

She quotes the first review as pointing out that Book #7 in the Harry Potter series lacks charm, but that didn't really concern me. Given how much had to be packed into this installment, it was inevitable that its structure and pacing would be different from that of the others. I was absolutely aghast, after all, when I finished The Half-Blood Prince and realized how much ground she was going to have to cover in the final volume.

But she manages it—the trade-off being that the last book reads like an action movie some of the time. But I never remember anyone complaining that the Die Hard series lacked "charm."

The thing that Rowling attempts, in this series—and largely manages, quite well—is that she duplicates the experience of adolescence, in real time. That is, subsequent generations will be able to read one of these books per year, at an appropriate level of development. I don't think that's ever been done before: even the Little House books, though they come close, don't change in the same way. The sentences get a bit longer, but the words don't. The subject matter becomes courtship, rather than store-bought soap vs. homemade. What doesn't get broached are the Big Issues: good vs. evil, the permanence of the soul, the enticing possibility of life after death. And those books remain charming. Yet charm is not part of the experience of being 17 years old. Not in any conventional sense. It's appropriate that it falls by the wayside as one moves along in J.K. Rowling's series. (I did once read a fascinating article in American Heritage that discussed The Long Winter, and suggested it as a candidate for Great American Novel. Certainly, it is the most adult of the Little House Books, and the bravest. But it is still social history more than politics and theology.)

I found myself in these last few Harry Potter books (as with the very early ones) thinking once more about A Wrinkle in Time, which also tackled the subject of evil. And Madeleine L'Engle came to exactly the same conclusion J.K. Rowling did: when good sets out to fight evil, it is the power of love that is its main weapon.

And those who have truly given themselves over to evil cannot see this.

More below the fold, spoilers and all.

Naturally, I tried to figure a few things out, attempting to use the clues within the text more than "what would the writer think?" (Although I've thought all along that the presence of twins might make it tempting for Rowling to sacrifice one of them, reasoning that it would be enough for one set of that exact DNA to live on. And though she does that, at the end the body count includes enough beloved characters that one cannot accuse her of cowardice: the sacrifice of Remus and Tonks is particularly gutsy, though I didn't get a sense of who it was that was bringing up their baby, even in the "Nineteen Years Later" segment. I might have missed that, though.)

I was right that the Ravenclaw tiara was the unidentified Horcrux, but I mistakenly theorized throughout most of the book that it was the one belonging to the Weasley aunt. So of course I imagined that after the Hogwarts battle there would be another one, at the Weasley "safe house." This wasn't either logical (in that case, which Horcrux was at Hogwarts?) or sound from a storytelling point of view (it made far more sense that the action ended at Hogwarts). But I thought I was being clever.

I've certainly thought throughout that Snape would turn out to have been working for the Order all along: certainly the point is made that he is a master at Occlumency, and therefore would have been able to keep an important secret from Voldemort. But any careful reader knew that, I think. And I've always thought that Draco Malfoy would turn good (reluctantly, of course) at the end—but I didn't imagine that his whole family would, or that he would go as far down the path of evil as he did.

Kreacher's transformation was a delightful surprise, and I found myself buying it. Furthermore, the subplot of Rights for House Elves was masterfully handled: after all, Hermione's early efforts to eliminate this sort of slavery are treated as jokes. The point is made, time and time again, that (in contrast to slaves in real human history) the elves want to serve, to be owned. Yet that doesn't, Rowling asserts in the end, absolve anyone of the need for basic human decency. Or: love.

There were a few tiny discontinuities, such as the fact that the tunnel to the Shrieking Shack got smaller this time. (Adults never had to crawl through it in the old days, after all.)

But the entire series is still a stunning achievement, pretty much unprecedented in its scope and reach. (Tolkein fans will disagree, but I have to give the nod to Rowling because of her humor, her eye for detail, and the fact that this narrative continues through seven books, with her imaginary world holding steady—and its rules consistent.)

Finally, Rowling managed a shout-out to the blogging world via the underground radio show Potterwatch that operates during Voldemort's regime: "River," "Royal," "Rapier," and "Romulus." Sometimes telling the truth requires one to assume a new identity, no?

It's always a lovely thing when something so popular actually has the quality one is looking for. Nice when the "masses" don't turn out to be "asses," after all.

Posted by Attila Girl at August 11, 2007 02:36 PM | TrackBack

I agree J.K. is a true craftsman. And I didn't notice how she had changed the levels of the books until you mentioned it. Very good observation. BTW I am an avid Tolkein Fan, but they were written to a different audience in in a different time. Any book that can get 11 to 12 year olds to read non-stop is a prize. LOTR was written for an older fantasy lover.

Posted by: Chuck at August 11, 2007 08:14 PM

But they are both profoundly Christian in outlook, and both series deal with Good vs. Evil. Each also has plenty to say about European politics and communism/fascism.

Posted by: Attila Girl at August 12, 2007 02:21 AM

I just read A Wrinkle in Time, and am actually quite dissatisfied with the book; there was not nearly enough build-up to the conclusion.

LotR and Harry Potter are both, from a Christian perspective, fairly lightweight in their theology, and I daresay that the Christian themes are even more heavily buried in LotR than they are in Harry Potter.

Posted by: John at August 12, 2007 09:32 AM

I daresay that the Christian themes are even more heavily buried in LotR

What, death and resurrection was buried in LotR?

Posted by: I R A Darth Aggie at August 12, 2007 10:22 AM

I hate it when the theology in my children's literature turns out to be lightweight.

And I could read A Wrinkle in Time over and over again for the rest of my life: something to do with having first got into it at the age of eight.

Posted by: Attila Girl at August 12, 2007 03:18 PM

Attila Girl,

You are correct about the profound christian roots, good vs evil and the commentary on politics. John calls it lightweight- of course it is, it's entertainment.

Posted by: Chuck at August 12, 2007 04:07 PM

BTW, Teddy Lupin is raised by his grandmother, Andromeda Tonks. Ted Tonks was killed, but not Andromeda. Very like Neville, no?

Posted by: caltechgirl at August 12, 2007 08:00 PM

I certainly thought that, in terms of "if we knew for sure it was Andromeda" (which I'm sure you're right about--I believe that's just my literal-minded, must-have-it-spelled-out side, again).

But of course the first parallel to cross my mind was with Harry himself.

I kept having to remind myself who was and wasn't a blood relative of whom. And of course it didn't even cross my mind that Malfoy might be seeing the Potters at extended family gatherings, given his emotional connection to the Lupins, and his more intimate connection with the Blacks.

If Rowling doesn't do it (and I think she won't), someone will continue the series at some point (a la "next generation"). With or without her blessing. I wonder when her copyright expires, and how her child will feel about the series being sacrosanct.

It's hard not to adore absolutely everything about Neville, including the fact that they only sent one mediocre wizard after his grandma--result being, one hurt wizard and one granny on the lam.

The only thing potentially more delicious that that was Mrs. Weasley taking on Bellatrix, who I'm sure didn't imagine they were evenly matched.

Posted by: Attila Girl at August 12, 2007 08:54 PM

Good wins over Evil because Good can get righteously pissed.

Posted by: Alan Kellogg at August 13, 2007 01:29 AM

The theology of Harry Potter extends to saying that yes, there is an afterlife, and that there lies much power in a sacrifice motivated by love.

I stand behind my assertion that the theology is even more muted in LotR (you have to go to the Silmarillion to get the more religious tone). Gandalf didn't really die--being one of the Maiar, he was not really subject to death as we know it. Nor did he offer himself up as a sacrifice to others; he simply got separated from the rest of the party and overcame the Balrog he was fighting.

The Christ figure in LotR is really Aragorn, the long-awaited heir to the throne of a once-great kingdom. And even that is muted, because while the Messiah is to reign forever, Aragon reigns for a finite period of time and then passes on his throne to his son.

If you want a real Christ figure, with no bones about it, you have to go to C. S. Lewis. His is a full and complete Christ figure, more of a Christ figure than many people can stand.

But none of this should be surprising; C. S. Lewis was a theologian telling a story, while Tolkien was a philologist telling a story, and JKR is a story teller telling a story.

Posted by: John at August 13, 2007 03:10 PM

And what, pray tell, was Dorothy L. Sayers doing? Just curious, O Categorizer of Writers.

Posted by: Attila Girl at August 14, 2007 02:53 AM

A great mind, doing what comes naturally.

Posted by: Darrell at August 14, 2007 10:54 AM

As far as I know, Dorothy Sayers wrote murder mysteries. I've never read her stuff.

Posted by: John at August 16, 2007 04:46 PM

She also---
1. Had the best initials ever!
2. Wrote the slogan "It pays to advertise!"
3. Pondered what Toucan do. . . with a Guinness.

Posted by: Darrell at August 16, 2007 08:58 PM

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