Sunday, July 22, 2007

Harry Potter and the Moral Ambiguities

Okay, you've had two days to read the book. It's time for some spoilers!

"Hush! Not so loud," said Edmund; "there's no good frightening the girls. But have you realized what we're doing?"

"What?" said Peter, lowering his voice to a whisper.

"We're following a guide we know nothing about. How do we know which side that bird is on? Why shouldn't it be leading us into a trap?"

"That's a nasty idea. Still - a robin, you know. They're good birds in all the stories I've ever read. I'm sure a robin wouldn't be on the wrong side."

"It if comes to that, which is the right side? How do we know that the Fauns are in the right and the Queen (yes, I know we've been told she's a witch) is in the wrong? We don't really know anything about either."

"The Faun saved Lucy."

"He said he did. But how do we know?"

This is a quotation I always haul out when we study The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe in my children's literature classes. Narnia is a world devoid of moral ambiguity. Characters are what they appear; knowledge gleaned from reading fairy tales (and The Secret Garden) is reliable; and those who provide aid usually prove to be on the right side. Edward's moral relativism is a pose, a spurious and hypocritical form of rationalism designed to conceal what deep down he knows to be true: that the White Witch is evil (like the Snow Queen she's based on) and the Turkish Delight she offers is a baited snare.

The converse to C.S. Lewis's novel is R.L. Stevenson's Treasure Island. In that book, the conflict between pirates and gentlemen is drained of moral meaning. Though the so-called gentlemen fly the Union Jack and use terms like "honest" and "faithful" to describe members of their party, they are lawless and greedy, just like the pirates - and in the end they maroon the remaining pirates rather than taking them home to face the King's justice. Characters are never what they appear; knowledge gleaned from reading adventure stories is misleading; and those who provide aid usually prove to be the most duplicitous and dangerous pirates of all. When moral language is used in Treasure Island, it is to veil ulterior motives. There is no choice between good and evil - only between different varieties of corruption.

The Harry Potter series neatly straddles these two approaches to the problem of good and evil. Almost every book in the series has been an object lesson in the principle that good people can come in mean-tempered and greasy-haired packages. Book IV (Goblet of Fire) is tediously plotted and far too long, but it amply demonstrates the reverse principle: in that novel, Mad-Eye Moody not only helps Harry every step of the way, but also demonstrates an appreciation for honour and courage that makes him seem absolutely trustworthy. My first warning of his true nature was his use of the term "the Dark Lord" to describe Voldemort, only moments before his identity was revealed. Edmund Pevensie should have gone to Hogwarts - he would have done better there than the earnest and uncritical Peter.

At heart, the Harry Potter series is about a struggle between good and evil that is as stark, in its way, as the battle between Sauron and the Fellowship of the Ring (from which, of course, Rowling borrows almost as much as she does from Lewis's Narnia books). But somehow that framework allows for James Potter to be a bit of a bully in his Hogwarts days, for Ron to be an ill-tempered brat, for Dumbledore himself to have a Hamartia, a fatal longing for the power of the Deathly Hallows.

Moreover, the series itself is elaborately disguised. Right-wing Christian groups have swallowed the bait hook, line, and sinker, banning the book, warning conscientious parents that it will lead their children to worship Satan, and doing their level best to keep the most powerful Christian allegory since The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe out of the hands of innocent children.

Not that it's an allegory, exactly. Harry is not Jesus, or even Aslan; Dumbledore is not God or even, in the end, godlike (though he is uncannily prescient). But in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, J.K. Rowling pulls the gloves off. For the first time, the existence of the Christian faith is obliquely acknowledged as Harry and Hermione pay a Christmas Eve visit the graveyard where his parents are buried. While worshippers congregate inside the church, Harry reads his parents' epitaph: "The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death." The words are taken from Paul's first epistle to the Corinthians, and Harry is so thoroughly post-Christian that he mistakes it for a species of Dark magic. (Rowling must have giggled as she wrote that, thinking of all the well-meaning pastors holding exorcisms to rid their congregations of her own dark influence.)

The central dilemma Harry faces in this book revolves around his faith in Dumbledore. Unlike Snape or Mad-Eye Moody, Dumbledore is never presented ambiguously: we always know that he is on the side of good, rooted in his opposition to Voldemort. But what Harry doubts is Dumbledore's love, his trustworthiness, his wisdom. Should he continue in the path Dumbledore marked out for him? Did Dumbledore really care about him, or did he merely view him as an instrument, a strategy? Repeatedly, people like Hermione advise Harry to choose to believe the best of Dumbledore, but belief doesn't strike Harry as a choice - he wants the truth, not some kind of pious self-delusion.

Nevertheless, at a key turning point of the novel, Harry makes a decision to trust Dumbledore: to forge ahead, not knowing or understanding why Dumbledore chose to reveal so little of the whole picture:

Harry kept quiet. He did not want to express the doubts and uncertainties about Dumbledore that had riddled him for months now. He had made his choice while he dug Dobby's grave; he had decided to continue along the winding, dangerous path indicated for him by Albus Dumbledore, to accept that he had not been told everything that he wanted to know, but simply to trust. He had no desire to doubt again, he did not want to hear anything that would deflect him from his purpose.

It's not quite a theodicy, but almost. I like the way Rowling foregrounds the issue of Dumbledore's reliability (something that Lois Lowry fails to do in The Giver, another novel in which a trusted mentor leads a boy to sacrifice himself for the greater good). There is ultimately no proof of Dumbledore's love, no evidence that clears him of all Harry's suspicions. Harry's decision to trust him is a calculated gamble, the kind of decision Voldemort is never brave enough to make.

Rowling has made her case for faith well before we get to the death and resurrection of Harry in the final chapters. Yes, she stole that plot device from C.S. Lewis (who stole it from the New Testament), but I think she dramatizes it more successfully. The "Deeper Magic From Before the Dawn of Time" has always seemed like a bit of a cop-out to me when Aslan uses it to weasel out of his deal with the Witch. Here Rowling makes it clear that Voldemort could have known - and should have known - what his murder of Harry would accomplish. He deluded himself, just as, in the end, he killed himself with his own rebounding curse.

Harry's Christian defenders have long pointed out that Lily Potter's sacrificial death, with the protection it provides, lays the groundwork in these novels for a Christian world view. But for a mother to die on behalf of her son is not so extraordinary as the spell Harry casts when he goes willingly to die, not for Ginny, or Ron, or Hermione, but for every person at the castle who is fighting bravely (and sacrificially) against the Death Eaters. Lewis's story focuses on the unworthiness of Edmund: Aslan sacrifices himself for a wretched traitor, someone most readers don't necessarily even like very much. At the end of Harry's story, the focus falls not on the sinfulness of humanity, but rather on the heart-stopping purity required to die a death that embraces and protects everyone.

Like Jim Hawkins in Treasure Island, Harry learns that moral rhetoric can be dangerous. Throughout The Deathly Hallows, Rowling plays with the phrase "For the Greater Good" - a mantra developed by Dumbledore and Grindelwald to justify a wizard uprising against the Muggles. Evil can be made to sound good - but goodness is real and important for all that. All the heavy-handed references to Nazi Germany function as a reminder that sometimes good and evil really do square off, sometimes it really is as simple as that. Sometimes, Harry points out at last, you really do have to do what is necessary for the greater good.

I didn't pay a lot of attention to the sermon this morning in church, my mind still at Hogwarts after a brief few hours of sleep. It made me grin to imagine the shocked expressions on some of my fellow churchgoers' faces if they knew what I was thinking. But the subject-matter was appropriate: it's hard to write about goodness (as Milton discovered) in a way that makes it more attractive than evil, and I've read few stories in which love and faith are represented so compellingly that I would stay up until three o'clock in the morning, cheering for The Boy Who Lived.


flutter said...

This is exactly it, and why I have fallen so in love with this series and with how carefully crafted the characters are...this is exactly it.

slouching mom said...

WOW. This is brilliant. (And I haven't even read Books 5, 6, and 7! For shame, Slouching Mom.)

I find the references to Nazi Germany fascinating. Last night I saw the latest HP movie, and I was bowled over by the frequency with which my thoughts turned to fascism as I watched the film.

But not having read the book, I didn't know whether it was the director's influence or Rowling's.

So, tell me. Was it Rowling's?

bubandpie said...

SM - Oh, yes. One of my favourite passages from Book 1 is the description of Dumbledore's defeat of Grindelwald in 1945 (Harry reads it on the chocolate frog card). I've been curious about it through the whole series, and finally in Book 7 Rowling really explored that aspect (including references to a concentration camp Grindelwald set up, complete with a grimly euphemistic counterpart to "Arbeit Macht Frei" emblazoned over the entrance).

At the end of Book 4, with the return of Voldemort, I expected a Battle of Britain atmosphere in Book 5. Instead, we got a kind of Sitzkrieg, where everyone spins their wheels and tries to pretend nothing's happening.

So it's so-o-o satisfying for me to finally get to the real Blitzkrieg in Book 7: they're rounding up Muggle-borns, getting them to self-report with proof of ancestry; people are going into hiding. It's not especially subtle, I admit, but I love it.

slouching mom said...

Huh. I hadn't remembered all of that in Book One.

But Grindelwald, Buchenwald...

Yah, I'd say that's not terribly subtle. ;)

I love Rowling a little more tonight for those heavy-handed but ever so earnest references to WWII.

Veronica Mitchell said...

An able exposition of the series. And I think my comment may be spoiler-ish too.

I don't think you are correct exactly in the moral simplicity of Narnia (what about Puddleglum's speech to the Green Witch?), or maybe I should say that its simplicity serves a different purpose than Rowling's style. Lewis (and Tolkien) wrote characters to aspire to rather than recognize. Who aspires to be ambiguous? I don't think it reflects a different understanding of the world than Rowling's, but merely a different didactic method for teaching the same thing.

The thought that has troubled me throughout Rowling's books has been the inclusion of hatred in her good characters. Harry doesn't merely get angry at Snape's treatment - he hates him, passionately and unrepentantly. It's understandable, of course, but coupling this with the "goodness" of the character is such utterly anti-Christian theology that I thought to embrace the series and incorporate it into my faith, I would need to see forgiveness for Snape in the end.

She pulled off enough to satisfy me, but is the forgiveness a rejection of the corruption of hatred or merely the correction of misinformation? I'm not sure how morally satisfying her conclusion is, especially when through seven books she has manipulated the rage of her readers to sustain interest (can anyone NOT hate the Dursleys?).

Mad Hatter said...

La, la, la. Haven't got to it yet. It will take a while. Did not read this post. Must be given spoiler alerts from here on in...

Tracysan said...

What a great analysis! I finished it last night and have been pondering over it ever since. Veronica--don't you think that the epilogue addresses Harry's forgiveness of Snape? He named his son after him and called him "the bravest man I ever knew." That sounds pretty forgiving to me!

Major Bedhead said...

An excellent analysis. I feel totally inadequate about commenting further.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book and this series and while I probably didn't pick up all the analogies that you have, I still got many of the things you mention here. I still have questions about the plot and the continuity and the areas of clunkiness in the book that I hope will be addressed around the blogosphere. I hope people hurry UP and FINISH the book so I can talk about it. Because, y'know, it's all about me. Erm.... Or something.

Lady M said...

Loved the book, and your post. I was deeply satisfied in how JKR tied up the story. I've thought for years that Harry wouldn't survive the end of the tale, but when he came back, it didn't feel like a cheat. She really pulled it together well.

My husband needs to hurry up and finish so we can discuss.

Bobita~ said...

I was also up until 3am, cheering. I dragged my sorry fanny to bed, desperate to know the final outcome but unable to keep my eyes open. I finished this evening, happy but sad. I hate saying goodbye to such wonderful characters.

I love your analysis of the book. I was particularly impressed with how Rowling used Dumbledore's fallibility and vulnerability as a backdrop for Harry's ultimate task. I loved how she drew the line sharply between power-hungry and Selfless.

I, like you, believed that Snape would redeem himself and was THRILLED with how brilliantly his redemption was woven into the story. It was perfect that his undying, longlasting love was his anchor to goodness.

I will also admit that when Neville emerged from the crowd and killed Nagini...I squealed with delight. Where/How did he get the sword, though? I might have missed that little tidbit somewhere around 2:45am. I guess I'll just have to read it again!! Woo hoo!


bubandpie said...

Veronica - I always believed that Snape was good and that Harry's hatred was a flaw to be overcome, so I never saw it as something the novels were endorsing. Even readers who believed Snape was evil could see, though, that Harry's hatred was preventing him from learning Occlumency and compromising the mission.

I did have a problem with Harry's use of the Cruciatus curse even after the resolution of his crisis of faith in Dumbledore. In the latter part of Book 7 he really comes into himself, so it seems strange to see him taking his cue from Bellatrix and even quoting her ("you have to mean it!").

MB - I'd love to know what your questions are so we can discuss! I was irritated by the issue of the "Trace" on Harry - it seemed like a continuity error when earlier it has been explained that the Ministry can trace where magic has been done, but not who did it. Hubby thinks, though, that the Trace fits this description in Book 7: it exposes any magic done in Harry's vicinity, even by others. What stuff bugged you?

Bobita - Was it the fake sword from Dumbledore's office? Or is that one still in the Lestranges' vault? That part confused me too.

bubandpie said...

Oh, and Bobita - I was a bit let down that Snape did not play a more direct role in bringing down Voldemort: I've been imagining him turning on the Dark Lord for two years now. But it's better this way, I think: Dumbledore did not die merely to protect Snape's cover - his death was determined by his own tragic flaw, and was meant to neutralize the wand. Snape's role was to protect the children at Hogwarts, something he's been doing for Harry for years. So, yes, it was very fitting.

Momish said...

Ok, I am admiting up front that I did not read the post to avoid the spoilers because I have not read the book!!!

But, I am looking forward to coming back here and reading it once I am done. Then I will have something more interesting to say.

For now, I will just agree with everything you said because I feel confident that is what I how I will feel in the future! I have that faith in your judgement and opinion.

Bon said...

la la...oh damn, i couldn't keep myself from reading.

we just got back belatedly from our 'vacation' at the hospital yesterday, and picked up the pre-ordered copy, and Dave got to it first, so i'm waiting for that magical ten to fifteen hours to myself to materialize. but in the meantime, hell, i might as well enjoy some fine commentary.

i will say, dude, you read on a level that i absolutely love. and now i may be able to read the book a little more slowly and patiently when i get there.

Omaha Mama said...

A beautiful post (you always seem to do this to me on Monday morning...make me think). You are officially Professor Smartypants.

Jenifer said...

Having read none of the books I guess I don't have much to say. I am impressed though as always by your ability to distill the essence of a novel and by the rest of the comments I think everyone else agrees.

Major Bedhead said...

The Trace was on the word Voldemort, I thought, and not on Harry. Because Harry always said Voldemort's name, the Ministry was able to find him.

I hated that she introduced a new teacher at the beginning, only to kill her off. I thought that was a bit lame and just screamed "Look! Bad things are being done!" Why couldn't they have taken one of the other teachers? Or a student? Someone whose name we at least recognized.

Why wasn't Petunia's Howler in book 5 addressed here? "Remember My Last" seemed so important, but it was just dropped.

If Snape really loved Lily, why did he call her a Mudblood? Even though she and Snape were no longer friends, she obviously felt some affection for him to try to stop James from doing the Levicorpus jinx on him. But Snape just sneered at her and called her a Mudblood.

I really hated the Nineteen Years Later bit. It was clunky in the extreme.

And why couldn't Neville have been the one to kill Bellatrix LeStrange? That would have been poetic justice and I think I would have cheered mightily had that happened. I love Neville.

And who the heck is Victoire? I'm assuming she (she, yes?) is Fleur and Bill's child, but who knows? No explanation there at all.

And what happened to Kreacher?

Now, while I have all these nit-picky questions, I still loved the book. I cried during the whole Harry resurrection scene. I cried when Dobby died (that was so sad and so well-written - the part when Luna is putting flowers on his grave...gah.)

bubandpie said...

MB - Maybe "my last" referred to Dumbledore's reply to Petunia's letter begging for admission to Hogwarts? Though I'm not sure exactly why she would need to remember that...

I agree about Neville - his grudge against Bellatrix outstrips Molly Weasley's. But I also thought that he and Ginny were in some ways facing a harder battle than Harry in this book - after all, Harry was in hiding while they were fighting on the front lines at Hogwarts.

I meant the Trace on underage witches/wizards - the one that expires when they turn 17.

Major Bedhead said...

A friend just forwarded me this article about the economics of Harry Potter. I thought you might find it interesting:

You'll have to copy and paste it, since it won't wrap nicely.

NotSoSage said...

What a great post.

I don't have very many issues with the book (although I agree that the 19 Years Later part was clunky). But I did think it was strange, given all the heavy-handed references to WWII that Harry and Hermione, at least, who had lived in the Muggle world for 11 years, didn't once allude to the Nazi Germany during all the rounding up of Mudbloods, etc. It was a very big elephant to have in the room.

Neville was able to get Gryffindor's sword from the Sorting Hat, which Voldemort had placed on his head, the way that Harry did in Book 2. I don't remember the exact line but it's something like, "Any Gryffindor with a pure purpose" could get the sword if it was needed.

I was so impressed with Neville, Luna and Ginny in this book and sorry that we didn't hear more about their activities...

Luisa Perkins said...

Oh, it's so NICE to be able to discuss it. Your analysis is excellent.

I also was tickled by the epitaph and the Narnia and Christian allusions. I loved that I have been right about Snape all along, and that Harry frankly forgave him. It was very satisfying that Dudley and Draco weren't al bad, and that Percy came through in the end.

Since book 5, Harry has been frustrating me with all of his teenage angst, doubt, jealousy, and rage. But I recognize that all these things made him much more real.

All the backstory--Dumbledore's past and Snape's memories--were well worth the wait.

Thanks for sharing your brilliance with us once again!

Bobita~ said...

Yes, yes! I literally had chill bumps race up my spine when you mentioned the sorting hat as the way for Neville to obtain the sword. Perfect. So, Voldemort's undoing was his own doing...once again. Perfect.

Haley-O said...

This was an awesome post, Bub and Pie. You actually make me want to read the series (after being unable to get through books 1 & 2 years back...)! And, that is a huge accomplishment. I figure by the time I get to this book, I'll forget the spoiler bits. :)

Kyla said...

It was magnificent. By far my favorite of the books.

And I loved the "clunky" 19 years later part. Mostly to see Harry with his children for a glimpse and to remember their namesakes.

PunditMom said...

What an amazing account. And I'm so glad you discussed The Lion, The Witch and The Wardobe as part of it.

Mardougrrl said...

What a wonderful post! I am more than a bit behind in the Potterverse...not having read HBP yet (and thus not having read Deathly Hallows either), but this post will certainly enrich my enjoyment of the books, when the library finally makes good on its HBP promise.

Oddly enough, knowing the ending doesn't ruin the possibilities of the book for me in the slightest. I cannot wait to see how Rowling pulls it off, and after being on this journey for years, I want to carry it off to the conclusion.

Miscellaneous-Mum said...

You see, these are the sorts of days I get embarassed: you write an awesome re-cap on Harry; I write about Froot Loops.

Mind, even though I finished Harry last night, I doubt I could've come up with anything as comprehensive!

Florinda said...

Rowling has been accused of not being so good with shades of gray in her characters. I'm glad you don't seem to agree with that, and I don't either.

The last three books have been darker and darker in mood, and I think it doesn't just look back to Nazi Germany, but it also unfortunately resonates very much in the present day and where things could be headed in some parts of the world if people don't fight back.

I was quite satisfied with the way things were wrapped up, although I would have liked to see more of several characters (McGonagall, Neville, and even Snape, who was so central to the last book and around whom so many of the questions about this one were revolving). My husband and I bought two copies and spent the weekend curled up in the living room - we both finished last night.

I think your analysis is excellent, and I hope you won't mind if I link to it!

bubandpie said...

Kyla - I'm so glad you admitted that! Because I am a total sucker for epilogues - I can see how people find the 19 Years Later chapter cheesy, but I loved every word of it. (I'm feeling the need to create a pizza simile here, but I can't figure out how to work it in gracefully. You get the idea: pile on the cheese!)

Karianna said...

You always impress me with your knowledge and way with words, but this is by far the most articulate and clever analysis of HB&TDH that I have read.

I love taking books that are well crafted and really pondering the depths behind the scenes. This book - and the whole series - provides plenty of material.

As I finished, I whispered "yes," and sighed with relief that the final installment lived up to expectations.

Angela said...

A great book!

Mary-LUE said...

I lean towards Veronica's estimation of good and evil in the Potter books. The inclusion of Scripture actually put me off (just a little, not enough to bring me out of the story a bit). Why here, why now?

I still loved reading them but I've never been entirely satisfied with that aspect of things.

I think one of Rowling's major accomplishments with HP is that she created a world so enjoyed and loved by people that they have such strong opinions about what is right and wrong about it.

Mary-LUE said...

Correction: it should read that I was only put off enough to bring me out of the story a bit, not that I wasn't brought out of the story. Sorry!

Kristi said...

I LOVE THIS REVIEW. I didn't get the allegory until about 12 hours after completing the book, then it all hit me like a ton of bricks. The whole series has been brilliant, and all those wizard hating Christian muggles are going to have to re-evaluate their prejudices.

TrudyJ said...

Unfortunately the "wizard-hating Christian muggles" will probably never re-think their prejudices as they are generally people who cannot (or will not?) read and analyze a story on the level you've done here, bubandpie, but simply look at surfaces: "Oooh, she said witch! Must be a bad book!" I think a lot of the anti-Harry people will see the use of the two Bible verses in the graveyard scene as a mockery of Scripture rather than the brilliant allusions they are.

I don't know when I'll get around to writing my analysis of the book but when I do it may just consist of a link to yours! I agree with you on almost every point and love the way you've explored the moral issues. One moral ambiguity I thought the book should have explored more was the use of the Unforgiveable Curses by the "good guys" as I always thought the use of those curses was one of the things that separated Dark wizards from good ones -- would at least have liked to see some reference to the idea of using the weapons of evil to destroy evil and how problematic that is. But apart from that I thought there was so much thoughtful exploration of the the idea of good and evil, and the climax was perfect. I liked the epilogue, with one exception. I didn't like the fact that nineteen years later Hogwarts is still using the same house system and "good guys" still don't want to end up in Slytherin ... have they learned nothing? But that's another thought to develop further elsewhere....

bubandpie said...

Trudy - Amen, sister! One reference that I wasn't fond of was Dumbledore's remark to Snape that "maybe we do the sorting too soon." To me, the whole point of the Snape plot arc was to show that there's more to Slytherin than pure evil - and indeed, it was precisely because he was in Slytherin that Snape could play the role he did. Harry's comments to Albus - that it's okay to be in Slytherin - seem to suggest a more mature awareness, at least, but I guess there's no hope for Ron!

One idea I came across in another review is the theme of protective parents: Narcissa Malfoy is redeemed by her love for Draco; Lupin is angrily rebuked when he considers abandoning his son; Molly Weasley is trasformed by her love for her children to the point where Bellatrix Lestrange is no match for her.

That kind of love is powerful, but it is also contextualized by the love Harry shows - the unlimited, all-embracing love I talked about here. Although I as initially disappointed in Snape's minor role in Voldemort's defeat, the role he IS assigned here is to protect the students at Hogwarts, and for Dumbledore and for J.K. Rowling, there is no higher role. The more I think about that, the more moved I am by it. Snape has no children of his own, but he spends his life protecting a child he doesn't love, and ends his life doing all he can to stand between Voldemort and ALL the children of Hogwarts.

painted maypole said...

What a wonderful piece about this book. I finished it at 5 am this morning (that should make the jet lag after flying to London even more fun, eh? I tell myself it will just help me sleep on the plane!) I, too, was struck by the constant references in this book to God, and that passage you quoted about Harry's faith in Dumbledore stayed in my head as well. This deciding to move forward on faith, to know you don't and can't know everything, but to step out. Once that leap of faith truly happens, the change in Harry is palpable. These books have so much to say about love and faith and trust... which are very Christian themes. If only these people would READ the books. sigh.

Morrigan said...

I have been avoiding your blog for the last couple of days knowing that it would contain an insightful review of the book, and I haven't been disappointed. I was thrilled with the resolution of the series (even the epilogue, although I agree it was clunky) and can't wait until my husband finishes reading and we can discuss it properly.

As for Dumbledore's Howler to Petunia, I always believed "remember my last" to refer to the letter left with Harry on the doorstep which presumably explained that the protection of Lily's sacrifice extended to him while able to call the Dursley's home his own. I like to think that Dumbledore would have made a pointed comment on the loyalties of family, etc.

niobe said...

Of course, I'm grown up, so I found the Christian elements and references in Harry Potter kind of interesting. But as a child, when I finally figured out or was told what the Narnia books were really about, I felt betrayed and, well, guilty.

For a non-Christian child there's something profoundly unsettling about finding out that the stories you were so fond of were actually an elaborate ruse, disguising the alien religious symbols and values so well that you had imbibed them without even realizing it.

bubandpie said...

Niobe - See, when you're raised Christian you just expect everything to contain coded messages that are at odds with your beliefs. ;)

Anonymous said...

Finally, after all these yeats, she pulled it off -- and created an almost perfect parallel universe. How did she think of all those creatures, not to menation the names? Rich, rich. . . and all questions answered. I think I used half a box of tissues on the latter two-thirds of this final novel, and have finally forgiven Rowlings for dispatching Dumbledore in the penultimte volume.

But don't you think Scorpius Malfoy is likely to wind up in Hufflepuff or Gryffindor while Albus Severus lands in Slytherin? Rose will be in Ravensworth, of course. . . .They still sort; tradition triumphs -- this is England, you know!

Still, I wouldn't call it allegory: the correspondences aren't tight, and they would have been had Rowlings so intended. Allegorical maybe; certainly symbolical. But in an era of magical realism, perhaps it can be left at that -- and it's truly magigal, a magical read, a delightful experience, enriched by the ambiguities and not drowned in them -- as is the aforementioned "Treasure Island" -- IMHO

b*babbler said...

Ooh... a fabulous summary and analysis of the entire series, and so many interesting and insightful comments.

I love how layered these books are, and how unlike so many children's books, they do contain ambiguity. I love the good people can be mean, that people can do what is right, even when they don't like what they have to do (especially Snape), and how people can overcome and ultimately redeem themselves with later acts (Dumbledore, Snape, even Ron).

Truly fabulous!

Oh, and I also disliked the "19 years later" part at first, but then came back and re-read it, and decided how much I enjoyed it later. It was satisfying to know, unequivocally, that everything turned out as it should. And it did wrap up a few other things, like Harry's acceptance and forgiveness of Snape through the naming of his son and his understanding that courageousness can be associated with the house of Slytherin and not just Gryffindor, through his identifcation of Snape as being "one of the bravest men he knew" (which I also thought served as an apology for his calling Snape a coward in the earlier book).

Mary G said...

I read a letter to the editor the other day that slapped Rowling for having no religion -- no deity -- in the series. Um?
I wish I could take your course. You are a master!
My daughter won't give me her copy of the book until she rereads it, the brat. So I am now armed with your review points and will be able to confound her.
Most heartfelt thanks!
I forget whom, in the comments, said that they felt cheated when they found out Narnia was a Christian allegory. Me too!

bubandpie said...

Niobe, Mary G, Anonymous (on the off-chance you guys check back in here) - Would you say that you prefer the subtler thematic resonances in the Harry Potter books, then, to the out-and-out allegory of the Narnia books?

I remember that feeling of shock when the shoe dropped for me after reading The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe as a child - it was like seeing one of those Magic Eye posters, where suddenly this additional layer of meaning emerges. In many ways, that's what hooked me on lit-crit: the idea that a text can suddenly shift it's meaning and turn into something else. It's also why I love reading mystery novels.

Swistle said...

I had to save this post for after I'd finished the book! But I've finished the book now, and can say "good post!"

Mary G said...

I'm not sure I prefer one over the other. Most writers have baggage in the back of the van that you have to look for, whether they are consciously structuring it or not. It's sort of a Louisa May Alcott vs Lucy Maud Montgomery choice, and I'll take either. Now. The child I was when I read the LWW book for the first time felt cheated, as if someone had sugar coated her aspirin. The series I do not like is Lewis' Space Trilogy. Insufferable, misogynist prig!!!!! (Oops, sorry. Got caried away there.)

Terri B. said...

"it's hard to write about goodness (as Milton discovered) in a way that makes it more attractive than evil, and I've read few stories in which love and faith are represented so compellingly that I would stay up until three o'clock in the morning, cheering for The Boy Who Lived."

I absolutely love the way you put this. It is so very true. It is hard to write about goodness, and that Rowling held our attention through 7 volumes is to be applauded. I've rarely sat for so many hours straight or rushed home from work just so I could keep reading.

Catherine said...

I must admit, I've been avoiding your blog (and others) like Dumbledore not making eyecontact with Harry in book five. What with birthdays and inlaws and deadlines, I knew you would have beaten me to the punch.

I finished it not five minutes ago.

Wow wow wow wow.

I expected to be dissapointed, and was SO not.

I thought the same, about Theodicy, and chuckled with JKR at the several scripture references she did not ever claim, and Harry and reader alike would not recognize.

I started crying three times.

I need a HP support group, I think.


andrea from the fishbowl said...

I just finished reading it. This after having re-read the first six in the series. I am totally Pottered out! But I have to say that I loved everything about this last one... the Nazi reference, the battles, the coming together of everyone in defense of Harry, the overall *darkness* of this book, as well as the happy ending 19 years later.

I have to say, coming into it I was convinced that (a) Dumbledore would rise again (b) Dumbledore had reason to trust Snape and that Snape was actually a good guy (c) Harry would die.

One out of three ain't bad, is it? :)

bubandpie said...

Andrea - Well, one and two halves, I'd say. Dumbledore didn't rise again, but the book was still all about him, and his presence was very much felt. And Harry did sort of die.

The reason I didn't think Dumbledore would return was that Rowling went out of her way after Sirius died to emphasize that death is, should be, permanent - I think that the nature of death was one of the main ideas she wanted to explore in the series, and bringing characters back soap-opera style would have threatened that.

(I'm so glad people are coming back to comment when they finish! I'm doing the series re-read now, because I haven't nearly had enough yet.)

andrea from the fishbowl said...

You're right, althought Harry didn't D.I.E. like Dumbledore died. (Try saying *that* ten times fast!)

I really enjoyed the scene at King's Cross with the two of them. I found it quite satisfying.

The whole series was such an enjoyable read. When I reread the first one I thought for sure I would let my 8 y.o. read it, but as I went through them all I decided we could wait at least another year. They got darker and darker as they went along.

I'm not surprised that JKR burst into tears when she wrote those last words.

The Small Scribbler said...

I greatly appreciated this review. I had held off allowing my kids to read these books because of the magic. They were so young that I thought it would lead to some confusion. A few years have past and You have convinced me to enjoy Rowling with my older children.


Katrina said...

I know I'm late to the party, but I was able to finally, finally come back and read this post that I've been avoiding. I decided to be a nice wife and let my husband read the book first, and then a family wedding interfered, and anyway... I just finished the book today.

Love your thoughts, and I've thoroughly enjoyed reading everyone's comments as well. As far as allegories go, I am disgusted by allegories that are so intent on bludgeoning readers over the head with the allegory that the plot and characterization end up thin and pathetic. But when the author makes the effort to create a world that draws me in, characters that keep me hoping they'll win, and a plot that prods me to turn pages long after my bedtime, it's all good. Lewis was that author when I was a child, and Rowling (though not strictly allegorical in her story) has done much the same for me now.

Joy, of course said...

Finally, finally! I finished it. Had to do some rereading first.

I originally thought I would pop on my blog and do a review but now that I have read yours, I feel inadequate to do so, since I would undoubtedly spout something generic like "It was fabulous, I loved it!"

I have to say that throughout the first half of the book though, I didn't love it. I found Hogwarts to be almost like a character itself and I really missed it. I grew tired of Harry, Ron and Hermoine wandering, and arguing and not accomplishing much. And while I expected it, I also missed humor, however decreasing, from the previous books.

However, by about midway through the riddles were stacking up: Horcruxes, Hallows, Dumbledore's intentions, a blue eye and a Doe Patronus and I couldn't put it down. And then I honestly believed that Harry was going to sacrifice himself and I was crying and I was angry at Rowling. And then somehow she pulled it out of her hat, and he didn't die and for the most part it didn't feel too contrived. Which of course it was. And now, as I sit and absorb the book in it's entirety I think something like "It was fabulous! I loved it" would definately be appropriate. It may even be my favorite one.

And I think your analysis of the moral ambuiguities was very good. In fact it's one of the things I love about the books, the fact that all the "good" characters struggle with evil and that some of the evil characters struggle with good. It's rare to find such three dimentional characters in children's books.

"Oh and it's hard to write about goodness (as Milton discovered) in a way that makes it more attractive than evil, and I've read few stories in which love and faith are represented so compellingly that I would stay up until three o'clock in the morning, cheering for The Boy Who Lived."

And you're my hero, just for writing these lines. Sigh. Fantastic review.

bubandpie said...

JOC - You're right about the riddles - that is absolutely what pulls me forward, even more than the suspense. I once did a diagram of Ann Radcliffe's notorious gothic novel The Mysteries of Udolpho, charting out the page #s on which each mystery was introduced and then the overlapping arcs to where each mystery was resolved. Some mysteries span the whole novel, while others are cleared up early, and more mysteries keep cropping up all the way along. It's one of the best formulas for writing a page-turner, and it's never been improved upon.

Deathly Hallows had plenty of those - the mystery of how the Death Eaters found them in a random London pub, for instance, with the overarching mystery involving the Hallows and Horcruxes. Works every time.

(You should still write your review! I want to read more!)

Lawyer Mama said...

I finished it! So, of course, I had to come here immediately and read this post of yours that I've been avoiding. And I love your discussion of LW&W and the Christian allegory. LOVE IT! I prefer the subtler approach that Rowling takes, perhaps because I've never enjoyed being whacked over the head by religion.

"I did have a problem with Harry's use of the Cruciatus curse even after the resolution of his crisis of faith in Dumbledore. In the latter part of Book 7 he really comes into himself, so it seems strange to see him taking his cue from Bellatrix and even quoting her ("you have to mean it!")."

I think this ambiguity is one of the things that made me enjoy this book so much. We can still be good people and do things we shouldn't, things that are bad. This is a perfect example of the moral ambiguities you were discussing, I think. In the name of defeating evil, we do evil things ourselves. Going back to WWII again, Japanese internment camps and Hiroshima come to mind. I think Harry's hatred of Voldemort and the Death Eaters motivates him as much as his love for the people fighting them. But maybe I'm just reading too much into it!

I was also a bit disappointed in the Snape resolution. It was nice to see his motivation for what's happened throughout the books, but I was somehow expecting more out of him. I'm not sure why. What could be less selfless than protecting a child that wasn't even his? But it still felt self-serving to me until the end.

I'm sooo glad I finally got to come back and read this post!

We were talking about you at BlogHer at dinner one night. We were discussing a children's book (although the fog of alcohol prevents me from remembering what it was) and I mentioned that we needed you there at dinner to continue the discussion. There were many sighs of "Ohhh, yes. B&P should be here." You were missed.

bubandpie said...

LM - I don't necessarily mind that Harry et al were using Unforgivable Curses (both the Cruciatus and the Imperius) - I agree that it's part of the book's moral realism. I guess I would have liked a bit more opportunity for uneasiness about that - about the price they are paying to do the right thing.

The sense I took away from the book was that the ends justified the means and we weren't expected to view their use of these curses as problematic - the only real line Harry couldn't/didn't cross was the Avada Kedavra ("no killing curses for you" as Snape said in Book 6).

Rachel said...

Came here via Catherine who left a comment on my blog. Just wanted to say that I really enjoyed your review.

Bex said...


This is very insightful! One thing, as Harry Potter Series takes its final vow through Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, it gave all explanations to all the ambiguities in each series including Snape’s loyalty. It left the mark of the battle between good and evil where during the battle, unconditional love is the most powerful weapon one can carry in his heart to be able to emerge victorious. It’s an etheric representation of life’s battle with undying lessons we can hand over to our children.

I've posted summaries of all seven books in and I've cited your blogpost in Bookjive Blog as I really find it very insightful.

Mad Hatter said...

Just finished the book, the post and half the comments. I must interject before I read further (and now you yawn b/c this is soooo yesterday's news to you).

One of the small faults I did find with the book was that Snape's redemption came a bit too easy in the end. I always believed he would be one of the good guys in the end BUT this is the man that called Hermione a Mudblood in one of the earlier books. His Occlumency sessions with Harry were needlessly brutish. This is the man that Dumbledore left in charge of Hogwarts so that he might protect the students AND STILL detentions featured the crutiatus curse, students fled for their lives to the room of requirement, Nevlille and Seamus were battered and bruised... My question is "what exactly did Snape do on behalf of the students?" I'm afraid that Rowling buried him just a bit too deep for the resurrection she provided. You know that old saying, "for the love of Pete!"? It gets said when something is a tad too ridiculous to bear. I think I am going to start saying "For the love of Lily Potter!" instead.

I also have some issues with Dumbledore and the secrets he kept. Why couldn't McGonnagal or Lupin or Kinglsey or any other members of the Order of the Phoenix have been brought into the information loop just a tad. The new world order only came about because of Dumbledore's lack of trust. We are meant to make much of Harry sharing everything with Ron and Hermione but his confidences in them are only given meaning because secrets are the order of the day. Even Harry is complicit in this. And yes, yes I know that there was much at stake what with the way the Death Eaters did business BUT it seems to me that if you want your version of the good that triumphs over evil to actually be GOOD then it shouldn't rely so much on secrets and isolation. I know that if I were Mr and Mrs Weasley or Neville or Ginny, I would have been pretty peeved in the end that I wasn't one of the chosen 3 deemed trustworthy throughout.

OK, now I am rambling and oddly negative. I loved the book and was cheering like nobody's business throughout. I even let out a little whoop on the plane last night when Kingsley was made interim Minister for Magic. Maybe Rowling's cynicism about politics has started to crack now that Blair is gone.

Mad Hatter said...

Two more things.

1. Ha! I rounded you up from 59 to 60 comments. You're welcome.

2. Holy crap! Look at the link backs to this post. Aren't you one well-read Missy in both senses of the expression.

Mad Hatter said...

Oh and I loved the 19 years later bit precisely b/c I hated it. It was soooo YA of her and in the end I love that she gave her young readers what they would want in terms of closure despite what the cynical adult critics would have to say on the matter.

Can you say 62?

Mad Hatter said...

Um and Luna? What happened to Luna? Where did she end up 19 years later?

bubandpie said...

Mad - Clearly you haven't been reading JKR's interviews as obsessively as I have. At first she denied the possibility of a Neville/Luna pairing, but I think she has since relaxed her stand somewhat.

Your reading of Snape is pretty close to what Rowling has said about him in interviews - she seems kind of mystified by all the passionate loyalty some readers have towards him, when she sees him as basically a bully who has one small redeeming trait that places him on the side of good without making him in any sense a good person. He did use trips to the Forbidden Forest with Hagrid as a punishment for Ginny and Neville (something hubby thought was way too much of a give-away).

bubandpie said...

Also - among the responses I've read at various online discussions, readers seem fairly evenly divided between those who are offended at how casually Snape's death is treated (his body is just left to rot in the Shrieking Shack, so far as we know), and those who are offended that Harry would use Severus as his son's middle name (especially in preference to Sirius!). So Snape remains as controversial in death as he was in life!

Mad Hatter said...

Ya, I'm not so concerned with WHO Luna did but WHAT Luna did. I assume she took over from her father as editor of the Quibbler but that goes unsaid. The book is all about standing up for the unloved and the outsiders and yet this key character, who is the biggest outsider in the peer group, is kind of abandoned at book's end.

I also wouldn't mind knowing just what Harry, Hermione, Ron, and Ginny became in their careers. Are they all Aurors? Just wonderin'. And is George still running the joke shop without Fred. It seems too sad to contemplate.

As for names, I am assuming that Harry's eldest son James carries the middle name Sirius. How could he not? Albus and Severus were simply names that Harry used when all the other good names were running out.

BTW, did you notice that except for Arthur and Molly, Rowling completely killed off the original generation: James, Lily, Sirius, Remus, Tonks, Snape...? Do we really need to kill our parents and mentors to come into our own? I hope not.

And then there is the wee matter of how Harry died. We are told that there are very few things that can destroy a Horcrux--basalisk venom, fiend fyre--but nowhere does it say that the Elder Wand has that power. If it did, Dumbledore could have simply destroyed the ring with his wand instead of cracking it with the sword. And yet, Voldemort's Avada Kevadra curse not only "kills" Harry but it also kills the Horcrux part of his soul living in Harry. Somehow, it just doesn't add up. Rowling owed us a sentence of rationalization on that one.

bubandpie said...

In one interview, JKR said that Ron went in with George on the joke shop, but in a later interview (as in, a few days later) she said that Ron was working as an Auror with Harry.

Hermione is in a key position at the Ministry of Magic.

Ginny plays professional Quidditch for a few years before retiring to have a family, in the Weasley SAHM tradition. I can't remember whether Rowling left open the possibility that Hermione might actually be a working mom, or if her career was equally brief.

On the generational issue, I would like to find out what happened to the previous generation! Those witches and wizards have their babies young - Harry's paternal grandparents must have been in their forties when he was orphaned.

Ooh, good one on the Horcrux issue. I think the best work-around for that would have to do not so much with the Elder Wand as with the fact that Voldemort himself was wielding it - it would make sense that a Horcrux could be more easily destroyed by the wizard who made it than anyone else. In that make-it-up-as-you-go-along way of making sense that applies to these books, that is.

virtualaudio said...

Regarding the Harry Horcrux: Harry being a person, as opposed to an inanimate 'magical container' would partly (if not entirely) explain why Voldemort's killing curse would do away with the horcrux contained within him.

bubandpie said...

Virtualaudio - I thought of that too - it's what I assumed while I was reading the book. (After all, it doesn't make sense that a magically implanted soul bit would continue to inhabit a body after the real soul has fled - or does it?) What made me hesitate about that explanation, though, is the effort JKR went to to ensure that Nagini was killed with the Gryffindor sword - in that case, it didn't seem as if killing the creature by ordinary means would have worked.

Pieces said...

This post is great--I finally (FINALLY!) finished the series just today and I am winging around the blogosphere, reading the posts that I had to avoid this summer. You have given me food for thought--so much so that I fear I need to reread the whole series again very soon.

The Rush Blog said...

But somehow that framework allows for James Potter to be a bit of a bully in his Hogwarts days, for Ron to be an ill-tempered brat, for Dumbledore himself to have a Hamartia, a fatal longing for the power of the Deathly Hallows.

So, if Ron is an ill-tempered brat, what is Harry? Mr. Perfection? What is Hermione? The Symbol of New Feminism? It's interesting that you're willing to stamp some kind of negativity on Ron and not on Harry or Hermione.

The Rush Blog said...

But somehow that framework allows for James Potter to be a bit of a bully in his Hogwarts days, for Ron to be an ill-tempered brat, for Dumbledore himself to have a Hamartia, a fatal longing for the power of the Deathly Hallows.

So, if Ron is an ill-tempered brat, what is Harry? Mr. Perfection? What is Hermione? The Symbol of New Feminism? It's interesting that you're willing to stamp some kind of negativity on Ron and not on Harry or Hermione.