Saturday, October 01, 2005

Wild About Harry (More or Less)

Harry Potter has taken over my life.

Or, I should say, I've allowed him to take over my life. For the past several weeks, I've been listening to the Harry Potter books on tape as read by Jim Dale. I just finished Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (Book 5) and am taking a breather before starting Book 6, Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince, the most recent book in the series. I read Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone several years ago and found it clever, well-written, and enjoyable, but I didn't catch the fever that's gripped so many kids and adults around the world. However, I work as a librarian in a small public library in South Carolina, and at our children's librarian's urging, I began listening to Dale's audio dramatizations.

I must say, he is indeed a phenomenal reader who can create individual voices and personalities for the characters and really bring the stories to life. He makes me think of the late great Mel Blanc who singlehandedly voiced all those classic Warner Brothers cartoons without any technological help.

The stories, too, are much more sophisticated than I originally gave them credit for, blending comedy, drama, magic, mystery, and a dash of mysticism. With each book, the magical challenges Harry has to face get successively nastier, the supporting cast of friends and enemies around Harry grows, and their motivations become increasingly complex. J. K. Rowling has an almost Dickensian talent for creating vivid characters and giving them names that provide keys to their personalities.

One thing is clear, however. The evil wizard Voldemort is out to get Harry, although it's taken until Book 5 to explain why. Weeks before Harry was born, the woman who later became his divination teacher at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry prophesied that Harry would be the one to defeat Voldemort. Voldemort killed Harry's parents and tried to kill the infant Harry to prevent this from happening, but Harry survived. The curse Voldemort used to try to kill Harry backfired, leaving Voldemort a shapeless, bodyless wraith-like creature.

With each book, and each encounter with Harry, however, Voldemort has been regaining strength, becoming more corporeal and more determined to regain his old power in the wizarding world. The Minister of Magic, Cornelius Fudge, who heretofore has been portrayed simply as a pompous bureaucrat in pinstriped robes, now takes on an authoritarian aspect when he absolutely refuses to believe Harry's evidence that Voldemort is back and begins making veiled and not so veiled threats against Harry and Harry's mentor, Professor Dumbledore.

Harry becomes paranoid when he believes that the Ministry of Magic, the agency that was supposed to be protecting him, is now out to ruin him. Harry learns that during the bad old days, the Ministry conducted McCarthy-like show trials of those accused of being Voldemort's supporters. Fudge likewise becomes paranoid when he believes Dumbledore is out to discredit and unseat him. Fudge sends his personal representative, the truly loathsome passive-aggressive Dolores Umbrage, to assume the post of Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher and "High Inquisitor" at Hogwarts. Umbrage gets her comeuppance however, and even Fudge is forced to face facts when open warfare breaks out between Dumbledore's supporters, the Order of the Phoenix and Voldemort's followers, the Death Eaters, in the very corridors of the Ministry of Magic itself. The battle costs the life of Sirius Black, Harry's godfather, and Book 5 ends with the promise of more bloodshed to come.

Somehow, the introduction of these all-too-human vices--paranoia, self-delusion, the arrogance of power, and the finality of death--are far more disturbing to me than any magical or occult elements that some Christians have complained about. It seems the darkness and uncertainty of much of modern life have entered into the realm of what is ostensibly a children's book. Furthermore, Rowling doesn't seem to be able to offer much of an antidote to the darkness. After Sirius dies, Harry, desperate for comfort, seeks out Nearly Headless Nick, the Gryffindor House ghost, wanting some assurance that Sirius still exists in some form and has not simply been obliterated. "I know nothing of death," Nick says sadly. The school calendar at Hogwarts follows the Christian year, with holidays at Christmas and Easter, but do the students think in Christian terms of death and resurrection?

To be fair to Harry, thinking in terms of resurrection can be hard to do when someone you love has just died. I know from the experience of my own father's death, that the feelings of grief, loss, and pain can be so overwhelming that they cause you to question what you had previously believed without a doubt. For myself, I have to believe that Dad is still alive in a way that I cannot fully comprehend, that his life is merely changed and not ended. Harry, apparently, does not have the comfort of that faith, having to take solace in his friends alone.

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