Thursday, July 31, 2014

Birthday wishes for two important people

Happy Birthday, Harry Potter!

Happy Birthday, J.K. Rowling!

I am delighted to celebrate, in my small way, the birthdays of two people who have brought so much happiness to my life. Even if one of them is a fictional character.

I am also delighted to report that, when the CBC news website posted two special Harry Potter editions of their "Who Said It?" quizzes (one of quotes from the HP good guys and the other of quotes from HP villains), I got a perfect score on both.

To be honest, there were two on the villains quiz that I wasn't completely certain about but I was lucky enough to be able to figure both out.

And I am ridiculously proud of that accomplishment.

So Happy Birthday Harry, Happy Birthday J.K. and congrats to me!

Sunday, July 27, 2014

The Taboo should have been taboo for J.K.

Let's talk about the "Taboo" for a moment.

We're introduced to the Taboo mid-way through The Deathly Hallows. Ron explains that Voldemort's name has "been jinxed, Harry, that's how they track people! Using his name breaks protective enchantments, it causes some kind of magical disturbance... Anyone who says it is trackable!"

First of all, I agree with Ron. Voldemort and the Death Eaters make very clever use of the Taboo since they know that only people who are members of the Order of the Phoenix or might otherwise prove a threat to the Dark Lord still use the name "Voldemort". The Death Eaters refer to him as "the Dark Lord", for the most part, while the good guys and innocents all prefer to use "You Know Who" or "He Who Will Not be Named".

So placing the Taboo on the word "Voldemort" will provide excellent results for the Death Eaters: they will be able to track really problematic people with few false alarms.

Clever. Very clever.

But let's look at the Taboo itself. As explained in the book, the Taboo allows me to place a jinx on a word so that if you use that word you lose all magical protection that you have sought to place on yourself and I can track where you are.

Wow. That's a pretty powerful tool. And we see it work very powerfully later in The Deathly Hallows when, despite all of their tried and true protective enchantments, the Taboo exposes Harry and the crew to the clutches of the Snatchers.

So why isn't it used more often? For example, if the Death Eaters were so interested in finding Horace Slughorn prior to the events of Book Six, why didn't they just put a Taboo on his name (or on "candied pineapple") in order to find him? Sure, there might be some false alarms but they'd probably be worth the trouble.

Why would they not put the Taboo on the names of all of the Order members in order to find them and break down the enchantments protecting them.

And remember, at the start of The Deathly Hallows, Snape tells Voldemort that, Harry will be taken to a safe house that has been prepared for him and has been "given every protection that the Order and Ministry together can provide". Snape concludes: "there is little chance of taking him once he is there."

Wait a minute? If capturing Harry is job one and they have a weapon as powerful as the Taboo available to them, why wouldn't they try jinxing a whole bunch of names or words associated with Harry and the Order, accepting that the large number of false alarms they might face would be well worth the possibility that the Taboo would eventually beak all of the protective enchantments the Ministry and the Order have put in place and allow them to track and capture Harry?

Let's just say they Tabooed the word "Hagrid"? Wouldn't that be enough? I mean, not that many people would say Hagrid's name about then but members of the Order are sure to do so. Why not use it to track Harry and strip away his protections?

Again, I think the Taboo is a very interesting idea. And I agree that the Death Eaters were very clever to have used it to expose members of the Order.

But, like the Time Turner and Felix Felicis, I wonder if it wasn't a dramatic mistake for Rowling to introduce the Taboo into her world. Once she establishes that this powerful tool exists, she has to consider when and how it might otherwise be used to effect in the story.

Then she has to account for why it was not used (it is an extremely difficult jinx and a person can only cast one Taboo at a time, for example).

If she doesn't, in my opinion, she undermines the drama of her narrative.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Deathly Hallows films make me cry, for all the wrong reasons

The film version of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows makes me want to cry.

No, not because I'm so upset about the death of Hedwig in the early going. Nor does the sweep of music that accompanies Dobby's last words bring tears to my eyes.

I'm not overwhelmed with emotion when I see the bodies of Fred, Remus and Nymphadora lying on makeshift cots in the Great Hall of Hogwarts in the intermission of the great battle.

And, no, I am absolutely NOT overcome with tears of relief when Voldemort's body finally breaks into little black leaves and floats off into the ether, signifying his final parting from this brave world.

No, I want to cry when I watch the movies of The Deathly Hallows because I HATE THEM SO MUCH. I want to cry because I am so angry at the scriptwriter and director and everyone else associated with the movies for taking our one real chance to translate J.K. Rowling's deep, moving psychological masterpiece of a seventh novel into film and WASTING IT with this ridiculous, corny, over-wrought, under-intellectual piece of revisionist S__T.

And I sincerely wish that J.K. Rowling would come out in public and make even the mildest statement that says she too recognizes how much of a disappointment these last two movies are.

I mean, under perhaps the greatest pressure of expectation any author has ever faced in literary history, Rowling wrote a lovely, fascinating, deep and philosophical novel, one that delivered more action than anyone could ever have hoped for supported by an amazing exploration of love, trust, friendship and camaraderie.

Despite its flaws, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is, in my humble opinion, a literary masterpiece produced when the author could have hammered out a simple action yarn and most of the world would have been satisfied.

This novel is a credit to Rowling, proof that she is a master writer first and a business person second. She gave the world more, much much more than any one would have required her to give in this final novel for the simple reason that she felt she owed herself, her characters, and us, something fabulous.

So why did she permit the film-makers to turn her final masterwork into this shallow, often silly piece of dreck that leaves out just about every morsel of poetry she lovingly wrote into the book?

Why did she permit them to eviscerate the wonderful philosophical, moral Hallows-vs-Horcruxes story-line, leaving in just enough to make it a mockery of the original?

Why did she let them walk away from the intense internal conflict faced by Harry as he discovered more and more about Dumbledore and his intensely secret ways?

Why did she allow them to turn the Battle of Hogwarts into a mano-a-mano war between Harry and Voldemort when it is clear, in the book, that it is Harry's love for his friends and colleagues, and their love and support for him, that eventually wins the day?

There's so much more (or less) in the movies that I want to complain about but I think I've made my point.

J.K. Rowling's novel, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is a beautifully paced, philosophically rich poetic piece of writing.

The two films that were made out of this book are simply sad reminders of what could have been, tragic wastes of the opportunity to make something as magic on film as the book is on paper.

Friday, July 18, 2014

The most magical of magic potions was a dramatic mistake

Sometimes I feel like I have to start a post with a reminder to everyone of how much I love the Harry Potter novels and how much I respect J.K. Rowling as a writer.

Her seven-novel sequence is a triumph, both from a dramatic standpoint and from the standpoint of outstanding writing in a technical sense.

I think all of us wannabe writers out here can learn a great deal from Rowling and her works because they are so outstanding. But, if we can learn from the strengths of the Potter novels, we can also learn from some of the less successful stuff in them as well.

And, as I mentioned in my last post, I think Rowling fell into traps on several occasions, introducing an element into her magical world that might work very well dramatically in the story in which it is introduced but that can become a bit of a problem over the course of the entire story line.

I think the issue of time travel is one of those traps, as I discussed last time.

And I think the introduction of Felix Felicis (liquid luck) in the sixth book is another such trap.

Here's an edited version of the passage wherein Rowling (through Professor Slughorn) introduces us and her characters to this most magical of magic potions:
...a small black cauldron standing on Slughorn’s desk. The potion within was splashing about merrily; it was the colour of molten gold, and large drops were leaping like goldfish above the surface, though not a particle had spilled... 
“It’s liquid luck,” said Hermione excitedly. “It makes you lucky.”... 
“It’s a funny little potion, Felix Felicis,” said Slughorn. “desperately tricky to make, and disastrous to get wrong. However, brewed correctly, as this has been, you will find that all your endeavours tend to succeed… at least until the effects wear off.” ... 
“…if taken to excess, it causes giddiness, recklessness and dangerous overconfidence,” said Slughorn. “Too much of a good thing, you know… highly toxic in large quantities. But taken sparingly, and very occasionally…” 
"One tiny bottle of Felix Felicis,” said Slughorn, taking out a minuscule glass bottle… “Enough for twelve hours’ luck. From dawn to dusk, you will be lucky in everything you attempt. 
“Now, I must give you warning that Felix Felicis is a banned substance in organized competitions … sporting events, for instance, examinations or elections."
We are then treated to two stirring examples of how effective Felix is in the real world: Harry's success at finding Slughorn and convincing him to give up the key Horcrux memory and the survival of all members of Dumbledore's Army after the battle with the Death Eaters that leads to Dumbledore's death.

In the context of The Half-Blood Prince, Felix is a fun, effective dramatic tool. It works (both literally and as a dramatic device).

But what are its larger implications?

I would argue that the very existence and potency of Felix Felicis raise serious questions that tend to undermine the realism and effectiveness of every other plot, every tense situation in the whole seven-book adventure.

If Felix exists, why don't more people use it more often? Sure, it's hard to brew and, sure, you can't take it too often without risking negative consequences (which, to be honest, appear fairly trivial when compared to the alternative -- death) but it does exist and it does work extremely effectively.

And, if Slughorn can brew it successfully, then certainly Snape and Dumbledore could brew it as well. I wouldn't put it past Hermione either, since she was successfully brewing the incredibly complicated Polyjuice Potion in only her second year at Hogwarts.

If a substance like Felix exists, I would expect that we would see it used more than twice in the entire Harry Potter tale. I would think that Dumbledore, Slughorn, Snape and even Hermione would all brew up a batch from time to time and dispense it (albeit with discretion) to themselves and their loved ones whenever a particularly serious, potentially life threatening challenge is looming.

Wouldn't, for example, Dumbledore use a little taste of it before setting off for the cave in search of the locket Horcrux?

Wouldn't Snape use it any number of times throughout the course of his very dangerous mission?

Wouldn't Slughorn be distributing it to all and sundry as the defenders of Hogwarts prepared to do battle with Voldemort and his minions in the final book?

Wouldn't Hermione have used some for their invasion of the Ministry, their break-in to Gringotts, their search of Hogwarts in Book Seven?

My point is, the very existence of liquid luck allows these questions to be posed and, as a result, undermines the effectiveness of these exciting scenes. It makes absolutely no sense to me that no one tried to use Felix at least once more in the books.

To make matters worse, I honestly don't think it was necessary at all for Rowling to introduce Felix in book six. Sure, it's fun and effective and it irons out certain plot difficulties.

But she could have written both scenes in which Felix is used in The Half-Blood Prince (Harry's approach to Slughorn and the battle between Dumbledore's Army and the Death Eaters) without resorting to this magical potion. Felix wasn't absolutely necessary to either.

Harry could have run into Slughorn on his way to Hagrid's house and convinced the Potions master to accompany him to Aragog's funeral without Felix. Slughorn's interest in the giant spider's venom would have been sufficient to get him to come. Slughorn would likely have gotten involved in his drinking spree with Hagrid without any help, if only to get his hands on the other valuable magical substances that Hagrid has lying about. And the alcohol, plus Harry's clever emotional plea, could plausibly have driven Slughorn to disclose the memory, even if Harry had not taken any liquid luck.

Further, the survival of fighters in any battle depends on a number of factors. We have already accepted that Harry survived his encounter with Quirrell in book two, that Harry, Ron and Hermione survived werewolves and Dementors in book three, that Dumbledore's Army survived their battle with Death Eaters at the Ministry in book five: why wouldn't we accept that Ginny, Luna, Neville et al could survive the fight in book six even without Felix?

My feeling is that J.K. created all of the problems I identify above by introducing Felix to her world when she really didn't need to do so. Felix was fun but not necessary to the outcome of the sixth book.

And, finally, if Slughorn had a stock of Felix with him, why didn't Draco steal some of it when he was apparently stealing Polyjuice Potion from the new Potions master?

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Time travel drives me crazy, dramatically

I hate time travel in stories.


Because, if the characters in the story can travel through time, it means that nothing matters. That any major plot development can be undone. That any death can be circumvented.

Simply by having a character travel back in time and avoid the development, stop the death from happening.

The movie Star Trek: Generations is a case in point. In that film, the writers establish that any character who enters a particular zone (called the "Nexus") can choose to leave the Nexus again at any point in time and space.


When Captain Picard enters the Nexus, therefore, he has the ability to go as far back in time as he wants and change history. Nothing that has happened in the past is therefore set in stone. He can go as far back as he wants and CHANGE EVERYTHING bad that's happened.

Once that fact is established, the plot loses all sense of suspense. There is nothing at stake anymore.

And then Picard chooses to emerge from the Nexus just in time to stop the bad guy from destroying an innocent planet -- chooses that moment rather some earlier moment where he could, for example, stop his beloved brother and nephew from dying in a fire (a major plot point earlier in the movie), then block the Klingons from interfering and then find the bad guy and arrest him before he can do any harm.

Picard's decision makes no sense. In the context of the reality established by the movie, Picard (the film's hero) is, in fact, a fool.

So when J.K. Rowling introduced the possibility of time travel in book three of the Harry Potter collection, I cringed. Really and truly I did. She had fallen into the trap. Nothing else could possibly matter if characters can travel back in time. Nothing bad that happens is ever permanent.

To her credit, Rowling makes excellent use of the time-travel trap in The Prisoner of Azkaban by having her characters travel back in time to save Sirius and Buckbeak.

She actually does it really well. It's a surprisingly exciting read and one of my favourites of the seven novels.

But it begs the Picard question. If they can control how far back in time she travels simply by spinning the Time Turner more or less times, why does Dumbledore not send them back far enough to allow Ron to capture Scabbers, lock him in a box and then use him to help clear Sirius' name without all the drama?

Or send them back 14 or more years to stop Voldemort before he really got started? If Voldemort is stopped before he kills Harry's parents, none of the terrible things that followed upon those murders would have happened. No one would have suffered.

In fact, why didn't Dumbledore himself go back in time right after he realized Tom Riddle was going to be a royal pain in the bottom and put a stop to Riddle's shenanigans?

Sure, we fans can invent all kinds of rules to avoid these questions: Time Turners can only take a person so far back in time and no more, for example. But Rowling doesn't make such rules clear in the book.

Now, in The Order of the Phoenix, Rowling tries to make this right. Or at least to remove time travel as an option that could be used to avoid the final battle of Hogwarts. She has all of the Time Turners destroyed in the Department of Mysteries (and allows us to develop a fan rule that no one alive is capable of making a new Time Turner).

Fine. Great. But I still think the introduction of the possibility of time travel in the magical world of Harry Potter serves to undermine the drama throughout the course of Harry's adventures. Rowling would have been better off not introducing it at all.

Even if it meant having to change the plot of the magnificent third book completely.

In a later blog entry, I'll talk about how I feel that Rowling's introduction of Felix Felicis, of the talking portraits in the Headmaster's office and of the idea of the Taboo also raises significant dramatic problems for these books.

Monday, July 14, 2014

The death throes of The Deathly Hallows

Seven years ago, I purchased my hard-cover edition of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows the day it hit the bookstore shelves.

Today, after more readings than I can count, my original hard-cover edition of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows split at the spine and began to fall apart at the seams.

It's not about the quality of the novel; it's about the quality of the book.

So, with a gift-card I recently received for my birthday, I marched out to my local bookstore and bought a new, paperback copy. This will be my official reading copy, until it eventually falls apart too.

At some point, I will buy a complete set of the hard-cover books as my show copies, my bookshelf editions, but not right now. I'm considering trying to find English first editions of each -- and that will take a lot of time and a lot more money.

For now, I will be a little bit in awe of the fact that J.K. Rowling wrote a book that I like so much I literally read it to pieces.

Something Wiki this way comes...

Wow, the people who update the Harry Potter Wiki site are fast, aren't they? No sooner does J.K. publish the Rita Skeeter article about the Quidditch World Cup and someone has already updated the Wiki entry for Hannah Abbott to include the details related to "Hannah" included in the Skeeter piece.

But are they right to do so? The citation for the information added to the Hannah Abbott Wiki entry is the Skeeter piece, according to the site, but I have to figure there is more than one Hannah in the magical community. And Skeeter omits any reference to the birth name of "Hannah" in her article.

So how can they be so sure that Neville Longbottom, in fact, married Hannah Abbott, rather than some other Hannah (Smith, Jones, Leduc, Jeudesor)?

And why do the entry editors assume that whatever Hannah Neville married would take his last name in place of her own? They refer to her as "Hannah Longbottom (nee Abbott)" in the entry. Why make that assumption?

And why do they describe her as the "landlady of the Leaky Cauldron" in the Wiki entry? The Skeeter article merely says that Neville and Hannah "lived above the Leaky Cauldron"; it makes no mention of her having been the landlady (and, therefore, owner) of the pub.

Don't get me wrong. I think the Harry Potter Wiki is an amazing resource and I respect the work that went into creating (and still goes into maintaining and updating) it.

But this update of Hannah Abbott's entry causes me some concern about the accuracy of all of the other entries as well.

I shall have to take the information included on the Wiki with a grain of salt from now on, won't I?

On the other hand, when I read in the Skeeter article that Neville had married a woman named Hannah, I too immediately thought of Ms. Abbott. But the Skeeter article certainly falls far short of confirming that the Neville's partner is indeed Hannah Abbott.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Yes, I admire Hermione as a literary character

I have to admit, I am delighted that J.K. Rowling has decided to use her latest Harry Potter storylet to assign to Hermione a more clear, more public future.

Don't get me wrong. I have absolutely nothing against the idea of a man or a woman deciding that his or her best destiny is to commit his/her life to staying home to raise a family. One of the people I admire most in this world, my mother, did exactly that.

But I did indeed feel a somewhat disappointed when I read the Epilogue of The Deathly Hallows for the first time and discovered that Rowling had given no indication of a public life for Hermione.

Hermione is a singularly fine character in the Harry Potter books. She is moral and ethical and hard working. She is, in many ways, the conscience of the male characters in the book and, at times, her fastidious devotion to rules makes her the object of appropriate teasing.

She is caring and nurturing and lovely to her friends and to strangers too.

On the other hand, however, Hermione is much much more. She is brilliant and creative and brave. She is eloquent and clever and thoughtful.

She is witty and fun.

She is one of my favourite characters in literature. Where I find Harry often a little bit overwrought and Ron sometimes silly and unlikeable, Hermione is well described and well rounded. She is a fully realized human being, with both strengths and weaknesses. She is real and believable, an amazing accomplishment in an imaginative world of magic.

If there is one thing I find hard to accept, it is that Hermione ends up with Ron.

But at least she ends up, thanks to J.K.'s new article, with a future befitting of her, as a wife, a mother and a public leader.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Rowling's latest HP offering

As anyone who might be interested enough in Harry Potter to bother reading this blog likely already knows, J.K. Rowling has just posted an amazing, if brief, prologue to the epilogue of The Deathly Hallows on her Pottermore site.

Written in the form of a gossip column piece by Rita Skeeter, this three-page article describes, in typically acid terms, the buzz created at the 2014 Quidditch World Cup by members of Dumbledore's Army, including Harry, Hermione, Ron, Ginny, Neville and Luna.

From what I can calculate, this new piece is set before the Epilogue to The Deathly Hallows. Here's how I figure it:

  1. Harry turned 17 at the start of the final book;
  2. The seventh book covers the next year and ends just as the Hogwarts school year would have ended;
  3. That makes Harry just about to turn 18 when he kills Voldemort;
  4. The book's Epilogue is titled "19 Years Later" and takes place on September 1 of that year;
  5. This means that Harry would be 37 at the time of that scene at Platform Nine-and-Three-Quarters that brings the seven-book series to a close; and
  6. Rita Skeeter says that Harry, at the time of this most recently published article, is "[a]bout to turn 34."

It's a nifty little piece and, as some commentators have already said online, in many ways more satisfying than the original Epilogue from the epic final book.

With all of that being said, however, what new information do we actually learn from this latest tidbit. To be honest, quite a bit (SPOILER ALERT):

  • Harry is still called the Chosen One at age 34;
  • The mere presence of the former members of Dumbledore's Army is sufficient to stir up near riots at the QWC, with Harry as the focus of most of the attention;
  • Harry has moved on to become an Auror, as was his dream while at Hogwarts;
  • Ginny is a budding sports reporter;
  • Ron worked briefly for the Ministry, then joined George at Weasleys;
  • George is "wealthy";
  • Viktor Krum is still playing international level quidditch;
  • The search for the Voldemort's Horcruxes is now public knowledge;
  • Hermione is the Deputy Head of the Department of Magical Law Enforcement;
  • Neville, a popular prof at Hogwarts, is married to someone named Hannah who is now a Healer;
  • Luna Lovegood has twin sons with her husband Rolf Scamander;
  • George is not married;
  • Percy is the Head of the Department of Magical Transportation;
  • Victoire and Teddy Lupin are already together; and
  • Rita herself has written a new book about Dumbledore's Army itself.
There are probably more nuggets in there but that's a pretty good start.

Some thoughts, to go with the point that this piece is set three years before the Epilogue of the final book.

First, I think Rowling bowed to pressure from Hermione fans in making it clear that our favourite witch continued her meteoric public career, on top of being a wife and mother.

Second, Skeeter makes a lot of hay over a nasty new cut on Harry's face, a cut which must have healed fully before the Epilogue took place, or else Rowling would have mentioned it.

Third, if Harry and Co attract enough attention at 34 to cause near riots at the QWC, why does their appearance on the Platform three years later create no stir at all?

More thoughts from me on this later. What are your thoughts

Sunday, July 6, 2014

A magical muggle moment

Another Harry Potter moment.

I'm sitting in the car with our golden doodle, waiting for my partner to emerge from the grocery store.

A young woman, perhaps 14 or 15 years old, tall and thin with that angularity of body that speaks of a recent growth spurt, walks past, supporting an elderly woman, apparently her grandmother.

She's wearing jeans and a mauve t-shirt that appears at first to be unremarkable.

Then, after helping her grandmother into the front seat, she turns and looks past me and my car toward the door to the store. For the first time, I catch a glimpse of the front of the shirt.

It says "Muggle" in a flowing script.

That's it. Just "Muggle".

Brilliant. I'm so used to seeing people (like me) wearing items that suggest they are members of the magical world of Harry Potter -- like my own Gryffindor scarf, for example -- and here is this young woman making no such claim.

She's one of the world's non-magical folk. And she's proud of the fact.

I wonder where she got the shirt.