Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Bring me the broomstick of Harry Potter!

If you’re the type of person who went to Return of the Jedi expecting that it would end with Luke impaled on Darth Vader’s light saber or turning to the Dark Side and walking off arm in arm with the Emperor, then you’re likely to believe that there’s a real possibility that J.K. Rowling is going to end her next book by killing off Harry Potter.

Rowling has been cagily telling people that at least two important characters die. Only two? That seems like a very low body count, considering the dark and violent way her story has been developing. Voldemort will very likely get his at last. But only one other character’s going to bite the dust?

Frankly, I don't think Rowling will kill off Harry, for reasons of good storytelling and sound business practices, and I don't believe Steven King and John Irving really think she will either. I think they're just joining in the fun of speculating and helping a colleague hype her next book.

The analogy to Arthur Conan Doyle pushing Sherlock Holmes over Reichenbach Falls is specious too.

Doyle was sick to death of Holmes. He made no secret of that. He thought the whole Holmes phenomenon was distracting readers from what he regarded as his serious writing.

I haven't heard that Rowling is tired of Harry. She's ready for the Hogwarts chronicle to end, but that ending has been planned from the beginning. Knowing when a story is done and it's time to walk away is a sign of good writer. But because Rowling is ready to conclude this series doesn't mean she's ready to kill Harry too, or even that she's done with him as a character

Maybe she is. And maybe she's gutsy (or perverse) enough to disappoint thousands and thousands of her young readers. But I doubt it. She doesn't need to kill Harry. I mean from a purely storytelling point of view, Harry's death is unnecessary and even wrong, artistically. It would disfigure the tale.

It would be untrue to her own vision.

If characters are going to die, they will be characters whose deaths will serve Rowling's artistic purposes.

My money is on the hapless Neville Longbottom, who I think has earned a hero’s death and needs one to save him from being left a mere double to the coward and traitor Peter Pettigrew. And, structurally and symbolically, Hagrid’s story has no foreseeable ending except an unhappy one. Hagrid is an interrupted character. His expulsion from Hogwarts and his sad career as a hanger-on and wizard wannabe, plus his outsiderness, mark him as a doomed figure from the moment he appears in The Sorcerer's Stone. It would be fitting too if he enters the books delivering Harry to Hogwarts and leaves it saving Harry, one more time, thus delivering him to the world outside the school.

There are plenty of secondary characters around for Rowling to knock off, and she seems to regard all her characters as important. I never thought much of Sirius Black as a character. He’s in the shadows all through Prisoner of Azkaban and acts as nothing more than an offstage chorus in Goblet of Fire, so he's not been much of a felt presence and when he buys it in Order of the Phoenix he’s not a loss to the story. But it upset Rowling to kill him and, apparently, her own decision to do it took her by surprise.

Harry’s girlfriend, Cho, any of the surviving members of the Order of the Phoenix, Professor McGonagall, either of the two heroic Weasley brothers—Bill or Charlie—not to mention the despicable Percy, are all expendable.

She won’t kill Ron because then she’d have to kill Hermione too, as their two fates have become intertwined, and Fred and George are the kind of comic characters who have been invulnerable since the dawn of storytelling.

And, as she showed in Goblet of Fire, Rowling is capable of introducing a character, building him up, and making us like him, only to kill him. It’s possible that the two characters she’s talking about haven’t appeared in the series yet.

Whichever character it is, it will be someone who needs to die in order for the plot to advance. Sirius Black and the important character who dies in The Half-Blood Prince had to be taken out of the books because, in order for Harry’s final confrontation with Voldemort to matter, Harry has to go into it with no help.

There cannot be any characters around who could save him from Voldemort or who can take on Voldemort if Harry fails.

This, by the way, is the only reason why it could actually be Harry who dies. I can’t think of a character who’s left who presents a serious threat to Voldemort or who could really be of help to him in his last battle, and that leaves him kind of exposed.

Since I really doubt that she will kill Harry, for a couple of reasons I’ll get to, then I think it will be characters whose deaths would serve another, important narrative purpose.

Rowling is a first rate storyteller, whatever you think of her prose style or of the stories she’s chosen to tell, and I happen to think highly of both. She doesn’t do anything gratuitously. Everything she writes serves to move the story along and develop her themes.

She is not the kind of sentimentalist hack who kills off characters just to make readers cry or give her hero a reason to seek vengeance. And she doesn’t have to prove that her villain is evil. She may have to prove that some secondary villain is worse than we knew before, in which case Ron and Hermione may be in trouble.

But I’d still bet on Hagrid and Neville because their deaths would end their stories satisfactorily and, if they are killed by that secondary villain, their deaths would serve the purpose of proving that villain’s villainy without doubt.

Meanwhile, nothing that Rowling’s said, that I’ve read, implies that the characters who die must be good guys. She’s only described them as characters she expected to survive. So she could be knocking off a couple of her villains.

Peter Pettigrew should get stomped just for being annoying and disgusting and for making us look at Timothy Spall’s false teeth in the movies.

Whether or not Rowling will let Hermione’s cat devour him or decide that’s just a little bit too macabre is the question.

There’d be no real satisfaction in watching Crabbe or Goyle get it, unless they are going to suddenly mature into more than a pair of comic thugs.

And Draco Malfoy is merely a simpering pest and his death would give the audience only a minor thrill.

But his father!

Lucius Malfoy is a villain worth watching get his just comeuppance.

For that reason, though, I hope Rowling leaves him alive at the end of the book.

I think he’s the character she should build any future Harry Potter stories around.

In fact, to my mind, Malfoy has been the true villain of the stories. Smooth, attractive, intelligent, charismatic, vicious but self-controlled and patient, he's what a good villain ought to be---persuasive. The audience ought to sympathize at some level with a villain's goals. Plus, Malfoy's been a real threat to Dumbledore. Voldemort can't make any move against Dumbledore except a face to face attack, and since Dumbledore is the more powerful wizard, the outcome of that one is never in doubt. But Malfoy has been able to get the better of Dumbledore because he can outmaneuver him and undermine him politically.

Voldemort isn’t a character, anyway, he’s a force. He’s the incarnation of Death, as his name implies. He wants nothing, he has no motivations. He appears to be after power, but that’s just a plot device. Power is meaningless for him. His rule simply means death for anyone who opposes him. He gains nothing by it.

Voldemort hates Harry and wants to destroy him simply because Harry can destroy him.

In a way, Voldemort only exists to kill Harry.

A good villain sees the hero as an obstacle not his be-all and end-all. Killing the hero may be fun, it may satisfy a thirst for vengeance or give the villain a sadistic thrill, but if all he wants is for the hero to die, then his movements within the plot are severely restricted. He can only move in response to the hero.

And if the hero is only responding to the villain as a personal threat, then his movements are equally limited. He can only go in two directions, towards or away from the villain. There’s more to a story in which the hero is spending all his time running away, but that would be a very different hero from Harry Potter. The hero’s only other choice is to stand still and wait for the villain to come to him, which is what Harry’s mostly been doing and consequently the weakest aspect of Rowling’s story has been what ought to have been its driving force, the struggle between Harry and Tom Riddle.

But when the villain has actual plans that don’t involve the hero then both the hero and the villain have many options. The hero, always reacting, has to set out to thwart the villain’s plans, but doing so doesn’t have to mean chasing after the villain. It may mean heading him off at the pass or arriving on the scene after the villain’s left it in order to clean up the mess or it may mean going off on a wild tangent, chasing after someone or something vital to the villain’s success that the villain himself has overlooked or thought hidden safely away.

The villain, meanwhile, freed from having to pursue the hero, can go wherever he likes, following the scheme he’s laid out for himself. The only thought he needs to give the hero is how to throw him off the track.

It’s always more fun when the hero and villain have to out-think and not simply out-fight each other. Harry has never had to think much about what Voldemort’s up to. Voldemort’s superior power has meant that he’s never had to think about how to defeat Harry. It’s enough to confront him. And Harry has survived their encounters not by outsmarting Voldemort, but by being lucky and by having divine intervention at crucial moments.

But he and Lucius Malfoy have had enough run-ins that have resulted in intellectual jousting to suggest that once Harry is old enough that he’s not intimidated by adults or his own good manners he will be up to the challenge of a villain he has to outwit instead of out-fight.

And as Malfoy and he are evenly matched in magic, with Harry even having the edge, Malfoy has to deal with Harry carefully and his only hope for defeating him is in trying to out-think Harry as Harry is trying to out-think him.

This is a long way round to a big reason why I don’t think Rowling will kill Harry. His story’s not over.

The whole Hogwarts chronicle has been the story of an apprenticeship.

At the end of the next book, Harry will have only, finally, reached the point of being a hero in his own right.

In other words, killing Harry at that point would be like killing Arthur just as he pulls the sword from the stone.

Besides this being bad story telling, it would be bad business. Rowling may be done with Harry and his friends for now. And she might be done with writing. But I doubt it. Leaving Harry alive and kicking saves him for a rainy day somewhere down the line.

It’s bad business in another way too.

Fans who started reading the books with the publication of The Sorcerer’s Stone when they were 10 might be ready at 20 to give up Harry and see him go.

But those aren’t Harry’s only fans. He picks up new ones everyday. And a 10 year old who is starting Sorcerer’s Stone just in time to hear that Harry dies at the end of the series might have a hard time moving on to Chamber of Secrets. What’s the point?

Ten year olds need their heroes to live and succeed.

When you’re in college you can enjoy the spectacle of life’s unfairness and the fact that the villains often win.

Rowling has also said that one of her characters has been given an unexpected reprieve.

Reprieves are usually given to the justly condemned about to suffer punishment for their crimes.

The only character that would seem to describe is Snape.

I hope it's Snape. I'd like to see him survive to become part of that Harry versus Malfoy story I hope Rowling tackles someday.

Snape would make a nice, dark, untrustworthy Obi-wan to Harry's angrier, more conflicted Luke, don't you think?

Technorati Tags: , ,


Post a Comment

<< Home