Posted by Mister JTA on July 15th, 2005 | 1 comment
…Returning from the Flat, past WH Smiths, what did we see but a collection of loons stood in the street (presumably after several hours) waiting to go in and collect a book they’d already reserved…
So, predictably, we ended up re-running the old “what needs to happen with Harry Potter, and why is JK Rowling too dim to do it” conversation, which threw up a few new points. Well, I say new, but I imagine anyone who’s previously considered the intrinsic naff-ness of Potter will’ve found them before…
Ideally, at the end of this book, Dumbledore needs to be dead. He can’t die at the end of the next one, because that’s when Harry has to die.
That oughtn’t come as a shock to anyone; it’s how the genre works. Heroic fiction requires the hero and the villain to take one another down in a gigantic stand-off, hence Potter must die at the end of book 7 (because that’s the last book).
Dumbledore needs to die before then because there has to come a point at which everything seems hopeless, and there seems to be no way for the Good Guys to win. (That’s the point, you’ll generally find, when you can’t bear to put the book down or stop reading, because you have to find out what happens next.) This is most noticable in films, and the most famous and obvious example would be the end of ‘The Empire Strikes Back.’
I doubt, however, Rowling will do that, because I’m not entirely convinced she realises she’s writing heroic fiction (although it should be pretty obvious to anyone who thinks about it – clearly defined Bad Guys, a few Nasty People and a Young Hero determined to Overthrow Evil and Save The Day) and, therefore, she won’t see the need for the hero to die in a Last Desperate Attempt to Save The World.
Don’t believe me? Try:
Gandalf Vs. Balrog: Both die.
Elendil Vs. Sauron: Both die.
Vader Vs. Palpatine: Both die.
Asriel/Coulter Vs. the Metatron: Both die.
Neo Vs. Agent Smith (in Revolutions): Both die.
Holmes Vs. Moriarty: Both die.
Rimmer Vs. The Rage (Last Human Both die, and it’s incredibly powerful because Rimmer isn’t heroic, but he’s fulfilling the ideal.)
(Note that, although some of the Good Guys do survive, they are dead at the end of the story, even if they come back later…)
It’s the way the genre works, simple as that.
Trouble is, Rowling isn’t very good at that, or, indeed, at killing people in general. Sirius, for example, was a stupid person to kill because the only character that affected was Harry. Hagrid would have been a really clever person to kill, because he’s rather more interesting, and there’s lots of characters capable of feeling sorry, guilty or pleased… But no, Sirius fell through the metaphcurtain, and nobody gave a toss. Bad plan.
Bad plan, yes, but also typical of Rowling’s problem: she doesn’t care about any of the characters other than Harry. It’s as if Tolkien had tried to do LoTR and only paid attention to Frodo, mentioning the other characters, but not really exploring them. Doesn’t work. It’s like Blackadder, without the feedback from Baldrick and the others – can you imagine the end of Goes Forth if you’d never got to feel anything from the other characters? Christ, of course you can’t; without George admitting that he’s scared, after all his patriotic fervour, to actually go over the top, it wouldn’t be worth beans…
The best Potter book is Askaban, because it’s a self-contained thing, and that’s what the books ought to be: an ongoing theme, but also self-containing stand-alone tales, not Neon Genesis, not Future Boy Conan but Futurama – there’s an ongoing plot woven through it, and you can gain more from knowing what’s gone before (The scientist in Space Pilot 3000 ["Welcome to the world of tomorrow!"] appears at Fry’s funeral in “The Sting,” and it’s a really nice touch; it’s not essential to have seen the first episode, but if you have, then it’s a really nice touch, especially since Leela was the one who used to work with him…)
But Rowling tries to be both stand-alone and ongoing-or-bust, and it’s not just clunky, but tiresome. (Futurama, after the first episode, doesn’t really bother to explain how Fry got to the year 3000, and when it does, it demonstrates an incredible understanding of what’s going on – right in there in Space Pilot 3000 you can see the shadows under the desk…) So rather than take it as a given that the magical world has Quidditch (a game in which only two players are important: the opposition Seeker and, surprise surprise, Harry) we’re forced through a chapter about it in every book. Likewise we get a section in which we’re shocked to discover that Harry doesn’t like his aunt and uncle, and that Snape doesn’t like Harry very much, and that Draco Malfoy is exactly the same character he was before and he hasn’t developed because he isn’t Harry Potter…
And that’s the problem in a nutshell: nothing is examined except in direct relation to Harry, and that’s rarely the mark of a good story. Certainly, it’s not something which will allow Potter to get killed, and without that then it’s not a tale of Good Against Evil, it’s a tale of Something Without Closure Against Evil…
I cried when I read Holmes’ death. I cried at the end of Last Human too, because there was a meaning behind it all, a sense that there was hope from a tragic sacrifice, and Potter readers won’t ever get that because, even if Harry were to die, nobody would be left behind for the readers to give a damn for.
And that would be fine, if the publicity engine hadn’t over-hyped the books to the point where people will queue in the cold just to get a copy they’ve already made sure they’ll get with a deposit. If this book were coming out into the environment of the early years, when Potter was published, and few people knew or cared, that’d be fine. But Rowling has let the publicity run away with her work, and now people pretend she’s a genius, a really original writer, someone who Got Children Reading Again, before selling out to Hollywood so the children can Go Watch the Film.
I have no idea if she’s realised it, but if I were in her shoes tonight, I’d feel terrible. Rich, yes, but incredibly sad with it, because everyone would belive I was something I’m not; believe I was better than I am, and they’re not buying the books because of me, they’re doing it because they’ve been told they’re brilliant books…
And they’re not. Really, they’re not. A world in which magic costs nothing, takes no effort, two words can kill someone forever simply doesn’t work: the wizards wouldn’t have retreated from the muggle world, they’d have overrun it, and the death of Voldemort would never have stopped the Death Eaters, because with that level of power, who needs a leader? Christ; if you can use magic to cook and travel and kill, how come you have to teach people? There’s got to be a spell that gives other people knowledge, because if there isn’t, how can we be expected to believe everything else – no cost, remember, no effort at all, and so there’s no need for schools at all…
Harry Potter is a tale of Good Versus Evil in which the side of Good is ignored in favour of a specky orphaned adolescent, and the side of Evil is bogiemanned into teachers and bullies… And that works fine for a children’s story, just about, but it’s not good enough for a world-wide phenomenon that sees Canadian retailers taking out injunctions on people they’ve sold the book to, and hundreds of people waiting up for something which, despite what they’ve been told, won’t be any better than the last five.