Likelihood of Success

Ron Coleman’s pretty good blog

Goodbye, Harry

Posted by Ron Coleman on August 7, 2007

I’m on my little vacation (as a self-employed professional, it’s very little indeed; but at least I am in a different place from where I hpdhcover.jpgusually am, and getting a little sun and fresh air) and I just had the opportunity to finish Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. I liked it a lot, was very touched at a number of junctures, and feel that I was well treated by the author.

I am not a literary critic, so I am not going write a review. But here are my “bullet point” thoughts, which I throw out into the ether on the explicit premise that millions await my verdict on the last Harry Potter book, howsoever telegraphically expressed:

The series is, above all, about love. Not hardly romantic love, though more so the love among friends. But mainly it is about the love that flows from parent to child and, perhaps, from surrogate parent to child. The vehicle for the expression of love in the series is loyalty. Now, one can be loyal without love, and perhaps one can even love without excelling at loyalty; but here the true test of love is not passion, or ecstasy, or warm fuzzy feelings, but loyalty — and the sacrifice that in turn is what loyalty demands. Voldemort, of course, epitomizes the antithesis of loyalty.

We see, indeed, that loyalty is only tested, and only rendered meaningful, by self-sacrifice, a negation of the self for others; indeed this is the absolute moral and the basis of salvation at the end. This is a very Judeo-Christian message, if not the Judeo-Christian message, and all the more a shame that poorly-ground religionists condemn the books.

In fact, it is quite clear in the interstices that Rowling is no atheist nor even, like most of her countrymen, contemptuous of religion or, certainly, the concept of the immortality of the soul.

As we drill down, I consistently read a lesson whereby readers, who are mostly young people, are exposed to the difficulty of maintaining loyalty to persons, as well as fealty to one’s putative guiding principles, in the face of the complex and shifting interplay of choices, motivations, and limitations provided by life. For this reason, I reject the suggestion that the Harry Potter story is a fairytale, and I think that teaching this lesson — along with the corollary that follows — is a signal achievement of the books. Similarly, even the Great Man, Dumbledore, is seen as a flawed, brilliant creature.

The best characters in Harry Potter are humble; the worst display the opposite trait. I don’t think Rowling flinches from calling evil what it is; but she is not simplistic, and even Voldermort is understood as a person with severe choices and great talent, who unfortunately for all uses the latter poorly when faced with the former. Thus while he is a wicked character through and through, he is not a cardboard cutout. Again, Dumbledore is the opposite. While he has made serious mistakes that have hurt others, he acknowledges them with remorse, and thereby becomes a better character. This is only something that humility can achieve.

And with humility, there is always forgiveness. Harry, Ron and Hermione — but above all, of course, Harry — have much to resent, but there story is not about the bearing of grudges or evening of scores. Quite to the contrary.

I am sure someone is preparing his Ph.D. on the political philosophy of Harry Potter. Clearly that person will write about Rowling’s consistent distrust of accumulations of power, and in particular of state power and bureaucracy. I can hardly imagine a Briton succeeding with a series of novel demonstrating that level of contempt for the state a generation ago, when statism was actually admired on those shores. She has a keen eye for the underground economies that flourish below the rocks of officialdom. But she is most devastating and Orwellian in her demonstration of how the ship of state easily tacks with the tides of truth and lie, adopting the official version of the world as befits the ultimate survival and flourishing of the bureaucracy. To some extent even the semi-heroic Arthur Weasely is a morally suspect character, going to work in the machine that has called day night and night day, collecting his check and supposedly working — impotently, really — to change things “from the inside.”  She is clearly contemptuous of indulgent reformism that regards everyone as inherently good but needing only education and kindness to stay on the straight and narrow, as epitomized by the official “see no evil” philosophy of the Ministry of Magic.

Her social philosophy is a bit mushier. In the last book, with its Nuremberg-like racial obsessions and oppression, she arguably goes over the edge with the Nazi Germany parallels, which don’t necessarily make perfect internal sense. Is every “good German” really a Nazi — in other words, are we to understand that Professor Umbridge, whom we though of as merely a “just following orders” functionary with a numbed moral sense, was really a Death Eater (i.e., a blackshirt) all along? Did she become one when the moment was right? Whereas Rowling writes with subtlety and depth about the personal choices and dilemmas of the main characters, here she leaves us short. At the same time she does some good demonstrating that even the supposedly “good” Wizarding society stands atop a “racial” or “speciesist” hierarchy that is far from just itself — a fair if somewhat heavy-handed analogy to Western societies that defeated Nazism with segregated armies and home fronts.

As to the narrative, it is not seamless, and of course there are times when exposition has to come in through the front door a bit ploddingly; but look at the world she built, and the time she built it in. It is a marvel, and, as I have tried to demonstrate above, I believe she has taught a lot to readers who might not otherwise be exposed to grown-up questions about life and love. I will miss Harry.


6 Responses to “Goodbye, Harry”

  1. Bravo, Ron. I’m impressed that you’ve said so much of substance about Harry Potter series, yet without spoilers.

    Like a lot of religious people, I started out wondering whether this series would be good for my son to read, not because of magic, but because I’m suspicious of what any modern children’s literature might be communicating between the lines. But we read through the first book together, and I was won over.

    You’re right to call attention to how Rowling handles the complexities of loyalty, trust, authority, and love. My son just turned 11, and I feel like Rowling has handed me a toolbox full of object lessons to help guide him through the next 10 years.

    I’m now reading the fourth book (Goblet of Fire) — hadn’t gotten to it before book 7 came out — and I’m struck again by Rowling’s skill as a satirist. The earnestness of Hermione’s elf welfare crusade, Umbridge’s dumbed-down “Defense against the Dark Arts” curriculum, the distortions of Rita Skeeter’s hit-and-run journalism — all the funnier for being right on target.

  2. Jack said

    Although I disagree marginally with some of the more minor details of your analysis this is by far the best thing you’ve ever written or posted to your blog that I have had the privilege to read.

    I too will miss the series and often am of the opinion that modern children’s literature is often far more “literate” (if I may borrow a BBC technique), far better written, and concerned with and about far more important subject matter(s) than is common for modern and so-called ‘adult literature.’

    Anywho, you did a fine job, expressed yourself well, and obviously read in an astute and observant manner.

    I am pleased by your insights.
    And your writing in this case.
    You should write more often in this manner, if not about these particular matters.
    Practice makes perfect.

    Of course, throwing in a few Jew jokes every now and then can’t hurt either.

    Enjoy the rest of your vacation.
    Then get yourself back to what on what really counts.

    Time’s a wastin.

  3. Ron:

    Not a bad post here. And yes, I did follow your Dean’s World link. 😉

    I agree with much of what you’ve put here, and I too enjoyed the books. But I wish J. K. Rowlings had read a few books on military history or game theory before she put this all together. For a book that is supposed to be all about friendship and self-sacrifice, Harry sure seems to worm his way out of trouble by pure luck a bit too much for my taste. I think that detracts from the central message by making it seem that no matter what mess Harry gets into, Rowlings will find a way to rescue him.

    I think also that Rowlings was consciously copying the Tolkien/Lewis model of fantasy fiction, and included the message that evil succeeds when people refuse to acknowledge it. That’s a real message for our times if you think about it. Perhaps Harry’s most difficult task in all the books was convincing the wizarding world that they really and truly had to confront Voldemort, and how unwilling the adult wizards were to do that.

    There’s some depth to these books that Rowlings should get more credit for. She will, but it will take a few years before the “kids book” reputation is shed a bit as those who read it as children become respected adults and their analysis of the book becomes more accepted.

  4. Thanks, Sean. You are right — not only is there a tad too much good luck here for this to get an A+ on internal credibility, the tactical issues are probably a mess. Not only that, but when Harry or Hermione do figure out the brilliant big picture, their solutions are nearly Einsteinian in their brilliance and complexity.

  5. The Deathy Hallows

    Goodbye, Harry I wish I had written this: We see, indeed, that loyalty is only tested, and only rendered meaningful, by self-sacrifice, a negation of the self for others; indeed this is the absolute moral and the basis of salvation at the end. This is …

  6. […] neither. Writes a good book, but in the penumbras and emanations she’s quite the moral poseur, is Lady Rowling. I wonder […]

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