Saturday, May 28, 2016

Spare parts and Diggory's death

Death is a part of Harry Potter. We all know that. The entire series of novels is set into motion by the brutal murder of Lily and James Potter and an almost unspeakably ruthless act -- the attempt to murder an infant, just over a year old.

I would argue, however, that it is the matter-of-fact, entirely needless murder of Cedric Diggory at the end of book four that provides the series its most brutal moment.

Diggory does not need to die. Rowling could have spared him simply by having him touch the Tri-Wizard Cup a split second later than Harry and get left behind in the maze while Harry is hurtled hundreds of miles to the graveyard to face the Dark Lord. Voldemort could have spared Diggory simply by ordering Wormtail to stun him and forget about him, rather than kill him. Wormtail could have refused to kill him, could have chosen to stun Diggory simply because his murder is such a brutal, needless, cruel act.

Diggory's death is not necessary to the rest of the plot of The Goblet of Fire. After Harry brings his body back to Hogwarts, we see one immediate scene as the shock of Diggory's murder spreads through the crowd and sends his father into grieving hysterics, but no plot point, no future development hinges on Diggory being dead.

Diggory's death is important, however, and perhaps my comment above that "Diggory does not need to die" is not entirely accurate. Cedric dies because Rowling needs to send a clear, ruthless message -- to the characters who are on the side of good in the books and to us as readers -- that Voldemort is back and as brutal as he ever was. With this scene in the graveyard, everything changes.

We are no longer reading simple young-adult fiction where, if death occurs, it occurs off stage, it is crucial to the plot and it occurs for a reason. No, we're reading stories about the most evil sorcerer the world has ever seen, under whose rule death is a common-place, everyday thing, death occurs as often and as casually as the arrival of the owl post, the teaching of classes, the eating of meals.

When Voldemort, still in his almost powerless, infant form, hisses to Wormtail, "Kill the spare," the universe changes. We, as readers, learn that Rowling will pull no punches from here on out. Evil will be evil in every sense of the word. And we learn that Voldemort's cruelty knows no bounds. He will kill with impunity, almost without thought, certainly without remorse. And finally, we learn that Voldemort's followers will carry out his most cruel, most senseless orders without question, without consideration of morality.

And the word "spare" is important. It hits us like a hammer. In the Dark Lord's mind, Cedric Diggory is not a young man, filled with hope of a bright future, kind, funny, handsome, beloved by his family and his friends... he is a spare part to the story, an accidental element that must be swept aside for Voldemort to achieve his goals.

In the French translation, Voldemort hisses "Tue l'autre". This translates, as far as I understand, as "Kill the other". It makes sense, sure, but I'm not sure it has the impact of "Kill the spare." I'm not sure it sends the same ruthless message.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Decisions, descisions: what if Harry had failed at the second task?

J.K. Rowling writes suspense scenes very very well. Even after more than 20 readings, there are still sections of her books that I simply cannot force myself to read slowly. I get so caught up in the suspense, I just fly through the section.

One such passage is the part in The Goblet of Fire where Harry, Hermione and Ron rush to figure out a way for Harry to gain the ability to breathe under water for at least an hour for the second task of the TriWizard Tournament. As you will recall, the three work desperately together in the library for about a month, then, the day before the task, Hermione and Ron are called away and Harry continues to research, even as the final hours before the task fly past.

Finally, Dobby saves the day, first by waking Harry in the library ten minutes before the task is to begin and second by providing Harry with the magic plant gillyweed, that gives him gills.

After dashing through the section, however, and forcing myself to start to get ready for work, it occurred to me: what if J.K. had decided to let Harry fail on this task? Would it have made any difference at all to the outcome of the book?

As a writer of middling success, I am fascinated by the writing process of talented and successful authors. I am amazed at the number of decisions writers have to make with almost every paragraph of their books, decisions that will have a significant impact on the rest of the novel.

So we have Ms. Rowling, planning out her fourth Harry Potter novel, and deciding: Harry has to be successful in all three tasks; he has to be the fastest to get the egg from the dragon; he has to show his moral fiber in completing the second task; and he has to agree to a tie with Cedric Diggory at the end of the third task.

The book is fantastic so I have no quibble with these decisions but... how would the book have changed if J.K. had decided to have Harry fail in task one or two or both?

The structure of the third task is such that even a failure in one of the two earlier tasks does not eliminate a champion from the competition. Fleur does not complete the second task but the result is only that she is penalized in having to wait to enter into the maze for the third task until some time after the competition leaders, Harry and Cedric, have already gone in.

Fleur still has a chance to win.

Dobby comes through and saves the day for Harry in the second task. But what if he had not done so? What if Harry had been forced to go to the lake, stick his head under the water and yell at the MerPeople to release Ron, as Ron had suggested earlier?

Clearly, we would lose Harry`s demonstration of moral fiber in deciding to sacrifice time at the bottom of the lake in order to save all of the captured kids. But we would also lose the questionable decision of the judges to award him extra points for his moral fiber, since the rules of the Tournament never mentioned anything about the possibility of such extra points being earned. Who knows, if Cedric or Viktor or Fleur had known that such points were available, they might have approached the task differently.

I have never been comfortable with this arbitrary awarding of points in the second task so, from my point of view, it would have been nice if it could have been avoided.

Had Harry failed in the second task, he would have been the last to enter the maze for the third task. He would have followed Cedric, Viktor and Fleur into the bushes. But is that so big a deal? He would still have been able to make up the time, especially since Viktor falls victim to a spell and Fleur falls victim to Viktor. All Harry would have had to do was catch up to Cedric. No problem in a maze of this kind.

I would think further that, had Harry failed at the second task, the pressure would have been on Barty Crouch Junior to be even more aggressive in intervening in the third task to make sure Harry got to the Goblet-Port Key first. That might have made the third task even more exciting.

My best guess is that Rowling treated each task as a separate little plot that required its own conflict, its own rising action and suspense, its own crisis point and its own climax. Further, she must have felt that, given the extremely unhappy resolution to the entire novel (Cedric is dead and Voldemort has returned to full power), she wanted to have the first two mini-plots resolve in positive ways (Harry is successful in each of the first two tasks) so as to make the final scenes in the graveyard and Harry`s ultimate failure (to save Cedric and to stop Voldemort) that much more surprising and effective.

It`s a brilliant strategy -- as the novel develops, Rowling puts a series of significant obstacles in Harry`s way and permits him to overcome them successfully, creating a false sense of security and positive energy entering the final task and the triumph of evil over good in the graveyard scene.

Still, I wonder if Rowling ever considered letting Harry fail at one of the early tasks, of ramping up the pressure on him (Fleur would feel vindicated in her belief that he was too young, Cedric supporters would be even more aggressive, Slytherin people even more nasty, Rita Skeeter would have had even more about which to write, Harry`s supporters would have been even more under pressure to buoy his spirits and Barty Crouch Junior even more desperate to get Harry to the finish line).

That`s the wonderful, challenging thing about the creative art of writing -- every decision the writer makes impacts the novel in significant, often unexpected ways.

Friday, May 13, 2016

Viktor goes for an icy swim

I am a huge Harry Potter fan (why else would I have this blog?).

I have read each of the seven Harry Potter novels at least 20 times and likely more often. I have listened to the novels on CD several times and am now in the process of reading them again in their French translations. I have watched the eight movies numerous times too.

You would think that, after all that, it would not be possible for me to learn something new about the stories in a subsequent re-reading.

Well, you would be wrong to think that.

I am currently reading The Goblet of Fire in French. It's great. It's fun and face-paced and the first really complicated, more adult of the novels.

I am at the point in the novel where Rita Skeeter has revealed to the wizarding world Hagrid's scandalous secret -- that he is a half-giant. Hagrid is in hiding. Harry decides he wants to go to Hogsmeade on the Saturday in hopes of finding his massive friend and telling him to stop being silly and to come back to work.

As Harry, Hermione and Ron walk across the frigid grounds of Hogwarts towards the gates, they see Viktor Krum emerge onto the deck of the Durmstrang ship, strip down to his bathing suit and dive into the icy waters of the school's lake. In response to Harry's expression of shock at Krum's decision to brave the cold, Hermione explains that Durmstrang is located in a much colder climate and that Krum probably finds the water to be quite temperate.

And off they go to Hogsmeade, Krum's odd behavior drifting from their minds -- and from mine as well.

Did you know that, after all my readings of the novel, this is the first time I made the connection that Krum's decision to go for a swim must be connected to the clue in the golden egg for the second task? That he might just be out for a swim to explore the lake and perhaps scout out the path to the Merpeople's village?

I permitted Hermione (and Rowling) to convince me it was just quirky behavior on the part of the Durmstrang champion and to think nothing further of it.

How clever are they? How stupid am I to be so easily led astray? And what of Harry?

Cedric Diggory has already given him the cryptic clue about taking the egg into the bath, a clue neither Harry nor we as readers are ready to accept as being legitimate and honest.

And here is a second champion making a very strange decision, one that is also directly related to immersing oneself in water.

I can't believe I missed this. I can't believe Harry missed it. If Harry had shared Cedric's hint with Hermione, I am sure she would have connected the dots and pointed out to Harry that Krum's mid-winter swim must be related to the egg and the second task.

So, while I find myself amazed that I have failed to make this connection until now, I am somewhat comforted by the fact that Harry didn't make the connection either.

Once Krum worked out the clue, his ability to swim in the cold winter water of the Hogwart's lake must have given him a distinct advantage over the other champions in that he had months to explore the lake and plan his strategy.

It seems so obvious now...

Friday, May 6, 2016

18 years later, still a waiting list

I was standing in the local public library today on my lunch hour, checking out the books on offer at their standing book sale, when I heard the following conversation:

Staff Member: "No, The Philosopher's Stone is the first one."

Man with small child: "Oh, then which is the second one?"

Staff Member: "The second one? That's The Chamber of Secrets."

Man with small child: "Then that's the one I want."

Staff Member, checking her computer: "Sorry, sir, all copies of The Chamber of Secrets are currently out with clients. Would you like to go on a waiting list?"

My jaw dropped for two reasons: 1) that there could be a single person in the English-speaking world who doesn't already know the titles of the Harry Potter books in their proper order (smile); and 2) that 18 years after it was published, The Chamber of Secrets is still in such demand at my local public library that there is a waiting list to borrow it.

I think it is great that the Harry Potter novels continue to be popular, both in book stores and in libraries. I would think that most successful books are released, enjoy a period of popularity in book stores, a longer period of popularity in libraries, then fade away again, only to re-emerge if and when they are made into movies.

But J.K. Rowling's novels seem to be maintaining a high level of popularity even 18 years after they were published!

I also think it's neat that the man who was inquiring about the Harry Potter books seemed to be about 30 years old and his son maybe 4 or 5. That means that a guy who perhaps read HP when he was 12 is getting ready to read them again, perhaps with his own child, two decades later.

I had to stop myself from rushing over and offering the man a sermon on the wonders of Harry Potter, telling myself to be satisfied with the knowledge that Harry Potter lives on.