Friday, August 10, 2007

Farewell, Harry Potter

I read Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows on Sunday two weeks ago--the whole thing in about six hours over the course of the day. I had planned to discipline myself, limit it to small portions each night over a week. I couldn't do it. I never could.

J. K. Rowling is a master of character and story, using magic to magnify and illuminate her characters--which is precisely what magic should do in a story. The metaphor of magic is the logic of the heart writ large, in language that all can understand. Well, almost all. But anyone who cannot understand and appreciate the Potter books has no business reading the Bible--no business at all. So we will dismiss the objections of religious pedants as the braying of spiritual incompetents, and move on.

Her prose is economical and tight, ideal in a storyteller, with flawless dialogue and description which illuminates in brilliant and relevant flashes. This, to most of us, is all that matters. The opposite of this is Joyce, who chose to bury his stories in prose so opaque that the story was lost. Neil Gaiman, a writer I also greatly admire, is a member of group called the post-Joycian society, whose main argument was that story matters, and that language should be put to the service of that end. Robert Fulford celebrated the triumph of narrative, the return to the primacy of storytelling. Rowling's Potter series is all this, with a vengeance, a stake in the heart of those who would indulge themselves at the price of simple human connection.

The best, I think, is her final chapters, to which she had been building for seventeen years. Nothing was left to chance here, each word chosen with utmost care, particularly the last chapter before the epilogue, where the battle comes to a climax. Every dot is connected, the outcome built out of pieces assembled in all of the books. As a programmer, I can easily debug a broken chain of logic, missing links that make the outcome less than certain, gaps which demand too much suspension of disbelief to be tolerated. Even in some hard science fiction books, I find a certain abitrary nature to the conclusion, a free-falling speculation that renders the ending, not surprising, but simply radically contingent and unconvincing. Rowling makes none of these mistakes, and yet, she is dealing with the dream logic of magic. The closest I can think of is Ursula K. LeGuin. There are reasons for what happens, reasons based in character, in circumstance, and in the rules of her magic system.

I remember a writer who, giving advice to other writers, said that you have to like people to make your readers care about your characters. This is that certain something that is often missing from fiction; the nagging doubt as to why you should bother reading about the people in the book. I've read books of far superior writers who are nevertheless a trial of endurance to finish. Slogging through three hundred pages to encounter, once again, the conclusions known to anyone acquainted with the black dog that comes in the waking hours of a troubled night, seems a waste of my time and self-indulgent of the writer. We are all familiar with the problems of this world. Have you any suggestions about how to meet them? But I have also met, even amongst the most flawed and troubled of anti-heroes, characters I identify with. Empathy illuminates even the darkest of souls.

Rowling's characters are all near and dear to us, even the most flawed. Voldemort himself is a study in sociopathy, a serial killer in the terminal stages of madness, a supreme narcissist impervious to all indications of his own limitations. The best of her characters are close friends, the worst so accurate to type that those who have met them in our own lives wonder where Rowling met the real thing. But the theme of redemption runs throughout the stories; redemption by love, by courage, by loyalty. Harry's greatest strength is not his magical skills, though they are formidable. Harry forms bonds of loyalty, by forgiving, encouraging, and supporting others. He's not perfect--sometimes you want to slap him to wake him up. But if he were too good, you would doze off. Harry--and Dumbledore--are already close to the limits of human perfection. Their flaws are what make them real. Without them, these characters would be made of cardboard.

In this book, Dumbledore is brought into focus, taken from the pedestal and made human. The mistakes hinted at on the lake in the sixth book are revealed, but Rowling does an excellent job on this--first by trashing Dumbledore through the muck journalism of Rita Skeeter, and then telling Dumbledore's real story, through those actually involved. Harry makes his mistakes too, but when he hits his stride, the story takes off. There is a repeat of book five, where the obsessions of Voldemort spill over into Harry's mind, brought on by Harry's own willingness to understand his enemy (is this really a failing?) but tragedy snaps him out of this, and he learns how to avoid this mistake from then on. After this, the action never really stops, although side excursions occur to fill out the story and connect the dots. This allows the reader to rest in what would otherwise be an action rollercoaster.

I cannot think of any books more suitable for the moral development of children, growing, as Harry does, from child to adult. Rereading book one, I found it disappointingly simple, having grown used to the complexity of character and language of book seven. These books are meant to be read one per year, from the age of 11 to the age of 17. Yet through all, Harry, Dumbledore, Hermione, Ron, and Harry's friends display a nobility and courage that makes one reconsider the hard, judgemental stances that we take towards people we consider to be unworthy of our time. Harry's sufferage and mercy towards the most unappetizing of characters is reminiscent of Frodo's tolerance of Gollum--who, in the end, salvages Frodo's quest from ruin, when Frodo himself seems beyond help. As with Tolkien, faith in others is the right choice, while distrust and contempt lead to a bad end. Even the best of Rowling's characters makes this mistake from time to time, and learns from their mistakes the hard way. Rowling, like Tolkien, understands what real faith consists of, and never confuses it with mere superstition.

The finish is spectacular, though I would have preferred more of an epilogue. There is another book to be written, in my opinion; the mopping up of the death eaters, the banishment of the dementors, Harry's answer to his detractors and his rise to the rank of renowned auror, and the grief for the fallen. There are many new beginnings and final endings still to be rounded out. Perhaps, after a few years, Rowling will feel the tug again, and write this final chapter. But for now, at least, this is enough.

Farewell, Harry. We will miss you.