Monday, July 23, 2007

Rowling's Decision

I've been a Harry Potter fan for the last few years; I even got IPLv70 to read the series earlier this month. We both were there early July 21st to get our copy of "Deathly Hallows"; we were that excited to read the final book in the series. Those of you who know me personally, know that I have a fondness for classical literature and dislike most modern works of fiction. So why did I like Harry Potter? And note that I'm using *DID* instead of *DO*. I liked the earlier Harry Potter books because they focused more on character development than most works of modern fiction do. Also, anything that helps encourage kids to read, is OK in my book. That being said, Harry Potter is a fairytale for children. It is NOT adult literature and it is NOT a classic. Rowling solidified this synopsis with the writing of "Deathly Hallows", as I will explain below.

First, I will say it's not an easy decision Rowling made. She could have written book seven in a way that would have made her book a classic piece of young-adult or perhaps even adult literature. Or she could have written the book to be a fairytale, i.e. literally mediocre but appealing to the masses who want a feel-good wrap up to the story. She chose the latter and executed the decision poorly.

Before I go into the specifics of WHY "Deathly Hallows" was one of the biggest literary disappointments I've ever read, I will recall an interesting point made in the movie "Stranger than Fiction". Yes, the Wil Farell movie. The thing I loved about this movie was that, near the end, the literary professor (played by Dustin Hoffman) makes a very important literary observation. For those of you unfamiliar, the movie surrounds a novel being written by an author. I won't give away the plot, but the lit. professor says the novel is a masterpiece where it's been written the main character dies; and is merely "OK" when it was rewritten with the character surviving. This obviously isn't a black-and-white rule; but it's a damn good guide for many serious literary works. I.e. there has to be CONSEQUENCES for the actions in the story. A story without consequences is children's literature and nothing more than poorly-executed fantasy. Consequences in literature have to be real and without exception; it is a key point that makes fiction believable and timeless. Few things are timeless in life, but consequences (and in particular, death) are timeless. This is my fast and loose explanation why death is such an important part in many serious works of literary/film art. Death is something that every single living thing holds in common; it is common ground by which we can relate to the fictional world; the emotions it inspires are real to us and provides one of the strongest links we can have to characters in a fictional universe.


I have quite a few problems with "Deathly Hallows"; but first, let me point out the one good thing about this book. Serverus Snape's character was very well done in my opinion. This character's actions and his personality all came into razor-sharp perspective by the end of book seven. Serverus was indeed written to be a character who was very consistent throughout the entire series and became truly believable and admirable by the end of book seven. You can tell that Rowling knew exactly what she was going to do with Snape throughout the entire Harry Potter series. I was very pleased with how she tied up Serverus' arc in the story.

Now, for my critiques of book seven. I'll start with the most transparent: Rowling's liberal use of a device referred to as Deus ex Machina which literally means “God out of the Machine”. Plagiarizing from wikipedia: The phrase deus ex machina describes an unexpected, artificial, or improbable character, device, or event introduced suddenly in a work of fiction or drama to resolve a situation or untangle a plot. DeM is one of the primary reasons why I dislike most modern fiction. The fact is DeM is the result of authors being too lazy or unskilled to properly think out aspects of their characters, setting or plot. The resulting inconsistencies in the story are then remedied by totally arbitrary devices that the authors has not properly foreshadowed. DeM is pretty much rampant in modern literature to the point that many “critics” won't even acknowledge them being applied to main plot arcs of a novel. Rowling employs DeM shamelessly across the entire “Deathly Hallows” novel. Some specific examples of Rowling's use of DeM are the Deathly Hallows themselves, the rules governing wand ownership, Harry's wand acting on its own, Harry not actually dying when Voldemort casts Avada Kedavra on him and intricacies of goblin and house-elf magic. None of these ideas were ever foreshadowed in previous books and were employed in a precise (and arbitrary way) so as to make the plot of “Deathly Hallows” work. The reason why Rowling had to employee DeM at key points in the book is the result of the inconsistencies arising from her construction of magic in the Harry Potter universe. It is an underlying problem with many RPGs and MMOs. Essentially, the problem comes from the complexities arising from the creation of many varied and powerful entities. That is, Rowling has created the many powerful spells in the HP universe and not enough rules to make her portrayal of magic feasible. IPLv70 had the funny example 'accio balls'; this is one of many examples of how magic in HP can be manipulated in a dueling scenario. The presence of the Imperius curse was also never sufficiently controlled. The reality is: if this spell existed as Rowling portrayed, the head of the ministry would constantly have this cast upon them. The seeming inability for anyone to detect someone under the Imperius curse renders it simply too powerful to exist in the HP universe as it is portrayed. Avada Kedavra is like shooting someone; Crucio is the equivalent of torture; but there is no real world equivalent of the Imperius curse. If there was an analogy of the Imperius curse in the real world, the world would be VERY different. It isn't hard to think of consequences of having such powerful magic around and how it ultimately undermines the stability of the society Rowling portrays. So to deal with the resulting complications of her creation of magic, Rowling employs DeM in the form of completely arbitrary new rules and phenomena that do little more than save Harry's ass. None of her DeMs seem to stabilize her use of overpowering spells. This is in contrast to Tolkien who made magic much more subtle in the LoTR universe. Gandalf had immense magical power, but he still needed to ride a horse to get around. Gandalf's ring gave him the ability to rally people's bravery and unite them to battle; this is incredibly powerful but subtle. Magic in the LoTR universe was consistent and well thought out because it's effects were powerful YET subtle. Yes, there were fireballs and whatnot in LoTR; but there was a very good reason why such spells aren't used. Tolkien designed magic to have a CONSEQUENCE. Every spell a person casts takes a part of their soul, will and mind. This is explained outside of the LoTR but in other Tolkien works. Tolkien understood that something so strong as magic had to have a consequence to it's usage to keep in controled in his universe. Again, for the battle scenarios in LoTR, magic was used in intelligent and important ways. I was hoping that some of these inconsistencies in the magic of the HP universe would have been reconciled in book seven; but I was wrong. Instead, we get situations like Harry's wand literally acting on its own will to fend off Voldemort... again... Voldemort essentially dying due to a technicality in wand ownership... and Avada Kedavra not really being unblockable as has been stated so many times in the HP series. All are DeM. One final word about the magic in HP. At the end of "Deathly Hallows" Voldemorts spells are rendered useless on the people at Hogwarts because he supposedly sacrificed himself out of a feeling of love, just like his parents. This is the reason why he didn't feel the crucius curse supposedly. So, it seems like sacraficing oneself for another protects that person from harm. Before the last book, this was a special unique act; but now, it seems like it can be readily replicated by sacrificing oneself. That's all it takes. So, you're telling me out of all the people Voldemort killed, not ONE sacrificed themselves to protect another that they loved. BULLSHIT!

Moving on from DeM; probably the most damning critique I have of book seven is what Rowling decided to do to some of the main characters in the book. First, Rowling flat-out assassinated the character of Albus Dumbledore. Some may see her as trying to humanize him in book seven; but IPLv70 put a fine point on it: you humanize a character when they are alive... to do so after death is just character assassination. I agree. The fact is Albus' character is attacked, at length, in book seven with no one really defending him. By the end, Albus is painted as little more than a very powerful and cunning manipulator. Rowling tries to re-endear him to readers upon Harry's death-dream scene where he has a discussion with Harry explaining “everything”. First, the whole death-dream sequence is another incarnation of DeM; of course, Harry was a horcrux; but no concrete reason was given as to why he didn't actually die (as he should have by the rules in the Rowling universe). In this death-dream scene Albus gives Harry very little in the way of new information; and I'm sorry I don't buy that Harry's feelings toward Dumbledore are all A-OK after this scene. Harry was the first to doubt Dumbledore when reading Skeeter's biography of him; yet when he has a dream sequence with Dumbledore, he now miraculously has regains faith in Dumbledore. In reality, it could have been a further manipulation of Dumbledore to drive Harry to go and kill Voldemort. The reality is: you simply have no logical reason to believe that Dumbledore sees Harry little more than a tool to complete a task. That's how he regarded Harry in front of Serverus; and his history dictates his desires for power and control. Again, Harry showed that he truly had little faith in Dumbledore; why the fuck are we supposed to believe that Harry is cool with Dumbledore just because he had a chummy dream with him? It doesn't fucking matter if the dream was real or not! There is no reason to believe that Harry should put any weight on that scene given how quickly he lost faith in Dumbledore earlier in the book. There was no grand revelation in the dream; Dumbledore was pretty much as depicted earlier. WHAT CHANGED? The idea that a near death experience changed Harry's feelings so fundamentally is absurd. How many near-death experiences has Harry had?! Guess what? The experience of nearly dying shouldn't mean anything to Harry because he's experienced it so many times before. Yet this time, his character miraculously matures and embraces Dumbledore again. Bullshit. The fact is Rowling paints Dumbledore as a manipulator and never successfully redeems him. She also made him out to be an idiot. I'm sorry, the wisest wizard of the ages is so stupid it put on a ring possessed by Voldemort not fucking thinking it MAY be cursed? Bullshit. Rowling made Dumbledore's death an act of fucking blatant stupidity. Also, given his seemingly infinite abilities to communicate with Harry, Ron and Hermione under the ministry's nose; one would think that he would have the sense to WRITE A FUCKING LETTER! MAYBE!

Moving on to Voldemort. Again, I was hoping Rowling would add some depth to this character in book seven; instead she made him to be an idiotic bully. IPLv70 made a good observation: he essentially became a comic book villain. Here we have one of the most powerful, supposedly most intelligent wizards of all time; and he's a fucking idiot. Voldemort managed to reign terror for years but NOT ONE OF HIS FOLLOWERS MENTIONS THE DEATHLY HOLLOWS TO HIM. Bullshit! In the end, he's stupid enough to attack Harry despite the fact that Harry essentially says that he'll die if he does so. Hmmm... you have someone who you haven't been able to kill the last three times you've encountered them, telling you that what you are about to do is going to kill you... so what do you do... you try to kill him anyway. Fucking dumbass. So Voldemort dies from a mixture of stupidity and a DeM driven technicality of wand ownership. That's fucking lame. Voldemort was nothing more than an idiotic bully. Which bring me to... the deatheaters. So, we have this group of ruthless, highly-skilled wizards, who lust for power all surrounding Voldemort. All but the LeStranges are harboring some doubts and fears toward Voldemort as he threatens their families with torture/death and can't seem to kill Harry. Of course, no mutiny would ever happen at this stage. Bullshit! Avada Kedavra is supposedly unblockable... so why the fuck didn't any of the deatheaters gang-up and try to kill them. It's bullshit; Voldemort was such an idiotic villain at the end, he was a grave threat to all the deatheaters and their families. Yet there was no internal mutiny. That's crap.

Let's move on to Hermione. She too became an idiot as demonstrate by the fiendfyre scene. Here you have a spell that is able to destroy Horcruxes; but she doesn't use it because it's “too dangerous”. This despite the fact that she apparently knows how to stop the spell. Bullshit. It really makes no sense.

Let's move on to Ron. He does the exact same thing he did in Goblet of Fire. He gets all emo and ditches Harry; then he feels remorse and comes back to apologize. Great, he's essentially little more than a rehashing of himself in book four.

Harry gets emo then sucks it up in the end to save the day just like he does in every other book. I don't see any major character development in Ron or Harry. It seems Rowling took the tactic of de-evolving many of the characters to make Harry exceptional.

As for secondary characters not much really happened. The fact is characters like Percy were neglected for so long in the series, that it isn't possible to judge whether his decision to come back was consistent with his character; you don't know what was happening with him for so long. That being said, his return should have been met with skepticism as he'd been an ideal deatheater spy; but no, he came in as a band aid to lessen the killing off of Fred. Of course, he was instantly accepted.

One important action of a secondary character that I found really inconsistent was when Narcissa lied to Voldemort about Harry being dead. I know her maternal instinct was supposed to drive her to lie; but this just doesn't make sense. Draco's safety had nothing to do regarding whether or not Harry was alive or dead; on the contrary, Narcissa could be assured Voldemort would kill Draco when (not if) he found out Harry was alive because she lied about it. So we have, Narcissa, a syltherin deatheater; she's supposed to be cool, cunning and calculating; but she makes an emotional decision that actively jeopardizes the life of her son for no apparent reason.

Lastly, I'll just mention Lupin. Lupin essentially becomes a coward who reduces himself to little more than a deadbeat father. He already had doubts before about getting together with Tonks, and he pulls the same shit in this book. Rowling degrades Lupin's character simply to trivialize the blow of his death at the end of the book.

It is ashame to see one of the strongest points in the HP series be so grossly undermined in this last book. Snape's character is the only exception; again, I really liked how his character turned out. Unfortunately, no other character rose to the status of being more than mediocre; it's really sad given that they could have easily been so much more.

The last thing I want to talk about is the idea of death. I explained at the beginning how consequences and death are such important parts of serious literature. Consequences are the strongest ways in which we can relate to the characters in a fictional story. The concept of death is the strongest of these consequences as it inspires the deepest and most universal emotions of loss, sadness, fear and indeed, happiness. Unfortunately, death has no real meaning in the HP universe. It is so grossly marginalized in this last book that it looses virtually all of it's value. Death has meaning because it is irrevocable; a final goodbye if you will. In book seven, you have Albus coming back to Harry through a DeM dream, Serverus getting orders from Albus via a painting, and the second deathly Hallow raising the dead with the caveat of them being behind some veil (and this veil really has no actual literary meaning in this final HP book). Rowling had already marginalized death a little with the Prior Incantatum at the end of book four. I'm sorry, the dead can't fucking talk to you. If they can talk to you; it defeats the literary concept of death. So, the underlying concept of death isn't present in the HP universe because death has exceptions. Even with this, Rowling never killed off any main characters, not one. Every character that died in book seven was a secondary character at best and had little consequence to the main characters. Dumbledore's death was betrayed because he was able to come back and talk to Harry and set things right. Forget killing main characters; Rowling didn't make one single death in the HP series a direct consequence of Harry nor of any good guy. Sirus died because Voldemort possessed Harry. Dumbledore's death was stated as being pre-planned in this last book, alleviating Harry of any responsibility. In reality every single death in the HP series was a direct result of a deatheater killing them. It's bullshit. A mark of a good leader is making hard decisions; and the hardest decisions come when one has to consider the lives of those close to them. Not once did Harry have to endure the brutal consequence of this. Fuck, Dumbledore never had to deal with sending Harry to his death even. Yes, Harry lost his parents; but they were never part of the story and it was Voldemort's doing. Again, let's look at LoTR. At the end of that trilogy; Frodo and Gandalf essentially die; i.e. they will never be seen by their friends again. Tolkien actually did something worse to Frodo: the one thing he loved, The Shire, was forever gone to him. He would never be able to feel as he once did; he lost his innocence and his one love as a reward for his actions. THAT IS A TRUE CONSEQUENCE FOR CHANGING THE WORLD. Jesus, even in the Matrix, Trinity and Neo essentially die in the end. We don't know what exactly happened to Neo; but his physical incarnation is forever gone. Again, a real consequence for changing his world so much. The idea of consequence had been completely lost in this last book; and it's this key point that makes the Harry Potter series a fairytale and nothing more. There are some saying that the epilogue to the story was a dream that Harry had in death. There is NOTHING in the story to indicate this. If this was indeed the intention of Rowling; it's the most chickenshit way to kill a character as you know most rationally thinking readers will read it as a fairytale ending. I am assuming Rowling has more conviction in what she is writing than to do something like that.

In the end, Rowling chose the easy literary path for Harry Potter. She could have made the series truly great in the literary sense. Instead she chose to write the story with a movie screen in her head and an eye on future sequels, at the cost of writing a story that sunk to the realm of mediocre fairytale pop-fiction. It's nothing compared to LoTR; it's not a classic; and it certainly isn't adult fiction. Harry Potter is a children's fairytale and will never be anything more.

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