Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Irreparable Harm: More Thoughts on Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

In the comments to my previous entry on HBP, Dan Hemmens wrote:
I'm mildly irritated by the Is-He-Or-Isn't-He with Snape. "Is Snape Evil?" was a fine plotline for book 1, but it's been done. As you point out yourself, if he does turn out to be evil, it destroys his entire character, so you wind up with a "mystery" that only really has one possible resolution.
He's right, of course. The only satisfying resolution to Snape's character arc would be for us to discover, at some point in book 7, that he is indeed on the good guys' side (even if he isn't much of a good guy himself). This doesn't reassure me, however. Satisfaction demanded, after all, that Sirius Black would survive the series, live to see his name cleared, and make peace with Snape. For all the series' predictability, Rowling hasn't impressed me as having too much concern for her readers' satisfaction, or their comfort.

It's a cliché by now to talk about how 'dark' the Potter books have become (or always were), and the deaths of major characters haven't taken Rowling's readers by surprise for a long time. On the sidelines and in the background, however, Rowling has been slowly constructing a world that is as cruel, capricious and dangerous as our own. In her willingness to discomfit her readers, Rowling matches, and sometimes outstrips, many so-called 'adult' authors.

Death is very much in the air throughout HBP. Ron starts each day by casually asking Hermione to search for familiar names in the obituary section of the Daily Prophet, and with good reason. Within a few pages of the book's beginning, two minor characters from Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix--Amelia Bones and Emmeline Vance--are revealed to have been killed over the summer. Neither is of particular importance to the readers (although Madam Bones may have generated some good will when she refused to allow the Ministry of Magic to railroad Harry for a nonexistent crime) and yet to me, learning about their deaths was similar to the experience of hearing about the death of a distant acquaintance--shock, not at the fact of the person's death, but at the ordinariness of it.

Rowling very rarely makes death dramatic in her books. With the possible exceptions of the deaths of Harry's parents and Dumbledore's death in HBP, she's presented even the most gruesome murders as painfully mundane. Poor Cedric Diggory, at the wrong place in the wrong time, dies before he can utter a word or act in his own defense. Sirius Black is unceremoniously flung across a dimly understood (and poorly explained) barrier between life and death, a puzzled expression on his face. And then there's this matter-of-fact revelation in HBP:
There had been a horrible incident the day before, when Hannah Abbott had been taken out of Herbology to be told her mother had been found dead. They had not seen Hannah since.
Nor do we see Hannah again, but it's telling that Rowling chooses to tell us about this tragedy merely as an aside, the day after it happens. Again and again, she's hammering in the sheer, appalling mundanity of death.

In the standard fantasy template, the deaths of minor characters are meant to spur the hero into action. They tell us, to quote an excellent movie, that the situation is serious. Not so in the Potter books. Although Harry does possess the power (or at least the potential) to put an end to the fear and danger his fellow citizens live in, Rowling never pretends that he is capable of righting all the wrongs that surround him. There are, as she has Hermione say early in the book, "some injuries you can't cure... old curses.. and there are potions without antidotes..."

You can't throw a brick in the Potter books without hitting someone with an incurable injury. Scars, of the physical variety, are everywhere. There's Harry's lightning bolt emblem, of course, but in OotP he also picks up a nasty keepsake from Dolores Umbridge--the words 'I must not tell lies', permanently etched on the back of his hand. In that same book, Ron is marked by the brains in the Department of Mystery, and at the end of HBP his handsome brother Bill is mauled beyond recognition. And then there are psychological scars. Winky the house-elf was manipulated by evil men, and she will probably spend the rest of her life in a depressed, alcoholic stupor, longing for their return. Hagrid's emotional growth was stunted when he was only a child by the death of his father and a baseless accusation, but even though his name has been cleared, it is now far too late for him to complete the journey to adulthood, or even to become a fully qualified wizard. Dubledore tells us that Dudley's personality is the fault of his parents, that they've caused him great harm, but at 16, it is unlikely that he will ever shake off their pernicious influence*.

From the moment he sets foot on Platform 9 3/4, Harry is playing with live ammo; not because of his own special destiny, but because the Wizarding world is dangerous, even to its youngest and most innocent members. We've grown used to the notion of children who grow up in controlled environments, where nothing they can do can cause them serious or permanent harm. Even the earliest Potter books, however, make it clear that in Rowling's world, this is not the case. Within days of arriving at Hogwarts, Harry watches as Neville Longbottom takes a nasty fall off a broom. Can you imagine a comparable situation in one of our schools? No Muggle teacher would have let Neville climb a rope without careful supervision, much less given him control of a device that can fly.

Again and again, Rowling keeps coming back to the notion that some spells, once cast, can't be undone. Is it really right that Marietta, the girl who tattled on Harry's secret Defense Against the Dark Arts club in OotP, should spend the rest of her life with 'sneak' emblazoned across her face? What about Gilderoy Lockhart, last seen in the long-term care wing of St. Mungo's Hospital for Magical Maladies and Injuries, his mind a complete blank? (For that matter, what about Lockhart's victims, whose memories of courage in the face of terrifying monsters he erased?) Will a cure ever by found for Lupin's (and now Bill's) lycanthropy? Will Neville's parents ever emerge from their insanity?**

If the Harry Potter books were truly following the standard Joseph Campbell hero's journey, the answer to all these questions would be yes. Campbell tells us that the hero, once he defeats his villain, will return victorious to his home and grant boons to his fellow citizens. The hero's victory heralds the beginning of a golden age--when the streets run with gold and beer is a penny a pint and so on. If we truly believe that the Potter books are following this pattern, then we must expect that by the end of book 7, Lupin, Winky and Neville's parents will be cured, the house-elves will be freed of their enslavement (and be happy about it), prejudice against Muggle-born wizards, werewolves, and goblins will vanish, Arthur Weasley will become Minister of Magic, Neville will become an Auror, the Weasleys will become rich, Percy will come home and make peace with his family. A new era of peace and prosperity will begin.

Raise your hand if you think all, or even most, of these things are likely to happen. In HBP, Rowling finally gives Arthur Weasley a promotion, and what we discover is that, even with ten people under him, Arthur is still the same person--slightly bumbling, too earnest for his own good, not very ambitious, and rule-bound. In short, not upper management material, and it's doubtful that he ever will be, since, as we also learn in HBP, people like Dolores Umbridge still have a place in the Ministry and people like Horace Slughorn still thrive by cultivating contacts and networks. The Ministry, in short, is a real organization, with all the implied politics, backstabbing, and internal strife, and if Harry thinks reforming it will be as simple as killing the most powerful Dark Wizard who ever lived, he's got a nasty surprise in store.

Let's face it: Harry is a nice boy with many good qualities, and I have no doubt that he will defeat Voldemort, but the fundamental flaws of the wizarding world--bigotry, paranoia, militarism, an obsession with class--are beyond his ability to fix. Which isn't a slight against him, as they were beyond the abilities of someone like Albus Dumbledore as well. You don't make society better by flicking a wand. You work at it, very hard and for a very long time. You make very little progress, and often you watch as that progress is swept away in a matter of hours. The day after he defeats Voldemort, Harry is going to wake up to a world that needs him, and his friends and any other able person, just as desperately as it did the day before.

Which is why I can't believe that the ending of book 7 will by satisfying in the way I described above--all problems solved, all questions answered. It's also why I'm not certain that Snape will indeed turn out to be a good guy. Even worse than Snape turning out to be a evil, however, would be a good Snape whose reward for all his sacrifice and pain will be an ugly death at Voldemort's hand. I have to say, this strikes me as the most likely outcome, and it is so sad and pitiable that I think I would almost prefer an evil Snape. But this is Rowling's story, and she's made it perfectly clear that she doesn't write it to please others, or to suit anyone's preconceived notions of how it should work. She isn't fair, and she isn't afraid of breaking her readers' hearts. That's probably why I keep coming back for more.

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* Why is it that Rowling seems to pity Dudley and not Draco Malfoy? Their situations seem entirely comparable. If we're to believe that Dudley is a fat, lazy, selfish bully because of the way he was raised, shouldn't it follow that Draco is a thin, lazy, selfish bully for the same reasons?

** The case of Neville's parents is the odd duck in this list, as their insanity wasn't directly caused by magic. If, as Rowling has told us, their minds simply broke under terrible torture, it is unlikely that any sort of magic will be able to restore them.

3 comments:

Helen Louise said...

Wow, that was an excellent entry! I think you've pretty much caught what's so dark about the books (when reading Philosopher's Stone, I remember thinking that children would like it because Hogwarts is such a dangerous place. Even Quidditch is a very dangerous game. Safe, my foot!). But I think Rowling does have some kind of pity for Draco, especially in Half-Blood Prince. He's a lot more human and a lot less whiny and annoying. I'm sort of hoping (though I doubt Rowling will do it...) that Draco and Harry reach at least an understanding in the final book, if not a friendship.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

You're right when you say that Draco is more pitiable in HBP - I was thinking more about Rowling's interviews, in which she's very hard on him (and Snape). Also, Dumbledore spells out the fact that Dudley is the way he is because of his parents, but no one bothers to make the same connection when it comes to Draco.

One of the things that I really wish Rowling had shown us in HBP is Harry's real reaction when he catches Draco crying in the bathroom. He only has time to be shocked before Draco sees him, but I would have loved to know if his next emotion would have been pity or scorn - I can see arguments for both.

sprite said...

In the same way that Dumbledore thought that Peter would come to be of use to the good guys because Harry had spared his life, I think Draco, too, will come to merit having been spared speaking one of the unforgivable curses.

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