Sunday, April 22, 2012

How real is Harry's response to his impending death?

A friend at work recently read The Half-Blood Prince and The Deathly Hallows for the first time. I know: amazing to think that anyone out there hasn't already read all of J.K.'s novels!

This friend is a highly intelligent, quite thoughtful man who has an interesting way of seeing the world and whose opinions I respect. Thus, when he made an offhand comment that he felt that Harry seemed a little too mature in the way he faced his death in the final novel, I felt I had to take this comment seriously

I asked him to explain what he meant. He pointed out that Harry, at that point, is merely 17 years old and, despite his rather event-filled life, it seemed hard to believe Harry would be able to 1) accept the fact that Dumbledore had been planning for him to die right from the start and 2) face his death with such seeming equanimity. It's an interesting point.

But also one with which, having considered it seriously for several days now, I find myself having to disagree. I don't think Harry's behaviour at that point belied his tender age; I think it spoke volumes about the depth (and depths) of his experience. Harry might be 17 at that point but, by then, he had suffered more in his life than most people do over their 80 years on earth.

I won't recite here all the challenges he's faced (anyone who would spend time reading a Harry Potter blog is already fully familiar with Harry's life-time of tribulations and suffering) but I can't imagine that the Harry Potter I know so well after reading his exploits in those seven books responding to the situation he is presented with at the end of Book Seven in any way but the way he does.

Harry is not entirely without emotion in these scenes; in fact, he mentions numerous times how difficult he was finding it to drag himself away from this friends and the fight. But he finds his strength with the Resurrection Stone and the four people who have been together for so long, first supporting each other, then him since they met at Hogwarts years before.

I actually find J.K.'s depiction of Harry's mental state at that crucial moment to be entirely convincing. It is absolutely real for me, right down to the maturity with which he faces his impending death. It is true to the soul of this young man that he would choose to walk into the woods and face his death once he realises that he must die to protect his friends and loved ones from further harm. I still respect my friend and his opinions; I just disagree with him on this point. Very strongly disagree, in fact.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Excitement and J.K.'s new Encyclopedia

Now comes news that not only is J.K. completing her first post-Potter novel for publication but she is also starting work on a Harry Potter Encyclopedia.

That is very exciting indeed. I have been working on my own HP Concordance, which catalogues all information provided in the seven novels about each character, place, magical spell or charm, institution, etc. and it is an incredibly challenging but interesting task. To be honest, I haven't looked at it in several months but, if memory serves, I had worked my way through the first three novels and had started on the fourth, The Goblet of Fire.

Rowling's Encyclopedia will, of course, supersede anything that I would have done and I'm interested to see the approach she will take and the breadth of the sources she will use: will she limit herself to information included in the novels themselves? will she include information from her own journals in planning the books so that we will learn more about our beloved characters, places and institutions? and how will she address conflicts between the information presented in the books and information presented in the film versions?

I am also absolutely certain that the eventual publication of the Harry Potter Encyclopedia, written by J.K. Rowling, will spark a cottage industry for fans like me in trying to find her errors. I have already found comments in Rowling's auxiliary books (specifically Quidditch Through the Ages and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them) tht I find to be of questionable accuracy when compared to information provided in the original novels so I have no doubt that we'll find any number of issues in the new Encyclopedia.

That's not intended to be a criticism of J.K.: I actually love these little issues and inconsistencies that make things even more interesting and exciting.

I haven't found a timeline for when we can expect this new tome from Rowling but I am already starting to feel the rise of excitement at the thought of having something new and authoritative to read on Harry Potter. Come on, J.K., please make this book a priority! We're all chomping at the bit to have the Harry Potter Encyclopedia in our hands!

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Strong female characters and the family decision

I went to see The Hunger Games the other day with a friend here in Halifax who is not only a literature professor at a local university but also a big fan of Young Adult (YA) fiction like I am.

Not surprisingly, over dinner after the movie, we enjoyed several hours of lively conversation that worked its way from the film through the original Suzanne Collins novels and finally, of course, to Harry Potter.

One of the things we noted about The Hunger Games, the movie, is that the screenplay attempts to incorporate some aspects of the second and third novels of the series into the film of the first book. Whereas that first novel focuses entirely on Katniss and her personal struggle to deal with the challenges she faces, with little thought until the end of the greater political impact of some of her decisions, the film version actually presents that potential political impact on-screen throughout, making politics a more important part of the story.

For example, in the film the people of District 12 salute Katniss for volunteering herself for the slaughter in place of her sister. This is an act of defiance that would never have been considered by the people of her district at the start of the first book. It is only when, in book two, Katniss visits Rue's district on her Victors Tour that such a salute takes place and it is greeted with cruel violence by the Capitol. Further, the film shows Rue's district move into an actual uprising when Katniss stands over Rue's flower-ornamented body and salutes her solemnly, an uprising that didn't start until late in the second and possibly early in the third book.

We discussed the implications of this on the entire story arc of the expected three-film Hunger Games series, comparing this compression of the story to the way the Harry Potter film-makers actually expanded the seven novels into eight films in order to J.K.'s story justice.

This led to a discussion of the epilogues included at the end of both series of novels: J.K.'s infamous 19-years-later section that brings The Deathly Hallows to a close and Collins' denouement wherein we find Katniss and Peeta married and taking care of their two children in the slowly recovering District 12, now that the revolution has been successfully completed.

And, as is quite natural for two people with such similar political viewpoints, our discussion of the two epilogues necessarily raised our discontent with the decisions made by these two strong women writers to use their epilogues to show their equally strong female characters (Hermione and Katniss) as having chosen to settle down and raise families, rather than continue to pursue a more public life.

We are not arguing that the decision to raise a family is an inappropriate one; we simply wish that the authors had at least left open the possibility that their characters could have pursued other opportunities in addition to, if not in place of, the more traditional route.

With regard to Katniss, we both agreed that this character was too badly damaged by her experiences (starting with the death of her father and the temporary "absence" of her mother, through her years of keeping her family alive by hunting and trapping and ending with the brutality of not one but two trips into the games, followed by leading a bloody revolution) to ever be able to settle into any kind of normal or stable life and was probably less capable than any literary character we could think of at the end of her trials to take on responsibility for raising children.

With regard to Hermione, on the other hand, we simply could not understand the message that Rowling is trying to send by showing Hermione as Ron's wife and the mother of his children at the end of the novel and mentioning nothing about her continuing to study, her taking on an academic career, pursuing advanced research or perhaps even taking over as Hogwarts Headmaster (or, for that matter, helping to establish the first wizarding university for advanced magical studies). Her intellectual curiosity and academic leanings are so pronounced in the seven novels that it is completely bewildering to us that they would not continue to form part of her life once Voldemort was vanquished. And, as so many people have proven, it would be completely believable if Hermione were to be shown to be accomplishing both: raising a family and continuing in a more public, academic role.

No, Rowling doesn't say anything in the epilogue that precludes the possibility that Hermione continued to develop herself in these areas but she certainly makes no effort to suggest that Hermione does so. Rowling states that Neville is a professor at Hogwarts by that point: why not Hermione?

Perhaps more problematic for us is the fact that both Rowling and Collins make a point of showing these strong female characters settling into more traditional female roles at the end of their narratives: what message are they trying to send to their readers by deliberately defining the decisions of these characters in this way?

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Harry wouldn't be Harry without the Dark Lord

How do you think Harry would have turned out if there had been no Voldemort to tear his life apart? if he had been raised by his parents rather than by the Dursleys?

I'm not sure he would have turned out all that well.

Harry spends a lot of time across the seven novels wondering about what his life would have been like if his parents had lived, if he had grown up in a happy home with his mother and father, without a scar, perhaps even with a brother or sister or two as part of his life.

On the other hand, Albus Dumbledore spends a lot of time throughout the seven books telling Harry that it is precisely the fact that he is who he is, that he has a great capacity for love and little or no inclination to focus on himself, to be selfish and self-centred, that makes him so uniquely qualified to overcome the challenges that he faces.

Even as early as book one, The Philosopher's Stone, Dumbledore gambles on Harry's innate goodness and selflessness in making sure that the Stone can be acquired from the Mirror only by one who wishes to possess it but not use it.

When Voldemort attempts to inhabit Harry's mind and body in book five, The Order of the Phoenix, it is Harry's great capacity to love that makes his possession intolerable to the Dark Lord.

And, as Dumbledore so carefully explains in King's Cross at the end of The Deathly Hallows, Harry's goodness makes him worthy of uniting the Hallows in a manner that Dumbledore himself failed.

My point is, Harry becomes this unusually selfless and caring person, this person with such an enormous capacity to love others and put their needs above his own, as a product of his childhood spent in the cold, harsh household of the Dursleys. Had he not gone through the trauma of that experience, would he really be the person so worthy of taking Voldemort down time and again?

I'm not so sure. After all, look at the people who would have been around to influence him in that alternative, early life. James Potter was no saint as a child and young man. In fact, we learn in Book Six that Harry's father was a somewhat foppish, arrogant bully while at Hogwarts and that his godfather, Sirius, was a vain, idle young man who looked upon the world with a boredom verging on complete dismissal of those around him, but for his chosen few.

Would Lily, Harry's mother, whose virtue is never really questioned, have been able to exert sufficient influence on Harry to stop him from becoming as aggressive and self-centred a young man as his father once was?

I doubt it.

So we end up with J.K.'s ultimate irony: Voldemort did more than mark Harry as his equal when he murdered James and Lily and left the lightning scar on baby Harry's forehead; the Dark Lord created the circumstances that would ensure Harry gained the very qualities (selflessness and a great capacity for love and self-sacrifice) that would make Harry worthy of overcoming the challenges that his difficult life would present him and ultimately defeating the Dark Lord.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Hunger Games author could have learned a few things from J.K.

Sorry. I've been away for a while. Not physically away but psychically lost in the world of Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games trilogy. With all the hype, I thought I better read these books.

I was blown away by the first two-thirds of the first novel, The Hunger Games: it was beautifully written and so intense! But since then, down hill in my opinion. The last third of the first novel and the entire second book were both siginificant disappointments.

The third book, Mockingjay, is better so far but I haven't finished it. Maybe I'll report on my final thoughts later.

Why do I write about this in a blog dedicated to Harry Potter? Because my disappointment in the Collins novels has highlighted for me yet another aspect of J.K. Rowling's art that continues to impress me.

One of the great weaknesses, I think, of The Hunger Games trilogy is that, even as she attempts to deal with more complex, more complicated themes in the second and third books, Collins fails to elevate the sophistication of her writing and narrative approach.

The first book in the series offers a simple, straight-line plot with simple themes and few significant characters. It's perfect for the young adult audience for whom she writes.

In the second book, however, she introduces significantly more characters, a more complex plot and a series of more challenging concepts, yet tries to keep the writing at the same level. It just doesn't work.

The third book is somewhat better becuase, while she doesn't elevate her writing at all, she does simplify the plot and the number of characters somewhat: the focus is back on Katniss and the central enemy she faces, President Snow. Any more-challenging themes are reduced to the background.

Rowling, on the other hand, allowed her writing style to mature along with her target audience, matching the increasing complexity of the characters, plots and themes of each novel. While the first book in the series is a children's book with a simple plot, clear themes and a select group of central characters, the seventh book is a fully adult novel, perfectly matched with the complex plot and characters, the mature themes she explores.

I have to admit, the first 150 or so pages of The Hunger Games is as good as anything I've read, including Rowling's books, but Collins doesn't seem able to sustain that greatness. She tries to tackle more complex plots, characters and themes but she can't break out of her simple, young adult approach to the writing.