02 September 2015

Random Notes on Harry Potter


I finished re-reading Harry Potter all the way through for the first time in a few years. Some thoughts:

1. The series is completely devoid of democracy. None of the offices held by any of the characters (students or adults) involve popular election. Even the Minister of Magic seems to be elected by some body within the Ministry.

2. There's a strong talent-based hierarchy. Magical skill is emphasized, moreso than wealth. Money comes into play directly only with respect to Harry's inheritance, the Dursleys, the Weasleys, and the Malfoys, and indirectly only with things like Justin Finch-Fletchley mentioning that he was "down for Eton" in Book 2, or Hermione's parents both being Dentists and taking her on a skiing trip in Book 5.

3. Religion almost never comes into play, directly or indirectly until the last book. Now and then something will be described using religious imagery. E.g. Malfoy is described as looking like a vicar in Book 4, the Hall of Prophecy is described as being the size of a large church in Book 5. However, these instances are rare. It is startling when suddenly Harry expresses surprise in Book 7 by saying "Oh my God!", since this expression (along with "Thank God" and "God bless") is, I think, the only reference to God in the entire series. Even more startling is the use of Scripture on the Dumbledore and Potter tombstones, in the presence of a Church, filled with people celebrating Christmas at midnight.

4. The conception of the soul employed in the series is not nihilistic (souls do not cease to exist at death). The soul seems to primarily function as the basis of a living person's consciousness. That the soul can be "divided" or "torn" is odd and unexplained.

5. The series is mainly about human interactions and activities, rather than magic or the relationship between magic and the world at large. If we compare it with LeGuin's Earthsea books, the difference is very pronounced. LeGuin grounds the magical activities of the characters in a fairly robust world picture. We get several good explanations of the metaphysical basis of magic in Earthsea, and this understanding of the way magic works is inseparable from our understanding of Ged, the protagonist. It also makes the series seem a little more consistent.

For Rowling, magic begins as a sort of cliche that she's joking around with (turning things into animals, making things fly around, etc.), which is then grounded in a gradually unveiled magical parody of the ordinary world (Gringotts, the Ministry of Magic, the Daily Prophet, etc.). As the series goes on, the theory of magic is never a point of interest, except when used to explain why some difficulty or other is not easily surmounted (e.g. "Food is one of the five principle exceptions to Gromp's law of elemental transfiguration.") In fact, if we strip away the fact that Harry Potter is a wizard and does magic and all of that, and perform a formalist analysis of the series and its world, we realize that the series is mostly just about a schoolboy who is being trained in a specific craft, while repeatedly avoiding being killed by one of the famous masters of that craft, who is using his skills to dominate and murder people. Analogous stories could be written without the use of magic at all. Magic makes the story fun and amusing, and provides a number of nifty devices for the plot (e.g. the use of memory, prophecy, and the causal efficacy of sacrifice), but a story that had most of the same basic features could be constructed about, say, a blacksmith or an engineer living in a culturally stable non-liberal society.  A realist re-telling of Harry Potter would be interesting, and I think the fact that this is conceivable indicates one of the strengths of the series: it is not primarily a fantasy, so much as it is a fantastic framing of a basically human drama.  The fantastic elements add flair and excitement, but, to borrow Dumbledore's words, really it's more about the importance of friendship, loyalty, servants and folktales.

6. In the last three books, one primary moral theme is that Harry's ability to trust people despite their fallibility, and to love, despite repeated experiences of loss and neglect. Rowling seems very keen on this. The 7th Book in particular is a steady patter of death and grieving. Harry never becomes calloused. I don't think the average teenager, reading Dumbledore's discourse on love in Book 6 would be able to grasp the truth of what he's saying (I didn't), but he's right: a child who had experienced so much abuse and loss by such a young age would probably in most cases retreat inward and become extremely reluctant to trust or love anyone.

7. Snape's character is interesting, because he throws a final, huge wrench into a lot of the themes and expectations of the early years. For the first 3-4 books, Harry is a virtual golden boy. His parents were glorious and wonderful people, Dumbledore is the infallible guardian, his friends are nice and delightful with their little quirks and petty squabbles, Snape and the Slytherins are mean and bad, and everything always works out. After Book 4, things gradually fall apart. Sirius is revealed to be a weirdly immature adult; Harry's understanding of human relationships is proven to be naive; James Potter is more reminiscent of Draco Malfoy than of Harry; Lily Potter's best friend is Snape; Lupin is indecisive and fearful; Ron is untalented, self-centered and stupid; and the ultimate shock is Snape's desolate and mournful interior life. No one has everything figured out, no one is entirely what they seem, even Dumbledore no longer seems fully trustworthy. Harry's response to all of these realizations is, I think, best captured in a little exchange in the midst of Book 7, after Ron's return via the deluminator:
Ron’s ears turned bright red and he became engrossed in a tuft of grass at his feet, which he prodded with his toe, “he must’ve known I’d run out on you.” 
“No,” Harry corrected him. “He must’ve known you’d always want to come back.”
At first, Harry's response seems cheap and cheesy.  Maybe it is. But despite that, what it shows us is a Harry who focuses on what is, instead of what is deficient.  Simple, but also important.

8.  What is evil in the series?  The ultimate crime seems to be murder, but then at the same time we're regularly reminded that there are worse things than death.  What characterizes Voldemort is his reduction of everything to power relations and his consequent refusal to trust other people.