Sunday, October 07, 2007

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows


I recently completed my second (and more leisurely) reading of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows and I thought I would write about it. The things I write below will include fannish nerdiness -- you have been warned, so go away if you cannot accept that in the spirit in which it is intended -- but will certainly reflect my interest in storytelling and writing and politics.

The short version of my reaction to the book is that I like it. It isn't the strongest book in the series, but I definitely enjoyed it and felt that it provided a conclusion that I could be quite happy with, even considering what I have to say in the rest of the post. I thought the beginning and ending (minus the epilogue) were strong, but the middle somewhat less so, and certain choices made by the author left something to be desired both in terms of storytelling and in terms of politics. The rest of this post is me fleshing all of that out.

There are a lot of different ways that speculative fiction -- science fiction, fantasy, and horror -- can be put together such that it engages me and makes me want to read more. One combination that often gets me is when the author manages to create characters that are sufficiently interesting and complex to draw me into their emotional lives, a plot that is compelling and makes skillful use of whatever fantastic elements exist in the author's world, and does things with the world or the story or the characters that are politically interesting to me.

I want to emphasize that not all of these elements are necessary for me to enjoy a piece of speculative fiction, and there are countless ways of combining them or doing writing that completely ignores them to produce a great story. One of my early favourites was J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings -- I read it many, many times growing up. Looking at it now, I recognize that it has some seriously politically dubious elements and treats characters largely as vessels for moving the plot forward rather than proceeding with much interest in them as people, but its sweeping, mythic plot (with the huge impact that it had on the genre) still gets me. There are lots of (especially older and male-written) sf and fantasy that basically only do plot -- flat characters, lousy politics -- but that do it in ways that I still find interesting and worthwhile. On the other hand, there is Marion Zimmer Bradley's The Forbidden Tower, which really isn't all that well written and its plot is clearly a convenience to explore personally and politically interesting relationship dynamics among the main characters, but that, too, gets me. Or there are Lynn Flewelling's books -- something I have intended to write about in the past but never have, and may do so in the future -- which have really alive characters, are great stories, and do politically interesting things with sexuality and gender, and they definitely get me. And there are lots of others where talking about them in these categories wouldn't necessarily be useful in getting at what is most interesting about them.

That said, JKR's books are at their best when she does all three. They are at their weakest when she focuses too exclusively on plotiness, on adventurous happenings, on the monster-of-the-week. That area just isn't her strength, I don't think. They are much stronger when there is a good balance between monster-of-the-week stuff and character stuff. And her character stuff is at its best when it is done through everyday, interpersonal interactions, in an ensemble setting rather than too exclusive a focus on Harry's inner life in the absence of plenty of other characters for him to play off (though the great, intense alone stuff with Harry at the end of Deathly Hallows is an exception to that).

I did not start reading the series until the fourth book (of seven) had been published, I think, and I really didn't become a fan until I'd read the fifth book, Order of the Phoenix. That one caught me because it did such a good job of combining all three elements. It was massive, for one thing, so JKR had plenty of space to do both plotty stuff and character stuff. The balance between those two was good, and the size allowed the character stuff to go significantly beyond the solid Trio (Harry, Ron, Hermione) interactions in the earlier books to include what I have seen referred to as the "six pack" in some fan contexts (the Trio plus Neville, Luna, and Ginny). It was very ensemble and very interactive. Even better, it is a politically interesting book (which none of the earlier ones were) because the focus of the plot was collective struggle against arbitrary authority within the context of Hogwarts, which was quite skillfully shown -- all the moves and countermoves, the central role of textual regulation in setting the rules of the game, the various ways in which those engaging in struggle could exploit the spaces available to them in the service of resistance, and so on.

The set-up for Deathly Hallows, on the other hand, forced JKR to make a number of choices. The beginning balanced plot and character quite well, and was very ensemble oriented, but once the Horcrux hunt began, the storytelling environment was much different than anything before in the series because the Trio was essentially out of regular touch with anyone for many hundreds of pages. In essence, JKR chose to split the "six pack" in two. Harry, Hermione, and Ron went on the Horcrux hunt and engaged in the hero's magical quest necessary to win, while Neville, Ginny, and Luna (and most of the other characters who engaged in any action at all) were involved in elements of struggle that might be understood as political rather than mystical. Except the reader gets to see only very occasional snippets of the political stuff, like when the Trio tunes in to the guerilla wizarding wireless show, or in the brief recounting near the end of what had been going at Hogwarts all of this time. So in that long, long middle stretch, you have an emphasis on plot, relatively few opportunities for interactive character development, and an isolation of the reader's stream of awareness from politics.

Add to that the fact that there were bits that just didn't quite feel like they worked in that section. The emotional pacing of a number of aspects was off. While I appreciate the dramatic utility of having Ron storm off and abandon Harry and Hermione so as to isolate Harry as much as possible from any supports and any signs of hope before starting to bring things back together, it felt a bit forced. As did the mechanism by which the upswing began, though it did make more sense as more of the plot was revealed. As well, the big action sequences, like when the Trio penetrates the Ministry and later when they rob Gringotts, felt the way stretches with too much monster-of-the-weekness have felt throughout the series -- that is, fine but not great.

The separation of the Trio from the rest of the wizarding world was partly a consequence of where the plot had gone and so couldn't really be avoided. But JKR took the isolation much farther than she had to, I think. Part of that was the economics of publishing: I would have liked to have seen both halves of the "six pack" getting screen time, and sufficient interactions between the two halves to justify that, but it would've resulted in a 1500 page book to do it right, and even JKR couldn't get away with that length. I have my suspicions about other reasons as well, some of which I'll talk about more below, but I think it also had to do with the choice to introduce the Hallows as a focus for the quest and a source of new mythology and detective work by the Trio instead of keeping the story focused on the Horcruxes. Introducing some new mystical mystery to solve is a pretty standard thing, and I think the way JKR did it was clever and allowed exploration of some thematically interesting things, but it did take up space, and help preclude attention to the political side of the struggle.

The Problem of Ginny

Apparently, pseudo-political squabbles can have a huge impact on online fan communities. I have never felt any urge to become involved in such things, and my few instances of reading fan writings that enter into said debates has tended to leave me repelled and bemused. Nonetheless, I think there are often ideas of real political interest underlying what tends to get expressed as personality conflicts and loyalties to fictional characters. The character of Ginny has been, apparently, a focus of one of the most vicious such conflicts in the Harry Potter fandom.

As far as I understand it -- and, again, I haven't followed such things, so I could easily be getting this wrong -- there is a chunk of the fandom that loathes Ginny, and feel that her coming out of her shell in books V and VI was somehow a reprehensible choice on the part of the author. I have trouble understanding this position, because it sounds a lot like these fans are objecting to a story that allows a little girl (who is mostly portrayed as quite silly, because in the earliest books her only 'screen' time revolves around her crush on Harry) to turn into a young woman (who is strong and capable). A big part of that process happens outside of the reader's view, because Ginny is largely absent from books III and IV, but I still have trouble coming up with a reading that makes her growing up implausible without a heavy dose of sexism in the mix. Some of the fan objections also seem to centre around a loyalty to Hermione and a sense that she is displaced in some way by Ginny, but again I have trouble coming up with a way to make sense of this unless you think that there is only ever room for one strong female character in a series of books. (And, as other authors have pointed out, the Harry Potter series is certainly not feminist storytelling, and a surplus of attention to strong women or to other challenges to dominant gender norms is hardly a complaint that anyone could plausibly make against the series.)

All of which is kind of irrelevant to what I have to say about her in Deathly Hallows -- I'm more painting some context. In any case, late in Half-Blood Prince Ginny and Harry get together at long last, though they break-up again at the very end on Harry's initiative for stupid and noble reasons. Early in Deathly Hallows the two have a moment, and then she largely disappears from the story until the epilogue. We do learn that she has been participating in resistance and we see flashes of her presence in the final battle, but all of that is at one or two removes from the central flow of the part of the story that JKR directly shows the readers.

The question is, why is Ginny absent?

There are several possible answers to this question. One is that JKR was responding in some way to the Ginny-focused turmoil within fan communities. I don't think this is terribly likely or terribly interesting, but it is possible.

The second possibility has to do with dominant norms around sexuality and the economics of the publishing industry. Particularly once the series was established, JKR was obliged to write books that would sell as many copies as possible. One thing that can cut into sales is telling your story in ways that challenge norms held by people you want to buy your book. One ridiculous but very powerful norm around sexuality is that teens don't, or at least shouldn't. A book showing how teens actually behave in this area rather than conservative fantasies of how they should behave will have fewer buyers, even if all the actual action is offscreen but the general outline of what is happening is clear to the reader.

I have the sense from what JKR actually wrote that she recognizes this as unrealistic and she retains a loyalty to the characters that have lived in her head for close to twenty years now, and she didn't want to write them in ways that were not true to who they are. So in Half-Blood Prince after Ginny and Harry have their first kiss, the author's gaze (and therefore the reader's) conspicuously draws away from this side of their relationship, leaving it undefined rather than violating loyalty to realism and character or obligation to publisher. This is possible because the period when they are together is so brief. JKR gets away with slipping in the fact that it would be entirely unremarkable for some at least semi-intimate clothing removal to have taken place between Harry and Ginny by tucking that away in how the characters react to a particular joke. The moment shared by the two in Deathly Hallows occurs on Harry's birthday, not long before he is about to take off on the potentially fatal Horcrux hunt. They are broken up, but one purpose of this moment is to make it clear that is not because they don't want to be together. In any case, it is pretty clear that -- given the danger, given Ginny's established go-get-it-iveness in many areas of life including with boys -- that she is offering/seeking more than just a birthday kiss, but other characters interrupt so it is suitably vague to be included in the book.

In other words, part of the reason why Ginny was so absent from the book was because it would be very hard, probably impossible, to balance loyalty to how the characters would actually behave with the "no sex" interdiction from the publisher if Ginny was any more present in the book. This same logic is why the inevitable Ron/Hermione first kiss did not occur until the middle of the final battle. Though I understand the basis for this phenomenon, I have little patience for it, and am in fact a bit angered by it.

However, there is a third possible explanation for the absence of Ginny in Deathly Hallows, and this one I actually have some respect for. At the most obvious level, this reason can be stated by saying that the story of Harry and Ginny's relationship was just not the one JKR wanted to tell. It was important in Half-Blood Prince, but she's dealt with it and has a different story to tell this time. The significance of this expands from basic authorial choice, however, when you appreciate the narrative environment into which this book enters.

The power of the heteronormative pair bond in mass narratives is almost overwhelming. How many stories -- book, television, movie, comic book, whatever -- have you seen where part of the resolution was the successful creation of a heteronormative pair bond assumed to be monogamous, permanent, and "happily ever after"? It is so ubiquitous, it is sometimes hard to notice how narrowly focused and mandatory it really is. Even lots of movies in which emotional and romantic considerations are largely irrelevant to why people watch them feel the need to include this device somewhere along the line. Even in some stories with same-sex relationships, the author changes only the gender of one participant while leaving the larger relationship practice and the way the relationship functions in the story largely the same as the heteronormative model. It is also an extremely common device in a lot of genre fiction, particularly the more formulaic examples: the (usually male) hero marries the princess, the fair maiden, the amazon warrior, at the end. (In one series I read voraciously as a kid, one character was even quite open about at least one facet of politics of the whole thing by referring to the princess that the scullion-turned-king was about to marry as his "reward" for conquering the forces of evil.)

The heteronormative pair bond functions as a symbol of completeness, of all being right with the world, of satisfaction having been achieved. It is an element of the hero's victory that all of us in our right minds are assumed to aspire to, encouraged to aspire to, forced to aspire to. Its absence is the sign of an empty life, an implicit cause for dissatisfaction, a sign that the story is not yet done.


Now, to some extent, all of this is achieved in the epilogue anyway, and I'll talk more about that in a moment, but I still think it is a relatively bold move to resist the ways in which actually including the Harry/Ginny romance as part of the story would have been inviting in powerful narrative forces that could easily have pushed the story in directions that were quite simply not the ones the author wanted. The heternormative pair bond did not trump all other forms of human relationship in this story, and the relationships among Harry, Ron, and Hermione remained the book's focus. I appreciate this.

On the other hand, I would much rather have seen JKR respond to this pressure not by completely removing Ginny from the book but by inviting her in and challenging the narrative pressures carried in via this norm in a more active and engaged way in how she wrote the story rather than just by dodging it. But that gets back to challenging norms and the mass media's need to sell as many copies as possible.

Now, back to that epilogue. It was, unfortunately, utter cheese, and largely indistinguishable from the sorts of endings you can find in countless middle-tier Harry Potter fanfictions. But I don't begrudge JKR this cheesiness -- they're her babies, she's done a lot of writing that I'm sure at times felt like it was more for others than for her, so let her indulge a bit.

What I'm more concerned about is how that ending relates to one of the central themes of the series. It is saying nothing controversial to point out that family is an important theme in the Harry Potter books. To many people, the epilogue fits perfectly within this because it is Harry having finally achieved the sort of family that his fate denied him while growing up. As that funky mirror he discovered in book I or II showed, this yearning for family and for belonging is a central one to Harry, and that is carried through all of the books. But for me, one of the most fascinating elements of the family theme in the series was what it said about the family you are forced into versus the family you build for yourself. In essence, it was quite blatant about the fact that if you are growing up in a family that is abusive and that wants you to deny who you are, and if some older folks representing a world that allows you to totally be yourself and explore your full potential come along and extend a welcoming hand, you take it and you run with it and you don't look back. Personally, I think it is this that has religious conservatives up in arms about the series, not the inclusion of hocus-pocus. Because it is giving youth a message that can easily be translated into a recommendation that if they desire others of the same gender but their repressive, queer-hatin' family refuses to endorse that, they should just say "screw you" and take off to the nearest major urban centre to find/build spaces where they can be who they are. The epilogue, however, is not just about Harry finally having achieved family, but about a very particular kind of family -- a kind of family perfectly consistent with dominant norms. Now, you could probably come up with more queered readings of the epilogue that do complexify family, given how prominent Ron and Hermione remain, given the references to Harry's godson Teddy, but you'd have to really work at that. I think the most plausible reading of the epilogue means that it functions to defuse some of the challenge to our understandings of family found in the rest of the series. Which is too bad.

Other Political Stuff

As I said above, material of political interest in this book is much less than it could have been because of the focus of attention on the single, mystical quest by the hero and a small number of companions -- a staple for the genre, after all -- with relatively little chance for the reader to get a good look at the more politically oriented collective struggle that we know is going on. Still, there is some interesting stuff. The creation of the feel surrounding what amounted to a secret fascist coup was quite well done, I thought, as well as the odds and ends we learned about the resistance. I also appreciated both the told and the shown examples of Neville engaging in defiant behaviour in the face of overwhelming odds, and his explicit emphasis on the importance of doing so even if the act in question cannot hope to meet the scale of what it opposes in direct, material terms -- a kind of propaganda of the deed, an inspiration for those who silently resent the status quo to not give up and perhaps to take action themselves. And the final battle was well done (though the fact that it was the most visible instance of collective resistance to Voldemort falls into a tendency that exists throughout the genre and the culture more generally that makes it quite rare to see examples that understand "resistance" or even "action" to mean anything other than "combat.") But mostly, that was it.

However, one final depressing note on the political side of things was the way in which some of the series-long tensions about relationships between humans and non-humans were resolved. It is only relatively recently that I've come to appreciate what the label "post-colonial" might mean when it applies to the reading and writing of speculative fiction. In response to the one other post I've written about Harry Potter, a commenter talked a bit about it. I don't think I completely got what she was saying at the time, though I think I understand it better now. A lot of the issue has to do with what we can learn about relations between an assumed "we" and a designated "Other" by looking at the ways in which relations between species, "races", and nations are portrayed in speculative fiction. Traditionally in these genres, the narrative viewpoint rarely deviates from that of some sort of dominant species, "race", or nation, and relationships to the non-viewpoint species, "race", or nation tends to be one of dominance or superiority, implicit or explicit. This tends to be shown in ways that naturalize it rather than challenge it. Though there are wonderful exceptions, the reading and the writing of f/sf/h have historically been disproportionately white, at least in part because of the incorporation into the standards of the genres this naturalization of a standpoint that maps most easily onto white, colonial, and imperial standpoints in real life.

The Harry Potter universe is no exception, with the role of the human-dominated Ministry in perpetuating the enslavement of house elves, the economic ghettoization of goblins, the social ostracizing of werewolves, the spatial marginalization of centaurs and other sentient creatures, the denial of wands to non-humans, and so on. There is some effort by JKR to disrupt the naturalness of these arrangements, partly through the discomfort of most of the "good" characters with the most extreme examples of human chauvinism, and particularly through Hermione's much more thoroughgoing indignation, which is often portrayed as over the top and not terribly well-informed but at least as well-intentioned. These efforts to call into question some of the colonial tendencies in the storytelling have always felt vastly inadequate to the problem (something I have always told myself I could live with because surely she was going to bring some positive resolution to things by the end). In particular, almost noone in the books besides Hermione seems to be as outraged at the enslavement of house elves as slavery really deserves -- in other words, this is a world in which the "good guys" are not really anti-slavery, which is very disturbing. The justification seems to be that most house elves, with the exception of Dobby, don't want to be freed, something that resonates painfully with the sorts of idiocy that pro-slavery forces would spout back in the days before abolition. Other aspects, like the confinement of centaurs by human beings to very small plots of land, reminiscent of the confinement of indigenous peoples to reserves, is never taken up critically by any character at all.

Still, there is a tension there. I was sure -- I was positive -- based on how JKR had built the situation up through the earlier books that an important part of the resolution would be some sort of liberation of the house elves, who would then turn out to be an important and powerful ally against Voldemort.

Instead, the tension about the relationship between humans and non-humans gets resolved in ways that favour the status quo and deny the need to be concerned about it.

One example: Whatever resolution we get to the house elf question is a disappointingly apolitical one that amounts to "be nice to them." While being nice is not, in general, a bad thing to advocate, showing it to be the central way to respond to those that your group or nation politically subordinates is disappointing, to say the least.

Another example: There is a goblin character that has significant interactions with the viewpoint characters, a first for the series. There is some interesting stuff in those interactions, particularly what we learn about the significant differences in how goblins and wizards conceptualize ownership. But really we learn that goblins are hard to get along with, that they are not very nice, and that they don't like wizards very much, which all works towards making the history of conflict between wizards and goblins seem more natural, almost inevitable, and it distracts attention from the fact that it is not just a history of conflict but a history of domination of goblins by wizards. That happens all the time in mainstream discourse in and about the real world. The viewpoint characters ultimately and reluctantly decide to pull a fast one on said goblin, and only fail to do so because he pulls one on them first. Not that I expect all of that history to be resolved in the plot and not that I expect it to be portrayed in ways that are simplistic, but I don't like the way that conflict because of domination is erased by a shift of frame to understanding the conflict as due to difference.

And in the final battle, the house elves, the centaurs, and others line up with the "good guys" against Voldemort. Within the logic of the world JKR has created, this decision on their parts seems reasonable. Viewed from our world, it is perhaps one of the most politically disappointing things in the book. In the book, the "good guys" -- the viewpoint characters, the Order of the Phoenix, and Dumbledore's Army -- are critical of the wizarding state, but mostly around specific policy questions, with some discomfort but not open opposition around the treatment of non-humans from some of them, and no basic opposition to the current social relations of the wizarding world. They are progressives but they are not radicals. And the lesson from the final battle is that, when fascism comes knocking, progressives can count on support from subordinated groups and nations just because fascism is so obviously worse. They do not have to give any thought to their own complicity in oppressing those nations and they do not have to deal with granting any political concessions to win the support of the groups and nations they dominate in return for support against fascism. A united front completely hegemonized by liberal forces is shown as natural and inevitable. Not that this is unrealistic, necessarily, but it would've been nice to see more legitimacy granted in the storytelling to standpoints that would be less than satisfied with this arrangement.

Anyway. A lot of the things that I have criticized here are really only incidentally about Harry Potter. As I've said in a number of instances, they are not at all surprising when you consider the actual ways in which mass market oriented media production happens in our society. There are always exceptions, but most pop culture products that reach as immense an audience as this series will be shaped by these pressures, and any producers of media hoping to reach such a mass audience will train themselves to be responsive to them. Interesting challenges are much more likely on the margins, where sales are expected to be in the thousands rather than the millions. And, as I said, I still enjoyed this book and still thought it was a good read.


No comments: