Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. By J.K. Rowling

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

J.K. Rowling

Bloomsbury. First published 2007

This is Harry Potter's endgame. It is more adult than the other six, with plenty of swear words, and more ambiguities of character. In an attempt, perhaps, to make the novels more substantial, Rowling insists on fairly elaborate backstories for some of the main characters - Snape, Voldemort, Dumbledore, Sirius. The one for the late Headmaster of Hogwarts (he died in book 6) is related here. (The others are related in the previous books in the series.) It casts him in a much grayer shade than previously. The story dispenses with many of the set pieces found in all the other books - Harry & Co do not go back to school but set out to search and destroy the horcruxes (devices that store portions of Voldemort's soul). The grippingly told story of the search leads up to a grand finale - the Battle of Hogwarts. In an extended action piece, apparently written with the movie firmly in mind, Hogwarts suffers extensive ruin. Though dead, Dumbledore makes a kind of appearance in 'spirit', at a point when all the good guys, including the Boy-Who-Lived himself, have given up Harry for dead. And, in the rich tradition of mentors, from Krishna in the Mahabaratha, to the Oracle in The Matrix, to Yoda in Star Wars, he speaks elliptically and in parables. (Apparently wise people can never talk straight.) Much reinvigorated, Harry rejoins the fight with Voldemort. A few more people near and dear to Harry die, but all's almost well that ends almost well. 

Let me try and describe my thoughts about the entire series now.

First of all, you have to deeply admire how Rowling takes the standard British Public School story and gives it an entirely new and wonderful gloss. Starting from 'Tom Brown's School Days' through Frank Richards' Billy Bunter stories, PG Wodehouse's early school stories, the Enid Blyton school stories, and even Anthony Buckeridge (though Linbury Court is not a public school but a prep school), all of them have set pieces, characters and events, and Rowling uses most, if not all, of them. Thus we have scenes before the start of the term, the journey to the school, meeting up with friends, houses and fierce inter-house rivalry for the 'house cup', sports competitions, boring lessons, examinations, pranks in class, punishments, visits to the nearby villages, good masters and bad, good friends and bad, and so on. The HP books are progressively arranged one for each year of school from the sixth to the twelfth grade, as the principal characters move up the school hierarchy. And while this kind of arrangement has been seen in previous series as well, Rowling takes it one brilliant step further by making the writing more and more mature. The first book is aimed at eleven and twelve year olds, the subsequent books are written for approximately the same set of readers as they, too, grow up. The first few books are thus full of childish emotions - wonder, joy, mischief and petulance. The middle set of books treat teenage angst and the discovery of sex. The final couple of books address young adults. But all of them have something for readers of all ages, and now, in my sixty-first year, I enjoyed them a lot, if not as much, I think, as Gauri did in her thirteenth year.

Rowling is wonderfully inventive, and every book has something new and cool. The first book introduced the eco-system of magical people, and without the slightest degree of forcing, most naturally, introduced a host of new concepts - a school for magic, muggles, Platform 9 & 3/4, the Sorting Hat, Quidditch, Gringotts bank, Diagon alley, and many many more. Her writing style, as much as her language, makes the reader accept all these weird ideas easily and, indeed, joyfully. In later books she introduces such lovely ideas as the Marauder's Map, the flying Ford Anglia(!), the Knight Bus, the Pensieve, all those weird plants and animals, animagi, extensible ears, and many, many more. Some of the devices are a little strained - for example, the Time Turner is not too well thought through. And her inventiveness flags towards the end, becoming a little tedious. The Horcruxes are a little crude, and the Deathly Hallows appear to be invented only in order to give a double twist at the end of the story.

The books work at many levels, and adults are able to enjoy the books as much as the audience for which they are, presumably, primarily intended, i.e. early, middle and late teens. Scattered throughout the oeuvre are throwaway sentences and ideas that are surely addressed to adults. Thus we have Albus Dumbledore's brother Aberforth revealed as someone who did unsavoury magic with goats. There is also a brief passage in which Harry is told that attracting witches requires more than just good wand-work. I think I might have missed many others, which were perhaps rooted in current day British popular culture, with which I have only a very slight acquaintance. I got the feeling that these were inside jokes, and a kind of back and forth between Rowling and her editors. This particularly so in the later books, where the writing loses some of innocent joy of the first two or three.
One of the especial joys of reading these books was to try and discover the origins of the names. Some are straightforward. Harry Potter is, of course, a staple, unremarkable British name. 'Hermione' is slightly exotic. 'Malfoy' incorporates the French adjective 'mal', for bad. 'Voldemort' may be translated from French as 'circle of death'. But some show especial thought. Dolores Umbridge is a character as evil and disgusting as Uriah Heep in Charles Dickens' 'David Copperfield'. Her name, with allusions to 'dolour' and to 'umbrage' is among the best chosen. And there are many more. Even the names of devices are thoughtful - the pensieve, for example. There is dark humour in the name of the vaguely totalitatrian Teutonic magical school Drumstrang, an inversion of 'Strum' and 'Drang', metaphors in German for hard struggle. Rowling accesses the hermetic traditions of many cultures, especially Greek and European mythology. Philosopher's stone, Hippogriffs, centaurs, the basilisk, Cereberus, all make an appearance in the books. We also have dragons and flying carpets. One of the climactic scenes of the series, in Book 4, takes places in a cemetery, and is reminiscent of the events in the Prague cemetery, where, according to antisemitic conspiracy theorists, the 'Protocols of the Elders of Zion', a Jewish pact to rule the world, were composed and agreed to.
Now for some of the negatives. First the plot. It is brilliant, but somewhat overdone in places. Rowling's inventiveness overwhelms her sense of proportion, and Books Four to Six, especially, have too many things happening. I had an uneasy feeling while reading those that she had been forced by commercial greed to go beyond and outside her original plot line in several instances. The Quidditich World Cup and the Triwizard Tournament, and young love, in addition to all the standard elements, made Book Four (HP and the Goblet of Fire) a tedious read.

Second, even after making all necessary concessions for the books being 'only entertainment', there are many logical inconsistencies. A prime example is the Time Turner. It raises too many questions about the underlying logic, and as a plot device it does not work satisfactorily. Normally, such books of fantasy can go in two ways. One, a new world is created, and all parts of this world are connected and consistent with each other. All the adventures that happen in this world lead up to the finale, in which, usually, good overcomes the bad. The second style of such literature, is exemplified by 'The Never-ending Story' where one thing after another happens to the protagonist. There may or may not be a overwhelming plot line, a quest or a challenge, but along the way she (or he or they) has many adventures. Each new adventure is approximately independent and only loosely connected to the next, and even more loosely connected to the overall plot, if there is one. The Harry Potter books fall into the first category, but the various subplots do not hold together well. In particular, it is an arbitrary authorial decision as to what is allowed in the magical world, and what is not. So, there are some injuries that can be cured, and some not; Some forms of flying possible, and some not; Some trivial uses of magic allowed (washing dishes), but some not (cooking food); Some ways of fetching some objects are permitted, others not; and so on. This, of course is rather convenient for the author, since any knots in the plot are easily resolved by inventing a new magic, (or inventing a reason why it won't work). But, of course, the writing is so good, and the story moves so fast, that these glitches are easily overlooked. It's like watching a modern Hollywood action movie, where you simply appreciate the special effects, and ignore the logic.

And that brings me to what I consider the main downside of the series. From about the fourth book onwards the stories appear to be written by a team of researchers, script-writers, special effects guys - in other words, the creative team in a Hollywood studio. Even if this is not actually true, Rowling formed, it seems, a one-woman creative team. She stopped writing books for children and started writing screenplays. Thus the books are manipulative and shallow. Too many events, incidents, and even jokes, look like they have designed to be translated on to the screen in a suitably awe-inspiring manner. 

The final book redeems all this. And even though it ends midst mayhem and death and destruction, the resolution of the Voldemort-Potter dualism is reasonably satisfactory, especially, probably, to the teens who grew up along with Harry. And I thought it was nice of her to put in the epilogue, which ends the story so finally, making it clear that Harry's further adventures are of no interest either to the author or to the readers, as he slides into boring British middle class mediocrity.

But that strong-mindedness has lasted only a decade. Like Arthur Conan Doyle before her, J.K. Rowling has been unable to resist the pressure (from her fans, of course, but also from the studio bosses, I believe) and has now written a Harry Potter play. This will surely spawn a movie or two or three. Well I enjoyed the recent BBC remake of the Sherlock Holmes stories, so I suppose HP fans will wildly welcome any new stuff about his magical world.

1 comment:

  1. It just struck me that J.K. Rowling may have chosen the name Hogwarts as a self-referential and self-deprecatory homonym of 'hogwash'.