Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Harry Potter and the Last Page

Spoiler warning: this post includes spoilers for all Harry Potter books.

That's it.
I'm done.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is well behind me, thus completing the chronicles of Harry Potter and friends.
Time to look back and sum it up.

I've got to admit it's getting better, getting better all the time

My first impression of Harry Potter was the 2nd book. I read the first later on, but I've started with the second. And... it didn't make much of an impression, mainly because the writing was, well, immature. The language was rudimentary and the wizarding world inventions were half trivial, half a poor imitation of the 'real' world. The plot had some merit though, enough to keep me going through the quite long book. The films made me even more interested, and I read on.
But it got better. I think the first time I felt there was something real there was the 'The Goblet of Fire'. Harry started to understand that the world was more complicated than Quidditch, Dumbledore was no longer the all powerful master of everything, the metaphors for adolescence became more clear and the final scenes made it clear that not everything will be well within Rowling's world.
That trend kept on through the rest of the series. Harry became as annoying, arguing, self-obsessed and stubborn as most of the youths are. His friends had their own devils to conquer. Character flows which were sketched in early plots were now evolving into 'round' characters. The relationships between families, friends, enemies were better portrayed. Authority was questioned, sometimes abused.

The path to Evil (with a capital E)

But the first time Rowling really impressed me was well into 'The Half Blood Prince'. I mean the Horcrux idea. A physical metaphor of the trauma a murder does to the soul. A fine description how evil is reached gradually, on a path where the red line is pushed ever further. It does not (necessarily) damage skill or power, but soul as a guiding power, moral compass and the thing which makes us compassionate towards others - that soul has to be mutilated. And the more Voldemort maims his soul, the worse are the things he finds himself able to do.
Horcrux combined in 'The Half Blood Prince' with Dumbledore's insistence that Harry understands how Voldemort came to be, and not just tell him 'there are Horcruxes, go fetch'. Rowling asserts that Evil can be understood and must be understood in order to face it.
The Horcrux plot also built Voldemort as a 'round' character, with internal logic, emotions and needs - not just Evil for Evil's sake. This notion is somewhat lessened in the last book, as Voldemort is reduced to 'a quest for killing Harry', but still.
Another interesting prespective on Evil is displayed in Snape's story - he has the qualities of Evil, but seemingly 'random' occurrences such as his love towards Lily and that Voldemort decides to kill her family, drive Snape to the 'good' side. Even then he retains his 'bad' traits, mistreat Harry and does quite a few bad things. He also keeps his notions of lesser people(Mudbloods, non-Slytherins), and not as a pretense. But his dubious character is redeemed for his courage. So, one can overcome tendencies to do wrong, even without removing one's personality.

Of other races

From the start Rowling had prompted messages about equal rights and 'do to others what you would have them do to you'. At times it was done bluntly, especially in the first 3 books. But overall, Rowling presents many characters that are different than Harry in one aspect or more, and makes sure that being different doesn't automatically means 'should be the same'. The attitude towards House Elves for example - Hermione represents the 'bleeding heart' which force equal rights even against the will of the Elves, while Ron doesn't see any need for Elves rights, thus Harry can show the middle ground. But Elves themselves are not making equal rights easier - most of them don't want it, some are hostile in their approach, even Dobby is ridiculous most of the time and makes the reader wonder if he can be an equal member to Harry's party.
So are other creatures in the Potterverse, like Goblins and Giants. In 'The Deathly Hallows' most of the other races communities are shown to be split between sides and with different reactions to what happens, same as wizards.
The reader is encouraged through the books to see both the difference and the common with others, promoting a kind of 'multi cultural' point of view (but not fully - the creatures simply don't belong to the same political unit).

The hero's journey

Ultimately, Harry Potter is about growing up. It goes from Quidditch, House rivalry, snide remarks on teachers (first and second book, mostly), to proving oneself, building a distinct identity within your peer group while building relationships (third and fourth), dealing with the conflicts between friends, family and authority (fifth, somewhat sixth) and finally assuming a role within society while expressing yourself (sixth, seventh).
It follows the general schema of the Hero's Journey by Campbell, and does so while relying on a wealth of legends, stories, books and films of western culture.

I will not put Harry Potter on the same book shelf as Tolkien's 'Lord of the Rings', Le Guin's 'Earthsea' or Alexander's 'Prydain'. These books offer better insight into human soul and society, more profound mythology and other-world, and better characters and character development.
It is also too heavy and will likely need a shelf of it's own :-)
But I do think it gained it's place among the classics of growing-up books, and I hope many more kids looking for their way into adulthood will find some hints in Harry Potter's journey.