Tournament to decide the best Harry Potter character

Hello, Harry Potter fans! Just in case any of you still get updates for this blog, I thought I would let you know about a tournament that’s starting today on the website I now write for. Basically, it’s a 64-character free for all to determine which Harry Potter character is the best. Voting starts today, so go make your selections and tell everyone you know.

http://seveninchesofyourtime.com/harry-potter-and-the-march-madness-triwizard-tournament/

I’m really looking forward to seeing who comes out on top here. So far, I’m able to make most of the first-round decisions without too much trouble. But looking ahead, it’s easy to see how brutal these choices will become. Next round will likely bring Molly vs. Ginny Weasley, and the round after that could be a battle of some of my absolute favorites, Sirius vs. Fred and George. I’m not even entirely sure whom I want to win it all. Any of the big three of Harry, Ron, and especially Hermione (all #1 seeds) would all be acceptable, as would Dumbledore. Right now, though, I’m leaning toward Neville, Fred and George, or Sirius. I love them all so much. But alas, all we can do is vote and hope the masses don’t vote against our favorites.

The Harry Potter Chronicles: The Conclusion

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Well, here we are. I set off months ago to read all the Harry Potter books, and now I’m done. It’s certainly been a fun journey, and I’m incredibly glad I did this.

Harry Potter turned out to be a wonderully rich world with entertaining and memorable characters. It’s a shame it has to end, because that world feels so vibrant and large that it could easily support many more stories. Yet it also feels right, in a way, to have a fixed point from which to exit that world. Otherwise, we could stay there forever.

J.K. Rowling certainly grew as a writer over the course of the series. She never stopped frustrating me at times, of course. She had a few plot holes, including big ones in Azkaban and Goblet, and she didn’t always seem to think everything through. But she was so wonderfully gifted at so many things that the flaws didn’t take much of anything away from the enjoyment. It was such an immersive experience to read those books that most issues were only hiccups along a long road of greatness. In the end, I viewed her as a remarkably naturally talented writer who maybe just didn’t have all the training to refine all that ability; and, apparently, that’s exactly the case. She struck gold here, and deserved to.

The plots were often exciting and imaginitive. But above everything for me, it was the characters that made this reading such a fun experience. Rarely have I ever read such a deep stable of likable characters, whose interactions are so enjoyable even if nothing much is happening. Harry, Ron, Hermione, Hagrid, George, Ginny, Neville, Luna, and McGonagall will at least live long lives within my heart, while I pour one out for dear departed homies Dumbledore, Snape, Sirius, Fred, Lupin, Hedwig, and others.

But as happy as I am that I read the series, I’m almost as happy that I decided to blog about it. The writing process really helped cement certain feelings about the books, or challenge me to think about events, and resulted in me looking at the series with an even deeper appreciation.

And it also connected me with so many fellow fans. During this process, I’ve heard from a couple dozen people, and have routinely gotten site hit numbers into the 50s; while that’s hardly a lot in the internet at large, it’s far more than I expected in my little corner of it. And I got to hear from so many of you; a couple here at the blog, a few more in Facebook comments, and quite a lot in Facebook messages, e-mail/phone, or in person. I heard from close friends, from people I haven’t seen in nearly a decade, from people I barely know, and from a couple people I met for the first time through this. It became a community experience for me. I got to live the books for the first time, but I also got to re-live your memories and impressions and opinions as I went. It made the whole process much more fun for me, and I thank you for it.

Now, that concludes the series and my discussion of it. This blog may or may not lapse back into the inactive stasis from whence it was revived for these chronicles; perhaps I’ll find another use for it, but at the very least, I’m taking an extended break. Most immediately, I’m boarding a plane in about 12 hours, off to London and possibly to see some of the real stuff from the books. I’m glad I got these posts done before then.

Again, thank you to everyone who read, and especially to those I got to talk to along the way. Until the next time we see each other in a world of magic.

Hallows 4: No Greater Love

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And so we come to it at last. The conclusion to the series, and Harry Potter’s greatest moment.

And that moment is not his final defeat of Voldemort, though we’ll discuss that too. No, the watershed moment for Harry and the series itself was his journey out the castle, to the woods, to meet his death.

“The Forest Again” was the most powerful chapter of the seven books, I thought. Immediately after seeing Snape’s memories, he accepts the truth of what Dumbledore had revealed: that Harry must die. He faces fear and doubt, all mixed together in a sort of poignant numbness. But right away, he’s also resolved to it. He doesn’t try to run; he knows there’s no point. This was his destiny all along.

While struggling with the weightier issue of life and death, Harry retains an impressive clarity. He still has the foresight to warn Neville about Nagini, adding to the chances that the snake would be destroyed after he’s gone. Ginny was a bigger test. I desperately wanted him to reveal himself to her, tell her how he felt about her. I might not have been inspired by their relationship up to that point, but I couldn’t not be moved by his longing as he passed her by.

By the time he reaches the forest, his resolve is weakening, and Rowling makes you feel the effort in every step. Heck, my own resolve was weak by that point. I knew he would ultimately be ok, but there’s something so immersive about that chapter that you lose yourself in it, and lose any knowledge outside of what Harry is feeling.

With that, we get the welcome return of his parents, Sirius, and Lupin. This was always my favorite scene in the films, the only one that moved me to the brink of tears before reading the books. As expected, it’s even better here. The comfort and reassurance he derives from these loved ones wraps around you like a warm blanket as you hyperventilate your way through that emotional scene.

If this were the way Harry really died, I would have been fine with it. It would have been tough to see him truly cut down at the end of this long, winding adventure, but it was so powerful, it would have made a meaningful end. The calm, understated confrontation between Harry and Voldemort felt like an organic growth from the tone of the rest of the chapter. Harry has surrendered to fate, to death, sacrificing himself so that others might live.

I had to take a few deep breaths after that. I’m sure if you were reading it for the first time without knowing the ending, you might race immediately to the next page to find what happens next, after the seeming death of our hero. But I need a minute to recover from that chapter. It was draining in the best possible way.

From there, we get Harry’s semi-afterlife scene, including a welcome return from Dumbledore. To be honest, I felt like this chapter perhaps went on a little too long; the various recounts and explanations helped give needed resolution to a few matters, so I really don’t know how you could cut much from it; after all that Harry learned about Dumbledore in this book, we needed to see them see each other, plainly and as they really were, and come to terms with all that has happened. Still, I just felt like the volume of exposition or backstory took away some from the serenity of that place.

Harry returns, and is greeted by the closest thing we see to redemption for the Malfoys: Narcissa’s lie about whether he was alive. He recognizes that she no longer cares about whether Voldemort wins, but just wants to find her son. My first thought was that this blatant self-interest adds no redemptive quality to the family. But the more I think about it, the more inclined I am to view at least Narcissa more favorably. Whatever awful flaws she and her family have, she has enough genuine love for her son that she’s willing to risk everything for a chance to find him again. Lying was really quite a risk; the other Death Eaters could easily have seen during the walk that Harry was actually alive (especially because he keeps insisting on peeking out to see what’s happening). Voldemort would have killed her for lying, and Draco would have been no better off. But she takes a risk so she can see her son again. It hardly puts the Malfoys on the side of angels, but it reinforces that they’re more cowardly than pure evil. I feel a little better about them not receiving any more serious retribution for their previous crimes throughout the series. Only a little, though.

Upon the return to Hogwarts, I think we can safely assume that everyone would still have risen up against Voldemort. Obviously, Hermione, McGonagall, and the remaining Weasleys, among many others, would have fought to the death regardless. But none of them make that first charge. It’s Neville Longbottom: the man, the wizard, the legend. If you want to look at it that way, the HP series is bookended by Neville saving the day. Gryffindor only wins in Sorcerer’s Stone because Neville stood up for what seemed right. And Voldemort is only defeated because Neville’s suicidal charge shows the bravery to draw the Sword of Gryffindor and slay the beast. A nice bonus in the book version is that Harry has to secretly cast a Shield Charm between Neville and Voldemort right after. That means Neville acted while completely open to Voldemort, ready for the fact that he might be killed within a second of chopping off the snake’s head. But Harry told him it had to be done, so he did it. You’re the greatest, Neville.

Shortly after, another Voldemort lieutenant gets taken out by another unexpected source. Molly Weasley drops the first and last B-word of the series before killing Bellatrix. We’ve been led to believe Bellatrix is one of the most powerful among the Death Eaters, and this is the first time we’ve ever seen Molly fight. I like to imagine that Molly has a variable power level. Under normal circumstances, she’s normally powerful and skilled, content to use her magic around the house. But threaten one of her children, and she becomes MOLLY WEASLEY: DEVOURER OF WORLDS and is nearly unbeatable.

The climax is mildly anticlimactic. Harry acts like an old Bond villain, feeling the need to explain to Voldemort how and why he’ll be able to defeat him. The readers are the ones who really need that explanation, confirming what we expected about the wands. And I like that Voldemort has to feel dread before dying. But they circle each other and talk for like five pages. Then it ends with Voldemort’s own curse rebounding on him, perhaps to spare Rowling from having her innocent hero deliberately kill. It was still satisfying, but I’m not sure that moment was all it could be. Though, in fairness, that would be an almost impossible to moment to write after so much buildup.

I yelled at Harry for not disposing of the Deathly Hallows better. We just learned like five minutes ago that you only have to disarm, not kill, the owner of the Elder Wand to become its new master, yet his plan is to rob it of its power by dying a natural death. But until that death, if he gets disarmed once, someone else can go get the wand. Also, maybe go find the Resurrection Stone and hide it more thoroughly than just on the ground somewhere.

I have little to say about the epilogue. It was sweet, in its way, to see the main trio seeing their own children off to Hogwarts, thus completing the cycle where we began the series. I was disappointed that we don’t learn more about what their lives have become; we watched them complete all this magical education only to never find out what they use it for the rest of their lives. (Except Neville, who’s now an herbology professor. Well done, sir.) But we can see that they’re happy, and we know that whatever they lives have become, at least they’re getting to live them. And when that conclusion seemed so perilously uncertain for seven books, perhaps that’s the point.

And like that, the series, like all good things, must come to an end.

Hallows 3: This Does Not Bode Well for London

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Well, laughter is dead.

It had a good run. Let’s assume laughter was invented shortly after the advent of homo sapien. That’s what, about 200,000 years? Not bad at all. I had a goldfish once, and it only lasted about a week. So 200,000 years, more or less, is a nice long life. But now we can pack up and move on to other emotional responses. Like crying, of course. Maybe yelling. Sneezing. Is sneezing an emotional response? I don’t even know what I’m saying. Too distraught.

ohbytheway, J.K. Rowling killed Fred Weasley.

On some level, I knew that exactly this was going to happen. For one, I promised in my last Phoenix post to do a Weasley twin tribute at some point, and multiple people mentioned I should do it before Hallows. That seemed like a sign, but I convinced myself they just thought I should finish my HP writing with Hallows. That probably didn’t even make sense, but it was more pleasant than considering other reasons.

Then there was the fact that Rowling has telegraphed many of her deaths pretty clearly. I mentioned when discussing Dumbledore’s death how there was plenty of foreshadowing. The deaths in Hallows seem to largely be set up to try to maximize the tragedy angle. For instance, if you and your wife just had a baby boy, that’s not good for you. But more on Lupin and Tonks later.

The Weasley family just had to have at least one casualty; there’s too many of them for the group to escape with just one lost ear. It felt inevitable. So when Percy returned, it felt even more obvious that one of two things would happen: 1) Percy would complete his redemption by sacrificing himself to save one of his newly un-estranged family members (WHY COULDN’T IT BE THAT?!); or, more likely, 2) Whoever Percy is with during the fight will die, and Percy will try to avenge him.

What’s more, it seemed likely that the person in Option #2 had to be one of the twins. The twins were easily the hardest on Percy during his shunning of the family, so it would make sense that he would lose one of them shortly after getting forgiveness. What’s more, it was even fairly clear which twin. George had already lost an ear in an earlier battle, so this had the makings of a classic Pearl Harbor situation: one of them almost dies early, then the other actually does die late. George was fated to be Ben Affleck, Fred to be Josh Hartnett, and just like in real life, you’d much rather be Affleck. Does that mean Rowling is Michael Bay? You’re right, that’s going too far. I apologize. I’m still learning to deal with life after laughter.

Anyway, as with Dumbledore, you can be forgiven for misreading or just ignoring the signs when it came to Fred’s death. A lot of carnage was inevitable, but hey, maybe Rowling would just rid us of Percy instead. Or maybe it was just me, and maybe I was just in denial. I like laughter. I didn’t want it to die. Apparently Rowling disagreed. To each her own.

Also, this is something I wrote before starting Hallows:

Fred and George Weasley: As you may have seen in my last post, I love these guys. I know one of the Weasley Twins loses an ear early on, but I have no memory of what happens later. Let me just say: they better both survive. Because I’m going to be in London in a little over a week, and if even one of them dies, I will burn that mother down in retribution. I don’t want to have to do that. BUT I WILL.

I’ll be there in 48 hours, London. You’ve been warned.

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This post covers the first 690 pages, or 33 chapters, of Deathly Hallows.

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  • When I decided to use classical music tracks for the soundtracks to Hallows, I did so in part because I thought I would enjoy looking through somewhat lesser-known pieces for good accompaniments. Plus, Prince doesn’t allow his music to stay up on YouTube for very long, so he was drying up that well. Oh Prince, you beautiful purple pixie. Anyway, the link above is to “O Fortuna,” hardly a lesser-known work; it’s been used in movies, shows, ads, plus influenced or derived into similar pieces. But it’s also freaking epic, and I feel like I need the big guns to capture Hallows down the stretch. Only that explosion of awesome at the 2:45 mark can match the excitement that begins from Harry’s return to Hogwarts.
  • And you’ll remember how our main trio is greeted back to school: with the unveiling that NEVILLE IS THE GREATEST. To some extent, we already knew this. But not like this; never like this. Neville has grown more confident and able throughout the series, but you never saw him be a leader. But with Harry gone and Hogwarts under tyrannical rule, Neville suddenly becomes Che Guevara. You can beat a man, but you can’t beat his spirit. Or something like that. Anyway, bloody and bruised but not broken, Neville is truly the man now. And he still hasn’t even had his big shining moment. But already, he’s still the one who’s kept resistance alive in Hogwarts, marshaling the forces that Harry needs to complete his mission. McGonagall takes over as the opposition leader as the Battle of Hogwarts goes viral, but Neville has still been a field general among students. I think this was his destiny all along.
  • And McGonagall! When she got taken out without a fight in Phoenix, I hoped for her to have a chance to unleash in this book. And holy crap did she do exactly that. We only get glimpses of her during the main battle, though she has some of the best build-up to that fight: students, Hogwarts teachers, Order of the Phoenix, and Dumbledore’s Army all unite under her leadership. But her biggest moment is probably just before that, when she gets to duel Snape. We know Snape had cause to not win that fight, but I don’t think it would have mattered; McGonagall is a force.
  • So by the transitive order in which I seem to be going, that takes us to Snape. The big moment for his redemption finally comes, and we find out that Dumbledore was right all along (of course he was) and Snape could be trusted, even when he was being trusted with playing an awful part. It was a wonderful sequence, at times quite poignant. But I wish Harry doesn’t name his kid, in part, after Snape. Because I know he’s going to do that, I couldn’t just enjoy Snape’s backstory; I kept thinking about how each part of it related to his redemption, and how fully he really was redeemed. I mean, after reading the chapter, it sure seems like Snape’s dislike of Harry was pretty genuine, though understandably colored by his experiences with James. I want to remember Snape as a tragically flawed hero who did things both great and awful; I feel like that’s his true legacy,, and how he’s most interesting as a character. But there’s an implication, at least to me, that we’re just supposed to remember him as a surprise hero, like Harry seems to. I wrote before about wondering how their relationship would have been if Snape lived, and I still wonder that. What we saw in the pensieve was fascinating, but not enough to convince me that the relationship would have worked as well as the martyred memory.
  • Ron and Hermione finally kissed, acting on the feelings we know they’ve had for years now. Rowling might have struggled with pretty much all the other romances in the series, but she rocked this central one so well that it almost doesn’t matter. I’ve rarely ever rooted for a fictional couple as much as I’ve rooted for them. Seeing them together at last was glorious.
  • The Gringotts break-in was fun and exciting, and I’m glad we got one more dragon for the road. But seeing it made me wish even more that Rowling had found a way to involve a dragon in the final battle. The giants and centaurs get involved, even the giant spiders and the ghosts. But there’s a Weasley brother who’s a freaking dragon trainer, and he doesn’t bring one to the most important battle in wizarding history? Boooo. Sure, dragons seem so uncontrollable that it might have hurt some good guys too, but this seemed like a moment for any hail mary. Plus it would have given Charlie something to do; he kind of became the Lost Weasley in the series.
  • Aberforth is pretty awesome, as were the final pieces he revealed of Dumbledore’s backstory. I love that Aberforth was the bartender at the Hog’s Head all along. It continues a theme of the the book: namely, that important things were right under our nose all along.
  • After getting through the series and seeing Rowling’s full treatment of all the Houses of Hogwarts … I still stand by what I said about Slytherin way back in Book 2. I know, we’re supposed to think all the houses have their good and bad, but Rowling really never did develop the supposed good of Slytherin well enough to justify its existence. When McGonagall says any students who are of age may stay and fight, we’re told that some Ravenclaws stay, more Hufflepuffs, and about half the Gryffindors; but the Slytherin table is “completely deserted.” The only redemption Slytherin gets is that the Malfoys are too gutless and/or self-interested to be pure evil, that Slughorn seemed so likable (though he still screwed up and gave Voldemort the information he needed to become nearly immortal), and that Snape was ultimately on the good side (but was still a genuine Death Eater until Lily was threatened). I think Rowling did a pretty crappy job of making that house redeemable or relatable.
  • Finally, since laughter is indeed dead, let’s end this installment with more death talk. Lupin and Tonks both go down. Tonks never quite hit a cord with me, but Lupin was a near-favorite. He was one of the better parts of Azkaban, which in turn was one of the better books in the series. I can forgive Rowling for marrying the duo and giving them a kid for the seemingly sole reason of making their deaths all the sadder, even though it was a fairly cheap way to increase the tragedy. It would have helped if she’d given us more reason to believe in their romance, but it seemed too cobbled together, like she was mostly interested in building them up just so she could tear them down more emotionally; like I said, Ron and Hermione were really the only relationship she knocked out of the park.

What was actually harder to bear was that she killed them off-screen. To some degree, I get that too. Harry was already emotionally exhausted, and seeing even more people he was close to, but hadn’t yet realized were dead, was a good way to push him to the brink. But it still seems like a shame that we didn’t get to see them go down fighting, especially Lupin.

Really, I echo Nick’s comment from a prior post: it would be awesome to see this whole book from other characters’ points of view. Neville would absolutely be first on that list, as I think I would enjoy his chapters as underground resistance leader the most. But the Battle of Hogwarts is so undeniably epic, and our titular protagonist is a part of so little of it, we really need several POVs to get the full effect. There must have been so many epic duels going on all over the place.

Next time: the conclusion.

Hallows 2: Inferiority Complex

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I’ve never had much in the way of famous close friends. Successful in their own ways, sure, but not really famous. The closest I came was when working as a sports reporter for a college newspaper and meeting various athletes. But although Roger Staubach once answered a single question from me, he’s never responded to any of my Christmas cards; at some point, I can take a hint, Rog.

So I can’t say I can really relate to Ron Weasley’s perspective, but I will say that he’s had one of the better character arcs of the HP series, culminating in the first half of Hallows.

Ron’s development has often been unsteady throughout the series, the way that adolescent development tends to be. For the first two books, he mostly exists to be Harry’s friend and often comic relief. Azkaban is his first big step forward, as we see him assert himself more – and begin the bickering with Hermione that eventually blossoms into something like dysfunctional courting.

But Goblet marked the beginning of another important aspect of Ron’s personality: latent jealousy. When his best friend is the most famous kid in the wizarding world, Ron’s occasional envy feels only natural. He overcomes it, because in his heart, Ron is just a really good guy. His friend means more to him than personal glory. It’s noteworthy that the other member of our main trio, Hermione, never seems to have this issue. Her frustrations with Harry are all based on his lapses in judgment or, especially, his poor study habits; the closest she comes to jealousy is when Harry is better than her at Potions in Prince, and even that is more about Harry cheating than Hermione feeling inadequate.

But for Ron, that longing never quite goes away. I think Ron has something of an inferiority complex because of how much Harry is loved and adored; that’s gotta be part of why he struggled so much with confidence playing Quidditch in Phoenix and Prince. It doesn’t help that he’s the youngest male in a family where all his older brothers have been very successful, either in academics, their professions, or general BAMFing. Nor can it help that his biggest achievements seem to come as a result of Harry being unavailable; see: winning the Quidditch Cup in Phoenix and Prince (would he have still been the hero if Harry had played?) or becoming a prefect (only chosen because Dumbledore thought Harry had too much to deal with).

So going into Hallows, Ron is used to, but probably not fully satisfied with, being a supporting character. With that in mind, Rowling makes him the subject of the most interesting character development of the book’s first half, with his departure and return marking the high point and resolution of Ron’s internal conflict.

To escalate matters, Rowling uses the newly found locket Horcrux. Ron’s feelings and doubts always existed, but wearing the Horcrux made everything worse and come to the surface. Rowling has introduced a very tangible form of evil that’s even more fascinating than its use in Chamber of Secrets, since we see the “possession” more fully realized. Even a sliver of Voldemort is enough to drive Ron to the worst parts of his psyche.

But his return and redemption is quite the payoff. I loved the magic in how he found his way back through Dumbledore’s gift, and though that speech wasn’t delivered quite as well as in the film, I loved the way it softened Hermione’s anger at him.

Most fascinating of all, though, was Ron’s destruction of the Horcrux. It was a rather overt metaphor, with Ron quite literally facing his demons, but the lack of subtlety was warranted. It was a big moment, as we learned much of the why of Ron’s lingering feelings of jealousy and inadequacy: Hermione. In the end, it all came back to Hermione, and Ron’s fear that he would in some way be not enough for her.

Seeing him conquer that inferiority complex felt like the final step in Ron’s maturation process. He’s gradually learned to recognize and express his emotions betters, but now he can finally put it all together. At last, he should be free to move beyond the passive-aggressive bickering and reach the inevitable happy ending he’s destined for with Hermione.

And with Ron back in place, Rowling was free to start ramping up the action. So much of the first half of the book was searching and putting pieces into play, and while exciting in its own way, it was relatively short on action. But after Ron’s return, we begin a crescendo that starts to produce more firepower, and with the promise of even more to come.

The musical accompaniment to this post is Tchaikovsky’s Slavic March, or “Marche Slave,” a piece inspired by a Slavic-Ottoman war with Russian intervention. It really has nothing to do with Ron Weasley, even thematically, but the excitement of that march music really plays well with the rising stakes and increased action we see after Ron’s return. Ignore the various anti-Semitic remarks on its YouTube comments section that exist to remind you that the Internet is an awful place, and it feels like quite the tone setter, especially that rise from about 5:00 on. And we’re getting to a point where Rowling is keeping your blood raised just as much.

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This post is for the first 518 pages, or 26 chapters, of Deathly Hallows, which means I have way too much to cover to do most it proper justice within my time constraints. But I’ll try.

  • This seems like a good time to revisit the issue of Elf slavery, a topic that I was … less than kind about when first discussing. I thought that Rowling’s main critique of the slave system she created would remain Dumbledore’s comments at the end of Phoenix, stating that wizardkind would have to answer for how they treated non-humans, including the rather indisputable fact that Sirius helped cause his own death by mistreating Kreacher. Those remarks were a welcome change from the mockery the topic received in Goblet, but I still didn’t think it was enough.

In Hallows, though, Rowling tries to go further. The biggest step was trying to redeem Kreacher. As Kreacher becomes more cooperative and downright friendly, Hermione is finally validated with proof that the elf will respond to how he’s treated. Later, we see Dobby heroically die to save our heroes.

Dobby was a character I hated in the films, and while his death was fairly sad at the end of the seventh movie, it didn’t affect me greatly. The books didn’t make me like him much, if any, more. So it was really surprising to me how affected I was by his death. It was really quite emotional. A large part of that was tied to how incredibly successful Rowling was in making the reader feel her characters’ grief.

The result of Kreacher’s change of heart and Dobby’s sacrifice (and even, to a lesser extent, Griphook’s further indictment of wizards’ treatment of non-humans) is that house elves seem more relatable, and the characters seem more sympathetic to their plight. All of which was a welcome addition to the narrative of that species. So, do I feel differently than when I tried to eviscerate Rowling for her botched slavery parallel in Goblet?

Yes and no. Yes, because I think she was more effective at redeeming that subplot than I could have guessed after its awful beginnings. No, because I still think she botched it by having those awful beginnings. I think that could have been a powerful subplot on the abuses of this magical world, and the ways that prejudice affect even our more likable characters. But her tone in Goblet made it so uncertain that we would ever reach this point, and I think it was a mistake to allow so many negative reactions to dominate the house elf conversation for so long before we got to see effective counterarguments. If she had found some way to move the house elf slavery plot points from Goblet all to Phoenix, where they would have been capped off by Dumbledore’s strong stance, that might have helped. But she still has the unresolved issue that Ron and others are right in saying that the elves, aside from Dobby, really do want to be slaves. If she had left that conclusion more open-ended (keep in mind just how much Winky reinforced it in Goblet), addressed it from a less mocking tone early on, and given Hermione some backup sooner, I think these final moments of elf subplot redemption would really be something. As is, I still think she mistepped too much.

  • I loved Harry telling off Lupin for the idea of not staying with his wife and future child. If anything, I wish Harry hadn’t felt so remorseful about it right after. Knowing what’s going to happen nearer the end of the book, Lupin later announcing the birth of his son felt like a sad moment when it was intended as joyful. But however brief Lupin’s time with Tonks and young Teddy will be, he wouldn’t have even gotten those moments of rejoicing if not for Harry’s tough love.
  • The scene at Godric’s Hollow combined two of my worst fears: old people and giant snakes. I think I had nightmares for a week after watching that movie, and they’ll probably come back now.
  • Oh yeah, I should probably discuss the Deathly Hallows themselves. I was impressed by how exciting it felt when all that information finally came together for Harry: that his father’s heirloom was the Invisibility Cloak, that the Resurrection Stone must be contained within the golden Snitch that Dumbledore left him, that Voldemort was also seeking the Elder Wand, that his parents’ epitaph seemed to tie back to the idea that he was meant to master the Deathly Hallows.

In Phoenix, when Rowling had Dumbledore reveal the reason why Harry had to stay with the Dursleys and how he was safe there, I said I didn’t really believe that she’d had that planned out all along, though I respected her for filling in a gap in logic with a fuller explanation. In Hallows, it does often feel like there’s been more of a grand plan in store all along, as we see so many references and plot points come back with greater significance, including those related to the Hallows and the Horcruxes. Was Rowling really such a grand visionary all along? I don’t know; I suppose I still doubt some of it. I’m sure she’d say she had everything planned all along, because who doesn’t want to be known as a visionary. The interconnectedness in Hallows with the rest of the series would certainly support such a conclusion, but her writing early in the series is far more suggestive of someone who definitely didn’t have it all figured out yet. Ultimately, it probably doesn’t matter. At the very least, she found ways to tie so many things together that it has certainly increased the drama of what the final volume in a series should feel like.

  • Scrimgeour might have been a dick, but much respect for the fact that he died rather than rat out Harry. He was a minor character, but that detail of his death makes him a more interesting character than his perpetually red-faced predecessor, Fudge. Both were pretty crappy Ministers of Magic, as near as we can tell, but Scrimgeour was still an auror, and had the greater resolve that seems to come with it.
  • The break-in at the Ministry of Magic was entertaining, though I do think the plan the trio had in the movie made more sense. If they knock out all three of the people whose place they’re taking, their cover should be good for as long as the originals are unconscious (which probably fits their preexisting time constraints of polyjuice potion anyway). But in the book, they give the latter two workers a Weasley product to make them too ill to come into work. The stated reason is so that they don’t leave a suspicious pile of bodies behind, but even one unconscious Ministry body will raise suspicions. Wouldn’t just making sure that the stunned bodies are well-hidden be less dangerous than the risk that one of the sick men would contact someone at the Ministry from St. Mungo’s to say that he couldn’t come in?
  • Am I the only one who desperately wants to see a prequel book about young Dumbledore, focusing on the duel with Grindelwald? It’s such a tease to get all these repeated references to what an awesome fight that apparently was … and never actually see it.
  • I like how Rowling has found a couple ways to work in former classmates from Hogwarts even before the gang’s inevitable return there. Seeing Dean Thomas again was whatever, but I’m a big fan of Luna Lovegood. I hope she and Neville end up together, because they both rock. Though a part of me thinks Harry should have ended up with Luna, and Neville with Ginny.
  • I love Harry’s renewed focus and emerging leadership after Dobby’s death. Seeing him take charge and create a real plan is really building the book’s crescendo. I can almost hear Tchaikovsky’s Marche.

Hallows 1: Overture

[Optional soundtrack to this post.]

Before you even read the first page, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows feels different. With the sole exception of Sorcerer’s Stone, the copies of the books I’ve been reading in this series have all been hardcovers, each purchased soon after that book’s original release. By and large, they’ve had nearly identical designs. All have had the wraparound cover art. And all have had the universally-used description on the inside of the dust jacket, giving the reader at least some sense of what the book would be about.

But not Hallows. Here, there is no description to be found. The obvious explanation is they simply didn’t need to include one. Those descriptions are usually to give a potential reader some sense of the book to encourage, or even persuade, the person to buy it. The conclusion to the HP series was perhaps the most anticipated book of all time; no one really needed to be persuaded to buy it. But beyond that, I think there’s a certain addition by omission at play. All the books in the series have somewhat enigmatic subtitles, but the prior books’ descriptions gave at least some hint at what the subtitle referred to. The absence of that in this concluding volume only enhances the mystery, especially since Rowling is in no rush to even mention the term “deathly hallows” early in the book.

And so we begin this final segment of our journey. Rowling wisely takes us first to Voldemort’s new lair, where he gathers his lieutenants and makes plans while amassing power and taking some time out to torture those who don’t share his ideals. Death Eaters are infiltrating everything, their power and control growing. We get a strong sense of the gathering storm Harry will be up against.

Not long after, we get our first big action scene, and I’ll touch on the big developments in it later. It’s the first of what will surely be many big, important clashes. But once (almost) everyone is eventually safe again at the Burrow, things soon calm down. Interestingly, though, it’s not just a routine breather before the next round of action. It’s more than that: it’s a final chance to see everyone together and happy. We might see some happy reunions at the end of the book after all the battles are done, but only after losing several people. Bill and Fleur’s wedding was a last hurrah for togetherness for many of these characters.

Which isn’t to say everything is rosy. The tonal shifts in Half-Blooded Prince, between its foreboding chapters and its lighthearted chapters, were too dramatic of shifts in my opinion; it didn’t work as well as a result. The early parts of Hallows manage this much better by keeping the darkness ever near the surface, even in relatively happy moments. It’s great to see Harry have one last birthday with the whole gang, talk about girls with Ron and books with Hermione. But our trio is almost always planning what they’ll need to do after the wedding, reminding us that all this joy will be fleeting.

The musical accompaniment to this post is Johannes Brahms’ “Tragische Ouverture,” or “Tragic Overture.” I felt the dramatic, elemental piece paired well with the foreboding sense of the early parts of Hallows. But I liked the choice even more after reading up on its origins. Brahms didn’t score the overture as the result of some trauma or tragedy. His last work had been the rather jolly Academic Festival Overture, and he just wanted to follow that with its emotional antithesis. He essentially wanted to write the grim for the sake of not being joyful.

The Burrow scenes in Hallows feel like the reverse of that situation: the characters are essentially choosing to enjoy certain moments just for the sake of not being overwhelmed by the possible negativity. The latter would be easier, given the various injuries and deaths already sustained. Yet there are real moments of brief enjoyment in early Hallows, and they might not be because characters are really so happy, but because, like Brahms, they just wanted to feel a different emotion while they could.

Molly Weasley is the best example of this. She knows what they’re facing, and she knows on some level that her son and her two surrogate children, Harry and Hermione, will have to go and fight. Yet she’s constantly disrupting the trio from planning, insisting that nothing impede on the happiness of birthday and wedding celebrations. I felt myself wanting to make the same choice. Nearing the end, characters and readers alike are encouraged to embrace this final calm before the storm. Gather ye rosebuds while ye may, and all that jazz.

***************************************

I’ve gotten further, but this post covers the first 175 pages, or nine chapters, of Deathly Hallows. Other thoughts on this installment:

  • Hedwig becomes the first casualty (not counting the Muggle Studies professor whom we never really knew) in a book that will surely be full of them. I always enjoyed the way Rowling gave Hedwig a personality of her own, as she would get moody when Harry didn’t let her out enough or even if he used a different owl. I would go so far as to call her the second-greatest owl in fiction history. But Hedwig’s death is a point of divergence where I think the movie did better. In that version, she died flying in front of a curse to save Harry; in the book, she gets hit by a stray curse while still in her cage. Terribly sad either way, but I prefer her going down heroically, as that seems more like the kind of owl she was.
  • On the flip side, the book won big time in a prior point of divergence: explaining why Harry left Privet Drive with Hagrid. As I recall from the film, Hagrid said something about how he was the one who brought Harry there all those years ago, and he should be the one to take him away. Which is sweet and all, but by itself, incredibly stupid. Why on earth would sentiment trump protection? Why put Harry with the guy who can barely do any magic instead of a hardened auror like Mad-Eye? Well, the book explains, because the latter is exactly what the Death Eaters would expect. And indeed, that prediction proved prescient, and the diversionary tactic of having Hagrid take him probably saved Harry’s life. Much better storytelling there.
  • The second big casualty is Mad-Eye Moody. It feels appropriate that Mad-Eye dies off-screen; that character’s place has felt slightly awkward and uncertain ever since we learned that the version we came to know so well in Goblet of Fire was never Mad-Eye at all, but an imposter. Every time we saw real Moody since, he showed the same personality and characteristics as Fake Moody, but without the connections forged over the course of a book of heavier involvement. The depth of the reveal in Goblet was intricate, even if it didn’t really make sense. But when Moody died, and I felt fairly little impact from it, I wondered yet again, was that twist worth the lost relationships? I’m still undecided.
  • Before all that, we got our last glimpse of the Dursleys, and surprisingly, some redemption for Dudley. It was a nice moment, and Rowling handled it beautifully: it was kinda sweet without being over the top; there’s only so much redemption you can give any of the Dursleys.
  • Interested to see all of what’s behind the mystery of Harry’s wand acting on its own. I don’t really remember all the parts of that subplot, just that it ends with Dumbledore’s wand being super important.
  • The Burrow burned in the movies, but now that we’ve made it this far, I think it’s safe to assume it won’t burn in the books. Thank goodness. The house belongs on the list of Wonders of the World. All but one of the real Wonders are gone anyway. If the Burrow actually existed, wouldn’t you rather tour it than go see where the Colossus of Rhodes may or may not have stood?
  • Dumbledore’s legacy continues to be defined and redefined even after his death. His will gives final tools to each of Harry, Hermione, and Ron for their quest. And the biography about him, and Harry’s attempts to verify or disprove the information therein, is telling us more about him than we ever learned during his life. It’s interesting; it’s almost as if Rowling is managing to keep him on as an active character without ever actually showing him.
  • Finally, the calm is entirely over, and our trio is on the run with a mission they can barely hope to succeed in. After the fleeing and the settling in are all over, they’re by themselves, alone against the darkness.

Introduction to finality: gearing up for the end of Harry Potter

I’ve begun the seventh and final Harry Potter book, but before doing so, I put down some thoughts to take stock of the series leading into its conclusion. Here’s what I feel like is at stake for some of the noteworthy characters and storylines:

Harry Potter: Starting with the most obvious. Harry has been a naturally gifted wizard throughout the series, and he’s matured as a character. We’ve seen signs of his progression in magic proficiency, but I’m still not sure we’ve seen him grow enough in that area; to the end, he was a fairly meh student. Now he’ll be away from Hogwarts (at least as a school, not a battleground) for the first time, so how will Rowling show those crucial final steps in his growth process in magic? Right now, he still feels ill-equipped to take down the most powerful dark wizard ever — and I get that that’s the point, to some extent, but I still feel like Rowling has work to do on that front.

Harry and Ginny’s relationship: Pretty sure Rowling won’t be able to save this in my mind. Hopefully I’m wrong, but the book would have to take some very significant steps that weren’t in the last two films, since Ginny just wasn’t in them very much. And while I have no doubt that the book will be different in many ways, I’m not sure that will be one of them — or at least enough to redeem it from its meager offerings up to this point. Honestly, I just don’t think this relationship matters as much to Rowling.

Ron and Hermione’s relationship: I think this is where Rowling’s heart lies, and if so, I can’t blame her. I still think she should have developed the title character’s central romance better, but if you want to focus on Ron and Hermione, that’s pretty defensible. This coupling has been a long, slow burn with a lot of highlights already, and I’m quite excited for the payoff.

Severus Snape: I know he gets his big redemption moments in this book, but I’m looking forward to seeing how it all plays out. The redemption felt pretty strong in the films, but the films also didn’t make Snape as villanous and unlikable as the books have. Rowling has taken Harry much further down the path of hatred against Snape, so her version of regret and forgiveness has more work to do.

Fred and George Weasley: As you may have seen in my last post, I loves these guys. I know one of the Weasley Twins loses an ear early on, but I have no memory of what happens later. Let me just say: they better both survive. Because I’m going to be in London in a little over a week, and if even one of them dies, I will burn that mother down in retribution. I don’t want to have to do that. BUT I WILL.

Molly Weasley: She gets to kill Helena Bonham Carter, right? Molly has been consistently awesome, but I’m not sure we’ve ever seen her do magic that wasn’t related to household chores. Now she’s going from that to taking out one of the main Death Eaters. That scene can’t not rock.

Assorted other Weasleys: Doesn’t someone in the family die? Seems like surely, with a family that big, one of them has to be in the body count. But I can’t remember who, if anyone. Does Bill get to ride off into the sunset with his hot wife, or was that marriage created just to make it more tragic when at least one of them dies? Does Charlie bring a freaking dragon to the big showdown, and if not, dammit. Do we see Arthur unleash during the melee? Does Percy get some redemption? And if a Weasley does have to die, can we let it be him?

Elf slavery: I feel like Dumbledore’s comments at the end of Order of Phoenix were supposed to be the big redeeming moment for this subplot, but I’m curious what else Rowling has in store to wrap this up. Enough to change my mind? Ehhhh I don’t know.

Professor McGonagall: Will she get to cut loose and kick some ass in the final battle?

Hagrid: Same question. Plus, does he find love? How do things end for him and Giant Lady? Do we get to see them married, with Harry as the best man and Grawp as ring bearer?

Remus Lupin: Well, now he’s in a relationship, and I remember him dying in a montage. So, yeah, that’s going to be sad.

Assorted Malfoys: After being the principal dicks for so much of the series, do they really get to just walk away from the battle once it seems like Voldemort is going to lose? WHERE’S THE COMEUPPANCE? Come on, Rowling. Give us something.

Hedwig: All owls go to heaven.

Neville Longbottom:

I mean, he gets to kill a giant snake with a sword. It’s going to be a good book for Neville. One question: Does Rowling describe him as wearing a cardigan for the fight? Or was that just a moment of adaptive genius by the filmmakers?

Beyond your command: the Weasley twins

[Optional soundtrack to this post.]

“George,” said Fred, “I think we’ve outgrown a full-time education.”
“Yeah, I’ve been feeling that way myself,” said George lightly.

At a glance, Hogwarts looks like a childhood/adolescent fantasy run amok. Gone are subjects like math and science. No one at Hogwarts has to learn a differential equation or even study the proper use of a gerund. Instead, students are taught, often literally, how to remake the world to fit their whims through the power of magic.

This has led me to several questions over the course of the series. One question is what children in wizarding families do for school before Hogwarts. Due to underage magic laws, they’re not learning magic in those first 11 years of their life; Ron Weasley comes to Hogwarts not able to do magic any more than Harry and Hermione. Presumably those kids are learning language skills and other typical stuff, but I’ve seen no mention of pre-Hogwarts schools. Are every wizard family’s kids home-schooled early? What if both parents work? A lot goes unsaid or unanswered.

But the most persistent question in my mind has been job prospects. The glimpses we’ve seen of the wizard economy hardly seem large enough to support the significant number of wizards and witches. We never see many career choices at all beyond bureaucrat (everyone working for the Ministry) or small-business owner (shops at Diagon Alley, Hogsmeade, etc.). The educational system seems flawed in relation to those prospects. There doesn’t seem to be any magical higher education beyond Hogwarts. So we’re told students have to achieve certain levels on their O.W.L.s (or N.E.W.T.s) for certain jobs. Meaning a test you take when you’re 15 determines your entire life trajectory. The only career aspiration we’re ever told for Harry is Auror, and if not for a change in staff, he would have been denied any chance at it. Seems harsh.

Of course, wizards and witches could always try to live Muggle lives. But unless you’re Muggle-born, that seems unlikely to work. Arthur Weasley was the head of Misuse of Muggle Artifacts department of the Ministry for most of the series, and is a self-confessed obsessive of Muggle culture. Yet even he can’t grasp most basic Muggle concepts or even words. We repeatedly see that most wizards and witches are somehow incapable of even dressing like Muggles, much less blending in with it.

And even for those Muggle-born wizards, they’ll be lacking many basic skills for normal society. From age 11, they’re taken out of that world for all but a couple months a year, meaning they’ll essentially miss all Muggle education beyond grade school. There was a scene in Sorcerer’s Stone where Dumbledore is giving out last-minute points, and students are struggling to add up the totals in their heads. Well, of course they can’t! They aren’t learning math. There’s an optional class with the vague name of Arithmancy, which apparently deals with the magical properties of numbers, but that’s not really the same. There’s Muggle Studies, but that’s only the study of Muggles, not what Muggles study – and even that seems questionably effective with how little the widespread wizard population understands its normal counterparts.

All of which is to say, there’s a lack of real choice that feels stifling. If you want to look for it, the whole notion of the HP universe as a youthful fantasy starts to unravel. School might not have the same subjects that tortured us when we were young, but it’s still school. There are still mean teachers and unreasonable piles of homework that interrupt all the fun. Government is no better than in the real world; even before Voldemort’s agents infiltrate it at every level, the Ministry of Magic is shown to be untrustworthy simply because of normal human flaws. Worst of all is the penal system. Every society values law and order, but the wizard world punishes its criminals by sending them to Azkaban, a hell on earth where Dementors suck out all their happiness until they die. There’s a depressing undertone to this: Entering a world of magic and wonder doesn’t free you from The Man; it just means that instead of a suit, The Man is wearing wizarding robes.

Enter Fred and George Weasley.

From the first time we see them, the Weasley twins play the role of the Trickster, conning their mother into confusion about which is which. As the series goes on, they continue to good-naturedly torture their mother by caring about all the wrong things. Their older brothers are all very successful wizards, former prefects and Head Boys who break curses, handle dragons, and, well, suck up to the Minister of Magic. But the twins are always different. They’re running on a divergent path. While everyone else stresses over O.W.L.s, Fred and George are indifferent to their poor performance on them. They’re the characters who seem to most appreciate the real bliss of magic, accumulating knowledge not for tests but to prepare for a lifetime of creating happiness.

At the least, the Weasley twins are a consistent source of comic relief, a well that Rowling draws upon at all the right times. Their mockery of Ron when he becomes a prefect was one of the more amusing scenes of the series. If this world of magic really were the youthful fantasy it at first appeared to be, then there would be no need for the twins to ever evolve beyond that humorous role. But as already covered, darker facets are ever present. It might not be 1984, but there are definitely Orwellian elements to the way oppressive forces work in this world. And perhaps nothing has been as overtly oppressive at Dolores Umbridge in Order of the Phoenix.

Umbridge, with her domineering rules and her façade of sweetness, was one of the series’ most effective villains. And it was her who provided the catalyst for Fred and George to become more than comic relief; they became agents of subversion. This was only possible because of their carefree outlook; if they hadn’t already set their sights on a more joyful end goal for their magical skills than academics had to offer, they probably couldn’t have had the nothing-to-lose attitude necessary to be the most important factor in Umbridge’s downfall.

And make no mistake, they were the most important. It may have been Hermione’s fast thinking and some possibly rapey centaurs that finally toppled her, but the first blow may have been more important than the last. Think about Umbridge’s trajectory to the point of the Weasleys’ departure. She had gone from the newest teacher on staff to the Headmistress in a matter of months. She had outmaneuvered Dumbledore, the greatest wizard of his generation. She had the full backing of the Ministry of Magic. The first real effort to fight back had been forming Dumbledore’s Army and holding its regular lessons, but that had ended with Dumbledore, the only person who’d been holding Umbridge somewhat at bay, having to flee the school. The resistance had more or less been crushed.

But not the Weasley twins. Dumbledore fell on his sword as a last resort to save Harry from expulsion; Fred and George practically jumped on their swords just to be a distraction. Unburdened by any concern for consequences, they turned half the school into a swamp. When caught and facing dire punishment, they suddenly flipped the script right when Umbridge (and Filch) was on the cusp of triumph. You could just see Umbridge’s face falling from smug satisfaction to shocked horror as the twins called their brooms and sped off, beyond her command.

Suddenly, the youthful fantasy element came roaring back. Every daydream you ever had about telling a teacher to take this school and shove it was played out in the most blindingly awesome way imaginable. The moment was pure, unadulterated joy to read. I found myself wanting to shout with support.

From there, I would say Umbridge’s downfall was inevitable. After watching Umbridge consolidate so much power, we finally saw the first crack in the armor. Their departure created a prankster vacuum that nearly the entire school tried to help fill. Even other teachers found ways to rebel, feigning helplessness to get rid of the swamp and running Umbridge ragged to deal with the pranks that sprang up from inspiration by the Weasley twins. Umbridge responded by cracking down even harder, trying to take out Hagrid and getting McGonagall as collateral damage. But the damage had been done; I don’t know that any authoritarian measures she could have taken would have ever fully extinguished that spark of rebellion. Harry and friends were the actual instruments of the coup, because it always has to be Harry, but Fred and George Weasley really ignited the revolution.

The next time we see them, we see that they’re living their dream: successful business owners with an uncanny knack for the market and an insatiable customer base. But they had already lived the dream of many a student on that day when they kick their brooms off the ground and declared that school was out — not just for summer, but forever.

Prince 4: PURPLE. RAIN.

[Optional Mandatory soundtrack to this post.]

(Note: This post will conclude my Half-Blood Prince posts. Before starting Deathly Hallows, I have two interim posts planned, to take stock of the series leading into its seventh and final book.)

Of all the memories I could share of my time living in Stout Hall at Oklahoma State, this is one of the less interesting ones to throw in the ol’ Pensieve. But it’s relevant nonetheless.

Stout was the honors’ dorm at OSU and the first place I lived in college. It was a kind of unique subculture that can probably only be created when a bunch of smart kids are moving into the same semi co-ed dorm at the same time that they learn the town has fairly lax enforcement of underage drinking laws. Many posts could be dedicated to Stout, but suffice to say, it was an environment where nearly any nerdiness could be indulged. Harry Potter had long since become incredibly mainstream by 2005, but I imagine there were still some new college students who might have suppressed, or at least not volunteered, their fanship. Just not in Stout.

I moved into Stout in August 2005 for my freshman year of college, about a month after Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince was released. As you know by now, I hadn’t yet become remotely a HP fan, but for those who were, I imagine the chance to be around that many fellow nerds was a goldmine for HP discussion. So it was in Stout that I first heard the big spoiler from Prince: Snape killed Dumbledore.

I doubt many people who actually intended to read the book really had anything spoiled for them. Like I said, this was a month after the book was released, and the impression I’ve always got is that most fans read each new book within a couple days (at most) of its release. Nevertheless, “Snape killed Dumbledore” became a thing, in Stout and, of course, in Internetland. If this hadn’t been the pre-meme era, it would have made such a great meme.

My reaction, having still only seen the first movie and a bit of the second, was fairly indifferent. I was still associating Alan Rickman more with Hans Gruber than Severus Snape, so I didn’t really see why the idea of him ending up as the villain would be so shocking.

Now, I’ve read Snape killing Dumbledore, and I suppose the most shocking thing is how shocking the event feels while not being at all shocking.

Because I read the book for the time already knowing the ending, it was easy to see how Rowling foreshadowed the climactic death. Really, she’d been foreshadowing for multiple books. We learned in Phoenix that the series has to come down to Harry vs. Voldemort, but we also have it confirmed for us that Dumbledore is mightier than either. Right there, we should see it coming. It might have been possible for to have the series’ final showdown with Dumbledore still alive, but really, the only way to raise the stakes appropriately high is for Harry to be the lone person capable of defeating Voldemort. The prophecy might have locked in the idea that only Harry could kill him, but even so, it wouldn’t feel as disastrous for Harry to die if you know the good guys still have someone else left who’s more powerful than Voldemort.

In Prince, the foreshadowing ticks up a notch. Dumbledore’s hand is blackened and withered from a mysterious injury that won’t heal. He disappears for long stretches. We’re told that he sometimes seems tired, weary. The signs are all there that perhaps Dumbledore doesn’t have long left.

But what was shocking about his death to me was that you easily could have ignored those signs. Sure, there might be hints that something dark could be coming, but come on, this is Dumbledore we’re talking about. Dumbledore! Even when he’s surrounded by enemies at the end, and even though I knew what was coming, some small part of me still expected to see him hex the army of Death Eaters into oblivion with the flick of his wrist. Sure, I heard the spoilers in Stout and even saw him die in the movie, but if anyone could erase the past eight years of history and change the ending to an already written book, it’d be Dumbledore.

But of course, that was not to be. Harry pursuit of Snape felt even more dramatic in the book with all the battles raging around, as members of Dumbledore’s Army and the Order of the Phoenix fought side by side against the invading Death Eaters. Neville may not have gotten much (read: any) face time in this book, but I love in the later battle recap that it’s mentioned that Neville was the first one to go charging after the Death Eaters as they climbed the Astronomy Tower. Team Neville 4eva.

I think the drama of Harry’s confrontation of Snape would have been heightened if it had been at least a little bit of a real battle, with Harry actually landing a couple blows, instead of Snape so easily brushing it all off. But that’s a mild criticism. It was still a high point to reach the moment when Snape has Harry at his mercy, and twists the knife a little deeper by revealing that he was the Half-Blood Prince, after Rowling purposefully (almost too obviously) hinted toward it being Voldemort all book.

After that, we get falling action that doesn’t really match the intensity of the climax that preceded it, and it would be unfair to expect it to. We get the aftermath of the battle and have some plot backstories explained, but the real goal is setting up the final book. Harry breaks up with Ginny, while she acts understanding to the point of near-indifference. It was a brief, emotionally void scene, which is actually kind of a fitting way to end what we saw of their “relationship” in this book.

The more interesting part comes in Harry revealing that he’s not returning to Hogwarts, leaving to chase the remaining Horcruxes. Rowling has been pretty adept at giving us a decent chunk of the books outside of Hogwarts, so as to expand her world beyond just that school. But there’s still no doubt that Hogwarts has been the heart of the series in many ways, a driving force for characters and plots. Harry’s decision to leave is bittersweet at best, and probably just bitter. Sure, he’s learned enough that he can leave, and he has enough responsibility that he has to. But that last part is more heartbreaking than we fully feel in the ending to this book. We’ve been told repeatedly throughout the series that Hogwarts is where Harry feels most at home, yet fate is now pulling him from it.

And now, we’re going to talk about “Purple Rain” by Prince. And yes, this repeated, horribly forced Prince/Prince series has all been so I could build up to making this one connection.

Prince doesn’t usually like to talk too openly about what exactly “Purple Rain” means. Nor does he necessarily need to. It’s a beautiful song regardless, and I’m always in my own world by the time he hits that long solo at the end; leaving the interpretation open means people are free to pull from it what they may. The first explanation I ever heard was that the purple rain refers to mascara running when a woman cries. But Prince was also inspired by and/or obsessed with the end of the world, as evident in the prior discussion of “1999.” The closest thing to explanation I’ve ever seen from him:

“When there’s blood in the sky — red and blue = purple… Purple rain pertains to the end of the world and being with the one you love and letting your faith/god guide you through the purple rain.”

Within the context of the awesome/awful Purple Rain movie, there’s a sense that this doesn’t have to be a literal end of the world. Prince’s character first performs it while thinking he may have lost everything: his family, his love, and maybe now his career. The song is his way of trying to start picking things back up when everything seems to be falling around him. Or maybe just his way of holding on.

And that’s why I’ve been so compelled by the parallels between the song and Harry’s world after Dumbledore dies. Dumbledore was such an anchor in Harry’s life throughout this series. He saved Harry from peril. Gave Harry advice. Provided Harry with the tools to undo harm and protect himself in the future. Even when they vehemently disagreed, Harry’s respect for Dumbledore won out over his anger. Dumbledore was a cornerstore without whom Harry couldn’t really imagine this whole magical world.

And now, he’s gone. Harry grasped around at straws, for revenge, denial, comfort that wasn’t really there. But nothing could change the fact that Dumbledore had fallen, staining the blue sky with the red of blood. Harry eventually has to give up the life he’s known for an uncertain future. He can’t undo the damage or save a reality that’s no longer there. He can only hold on as the purple rain falls all around him.

Prince 3: When Doves Cry

[Optional soundtrack to this post.]

Love and destiny.

Two abstract ideas that we morph into creeds, dogmas, overriding tenets. They shape belief and action, war and peace, and, occasionally, literature. The last of those can be difficult, however. The more often a well is visited in writing, the more difficult it can be to draw anything but cliches from that well; few wells have been drawn upon more than destiny, and probably none more than love.

So when J.K. Rowling ties her hero to a destiny and arms him with the power of love, she’s immediately walking a narrow line between triumphant and trite. As we near the end of Prince, she seems to acknowledge that tightrope as she addresses head-on (through Dumbledore, naturally) what love and destiny mean to her narrative.

Let’s take love first, as Rowling does. When Dumbledore tries to tell Harry he can defeat Voldemort because he has an ability that Voldemort does not, Harry finishes the sentence mockingly — he can love. Rowling give him the eyeroll the reader might have: the hero is going to defeat the dark wizard because he has the power of love? It does sound a little like a Care Bears plot where a bioterrorist learns that love is the only good chemical weapon. (Note: possibly not a a real Care Bears plot.)

But Dumbledore makes a series of increasingly impassioned admonishments to try to force Harry (and us) to understand the importance of that “power of love.” Voldemort possesses such an array of lures, of both temptation and force, that only love can resist them all. We saw that from the first book, as Harry could only see the means to defeat Voldemort/Quirrell because of his love for his friends, love for his parents, even love for what’s right. Evil cannot love, so Voldemort cannot even perceive the full power of love. As almost painful as it is to see the phrase “pure of heart” written seriously, there’s a certain beautiful simplicity to it all. In a world of grays, Voldemort vs. Harry will be remarkably black and white: evil vs. love.

Now, take destiny. At the end of Phoenix, this seemed simple enough: there was a prophecy, and Harry would fulfill it. But Dumbledore elucidates much more of a sense of choice in Prince: it’s only knowledge of the prophecy that is leading to the prophecy’s fulfillment. Voldemort, trying to avert his own destruction, marked Harry with the power to destroy him. Dumbledore indicates Harry has a choice in whether to pursue his ultimate confrontation with Voldemort, but also leads Harry to realize he’s already made that choice. The prophecy will be fulfilled, and destiny realized, but that doesn’t create an absence of free will. It’s fate without predestination.

Destiny as narrative device fascinates me. Take Prince’s “When Doves Cry.” The speaker is engaged in a passionate love affair, but faces challenges and disruptions, seeing his flawed parents in his own relationship. The thought of what he might become, that negative potential destiny, makes happiness a little more elusive. Love is pulled asunder by destiny, or even the threat of destiny.

Harry, on the other hand, protects his ability to love by now embracing his own destiny, throwing himself into the means of defeating Voldemort. The clearest example yet of that was his ability to put aside his anger at Snape and Dumbledore upon learning that Snape was the one who told Voldemort of the prophecy. Harry was boiling with rage, but he knew he had to at least temporarily overcome it if he was to accompany Dumbledore to find the Horcrux. The mission, his fate, matters most to him when pushed.

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I’m now through 26 chapters, 578 pages, of Prince. More thoughts on this penultimate installment from the book:

  • The whole book has done a great job of setting us up for the idea of these Horcruxes, taking us down Voldemort’s memory lane and introducing his odd sentimentality as a way of setting the stage for the search and destroy missions that will now have to take place. I’m glad that we get Dumbledore as the guide for the first of these. Dumbledore has a way of making simple exposition seem surprisingly exciting, and in finding and retrieving the locket Horcrux, we got one last badass Dumbledore moment.
  • I thoroughly enjoyed the whole Felix Felicis mission of Harry getting Slughorn’s memory. The turns of luck were well-thought-out and focused more on plot devices than ridiculous chance. Watching Harry control and manipulate the situation was really enjoyable.
  • Harry and Ginny are together now, and … whatever. I don’t really want to harp too long on that whole situation, but I just thought the lack of buildup to their relationship really took away from the impact when they finally kissed. From Ginny’s side, we knew she had a crush on Harry as a little girl; we were told in Phoenix that she was now over him, and since we’re given no contrary information until the kiss, we now assume that was always a lie. So, on the one hand, we have a girlhood crush that apparently never went away. For Harry, he just suddenly liked her, and while his emotions in watching her with someone else were amusing, we were never told why he likes her, or what about her. So on his side, we just have pent-up mystery emotion. And then: kiss, Ron blesses it, and relationship that we see very little of. It was just disappointing to me.
  • Glad we got to see Harry put at least one smackdown on Draco in the series, even if that fight was more abbreviated than I might have hoped. Though I can’t help wondering if it would have been better if Harry had let Draco use Crucio on him and had their battle discovered that way. If it really is an “unforgivable” curse (which is in doubt — Harry certainly never faced consequences for using it in Phoenix), that might have been his best way of stopping Draco. Not that he could have thought of all that in the midst of battle.
  • After finding out that it was really all Snape’s fault that Voldemort killed Harry’s parents, it’s even harder for me to imagine Harry and Snape having a good relationship if both were to live after the eventual revelations. That would be a tough memory to move past.

That’s all for this installment, as I want to get back to reading. Only a couple chapters left. Dumbledore and Harry got the Horcrux so …  yeah, that’s probably it, right? There’s the climax, and everything else in the book will surely just be falling action. Yep, if there’s one thing I feel confident in, it’s that’s nothing horrible and traumatic is about to happen.