Sunday, 26 August 2007

The boy who lived, and died: Thoughts on Harry Potter post Deathly Hallows

Now we finally know everything (or almost), I thought I’d follow up my pre-publication post about my thoughts on what was still to come in Harry’s story with a post-publication one, looking back at what I’d guessed, what I missed, and musings on how it all turned out.

WARNING for anyone who still hasn’t finished it – SPOILERS AHEAD!!!

Vindicated! But strangely even more tragic than I thought it would be. I was always a fully paid-up member of the ‘Snape is Good’ camp – it just made no sense for him to turn out to be bad – but I have to admit there were points in the Deathly Hallows when I began to get a bit worried… particularly as it was getting nearer and nearer the end and there was no sign of him redeeming himself. I had thought that perhaps he’d get some kind of redemptive death scene, but JK Rowling denied him that, having his redemption come posthumously, and through Harry. The theory about Snape being in love with Lily had wide currency and a lot of supporters before the book came out, and I have to admit I never really bought into it fully. I was convinced that there had to be something more complicated and Voldemort-related, mostly because I wanted to know why Snape had a get-out-of-jail-free card where Voldemort was concerned. But I guess it just wasn’t that complicated after all – he just was a superb occlumens, and was fortunate that the reason he turned against Voldemort was the one thing Voldemort didn’t understand. It is neat that Snape loved Lily though, and having his patronus mimic hers was a nice touch – I think only that could have convinced Harry. The depth of Snape’s love for Lily was much greater and more affecting than I would have expected when thinking about the idea before reading the book, and I’m guessing this was the thing about the importance of Harry having his mother’s eyes – just looking at Harry every day must have been torture for Snape, seeing in him the woman he loved and the man who he hated combined in one person. No wonder he couldn’t bring himself to be nice to him but couldn’t do anything other than protect him. I ended up feeling very sorry for Snape, and I hope that wherever he is in the wizarding afterlife he knows that eventually he was vindicated – it seemed so harsh to watch him killed in that cruel and negligent way by Voldemort, not knowing how it was all going to end and whether everyone would ever know the truth about him. Quite what he would think about Harry naming his son after him though I’m not sure! It made me tear up a little I have to say.

Horcruxes and the Deathly Hallows
There wasn’t actually that much in the way of revelation about the Horcruxes in Deathly Hallows – turns out Dumbledore had worked it out all along along with everything else. The only new revelation was what I thought it would be – Harry did turn out to be a Horcrux, if an unintentional one, exactly as speculated. Really it had to be, there was no way to explain his connection to Voldemort and the wording of the prophecy otherwise. So the major question became how Harry would be able to survive in that case – the only way to destroy a Horcrux being to destroy the object in which the fragment of soul is contained, and destroy it beyond all possible repair. And this is where the Deathly Hallows come in. No wonder no-one guessed what they were – all the speculation about Grail mythology and legacies of the four Hogwarts founders was based on pre-existing information and real-world knowledge. It wasn’t until Hermione read us the Tale of the Three Brothers that exactly what they were became clear, although it took the rest of the book for Harry to find out that he had them all already. And to realise that once he had them he was able to defeat Voldemort once and for all, by allowing himself to be killed and accepting death in order to destroy the fragment of soul within him, but then choosing to return and live the rest of his life free of the shadow of Voldemort, thus fulfilling the prophecy. Very neat. In fact the ending, with its impeccable logic but also that ‘huh?’ quality, is very reminiscent of Diana Wynne Jones, who is the master of tying her characters up into situations from which there seems no escape, but then pulling one tiny little string of logic and unravelling the whole thing with such breathtaking rapidity that you’re left blinking in the sudden re-emergence of the light. It’s satisfying emotionally but also intellectually, and as that has been characteristic of the whole Harry Potter series, it’s good that the ending befits it in this way. And also that the key to the whole thing was found in a fairy tale, reminding me yet again of that favourite quote of mine from G.K. Chesterton: “Fairy tales are more than true. Not because they tell us dragons exist, but because they tell us dragons can be defeated.”

Dumbledore’s past and Grindelwald
We knew there was a lot to be found out about this, and indeed there was, but it was nothing like anyone expected. The cleverest thing I think about all the revelations about Dumbledore’s past is the very fact of them – it’s quite an undermining of the archetype of the Wise Old Man to forefront his youthful misguided beliefs, attitude, associations and of course his mistakes, so strongly and at such a late stage. Despite the fact Dumbledore himself insisted on telling Harry (and us) in no uncertain terms that he was fallible, the archetype was so strongly portrayed through him that we almost never believed it. And in terms of the story itself of course, Dumbledore was right all along, and did appear to be almost omniscient and omnipotent. So to be forced to reconcile that with a younger Dumbledore, imbued with the arrogance of precocious genius, is a lot to ask, especially when the archetypal aspect of almost every character in Harry’s world is so strong and unwavering. However, when we reach the crucial part right at the end, when Harry is completing his heroic journey, who should turn up to be his final guide, but his Wise Old Man, back in his archetypal role but strengthened somehow by the new knowledge of him that Harry (and we) have gained.

Final thoughts…

  • I loved the Taboo on Voldemort’s name – I always wondered why this was never the case before, as it’s such a traditional concept and the framework was already there (You-Know-Who, He Who Must Not Be Named). So to see that brought into play at last was very satisfying.
  • I wish we could have seen some further reconciliation with the Dursleys – it was hinted at with Dudley’s softening towards Harry and with the information about Petunia’s jealousy, but a part of me would really have liked to see that developed further later in the book. I guess it’s not so crucial to the story though so there wasn’t room.
  • I was delighted to see Neville get to kill Nagini and share a bit in the glory, since he was so close to being Harry Potter in the first place. In fact, Neville’s story and future has one of the most satisfying endings of all!
  • It’s a shame though that Rowena Ravenclaw’s object wasn’t a wand or similar to fit all the better with the Grail symbols of the other three founders – the stone, cup and sword, but perhaps this is an instance of trying to fit things to a theory they just aren’t concerned with. Would have been nice and neat though.

Overall it was just a hugely satisfying end to the story, with all the loose ends tied up (it was a joy to see so many objects and characters coming back and playing their part) and to see Harry’s heroic journey brought to the conclusion which it always had to have. I think, looking back on the speculation between the publication of books six and seven, we all knew how the story had to end, just not quite how it would get there. And there was a delicious tension because until we read the final book, we couldn’t be certain that it would end the way it should. JK Rowling never deviated from conventional narrative patterns at any point, so there was no reason to think she would, but that didn’t stop the tension of the ongoing story gnawing away at you until you reached the conclusion and could satisfy your appetite for the ‘right’ ending. Now we have that, and we can all happily speculate about the long and happy futures for the One Big Weasley Family and assorted minor characters who survived the war. All is well.