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Last stop at King's Cross

NOTE: I took down my post about "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows" last week in deference to readers who were concerned about spoilers in the post's comments. No spoilers in this revised post, but I have no power to Obliviate your memory if spoilers appear in the Comments. If you're still reading the book and don't want to know what happens, don't click on the Comments.

Our family has now lived through one of the great popular literary events of the past 100 years: We have completed reading the final installment of the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling.

I'm a bit relieved the hooplah's over, though with it goes a large chunk of our son's childhood.

We've read Harry Potters to our son since he was 5. Read them to distract him when his throat was on fire from a tonsillectomy. Read them on camping vacations around the firepit. Read them on Christmas vacation when boredom crept in. Read extra chapters as bribes for doing chores. Read them at Halloween to make Harry Potter-inspired costumes as realistic as possible. Read them at bedtime and and listened to many pleas to stave off lights-out for just a few more pages, just until the next chapter..

Our son has drawn countless illustrations of exciting scenes from Harry Potter. I confiscated one doodled during Mass that was inspired by "The Chamber of Secrets," in which a stick figure Tom Riddle tells Harry, "Your brid has blinded the snak but it can still here you!"

Critics (including me) will continue to grouse that Rowling is not the best literary stylist. People "stride" and "soar" too much, and the comma splices get annoying. But parents (including me), teachers and librarians will continue to marvel over how much this series has done to inspire reading among that hardest of hard-sell groups: adolescent boys. The last person to do so on such a grand scale might have been Thomas Malory.

And there's plenty of Malory--and Dickens and Tolkien and C.S. Lewis and Beowulf and the Mabinogeon and T.H. White and St. Guthlac's hagiographer--in Rowling, and, of course, enough to fuel thousands of English lit dissertations for decades to come.

But I leave that to the academics.

As a parent, I appreciate that Rowling offers an alternative to the pablum that passes for children's entertainment, the pointless video game duels or saccharine play-nice-nice stories in which the bully is always reformed with kindness and understanding. Rowling acknowledges straight up what kids already suspect--that there are still dragons to be slain, and sometimes the fiercest are the ones inside ourselves.

Rowling does not insult the intelligence of children who are learning that life is not black and white. She confirms that life is made up of gray areas and imperfect people, and that kids must rely on knowledge, faith and courage to see them through. I thought of that when I listened to a story about the 2005 documentary "Children of Beslan." A boy about my son's age tells that while terrorists held people hostage in his elementary school, he kept up his courage by thinking about Harry Potter: "I remembered that he had a cloak that made him invisible. And he would come and wrap me in it, and we'd be invisible, and we'd escape."

The child in Beslan did not hang onto Harry in order to escape into a pleasant fantasyland, but because Rowling has assured kids in book after book that they have within them the most powerful magic of all, the power of love that allows them to be brave and endure, and that that in the end, that's what makes all the difference.

Harry's not a new story at all, but one that bears repeating and savoring in every generation.

Comments

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I agree, the Potter series is an epic story of the same proportions as the others you mention, and a positive moral influence.I just wish, in this same story that is told afresh every generation, there wasn't always a war.

Jean, I agree with you about Rowlings style being a bit of a problem, especially those sudden drops in register. But I thought she managed the conclusion of the Potter saga in a very satisfying way. The final book would deal with dark matters, and the dramatic logic of her plot demanded some painful confrontations, so it must have been hard to write the last chapters, knowing how deeply invested many of her young readers would be in the outcome. But the two Kings Cross chapters work beautifully at the end. Plenty of joy and consolation, there for everyone.And actually, this time around, the treatment of death, judgment, the immortality of the soul, the prime importance of love, and the nobility of a willingness to lay ones life here down for ones friends foreground religious values. At a key moment in his quest, Harry even comes upon an inscription that has important thematic value: Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also (Matthew 6: 21). He wont come to understand its full meaning until the first Kings Cross chapter, when he is finally in a position to see life from a different perspective, but maybe we are all in that position, and how neat that Rowling lets her readers see that.

Susan, I liked the "theology" in Book 7, especially the King's Cross chapter, but did you think that the hallows muddied the plot?Harry, as the master of the hallows, conquers death, and that's a possible reason he "comes back." I think that takes away from the notion that he gains (or rejoins) the world because he is willing to lose it (or at least his own life). The hallows, of course, could be seen as emblematic of his willingness to give up his life, because he has to give up something in order to gain each hallow--his parents to obtain the cloak; his wand to obtain the Elder Wand; and being with his parents and dead friends in giving up the Stone.It just seemed to me that she had enough magic/quest items on the table to tie things up without them. And it wasn't until the last 300 pages, when Harry got back to the horcrux quest, that things started to take off again.Viz a viz style, I think if you've made billions for book companies around the world, they really don't waste the profit margin on editors. They only make a book as good as it has to be ....

I thought that another function of the hallows was to pointedly show the difference between Dumbledore and Harry, and especially to bring Dumbledore down into the mortal realm.He's not Gandalf, after all.I'm very glad he is not godlike, given his preferred mode of dying.

Kathy, I agree that the hallows was to show Dumbledore's unworthiness--too much brain, too little heart, though it seems that he develops emotionally from knowing Harry.And the hallows also underscore that, while Harry makes different choices from Voldemort, his nemesis who is power and cruelty, he also makes different choices from Dumbledore, his Merlin, who represents curiosity and cold logic.But, storywise, the hallows seemed kind of clunky.Do you think Dumbledore does parallel Gandalf in this: Gandalf and Dumbledore both have a reappearance after death, both having grown stronger through self-knowledge.Though I hate to make too many parallels between HP and LOTR.

Jean, have you seen the HP movies? That might be a good way to talk about Dumbledore.I've thought that Richard Harris was the perfect Dumbledore. He didn't do his usual overacting that has distracted me since Camelot (unbearable in Cry, the Beloved Country). Then this Michael Gambon comes along and makes the princely, courtly Dumbledore into a disheveled and rude, sometimes fuddled character. At least that's how I was thinking. At best, I thought, Gambon's Dumbledore is much too dark a character.The coincidence of Movie 5 and Book 7 have made me reconsider Gambon, who is much more refined and masterful in Movie 5 (though still disheveled). The princely, omniscient Dumbledore of Harry's first steps into the wizarding world has become more human, fallible and psychologically complex. (Although the Dumbledore who physically and mentally pushed people around in Movie 4 was still over the top, I think.)Aberforth's characterization of his brother shows the courtesy of Dumbledore in a different light. We have seen Dumbledore manipulate many situations with courtesy--in contrast to Harry's customary blurtings. This difference between them--Harry doesn't lead people around--is that part of the reason that Harry is a better man? Is it part of being a better man to be a lousy Occlumens?Richard Harris' Dumbledore was genuinely kind. Gambon is more believable as a wizard at war, who will manipulate and trick and move people around like a general.

Kathy, interesting point. I've always wondered to what extent the movies have driven the books. I still "hear" Richard Harris when I read HP. I also "heard" Patricia Routledge as Umbridge. One of the pitfalls of the books and movies coming out simultaneously (or nearly so) is the urge to cast the movie while reading the book.Anyway, I think Harris, had he lived, would have had to allow his princely, aloof Dumbledore to crack. He would have had, as in the book, to become more human as he became weaker. I also would have liked to have seen what he'd have done with Aberforth.My sense is that Gambon will make a better Aberforth than a Dumbledore (we saw a glimpse of that in movie 5 in the Hogshead scene). Great ponder point about occlumency; Snape is furtive and tragic--and the master Occlumens. Harry is willing to open his mind to knowledge and pain. And interesting connection of those two things.

Do you take Aberforth's point of view as biased against Dumbledore, because of their sister? Or do you think he has a good grasp of D's character--particularly his use of people?Poor Snape. To see Lily's eyes in James' face, for six years...

I think both Aberforth and Dumbledore have exaggerated each other's bad points. Aberforth is bitter and unforgiving. Dumbledore is arrogant and proud. Both are good men, but they are flawed and they've hurt each other.The upshot for Harry is that he must accept that Dumbledore isn't omniscient and that his own intuitions about Voldemort are more to be trusted.

That sounds right. What do you mean about Harry's intuitions about Voldemort?I agree that the Hallows were inadequately integrated into the plot. But I thought that the weakest device in 7 was Voldemort's refusal to believe that anyone could know about the Room of Requirement except himself. I mean, how could he be the only one, if all those books and cauldrons and quidditch robes were lying around?

J. R. Rowling has said recently that she doesn't --at present-- intend to write more Potter books, but she has also said that she can't say that she will never change her mindabout that . So perhaps the elder wand , the cloak, and the resurrection stone (conveniently dropped in the forest at Hogwarts) will turn up again?

Susan, I think that, if they do, they might be in the hands of Albus, who was kind of set up as the 2nd generation Harry. He had Lily's eyes, and the same anxiety ro be in Gryffindor instead of Slytherin.Btw, Rowling fills in missing details of the epilogue here: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/19959323/

Not that anyone is reading this anymore, but there's an extensive review in Time that includes this:"If Rowling makes a more subtle point, it's this. Throughout the series Harry has had to confront and forgive an apparently endless series of fathers and father-figures. It's a wise child that truly knows his father, and Harry has had to gain that wisdom again and again. Learning about and accepting James's and Sirius's flaws their arrogance, their cruelty towards Snape was a crucial part of growing up for Harry, and in Deathly Hallows he must go through the process again, with a father-figure more important than his actual father, namely Dumbledore himself. It is of critical importance that Harry understand and accept Dumbledore's fallibility, and by extension his own. It is yet another thing that separates Harry from Voldemort, who understood his father's imperfections but could not forgive them. (He solved this little problem in Half-Blood Prince, through patricide.) Though thematically speaking it's a sidelight, it's one of the key differences between Rowling and her great literary forebears. Rowling has been careful to build Harry up from boy to man, student to leader, but she has been equally attentive to the task of breaking Dumbledore down, from a divine father-figure to a mere human. Her insistence on this point is a reflection of the cosmology of the Potterverse: there are no higher powers in residence there. The attic and the basement are empty. There may be an afterlife, and ghosts, but there is certainly no God, and no devil. There are also no immortal, all-wise elves, as in Tolkien, nor are there any mystical Maiar, which is what Gandalf was (what, you thought he was human? Genealogically speaking, he's closer to a balrog than he is to a man.) There is certainly no benevolent, paternal Aslan to turn up late in the book and fight the Big Bad. The essential problem in Rowling's books is how to love in the face of death, and her characters must arrive at the solution all on their own, hand-to-hand, at street level, with bleeding knuckles and gritted teeth, and then sweep up the rubble afterwards." http://www.time.com/time/specials/2007/article/0,28804,1637886_1637891,0...