Harry Potter is a survivor, maybe, but no hero

Jul 14 2011

Like most of the country, sometime in the next week I’ll shuffle up to a ticket booth, shovel out 40-ish dollars and see the second half of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. I want to see if the movie adaptation can save that train wreck of a narrative in the last book.

I’m not really sure at what point during the evolution of the series that this essay started to come together. Maybe the bumbling luck in the Goblet of Fire. Maybe the null result of Dumbledore’s Army. Perhaps it was the trip with Dumbledore to the seacave and the ensuing helplessness in the event of his death. As I read more about Harry Potter, the less I thought of him as a hero. He is rarely cognizant of his circumstances, and even when he’s presented with ample clues, he (she?) relies on the heavy-handed power of deus ex machina to force a conclusion. It gets to the point where you wonder who is more inept: Harry Potter or J.K Rowling.

Harry Potter is like a modern-day Candide, a hapless victim, a thrall of inherited circumstance, an unwilling, unwilled window to Rowling’s world. The biggest difference, of course, was Candide was Voltaire’s rhetorical pawn and I’m not really sure what – if any – point Rowling is trying to make. I think she’s trying to tell us a story for its own sake. I think she started writing it for the kids. It’s since developed into an unintended mirror of culture and identity.

Antonia Susan Duffy wrote a piece in the NY Times in 2003 discussing the strange world of HP:

The important thing about this particular secondary world is that it is symbiotic with the real modern world. Magic, in myth and fairy tales, is about contacts with the inhuman -- trees and creatures, unseen forces. Most fairy story writers hate and fear machines. Ms. Rowling's wizards shun them and use magic instead, but their world is a caricature of the real world and has trains, hospitals, newspapers and competitive sport. Much of the real evil in the later books is caused by newspaper gossip columnists who make Harry into a dubious celebrity, which is the modern word for the chosen hero. Most of the rest of the evil (apart from Voldemort) is caused by bureaucratic interference in educational affairs.

Ms. Rowling's magic world has no place for the numinous. It is written for people whose imaginative lives are confined to TV cartoons, and the exaggerated (more exciting, not threatening) mirror-worlds of soaps, reality TV and celebrity gossip. Its values, and everything in it, are, as Gatsby said of his own world when the light had gone out of his dream, ''only personal.'' Nobody is trying to save or destroy anything beyond Harry Potter and his friends and family.

Now, I don’t completely agree with her assessment of Rowling’s fans – that’s habitual among the scornful – but the idea of Rowling’s secondary world as trivial and shallow resonates with my impressions of the series.
Like most modern fantasy, the wizarding world of HP is a place of trite, amalgamated whimsy. No doubt, for centuries stories and myths morphed over time, massaged by their tellers, shaped by conquering cultures and wanderers. But until recently, the extent of the myth salad we now endure was not nearly as confused. By the time stories of vampires, dragons, knights, wizards and goblins were being incorporated into video games, the motifs were becoming woefully overused. Rowlings world is a mashup of a mashup of a mashup with no binding principle, no underlying metaphysical unity. Voldemort strikes fear into the hearts of the most powerful wizards, but he can only kill one person at a time. He and his black broom band scare a few people in London. The most horrible spells are nothing more than a knife in the dark, a beating in a small alley. But if the world is truly “only personal”, Armageddon comes with a flick of the wrist.

Should we expect anything else in this age? I don’t think so. It fits the times. Harry is the perfect man-child: ineffectual, entitled, spineless, lost, confused and utterly reliant on a decisive father figure and the life-filling drama from his friends. Even in the end he cannot rise above his circumstance – Rowling won’t let him. He must be nannied beyond the grave to rise up – truly undead now – and actualize the “we had it all along” narrative deception. In the wake of his resurrection, the victory of the good guys is like all the stories we spoon-feed to our kids in America: loud, inconsistent, sugary and indulgent. As I read it, I could only think of Heather’s eight-year-old nephew going on in detail to me about how he’d like to buy a pool so he could fill it with sharks and blow up the sharks with a rocket launcher.

The story really isn’t about Harry at all. The protagonist is Dumbledore as far as I can gather; he’s the only one that really knows what’s going on at any time. So why make the mistake of an amateur novelist? Passive characters can be excellent narrators of a story and still play a big part or turn out to be the most important piece. It’s hardly fulfilling to follow someone so empty.

Heroes sacrifice themselves for the sake of something bigger. In a place where the end of you is the end of the world, is it possible to be a hero? Perhaps it’s better to call Harry Potter a survivor rather than a hero, and the frame of that story is a very different shape than the one Rowling forced this story into.

5 responses so far

  • Kate says:

    Wow. OK... I disagree. Yes, the Harry Potter books are shallow, and become confused and don't have a coherent guiding plot line. I'd say that Rowling started the story not knowing where she was going, and would guess, after reading a lot of background and fan fic., that she was too influenced by the whims of the fans. I'd also say that one thing was consistent, which made the book even more shallow and predictable and that's the strict usage of literary archetypes.

    Dumbledore was a father figure, Dumbledore had to die so that Harry could step into adulthood. Voldemort was the "evil self/twin" . Harry followed the mono-myth to the T: the son of the most favored overturns the great evil by his death and return to life. And the redemption of Draco and the sacrifice of Snape were likewise totally predictable. In fact, as soon as I read in Half Blood Prince that Snape killed Dumbledore (whose death I likewise predicted a book earlier) I told my kids that Snape was going to die in the next book, and that Draco would in some way aide Harry, perhaps even join with Harry and his cohorts.

    Harry is the perfect "Throw Away Boy"... the male Cinderella... who's early suffering only serves to teach him humility (which he later loses, typical of a teen) while he learns that he has the only power to save his people. It's Jesus and Heno's Wife and Arthur all rolled into one. And the story doesn't depart from that format... ever.

    I agree on one point: That Rowling started this as a story for kids, and it morphed into something that was very likely beyond her ability.

  • Pascale says:

    First, I love the books, at least through number 5. The sixth and seventh felt forced, but I read them anyway the day they came out. I had to know what was happening to the characters who so captured my imagination through the first three books. That, and I would really, really like to be a witch.

    It's important to recognize that Rowling never saw herself in Harry Potter. She admits in interviews that Hermione was her alter ego, the incredibly smart outsider making it in another world.

  • jeremy says:

    That's interesting, Pascale. And I'm with you: The first three books were charming and well-written. Rowling just doesn't know how to respect her characters once they're grown.

    Kate, the difference that I see between Harry and more traditional heroes is the failure in the climactic moment to allow Harry to act on his own.

    I added the link to the NY Times article. Not sure how I missed that.

  • Jonathan says:

    Most people are very stupid and have no taste or discernment. That a book become popular (or a movie or song) on release is a fair indicator that it not worth much. There is nothing of any quality whatsoever in HP that merits this kind of discussion. The only aspect of HP which is interesting at all is its popularity and that debate is not really about JKR or HP, but about the readership and the machine behind popularity.

    The only book of the series with any substantial merit is probably the Prisoner of Askabahn - excuse my spelling. Almost no one in the history of literature has managed to pull of as seven book series, and when they have (C.P.Snow, for example) the books have been very much 'stand alones'.

    The first book is usually quite flat, the second book is forced and the third is generally 'hitting the stride'

  • Namnezia says:

    You know, anything that gets kids reading and excited about books is fine by me. My daughter is seven and a big Harry Potter fan. I don't particularly like the books I've read (basically aloud to my daughter), but like the fact that since starting to read HP (she's making her way through book 5) she's also started to hungrily read a bunch of other, more interesting stuff. And that is a good thing.