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Tue, 31 Jul 2007

Ten Years With Wizards

Well, the publishing event of many a summer has finally come and gone. The much-anticipated seventh book in the series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was published just a week or so ago. All the hoopla and media attention, however, fail to distract completely from the fact that this is the final book in the series, as has been repeatedly said by the author, J.K. Rowling. For those who have enjoyed the Harry Potter books (I among them), the occasion is a bit sad. Over the years, I have come to look forward to each installment, watching the characters grow and mature to greater and lesser degrees, very much in parallel with the lives of my own children (although I have not noticed any signs of magical inclination in my kids, except for a talent for making spending money disappear).

[Spoiler Alert: This article is a series of reminiscences about the Harry Potter books in general, and some meta-analysis of some of the overarching themes. It is not a review of Deathly Hallows or any of the other books per se. I will give a few very specific details from the latest book, but nothing that should spoil it for you. However, if you are a purist and would rather experience Deathly Hallows in toto for yourself first, turn back now and don't click on the "more" link.]

My exposure to the Harry Potter books started in 1997, and not unexpectedly, my kids were the vector of exposure. One night over dinner, my daughter started talking about a new craze that was sweeping through the grades -- a book about a boy named Harry Potter, who was a wizard (although he didn't know it) and who goes off to school to learn how to do magic. All the kids were reading it and talking about it, she said. Could we get her a copy? My daughter was a good reader, and enjoyed reading, but it was unusual for her to request a book to read -- she usually tackled reading assignments in school grudgingly. Still, it was a pleasant surprise, and if the book was halfway decent and encouraged an interest in her reading, why not?

Cautiously, my wife and I decided to check out a copy from the library, both so that we could check out this book for ourselves, and as a cost-free way to see just how interested our daughter would actually be when confronted with a book which ran to several hundred pages, not the 50- or 100- page "books for young readers" she was more accustomed to reading.

As it turned out, I did not get a chance to read the book myself for quite a while. Once Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone arrived from the library in our house, my daughter dove into it with a single-mindedness I had never seen from her before. The book was her constant companion -- at mealtimes, in lieu of most television shows, in bed at night, she was reading it whenever she could, and consequently, I had little chance to separate it from her to read it over for myself. She often talked about the book, and what the other kids were saying about it, but I found it all a bit hard to keep track of in my head. The terminology was more than a little strange -- so just what are "muggles" again? -- and there were a great many characters to track. My daughter grew exasperated with my confused questions. "Just read it, Dad," she sighed. "You'll get it all when you do." But I didn't get the chance for a good while.

One of the things our family liked to do was to take car trips on the weekends. Since I drove, my time and attention on these excursions was fully accounted for; my wife would usually read or nap. Like most families, the question of how to keep the kids entertained (or at least away from each other's throats) was always foremost in our plans. We had invested in a portable DVD player for the car, and, if there was reasonable agreement on which movie to watch, all would go well.

That autumn, as we were getting ready for a long-haul trip to Massachusetts and Vermont to enjoy the fall foliage, my wife told me that she had something new that she had gotten from the library for everyone to enjoy on the trip. I thought that she meant some movie for the kids, but she said no, it was a surprise. As we all got into the car, she reached under her seat and pulled out a large, flat box. On the cover of the box was an illustration of the cover of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, but inside were audio tapes. Jim Dale, the Broadway and film actor, performed an unabridged production of the book, on a dozen or so tapes. And "performed" is the word: rather like telling a bedtime story, Dale not only read the words, but created distinctive voice characterizations for all of the characters. And so that weekend, we listened to the first Harry Potter story unfold as we drove through New England.

I had to admit that I was a little skeptical about this Harry Potter stuff. Obviously it was tremendously popular with the kids. But it surprised me to discover that the story was not at all "dumbed down" to a child's level: the characters were all well rounded and detailed, and the storyline was complex and interesting. We soon made a habit of purchasing each volume shortly after it was published, and then each new audiobook set would be our accompaniment on car trips off and on for the next several months. My family -- myself included -- was hooked.

Clearly, these were no run-of-the-mill kids books. In fact, Rowling took care to introduce plot and story elements that would interest the parents as much as spells and broomsticks interested the children. Parents could look back and see their own childhood relationships at home and at school reflected in the experiences of the trio of Harry, looking at everything with an outsider's eyes, Ron, a "legacy" of sorts, trying hard to emerge from the shadows of his brothers who had preceded him at Hogwarts, and Hermione, a nerdy type who believes that you can answer any question if you can just find the right book, and who also brings a sensitivity and degree of emotional maturity that eleven-year-old boys like Harry and Ron often lack.

The "office politics" taking place among the various members of the Hogwarts teaching staff would not seem out of place in any adult work environment, and their personality types were immediately recognizable as well: Dumbledore, the wizened leader; McGonnegal, his loyal second-in-command; Snape, continually passed over for the job he covets, having to "make do" in a secondary post instead; Binns, for whom his own death was just a momentary interruption in his lecture schedule, the quintessential bureaucrat; and Hagrid, not really properly credentialed and thus performing less intellectually demanding tasks, a gruff-appearing but friendly mascot for the school.

A subtle touch which helped assure that parents could latch on to the stories just as well as children was the decision to weave the "wizarding world" into and out of the ordinary "muggle world" that the parents knew so well. Magical places sat cheek-by-jowl with real ones (but remained hidden from the view of ordinary folks) so there was a constant interplay of people and events between the two -- Harry's quest to find the magical Platform Nine-and-Three-Quarters in the busy midst of the real King's Cross station in London was only the first of many such encounters.

Even at the level of politics and government, Rowling managed to draw adults into the magical world by creating analogues to the entities of civil government. There was a Ministry of Magic, itself not unlike any number of familiar large, government departments (although the Minister of Magic seemed to be much closer in authority and power to the Prime Minister than just another department head). There was an entire magical civil service, with subdepartments, job roles and position titles much akin to those in familiar government agencies. (Ron's father holds one such low-level position; his struggles to support his large family on what must be the equivalent of a GS-12's salary are immediately familiar to anyone who has struggled to make ends meet from paycheck to paycheck.) There is even a parallel justice system, with courts and juries (although these appear to be far more under the control of the Minister of Magic than the civil courts), and even a special wizarding prison, called Azkoban, to where those found guilty are often taken to serve their sentences.

One familiar and less weighty parallel between the two worlds was Rowling's invention of the sport of quiditch, the magical analogue of football (both in the U.K. meaning of soccer and the American game of football). Both worlds' fans would wear team colors, follow the league standings, hang posters of star players, and go by the tens of thousands to watch international matches for the "world cup". Even if one could not understand all the nuances of the game of quiditch, adults and children alike recognized the mania of rabid fandom.

So over the next decade, roughly every two years or so, the next book in the series would be released, and I, like the rest of my family, would dig into it quickly thereafter, savoring the twists and turns of the story line, new characters arriving and old ones growing more familiar and comfortable. Refreshingly, Rowling allows virtually all the characters to "act their age" as it were: adults tend to be more set in their ways than their children, and the children (including the three protagonists) behaving in the erratic, heartfelt, emotional, and exasperating ways that children everywhere generally do. Harry in particular, after a very sympathetic introduction in the first book (his life with his aunt and uncle, the Dursleys, could easily have resulted in their being brought up on charges of child abuse) turns out to be no noble, angelic hero. He is, by turns, angry, sullen, lazy, conflicted, and petulant. He is capable of doing heroic things, but often seems to accomplish them by accident. Many times he seems to be motivated into action merely by selfishness or pettiness. Like all teenagers, Harry's emotional pendulum swings from extreme to extreme, and we get to witness this both from Harry's perspective and from our own.

As the series progressed over the decade, the underlying ideas and themes in the books took on a progressively more serious tone. The early books in the series (Sorcerer's Stone, Chamber of Secrets, and Goblet of Fire) served mainly to get the major characters in place and make everyone comfortable with the many aspects of the "wizarding world" and how it worked. Although Harry's encounters with the series' antagonist, Lord Voldemort, are the deus ex machina for each tale, most of the emphasis is on what happens during the build up to the inevitable confrontation between them, with only a rudimentary and somewhat hasty winding up thereafter, usually in the form of sage words from Dumbledore just before Harry and Co. depart for the summer holidays. These early books have morals -- several, in fact -- but nothing heavy enough to get in the way of a ripping story.

It's only at the middle books in the series (Prisoner of Azkoban and Order of the Phoenix) that one begins to detect a chillier, darker tone running through the stories. Dementors, the horrible creatures that guard Azkoban prison, are now at large in the wizarding community (ostensibly searching for an escaped prisoner, they are, however, ruthless and merciless, and will attack anyone they feel is impeding them). Voldemort's followers, the Death Eaters, having been scattered into hiding years earlier, are now becoming more visible and periodically go on the attack. The Minister of Magic, under pressure, tries to assure everyone that all is well and that everything is under control; his actions become more erratic as some start to realize that this is not so. Some people -- Harry and his schoolmates included -- begin quietly to choose sides before the inevitable storm to come.

At a time of gathering darkness, Harry's thoughts turn more and more often to meditations about life and death. In the beginning, Harry misses his parents with the aching loneliness that any orphan must feel, wondering how much simpler and better his own life would be if his parents were still there to take care of him. From time to time he sees them, but only in the form of images in a mirror with whom Harry cannot communicate, or as quasi-spectres who briefly appear from the afterlife to protect and encourage him. Then one of the few happy happenings in Harry's life -- the discovery of his godfather, Sirius Black, who offers to take Harry to live with him -- is abruptly snatched away from him, as Sirius is killed in a battle with a group of Death Eaters. The deaths of his parents seemed noble, as they were fighting to protect the infant Harry from Voldemort, but Black's death seems to Harry to be empty and pointless, only serving to make him feel more miserable and lonely. Harry desperately tries to establish a way to communicate with Sirius through magical talismans and devices, even going so far as to try to enlist the help of one of the Hogwarts ghosts to reach him -- all for naught.

Finally, by the last two books (Half Blood Prince and Deathly Hallows), the battle is fully joined, and Harry finds himself on the front lines. Like all young men pressed into service (often against their wills) to be soldiers in a larger battle, Harry retreats far into himself, reluctantly going forward with the mission he both fears yet cannot avoid. He broods about the nature of good and evil, about this life and the afterlife, and cannot make the sums tally adequately. He cannot bear to think of more of his friends being hurt or killed for "the cause". Even in a battle pitting good against evil, the price of victory seems depressingly high for Harry.

Very little in his young life makes much sense to him, and, as he has always maintained, Harry does not think he is somehow specially qualified to accomplish the task of vanquishing Voldemort, one of the most powerful wizards who has ever lived. In this sense, Harry's tales are not unlike the sagas told in The Lord of the Rings or The Chronicles of Narnia -- or even Star Wars -- with conflicted and seemingly inadequate protagonists taking on antagonists who appear to be overwhelmingly powerful and well-nigh invincible.

It has often been said that courage is not the absence of fear, but comes from a person deciding that there is something more important than fear. Dumbledore points out to Harry that Voldemort's fear of death is his greatest weakness, but that is little comfort to as Harry moves towards his inevitable, final confrontation with Voldemort. Instead, Harry is seemingly resigned to whatever fate awaits him. He does not understand death, but he no longer fears it -- partly from having seen it up close and too often, and partly because he finally comes to believe that dying is far from the worst thing that can happen to someone.

To me, the Harry Potter books' larger theme is that of the ongoing, inevitable conflicts between the forces of individual liberty and totalitarianism. Although any number of practical examples will serve, one simple and obvious parallel would be the rise of Hitler and the resulting world war. Like the Nazis, Voldemort rules through intimidation and fear (combined with great, all-encompassing military and police power). His ultimate goal is world domination, with everyone subservient to him. Through his minions, he infiltrates the established political / governmental system and reenginers the courts and civil service to carry out his policies. Having overrun much of "the world", only Harry's friends and the members of the Order of the Phoenix stand in Voldemort's way, much as England stood just about alone against the Nazi conquest of Europe in 1941.

Of course, analogies like these are not perfect, and certainly there was no single combat warrior who stepped forward to take on Hitler one-on-one during World War II. But human history has often witnessed the ongoing tension between totalitarianism and individualism, the worth of the person versus the power of the state. Often battles were joined when the pendulum swung too far towards totalitarianism, while cohesiveness often degenerated into anarchy when the pendulum swung too far the other way. Down through history, the classic, timeless stories tend to be related to this timeless theme. I have no idea if the Harry Potter stories will join this storytelling pantheon, but I suspect they will. Only some of their phenomenal success can be attributed to shrewd marketing hype -- the rest is clearly due to the timeless nature of the story, and how its larger themes resonate with readers long after the fascination with spells and broomsticks has worn off.

So now what? In a recent television interview, Rowling indicated that she is thinking about (someday) writing a Harry Potter "Encyclopedia", which would fill in some of the details of the wizarding world and the lives of the characters that somehow were skimmed over or omitted in the nine thousand odd pages of the series. The film of The Order of the Phoenix premiered just a few weeks ago; Half Blood Prince starts filming this fall, and Deathly Hallows should be released some time around 2010.

But for all their special effects wizardry, for me, the movies are, at best, abridged versions of the books, condensations that gloss over many savory storytelling details in the rush to keep the film from running much more than two and a half hours, the maximum time Hollywood feels most adults are willing to sit and the dark and watch. Perhaps that's so -- but they apparently don't understand how I could (and did) sit up until three AM, reading the Deathly Hallows in a single sitting the day it arrived from Amazon, anxious to get to the denouemont, but nevertheless sad to see it all end. Perhaps we can look for a "return" book in 2026, nineteen years from now, expanding on the epilogue of the last book, telling what happened to the characters during that time. Not necessarily a battle of good versus evil, but a visit with old friends on familiar turf. That's often a good story, too.

Posted Jul 31, 2007 at 02:32 UTC, 3144 words,  [/richPermalink