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By Patrick Rothfuss
The day “Deathly Hallows” came out, I was a family vacation in the distant northern corner of Wisconsin. I found myself in a cabin with no internet. There was a small town with no library. No public computer terminals. No coffeeshop and no WIFI hotspot. No cell phone reception.
I considered sending my response to Orson’s blog by homing pigeon or owl, but neither of those were available either.
But despite all the things this small town lacked, it had a bookstore. And that bookstore had a copy of the book.
So I pulled out book seven and read it by candlelight. Amazingly, the book worked just fine without DSL, WIFI, AC or DC.
This is why I love books.
Here is my belated post. It doesn’t contain any spoilers about book seven, save this: Be not afraid.
Ars Ioco: The Art of the Joke
Orson’s right. The Harry Potter series started dark.
However, I’ll stick to my statement that the grim elements weren’t really the focus of the book. Not only was most of the early violence cartoony at best, but the story itself was a nice mix of drama, action, mystery, and humor.
As the series has progressed, the humor has fallen by the wayside. And I have to say I miss it. Not because I have a problem with a grim story, but because reading raw tragedy is like eating a block of baker’s chocolate: profoundly unpalatable.
The first Harry Potter book reminded me, at its best moments, of Roald Dahl’s stories, like The BFG and Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Dahl was a master of writing stories that were grim and funny at the same time. His humor was witty, ridiculous, and brilliantly absurdist at times.
There were flashes of that in Rowling’s first book. Harry’s room under the stairs, the behavior of the Dursleys, and, my personal favorite, when he was given a toothpick as a Christmas present. All of it ridiculous and horrible and absurd. That is the root of humor. I smiled and chuckled. It was lovely.
I think the reason the later books lack humor is because Rowling changed her style. She moved more toward realism. When that happened, the ridiculous, absurd humor she had a knack for didn’t fit into the story anymore.
And, unfortunately, Rowling seems to mishandle the knife here.
Rowling can be witty. In book five, Lupin’s advice on how to spot a werewolf was really clever. But it’s the last truly funny bit I can remember. That means I’ve read almost a thousand pages without a memorable chuckle. That’s too long.
Race and Racism
I’ve been having trouble with the problem of the house elves ever since they’ve been introduced.
After a lot of thought, I’m going to give Rowling the benefit of the doubt. I don’t think her sole intention was to poke fun at silly progressive activists. A bit, perhaps, but not exclusively.
I do think she was attempting to turn her hand to satirical humor instead of the farcical humor she had a knack for in the early books.
For those of you are a little fuzzy on the difference, let me clarify. Farce is a fart. It’s relatively easy to get a laugh while using it, but it doesn’t have a lot of replay value. Satire, on the other hand, is a funny, funny knife that you can stab someone with over and over again. Unfortunately, it’s about a hundred times more difficult to pull off, and if you mishandle it, you risk losing a few of your own fingers. Metaphorically speaking, of course.
We seem to have two options when viewing Hermione’s attempt to free the house elves:
1. We are supposed to assume that the house elves are happy as slaves.
This option leads to the quagmire that Orson already mentioned, with one notable addition. If happy servitude is a part of the elves’ culture, that means Dobby isn’t a progressive forward-thinking elf. He’s a sell-out. A traitor.
And while that set of conclusions is sticky and unpleasant, I can’t help but feel that the second option is just as bad, if not worse….
2. We are supposed to assume that Hermione is right.
This means, effectively, that Hermione knows what’s best for these poor, stupid cretins. Their culture and beliefs are barbaric. Hers are correct and civilized.
Moral: If a group of people is doing something you think is wrong, you should change their society so they agree with you.
This is an especially insidious and poisonous type of thinking, especially for younger kids who are going to naturally identify with Hermione. Not only is she one of the protagonists, but she’s presented as the smartest student at Hogwarts.
If it’s acceptable for Hermione to force them to change one aspect of their lifestyle, why not others? Their normal mode of dress obviously offends her prudish sensibilities. Why shouldn’t she force them into little suits? Come to think of it, she is making them hats. What if their broken English bothers her? Simple, teach them to speak your language properly. What if they worship some pagan elf-god? Better make sure you straighten that out too, Hermione. Make them worship the one true god, because obviously you know what’s better for them than they do.
What it comes down to is this. Cultural relativism is a profoundly sticky wicket. Part of me wants to believe that that is the message Rowling was trying to convey. However, I don’t think Hermionie’s emancipation crusade is given enough serious airtime for the complicated nature of the issue to come to light.
Maybe in the final book. I’ll add that to my list of hopeful wishes.
The Fourfold Path or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Tom
Oh no. I can’t believe you threw down the Tom Bombadil gauntlet.
I don’t want to tangent too far away from our topic of Harry Potter here, but some things simply cannot stand.
There are times when I feel like I’m fighting a one-man war, defending poor, misunderstood Tom Bombadil from the rest of the world. It’s not simply because I’m fond of him, (though I am) and it’s not because I feel he fits perfectly into the story. (He doesn’t.)
The fact remains that Tom Bombadil serves an important purpose in the Lord of the Rings. He provides a vital counterpoint to the major themes of power and desire.
In the Lord of the Rings, the Ring represents power. (This isn’t a big stretch. It’s referred to as “the great ring of power,” after all.)
Pretty much every major player wants the ring, and they fall into two camps: the corrupt and the wise.
There are plenty of examples of the corrupt, and the result is always the same. If you give in to your desire for the ring, you’re screwed. It doesn’t matter if your motives are selfish or noble. People who pursue the ring and its power are bad, and they come to grim endings. Boromir is corrupt, attempts to steal the ring, and dies.
His brother Faramir on the other hand, is wise. He lets the ring go, and plays a part in saving civilization. If you’re “among the wise” you resist your desire. Gandalf refuses the ring, saying, “I dare not take it, not even to keep it safe, unused. The wish to wield it would be too great for my strength.” Ditto for Galadriel. When they have the chance to take the ring, they don’t. They know better.
There is only one major player that doesn’t fall into this framework of either corrupt desire or wise resistance: Tom Bombadil.
Tom doesn’t care about the ring. Tom is not interested in power. Tom has loosed himself from the chains of desire.
Tom, to put it plainly, is a Buddhist.
The underlying belief of Buddhism (and you’ll have to forgive me for some vast reductionism here) is that desire leads to suffering. (Samudaya leads to dhukka.)
For example: you desire the seventh Harry Potter book. But when you go to the store, it’s sold out. The result? Suffering. You want to win the lottery and you don’t – suffering. You want to publish your novel and it gets rejected – suffering.
So what does it mean when everyone in Middle Earth desires the One Ring? Suffering.
The goal of Buddhism is to reduce desire, and therefore reduce suffering. The fewer desires, the less opportunities for disappointment. It’s not the standard, Western way of approaching problems, but the math is solid. Everyone else in Middle Earth is caught in the trap of desire. They desire the ring, so the ring gains control over them.
But not Tom. Tom shows a way out of the cycle. And Tom is, arguably, the happiest person in Middle Earth.
And Gandalf knows it. Gandalf has been the know-it-all through the whole series of books. He’s the information man. But at the end of the trilogy who does he go talk to? Not Galadriel. Not Elrond. He goes to Tom because Tom knows the art of letting go, and that’s something Gandalf desperately needs to learn.