by John Heath
“She does not.”
“Yes, she does.”
“How do you know?”
“I read it on a website.”
“Would I lie?”
For several days, as my daughter (Emma) was reading Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, I’d see her head buried in the book and feel compelled to tell her that Hermione was about to perish. Horribly. My daughter didn’t really believe me. She’s my daughter, after all. But now it’s become impossible to stop Hermione from dying. If I ask Emma about any book she’s reading, she’ll simply answer: “It’s pretty good; but Hermione dies.” If I wonder how her school went, she’ll answer, “Fine—but Hermione died.” Hermione dies at least once a day in our house. Even Lisa has been infected. If I ask her if she wants to go see a movie—say The Bourne Ultimatum—she’s likely to respond, “Sure—but I hear Hermione dies.”
The rumor of Hermione’s death was inspired, of course, by the months of frenzied pre-publication speculation about the fate of the major characters in Harry Potter. We submitted our final version of Why We Read What We Read just a few weeks before the publication of the last in J. K. Rowling’s wonderful series. And we were a bit worried. We had written that we fully expected Harry and “good” to be victorious over Voldemort and “evil.” It never occurred to us that Harry would die. But suddenly everyone was saying Harry wouldn’t make it out alive. And then the day before Harry Potter VII appeared we were interviewed by one of the producers for the News Hour with Jim Lehrer in preparation for a segment on the effect the series has had on children’s literacy. (We never made it onto the actual program. We have no idea whether more children are reading because of the books. Not that we weren’t willing to make up all kinds of statistics—I mean, wouldn’t it be cool to be on the News Hour? But apparently the show has standards. Go figure.) At any rate, we found ourselves in a quite engaging conversation with the producer, who was pretty certain that Harry was doomed.
After we hung up, we looked at each other. Could it be? Could Rowling really do that? As it was, in some cities here in California grief counselors were already on 24-hour call for children likely to be traumatized by the loss of a favorite character. Of course, as everyone now knows, Rowling cleverly has it both ways: Harry leaves his disciples, confronts his enemies alone, “dies,” goes to some sort of heaven/hell where he converses with a bearded father-figure, and then chooses to return to deliver the faithful from evil. (Hmmn—that sounds familiar.) Harry dies and lives, and “good” does in fact win out in a relatively sophisticated fashion that we have come to expect from Rowling.
In Why We Read What We Read, we commented on the increasing ethical complexity of the Potter books, with both the wavering character of James Potter, Professor Snape, and Harry, and also the more subtle kind of institutionalized evil as found in the Ministry and Daily Prophet. In the final volume, even the great white (he is Albus, after all) wizard himself, Dumbledore, is discovered to have led an early life of less-than-stellar choices and dark ambitions.
So don’t get me wrong—this last book was just about everything I had hoped for. (Although I’m still puzzled about that Elder Wand thing. It’s a great wand—indeed, the greatest wand—so how come so many powerful wizards bite the dust while wielding it? And its genealogical journey from Dumbledore to Harry is still a mystery to me.)
But there are a few things that have been troubling me and perhaps someone can assuage my concerns. First, as Lisa has mentioned to me as well, why are the Slytherins universally creepy? Surely one Slytherin must have some Gryffindor in him or her, just as Harry had some Slytherin in him. And why must Harry and friends try to rescue Crabbe and Goyle? The latter are all bad, the former all too good. Voldemort is pure evil, of course, but is there not a trace of good in any Slytherin? Even Mrs. Draco’s important lie to Voldemort is motivated by purely selfish reasons—she could care less if Harry lives or dies.
But she LOVES her son, you object. Surely there’s some good in that? Okay, now you’ve put your finger on my real struggle with this book. I’m sorry, but I just don’t buy that love is the answer to everything. Love is swell, but the myth of salvation through love, from Christianity in its sappier manifestations to Tuesdays With Morrie, sidesteps the messy, tragic, and far more interesting questions about life. In this obeisance to love’s redemptive power, Rowling provides a happy ending but lets her refreshingly subtle look at good and evil slip into the mainstream.
EVERYONE is saved by love. Harry is saved by his mother’s love (as is Draco). Mrs. Weasley defeats Bellatrix, driven on by her visceral desire to protect her children (one of whom has already been killed). Heck, even Neville’s ancient grandmother is miraculously rejuvenated in her defense of the last family progeny. Percy’s love of family brings him back just in time to do, well, virtually nothing. His appearance merely retrieves him from what was the more terrifying (because so mundane) evil of youthful ambition. Kreacher becomes a model servant under Harry’s nurturing treatment: the nastiest of house-elves, he evolves quickly into a virtual Stepford Wife, fetching and cleaning and polishing and cooking wondrous things, eventually leading the other elves into battle against the Death Eaters. And most revealingly, his vicious racism (depicted throughout the books as the hatred of “Mudbloods”) is seemingly eradicated under Harry’s loving tutelage, as the reformed elf begins to treat Hermione with respect. And even the (off-stage) deaths of Lupin and Tonks serve primarily to serve up a godson for Harry, thus bringing his tragic family life full-circle.
But most annoyingly, it turns out that Snape’s fascinatingly indeterminate position derives from his eternal and unrequited love for Harry’s mother. Snape’s basically a devil who makes a deal with higher powers to do everything possible to preserve Harry, the son of his great love and his hated rival. Personally, I don’t buy any of it. Maybe I’m just missing an important gene. But love overcomes the Dark Lord and his crew of bad guys in way too many ways for me. I miss the struggle in this last book with the evil that comes from within us all. Harry was once the messenger of this battle, sharing a mind and blood with Voldemort. But now Harry only feels Voldemort’s anger and sees through his eyes—He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named no longer looks into Harry’s mind as well and apparently has no idea Harry is in his brain. They don’t really share anything, even though a central plot point hinges on their intimate connection.
Harry, it turns out, is a hero of love. As Dumbledore tells him on the seven hundred and twenty second page of the seventh novel: “Do not pity the dead, Harry. Pity the living, and, above all, those who live without love. By returning you may ensure that fewer souls are maimed, fewer families are torn apart. If that seems to you a worthy goal, then we say good-bye for the present.” Harry is not to be so much an epic adventure hero defeating his rival so people can live free (and intact), but a messianic messenger of love.
I like romantic comedies. I actually believe in true love, the “wuv, twoo wuv” of Princess Bride. But there’s a necessary wink in this genre, a nod in agreement between text and audience that we’re avoiding the whole story. When Westley asks Buttercup why she didn’t wait for him, she replies: “Well…you were dead.” To which Westley gives the classic response: “Death cannot stop true love. All it can do is delay it for a while.” But Harry Potter—and most other bestselling fiction—does not participate in this irony. Why do we so desperately want to believe that love is not only emotionally possible (true) but also psychically redemptive (doubtful), and—against most of our daily experience—inevitably victorious in even the most vicious battles against evil? Oh—and it will clean your house at the same time. If only.
Love. Oh well. It could be worse. Bestsellers could all focus on finding cheese, for example. Or on discovering The Secret. But that’s for another day.