Friday, October 28, 2005

So Long for Now, Harry

I recently finished the audio version of Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince, the most recent book in the Harry Potter series, Now I, like millions of other HP fans around the world, will have to wait expectantly for the next and possibly final book in the series. J. K. Rowling has said in interviews that she plans to stop the series at seven but she has also left the door open to the possibility of more books if she really feels motivated to do them. My brother Bill remarked that she's probably getting considerable pressure from her publishers for more books, and that might be sufficient motivation. We'll see, won't we? I wonder what she's going to do afterwards. She's probably made enough money that if she never wrote another word after Book 7, she could live quite comfortably on royalties, tie-ins, endorsements, and the like, but I can't see her doing that. She's obviously a highly talented and creative person who's only just turned 40, I believe. I know from my own limited experience as a fiction writer that really creative people aren't content to simply rest on their laurels. We always want to move on to the next project.

As for Book 6 itself, the violence and bloodshed that was foreshadowed at the end of Book 5 did indeed occur. This time, Lord Voldemort's followers, the Death Eaters, came to Hogwarts itself, and the battle cost the life of Harry's beloved mentor and headmaster, Professor Dumbledore. Harry's old nemesis, Draco Malfoy, was responsible for letting the Death Eaters into Hogwarts but couldn't bring himself to kill Dumbledore when he had the chance. That villainous task was left to Professor Snape, the other bane of Harry's existence, whose reputation as a reformed or repentant Death Eater was revealed to be a sham. With Dumbledore dead and the future of Hogwarts in doubt, Harry has resolved to set off alone in search of the four horcruxes, or pieces of Voldemort's soul that are hidden throughout the world, and may be the only means of defeating the evil wizard. Ron and Hermione, Harry's two best friends, are resolved to go with him, however. Meanwhile, the Ministry of Magic, under the direction of a new Minister, is still trying to manipulate Harry for its own reasons.

By way ofAmy Wellborn's blog, I found an interesting article in The American Spectator Online that questioned whether Harry is such a splendid moral example for young people because of his lust for revenge and his frequent tendency to lie and bully others when it suits his purposes. I can't quite make up my mind about this. On the one hand, while Harry's behavior is not always morally admirable, it is realistic and sympathetic. I dare say most of us could imagine ourselves behaving in a similar way under similar circumstances. If Harry lies and bullies occasionally, Rowling seems to be saying, it is in part because he is the victim of lying and bullying himself--at the hands of Dudley, Draco, Snape, or Umbrage, for example--and at some primitive level, it is awfully satisfying to see these obnoxious characters get what they deserve. Because of our sinful nature, Christ's command to turn the other cheek doesn't come easily. We're much more comfortable with an eye for an eye. We want revenge, but we often confuse it with justice.

On the other hand, The Spectator article does, however, point out what I think is the chief flaw in the Harry Potter books. I think the whole Harry Potter series, as enjoyable as it is, falls short of say, The Lord of The Rings, precisely because the Harry Potter series is essentially a giant revenge story. Voldemort killed Harry's parents, his godfather, and his mentor. Harry wants to kill Voldemort. Draco and Snape torment Harry. Harry wants to torment them. We're told that Voldemort wants to take over the whole wizarding world, that this would a bad thing, and that this would affect even the "muggle" (non-magical, ordinary, everyday) world, but we don't have a clear sense of what's at stake if Voldemort takes over.

Frodo, by contrast with Harry, has never been personally wronged by Sauron. He wants nothing more than to live the peaceful, quiet comfortable life of a wealthy, middle-aged gentlehobbit at Bag End, but Fate (Destiny, Providence) in the person of Gandalf seems to have other ideas. Gandalf makes it clear to Frodo from the very beginning of the quest that if Sauron finds the ring it will be the end of everything and everyone Frodo loves--the hobbits of the Shire, the elves of Rivendell and Lothlorien, the dwarves of the mountains, the men of Gondor--all of Middle Earth is at risk. Frodo is fighting for something beyond his own narrow self-interest, but he's willing to take on the fight because he knows it's the right thing to do.

Furthermore, as Frodo himself points out, he's not a wizard or a warrior or a powerful person. He's literally and figuratively a tiny person from an obscure corner of Middle Earth who has to rely on the magical abilities of others--Gandalf and the elves, to be precise--rather than any abilities he himself possesses. I've always thought it was a brilliant stroke of Tolkien's to portray the hobbits as "halflings," well under five feet tall. It's an excellent way of symbolizing just how ordinary, how small, how inadequate humans can feel in the face of some huge, terrible, seemingly overwhelming crisis. Yet Frodo faces his crisis with his wits and his courage, aided at key moments by the supernatural power of magical objects--elven waybread or lembas and Galadriel's star glass, for example.

In a similar way, I'm sure Tolkien the Catholic would argue that we humans have to face crises with courage and wit aided by grace available in and through the sacraments. Even though Tolkien insisted he hated allegory, it doesn't take a genius to see lembas as a symbol for the Eucharist. Galadriel's star glass could be a symbol for anything from the light of faith to the chrism that's used at baptism and confirmation. Tolkien's world is in the end deeper and richer than Rowling's. I like Harry, but I love Frodo.

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