Monday, September 03, 2007

Harry Potter: my tale of the completion

July 21st, 2007. Around 8pm.

The biggest question was how many copies to buy, one or two?

My step-daughter would take to her copy like a ravenous wolf and possibly swallow the whole thing down in under a week. But was I willing to wait that long for a second hand book? Plus I knew she would be excited enough about the book that it might be hard for her to relinquish her copy into the hands of another reader.

I had discussed the possibility of buying a second copy previously with my partner, who told me in clear and concise terms that I would not buy second copy when we would already have a perfectly serviceable book in our house that would be made available to me imminently. But wait, I reasoned, my Dad didn’t have a copy. I would purchase the book, not for myself, but for him. Maybe I would read just a few pages, nay, chapters, in the time between the book’s purchase and the book’s delivery. That was acceptable to my partner.

The thought of the second copy weighed on my mind as I entered Borders that looked somewhat like a circus at closing time. Littered with the detritus of excited purchasers long since gone home, the shop was still haunted by those left behind. Workers patrolled the floor and checkout desks like veteran soldiers, still sporting odd bits of Harry Potter regalia from scarves to glasses, bravely hiding their weariness behind smiles. Customers floated here and there around the shop. No matter what section they inhabited, whether it was picture books, anime, computer programming or CDs, they all carried a soon to be bought copy of “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows”.

I stopped and checked myself just after I walked in the door. Amazing. By no conscious process of thought or movement I had already accumulated my own soon to be bought copies of “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows”. They didn’t even have to wave a wand and mutter “bookulous, purchasos!” Yes, some of them had wands. The doorways themselves must have been charmed.

But I digress. Why did the thought of the second copy weigh on my mind? Why did I find myself hovering around the pile of un-claimed Harry Potter books, pondering the price sticker, swapping my second copy between my nervous hands and the un-bought pile, trying to see whether one copy or two felt more natural? Why was I trying to let my inner self tell me whether I should buy one or two copies? It was because I had lied. I knew my Dad had already bought his copy that morning; the second was for me, all for me and no-one else!

After July 21st, 2007.

I bought two copies. I owned up when I got home and took my share of dirty looks. I put down the book I was already reading (My Israel Question by Anthony Loewenstein) so that I could start on Harry Potter right away. My step-daughter took just a few days to read her copy, even taking into account the fact that she stopped Harry Potter to finish a school book in between! There was a period of about two weeks when she would ask me where I was up to in the book, annoyed that I hadn’t caught up, peeved that she couldn’t discuss this or that with me. I pointedly told her that she should not tell me anything, even if it was just her opinion of the direction. It was quite a subtle to and fro there for a while. When she had finished (I was about a third of the way through) she let me know that it was “the best that could be hoped for”. She swallowed the rest of the conversation about what her school friends also thought of it; my eyes were glowing and smoke was coming out of my nostrils by that time.

Warning: some spoilers follow.

I finished the book soon enough. In short, I loved it. It answered a lot of my questions about two of the most charismatic characters in the series: Snape and Dumbledore. In quite a satisfying way it filled in their back stories and left me feeling that each was more human, less archetypal than before.

I had not wanted to believe that Snape was an outright villain, even when he killed Dumbledore. I felt there was more to be revealed about his relationship with Harry’s parents. I felt there needed to be a resolution between Harry and Snape, and there was. But the form of it surprised me. I imagined a tense stand-off between the two, where Snape managed to explain some hidden circumstance behind his actions – a devious double cross against Voldemort that ended with his killing Dumbledore, perhaps under an Imperius curse. What we got instead was Snape on his deathbed after being dealt with by his master Voldemort in a casual, almost arbitrary manner. He released his memories to Harry as silver tears for the Penseive. The memories revealed that Snape’s unrequited love of Harry’s mother Lily and hatred for Harry’s father James had driven him to betray the couple and spend the rest of his life paying for it. The antagonistic relationship he had maintained with Harry throughout the series was shown to be equivocal. There was indeed a deeper purpose. He had sacrificed himself to the service of Voldemort at the behest of Dumbledore. He had become the villain Dumbledore needed him to be. He killed Dumbledore because he was told to do so… by Dumbledore.

The tragedy of Snape’s life was laid bare in this book. His dichotomy involved a love that would never be realized, and forgiveness that would never be granted.

Dumbledore had his own dichotomy, though compared to that of Snape, it was not as stark. The reason was simple enough though. The cracks in Dumbledore’s characters, the shadows that followed his legend, were only developed in the last book. The shadows had been growing around Snape from the first.

Dumbledore was not as pure as the driven snow. He had courted power for much of his life. He came to realize that it was a temptation he could not afford to give in to, but the realization had cost him and his family dearly. It is revealed that Dumbledore was already dying at the end, a result of his own foolish hope to apologise to the dead. He ordered Snape to kill him in order to save Draco Malfoy from committing that same act.

This plot device really made the whole book for me. The sense of tragedy imbued to Snape by this act of sacrifice was moving. It was more than the sacrifice of one’s life: it was the sacrifice of one’s moral soul. It wasn’t just “die for me”, it was “become an evil bastard because I am telling you to do so, just trust me!”

This is why I liked the book: it showed some deep emotions behind these two characters.

There were some things I didn’t like so much.

The pacing in some parts of the book felt a bit uneven. Harry, Ron and Hermoine were on the run for months. During this time, Voldemort was in charge of the Ministry of Magic and Hogwarts, through Snape.

Harry, Ron and Hermoine were running, not spending much time in any one place. The passage of time was marked through references to weather and calendar, but not so much in progress towards their goal of finding the Horcruxes or, later, the Deathly Hallows. The book portrayed their decline towards argumentativeness and boredom, a sense of hopelessness driven by the lack of new clues, going over and over old ground. During this time I was more interested in how the larger wizarding and muggle worlds were coping under the increasing influence of Voldemort. The book disassociated from this part of the story though. It showed the social changes through an occasional magical radio show or by overhearing characters talking about the changed world. This felt too forced to me. I would have rather the perspective shifted to another character instead, to show us first hand what was going on – showing, rather than telling.

Harry’s romance with Ginny stumbled and was forestalled in what has become a common moral dilemma for heroes in blockbuster movies of late: “I cannot protect what I love from my enemies, so I cannot love”. This worked for Spiderman 2, but I don’t think it worked for Harry. Why? Because Harry had “Dumbledore’s Army”. Ginny Weasley, Neville Longbottom, Luna Lovegood, Fred and George Weasley were all members of Dumbledore’s Army and didn’t quite get enough airplay. They are fodder for fan fiction writers no doubt, itching to put into stories all the variations, strengths and weaknesses those avid readers imagined while reading the books. Those writers are braver than I, better able to express themselves for the most part. I will satisfy myself by expressing the qualms I felt with J K Rowling’s own creation. I thought that these characters were all strong enough to have books written about them too – so strong that Harry should not have left Ginny, he should have taken her on the road. It should have become Harry, Ginny, Ron and Hermoine.

Perhaps the reason this didn’t happen is because it would not have been realistic to let Ginny take such a star position without getting hot and heavy on the personal side of their relationship. She would have been far more than Robin to Harry Potter’s Batman!

This brings me nicely to some overall comments I want to make. What I have enjoyed about the Harry Potter series as a whole, is that it has grown. The characters have grown and the story telling has grown. While maintaining an appeal to a wide variety of ages throughout, J K Rowling has let the characters grow older and the story grow darker. I think this means that new, young, readers will grow naturally to each successive book. This makes for a powerful series overall.

I have finished my journey with Harry Potter. I want to thank J K Rowling sincerely for a most enjoyable ride. I can honestly say that I have never read a book or series that has seemed so equally attractive to teenage and adult readers alike. The greatest gift is a book that I have read and enjoyed with my step daughter from the start!

What happened with my second copy? I thought about it for a while, that book sitting all by itself on my shelf, without any siblings – I had been reading my step daughter’s copies after all. I decided to release my copy into the wild. Book Crossing allows me to share books I have enjoyed with the rest of the world. Hopefully someone else will enjoy this book. Hopefully they will pick it up and decide to journal their own experience with it.

Hopefully I will have helped someone else complete their journey with Harry Potter, walking the worlds of J K Rowling.

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