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By Orson Scott Card
Editor’s Note: This blog post reveals plot points in the first third of “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.”
Good people doing bad things — or rumored to have done them.
Bad people doing noble things — or were those people ever really bad?
I got the book at eleven this morning, and now, at nine-twenty, I’ve read through page 273. So if you’ve read farther than I have, good for you, and remember that I don’t know all that you know; if you haven’t read as far, then I warn you, I intend to speak candidly, and I might tell you more than you wish to hear.
Then again, there’s this I know as a novelist: When you near the end of a massive work, if you’ve done your preparation well enough, then things can happen very rapidly indeed. Without the need to explain things, you can simply let events unfold.
And now that I think about it, Rowling has done quite a good job, in the first third of this book, of reminding us of the key events of the previous books — the things we must remember and keep in mind for this story to make sense.
But books are not just a process of preparing us for the ending. Every chapter, every scene, should have a purpose in itself. What has Rowling put into our memories in the first 273 pages of “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows”?
If you haven’t read this far, then stop. I’m not reviewing this book to decide whether to recommend it or not. I’m discussing it critically, to talk about its effects. I’m assuming that anyone who reads what I’m writing here has already experienced the first 273 pages. If you haven’t, then behave yourself and stop reading my essay and get back to Rowling’s novel where you belong.
It’s All About Trust
Harry thinks he’s searching for the truth, but that isn’t really it at all. He keeps being frustrated because other people speak to him as if he should choose what to believe about Albus Dumbledore. Though he knows that Rita Skeeter’s stories are all half-truths and distortions, he also knows that Skeeter does seek a core of truth in her reporting. Her Quill may write down a souped-up, soap opera version, putting the most scandalous possible spin on everything — but the thing she’s spinning does have a core of truth.
So Harry feels that he must find out the truth about Dumbledore. Why was his younger sister imprisoned by his mother — or was she? Why would Dumbledore tolerate such a thing — or did he? Skeeter is accusing Dumbledore of perhaps having something to do with the death of his sister — did he? Why did Dumbledore fight with his younger brother, who broke Albus’s nose at their sister’s funeral? Why didn’t Dumbledore defend himself magically against the blow?
This is actually a deep theological question, for trust is only a hair’s-breadth away from faith, at least in this practical sense: Faith is an opinion that you trust enough that you act as if it were true. Faith in a person — or in God — is belief that is firm enough that you hold nothing back in your allegiance.
But really, are those the questions Harry is most interested in? Because what he actually resents is the way Dumbledore neglected to tell him anything. How, Harry thinks, could Dumbledore refrain from telling him that his family lived in the very same street as Harry’s parents — that Dumbledore’s dead family member are buried near Harry’s own?
Here we come to the crux of Harry’s “curiosity.” He thinks that what he wants is the truth, but what he really wants is a justification for his trust.
He trusted Dumbledore, yet now he realizes the degree to which Dumbledore did not trust him. Certainly not enough to tell Harry things that, in Harry’s opinion, at least, a friend certainly would have told a friend. He knew that Dumbledore was secretive — but how secretive was he?
Notice that Harry is not wondering at all whether Dumbledore is one of the good guys — that’s not in question, especially in light of how very bad the bad guys are. He feels that he was not trusted by Dumbledore — and he wonders why Dumbledore could not be candid with him.
“What was Dumbledore hiding?” is the question he thinks he’s asking, but what he’s really asking is, “Why couldn’t Dumbledore trust me?” and then the obvious sequitur, “How can I trust Dumbledore when he withheld so much knowledge from me?”
Harry had faith in Dumbledore, but he now wonders if he was right.
It is a religious dilemma rarely put in such terms, in my opinion: God expects us to trust him completely, but our trust in him — our faith — is based on shockingly little information. Why should we trust him when he trusts us with so little knowledge?
I believe Harry will find out the correct answer: That what Dumbledore requires of him — what Harry was born to accomplish — cannot be done if Harry knows everything that Dumbledore knows.
Or, in other words, for Harry to accomplish what he must accomplish, he must be acting on partial information only. If he knew all, he would not act as he needs to act.
In other words, partial ignorance is good for him.
And that is infuriating. It feels arbitrary, controlling. How can Harry make wise choices without complete information?
But that seems unlikely. Dumbledore knew that the attempt on his life was coming, and that it would come sooner rather than later. He had many hours with Harry during their trip to get the horcrux locket in the cavern; he could have told him far more than he did.
So we can only conclude — at least, on page 273 I can only conclude — that Dumbledore told Harry exactly what he wanted him to know, neither more nor less.
Another possibility with Dumbledore is that he simply didn’t know what was relevant, or didn’t know all the things Harry thinks he must have known. Obviously, it is at such a point that any analogy between the Dumbledore-Harry relationship and the God-man relationship breaks down completely: God knows all that which can be known, even if Dumbledore doesn’t.
(I quibble on the omniscience of God only to avoid the silly word games, like, “Can God know what is on both sides of a one-sided object?” Just because you can make up paradoxes doesn’t mean you’re saying anything intelligent.)
Yet it is God’s opinion, as it seems to have been Dumbledore’s, that we (and Harry) do have enough information.
If You Have Ears to Hear
On yet another hand, we must recognize that Dumbledore has sent key information to Harry — Harry simply doesn’t know enough, hasn’t done enough, hasn’t learned enough — to be able to understand those messages.
The writing on the snitch, for instance. I still have no idea what it means. And all the circumstances surrounding Dumbledore’s death. Harry is sure he knows that Snape simply murdered Dumbledore, and still has given no thought to believing what Dumbledore always told him: That Snape can be trusted.
If you aren’t going to listen to what God has already told you, why in the world should he tell you any more? Harry is so sure that Dumbledore was wrong about Snape that he may be blinding himself to the real plan by refusing to consider that Dumbledore was right.
Isn’t that what so many people do? Second-guessing God’s plain messages? (I think, for instance, of supposed Christians who have the gall to say that what Jesus meant when he told us to love God first, and then our neighbor, was — somehow — that we must love ourselves first.)
In fact, for a third of the volume Harry has been running around in circles, really, accomplishing nothing much according to any direct plan.
Almost all that he has actually accomplished that matters has been accidental.
Revealing Who He Really Is
Harry thinks he’s at war with Voldemort, and since that is also Voldemort’s opinion, it is certainly true.
But what if that is not Dumbledore’s entire purpose? Or, rather, perhaps Dumbledore’s preparation of Harry is not what Harry thinks it should be. Perhaps, instead of arming Harry with magic and tricks, or preparing him with tactics and strategies, or giving him great knowledge, Dumbledore’s actual purpose always was to turn Harry into the kind of person who can stand against Voldemort.
Harry has been closely tied with Voldemort all his life, and has even been tempted by Voldemort’s rage and ambition. This is precisely what puts him in Voldemort’s power.
What frees him from Voldemort is something very different. Put simply, it is love.
The tools of war are all Voldemort’s — even to use them is to become so much like Voldemort that even if you somehow defeat him, it won’t matter, because you’ve become so much like him that your victory won’t be that much of an improvement over his.
A third of the way into this book, what have we seen Harry do?
First, he refused to stun an enemy that he knows is innocent, when to stun him would result in his death. This caused great danger to himself and Hagrid by bringing Voldemort to him (though it saved some of his friends who were Voldemort’s earlier targets). But his impulse, however foolish it might be as an act of war, was not foolish at all when it revealed Harry’s character as being so radically different from Voldemort’s.
Second, he decides that he must get out of the Weasleys’ house — out of everyone’s house, so that he does not draw danger down upon them. Again, even though they insist on protecting him, he must protect them by ceasing to be a target drawing enemy attention down on them.
In that same sequence, he forces the house-elf Kreacher to tell him “the truth,” but what he gets, while true enough, is far more important. He learns that Sirius’s brother turned from service to Voldemort out of love and loyalty. Voldemort did not understand that this young man could feel so much love and loyalty to a house-elf that Voldemort’s act of attempted murder could turn the boy from a disciple to an enemy.
But when we have seen how Sirius’s brother gave his own life to defy Voldemort and prove his love to Kreacher, then in the bright shadow of that revelation, what does Harry do?
He takes his third vital action: With Hermione to remind him that house-elves are people — even as this house-elf treats her with contempt — Harry treats Kreacher differently. Not only is Harry kinder to him (which is the part he consciously does to earn Hermione’s approval), he also comes very close to giving Kreacher an item of clothing, which would set him free.
On impulse, without premeditation, he gives Kreacher a family heirloom of the Black family, which Kreacher treasures. We see the immediate change in Kreacher, as he keeps things clean and cooks better food and stops being so rude and hateful. Following Sirius’s brother’s example, Harry has won the loyalty of this house-elf by a simple act of kindness.
He became more different from Voldemort. Planning for war makes them alike; Harry’s treating people kindly while Voldemort kills casually or for sport makes them opposite.
Move ahead to Harry’s fourth “labor,” and there he is in Umbridge’s office. Moody’s eye is attached to the door, and through it (or, rather, through a hole in the door concealed behind it) Umbridge spies on and terrorizes her employees.
On impulse, Harry takes the eye off the door. Partly, he is doing it out of loyalty to Moody, this friend who died for him. But partly he is doing it because the employees in the office hate the eye that watches them. Even though it is a borderline insane thing to do, since it can only call attention to the fact that an intruder has been there, he cannot resist the impulse to liberate people and to be loyal even to the dead.
His plan may be war, but his actions are kindness, protection, generosity.
But he cannot do it. He knows what horrible things will be done to Umbridge’s victims. So he stuns her, takes the locket, and then (again with Hermione’s reminders and help) gets the muggle-born witches and wizards awaiting trial to flee.
He doesn’t even use them as a distraction to help his own escape. In the best women-and-children-first tradition, he and his friends are the last to go, which costs them much.
So … when I say that after a third of the book, Harry seems barely closer to his objectives — he has collected exactly one horcrux — I do not mean that nothing has happened.
On the contrary, I think that Dumbledore’s plan for Harry is working out very well. He has freed the captives, been merciful to the servants, has refused to kill. Five times his deep, loving impulses have trumped his angry, vengeful plans. Five times, he has rejected Voldemort’s way and proven himself — or made himself — Voldemort’s opposite.
The story of Sirius’s brother serves another purpose besides providing Harry with an example of selfless loyalty and love. It also reminds us of Voldemort’s weakness.
What supporters did he have that were more loyal to him than the Malfoys? Yet Voldemort has earned their hatred, just as he earned the hatred of Sirius’s brother.
He held the Malfoy parents hostage against Draco’s success in killing Dumbledore. Dumbledore is dead now, but Draco did not do it; still, Voldemort “mercifully” keeps them alive.
But what is he doing to them? He humiliates Lucius by taking his wand (and then getting it destroyed).
Worse, though, is the use he is putting Draco to. Since Draco apparently had too much mercy in his soul — several witnesses saw him hesitate to kill Dumbledore — Voldemort is using him to torment other people.
Voldemort may think he is teaching Draco to be more obedient and braver about his acts of evil. But what I believe he is really doing is turning Draco into his enemy. Dumbledore said it before he died: Draco does not love evil, because he did not know what it really was. Well, now he knows, and loves it less and less.
But the Malfoys are not like that. Arrogant, cruel bullies they were, convinced of their superiority as purebloods; but they fancied themselves as serving a cause. Voldemort has made it clear that it was no cause they served, it was only him. That is not what they signed on for. Like Sirius’s brother, they have been converted, by Voldemort, into Voldemort’s enemies.
This is the weakness of evil. It devours its own support. When only Umbridge and Bellatrix and their ilk are left, Voldemort can do much harm — but he will have lost his best people and will be left with only the insane ones.
They fear him, and so they do not act. Yet.
But he has created his own betrayers out of the best of those loyal to him.
Back to the House-Elves
In my previous essay, I pointed out how very not-entertaining Hermione’s protest campaign was. All that I said there remains true — but in this volume we are finally seeing Hermione’s commitment to elf liberation bear fruit.
I’m glad Rowling is doing this. It goes some way toward redeeming the unpleasant error of the way she handled house-elves in the earlier books.
It Can Happen
I also appreciate the way that Rowling is showing how easily a bureaucracy can be turned to evil, just by purging a few people of conscience, placing true believers in key positions, and scaring the careerists into going along so they can keep their jobs.
Rowling may think she’s making some subtle comment about the Patriot Act and all that, but of course she’s not. What she is doing is explaining how it is that a country like Germany, considered by many to be the acme of Western Civilization, could, under Hitler, give itself over to megalomaniacal war, slavery, and mass-production genocide.
Every group and party in a democracy has the duty to examine itself and see whether it has become the oppressor. The moment when a triumphal ruling group is most sure it is doing Right is the most likely to be the moment when it has finally turned to corner to be an oppressor, a stifler, a smotherer.
There is no one who is so correct that it is impossible for him to don the tyrant’s crown. Indeed, it is certainty of rectitude that almost guarantees it.
I took a break to write this progress report mostly because I had to stop reading. My family is asleep. I need to sleep as well. Tomorrow we’ll go back to reading.
We’re reading the book, by the way, in the most expensive manner possible. We bought the hardcover and the audiobook. When I’m not driving, I read aloud from the book. When I am driving, we listen to Jim Dale read it to us.
It’s worth every penny. Dale does a marvelous job of reading, as just about everyone knows by now. Yet there’s also something exhilarating about letting the words of a story spill from your own mouth.
Yes, Rowling wrote it — but when I read it aloud, I am also telling the story. I am, more to the point, performing the story. And the audience, though small, consists of the most important people in my world.
Reading Harry Potter aloud: I recommend it.
Next best choice: having Jim Dale read it to you.
But reading silently to yourself is also nice, and will suffice.