July 24, 2007

Harry Potter series almost grows up


I finished reading Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows a couple days ago. The book is a fitting conclusion to this long-running series and firmly cements J. K. Rowling in the same literary league as Baum, Tolkien, and Lewis. Years, no, generations from now, people will still read these seven books and comment on them. Rowling has done something few other writers can claim to have achieved, she has changed the way future writers will approach their craft. Unfortunately, this also means that fantasy literature is destined to remain a genre primarily directed at children.

The seventh Harry Potter book has a page-turning, edge-of-your-seat plot that rockets the reader through the recent history of Harry's world and fills in all of those ominous blanks left by the other six books. Even as book five revealed Harry's father to be a cruel, elitist adolescent with a loyal clique whose success on the Quidditch field allowed his gang to terrorize the Hogwarts campus and get away with it, book seven reveals that in his youth the charming Dumbledore befriended the dark wizard he later killed and favored the creation of a world where the wizarding community took their "rightful" place as the masters of the muggles. Dumbledore's relationship with Harry is revealed to be more manipulative than compassionate, setting up Harry to be the sacrificial lamb who dies and is resurrected in order to rid the world of Lord Voldemort.

In all honesty, the overt Christian themes and underlying belief that even when evil has free run of the place the world is essentially sweet gets a bit nauseating from time to time. The deft use of Celtic and Gothic inconography to present what in the end amounts to yet another Christian parable is masterful, but a touch disappointing. A very fitting end to the series, but despite the rampant death of friend and family alike, still essentially a children's book.

There are many places where she comes close to rising above children's literature and putting Harry squarely into the adult world, but each time she fails to take that critical last step. Some examples of this are:

Chapter Three: Harry bludgeons his reluctant Uncle Vernon into accepting wizarding protection for his family by frequently repeating the words, "they will kill and torture you," in conjunction with references to his own parents and Dudley's near loss of his soul in book five. Not once does Harry offer any reasonable evidence of this belief and the only thing that sways Vernon and Petunia is Dudley's announcement that no matter how his father feels, he's going with the wizards. Dudley then acknowledges that Harry did indeed save him from the Dementors which causes Petunia to begin crying on Dudley's thick shoulder and blubbering about what a good boy he is. The candy-cane sweet, cartoon quality of this scene rises to levels unseen in any of the earlier books. At that point I was desperately afraid this would set the tone for the remainder of the story. Thankfully, it did not.

Chapter Seven: Harry celebrates his seventeenth birthday and after the usual barrage of useless gifts, gets invited into Ginny's room where she offers him her gift. There is half a page dedicatd to Ginny's kiss, then Ron and Hermoine barge into the room. I'm sorry, but Harry is seventeen, Ginny is fifteen, they are madly in love even though book six lays out all the reasons Harry believes they cannot be together. These few days at the Weasley house is the last time they will be together, and for all anyone knows, Harry is going to die soon. In any mature, realistic appraisal of adolescent relationships in any era past or present, Ginny and Harry would be crawling into each other's bed and having wild sex every single night he is there. Rowling's reluctance to bring realistic sexual relationships into the first four books might be forgiven, but her failure to do so in book seven, the "adult" version of Harry's life, is unforgivable.

Greyback and Bellatrix: One of the most dangerous aspects of life in the real world is sexual predation. From the time of his first appearance Greyback has an obsession with young females while Bellatrix drips sexuality every time she steps on the scene. Yet, at no point in any of the seven books are either of these characters linked directly or indirectly with sexual predation. If Rowling really wanted to rise above the childish naivete of the fantasy greats who came before her then somewhere along the line she needed to address the very real hormonal storm of sexual tension that creates almost all of the turbulence, pain, and emotional suffering of the adolescent years. The closest she comes is a bit of "snogging" from time to time and an occasional bout of jealousy. This inability to realistically deal with teenage sexuality has doomed fantasy to yet another generation of books that will treat sex as a taboo subject outside the parameters of the genre.

My greatest disappointment with book seven is nobody got laid. Many people might feel I'm being perverse or unreasonable, but until fantasy is allowed to deal with sex and the powerful influence it exerts over all of us it will remain a second-class genre suitable only for children. It takes more than an open treatment of death to move a book into the world of realistic literature.

Speaking of death, lots and lots of characters die in this book. From the invincible Alstair Moody to the loveable house-elf Dobby, each death is sudden, unexpected, shocking, and tragic. At one point, even Harry himself marches bravely forward to accept his own Christ-like sacrificial death without knowing that he will be resurrected a few pages later. And yet, nowhere is death seen as something natural and inevitable. Here, as in the first six books, death is that Christianity-inspired ultimate betrayal of life. Not once, not even in the occasional mention of "there are things worse than death", does death receive the fair treatment it deserves.

Each death on these pages is a tragedy. The only "noble" death is the one Harry marches forward to accept, and he is resurrected soon after. None of the characters who die in these pages are allowed to be heroic or noble as they throw themselves into the ultimate sacrifice. Instead, each death is a tragedy that leaves the survivors wishing it could have been avoided. By the end of the book death is still something to be feared rather than the inevitable result of being born or the ultimate sacrifice one person can offer as they fight to preserve the world they love.

Don't misunderstand me. "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows" is a great book. It is well-worth the $20-30 you will pay for a copy and if you've read the other six, it provides a perfect capstone to what will remain an endearing children's series for generations to come.

But it could have been so much more.