Via Media

Via Media

One more Potter post

Ross Douthat’s take:

(After the cut, for those who are unspoiled. Sorry.)

From here, the difficulties multiply. While old favorites like Hagrid and Snape languish offstage, Rowling layers on the magical objects: The three “hallows” of the title join the seven “horcruxes” in a baffling panoply of talismans (Tolkien, it turns out, was wise to stick to a single ring) that’s further complicated by the extra horcrux that turns out to be lodged in Harry’s scalp, the piece of Voldemort that’s lodged in his wand, the Potter blood that runs magically through the Dark Lord’s veins, and the “who’s on first?” debate over which master Voldemort’s wand will recognize during the final showdown. As the magic become increasingly incomprehensible, Rowling repeatedly finds herself slamming on the narrative brakes at crucial moments to explain exactly why Voldemort can’t die unless Harry does, or maybe why Harry can’t die as long as Voldemort’s alive, or … oh, never mind. (It’s as if Sam, Frodo and Gollum had taken a timeout during the showdown on Mount Doom to get a lecture from Gandalf on the finer points of ring lore.)


Worse than the confusing metaphysics, though, is the predictable plotting. There was a feverish predictions game among the Potterphiles of the blogosphere before the final volume hit the shelves, and it’s a bad sign for Rowling that an awful lot of their guesses and theories seem, in hindsight, more interesting than the finished product. Yes, some predictabilities were built in to the saga: We knew going that good would triumph over evil, that Voldemort would perish and that most of our much-loved cast would live happily ever after. But within that framework, The Deathly Hallows includes a host of roads not taken, complications not considered, tragedies, temptations, and redemptions left unexplored. Rowling repeatedly gestures at complexity: In the horcrux that gives voice to Ron’s hidden resentment of Harry; in the hints that Draco Malfoy might actually turn heroic in the end; in the gestures at temptation for Harry himself. But she raises these possibilities only to let them drop again: Ron’s Harry-envy is never mentioned after the horcrux is destroyed; the Malfoys never display any trait more morally impressive than loyalty to their kith and kin; and Harry himself never seriously considers doing evil so that good may triumph, and we are treated instead to endless encomiums to his moral purity. (Though as Eve Tushnet points out, for such a Christ-like guy he’s awfully free with the Unforgivable Curses). None of the primary good guys turn out to be bad, or even baddish; and the only murky character who finds redemption is Snape, in a twist that most readers saw coming a long distance off.


The sense of tragedy, too, is carefully contained: A slew of second-tier characters perish, but none of their deaths are half so wrenching as Dumbledore’s in The Half-Blood Prince. (I’m pretty sure that Rowling planned to kill of Hagrid and chickened out.) Harry’s death-that-isn’t, meanwhile, feels like something of a cop-out, an attempt to jerk some tears without dealing in anything so dark as the semi-tragedy of Frodo’s fate in Lord of the Rings, or anything to explicitly theological as Aslan’s magical resurrection in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

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Eric the Read

posted July 25, 2007 at 1:58 pm

Thanks for the spoiler alert, for those of us who haven’t read it yet!

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posted July 25, 2007 at 2:02 pm

I would put a spoiler warning at the beginning of this post. If I hadn’t read the book before I read this post, I would quite unhappy.

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Jimmy Huck

posted July 25, 2007 at 5:44 pm

Right you are, Ross. But, then, Ross, if it met your expectations, the book wouldn’t be all that digestible to 10-yr-olds now, would it? …
Ross slips into the common mistake of people as well-read, highly-educated, and mature as he is: he seems to prefer that the book be as complex in narrative as is Tolkien and as steeped in theology as C.S. Lewis. Fine. But let’s not forget, too, that a kid just wants a fun story. Has Ross no appreciation for the good fun of the horribly-written, formulaic Hardy Boys books?
I’ve always thought JK Rowling walked extraordinarily well the line that crafts a book complex enough to hold the interest of the 50-yr-old philosopher and theologian and yet simple and digestible enough to keep a 10-yr-old engaged and thrilled. And I think she’s done it again with this one, too.

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posted July 25, 2007 at 6:39 pm

Weeeellll — Tolkien actually had the One Ring connected organically and magically to the Three Elven Rings (Galadriel, Elrond, and Cirdan had ’em at the end), Seven Dwarven Rings (provenance unclear, but eerily evoked in the prolgue of Peter Jackson’s first movie of LOTR), and of course Nine Human Rings that were on the . . . wait for it . . . Ringwraiths. The question of what happens to the magical protections and empowerments of the Elvish set greatly influenced the debate over how to properly dispose of the One Ring in the Crack o’ Doom.
And for anyone who dislikes the Epilogue, they must have just loathed Tolkien’s Epilogue, Coda to the Epilogue, and hundreds of pages (as first printed, let alone Christopher’s Tolkien volumes) of post-Epilogue epiloguing by appendix.

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paul zummo

posted July 25, 2007 at 7:03 pm

Ross is a great writer and I like the fact that he is so critical of much of the pop culture bunk that is out there. But I’m starting to wonder if there is any book or movie on planet Earth that he actually enjoys.

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