Harry Potter and the Half-Baked Epic
Readers beware! Significant details, including the end, of the recently released Harry Potter book are discussed below. --The Editors
When Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the eagerly anticipated conclusion of J.K. Rowling's seven-part saga, was finally released on July 21, the critics weren't disappointed. The New York Times's Michiko Kakutani praised the "epic showdown" as "deeply rooted in traditional literature and Hollywood sagas--from the Greek myths to Dickens and Tolkien to 'Star Wars.'" But great battles in fiction, especially of the caliber name-checked by Kakutani, are epic not merely in scale but also in moral content. Whether aimed at adults or children, they speak directly to the nature of good and evil and what is at stake when we choose between them. Most critics this past week didn't seem to notice that Rowling fails entirely to meet this key requirement. What we get instead is a moral fuzziness that parades as realism, innumerable references to a post-9/11 world coupled with throwaway and often derivative insights that never add up to a coherent moral vision.
In Deathly Hallows, we get a good look at the ultimate embodiment of evil, Lord Voldemort, who turns out to be essentially a Hitler wannabe with a penchant for racial purity, mass graves and general totalitarian mayhem. Painted in broad strokes, his brand of evil--revealed early in his habit of torturing, what else, rabbits--doesn't add up to much more than a rehashed, cartoonish version of tyranny that the reader can safely be relied on to despise. For all his cutting-edge terrorist strategy in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Voldemort finally reveals himself to be a cardboard imitation of an old-fashioned kind of baddie, like Tolkien's Sauron.
Rowling's ham-handed characterization of Voldemort is in stark contrast to her depiction of a far more insidious and contemporary kind of evil, one captured so brilliantly in the bright-eyed malice of Dolores Umbridge, the Grand Inquisitor in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. In the Ministry of Magic--originally led by Cornelius Fudge, who is later replaced by Rufus Scrimgeour in Half-Blood Prince--Rowling points her finger at elected officials hellbent on preserving their power at the expense of their citizens, wresting basic rights, eroding freedoms and manipulating information, all in the name of maintaining order. But in her final book, Rowling simply sweeps aside the multitude of the Ministry's sins in the wake of Voldemort's bloody coup. His far more spectacular crimes offer a good excuse to turn Scrimgeour into an unlikely hero of sorts. He's just one of the good guys, though a little unsavory in his methods, Rowling assures us.
If Rowling's take on evil is politically evasive and, in the final analysis, just plain uninteresting, her notion of good is no less obscure, best exemplified by the muddled characterization of her hero. Here's a 17-year-old who spends much of the book wallowing in the most unheroic of sentiments: resentment, suspicion, paranoia, self-pity and anger, but not of the outraged, impassioned kind that you might think a death-wielding Nazi would inspire. He's far too busy hating Hermione for breaking his wand or Dumbledore for leaving him in the lurch. Even the sight of desperate Muggle-borns being rounded up and "registered" to meet what will surely be an awful fate cannot shake Harry out of his self-pity. As the rest of the wizarding world teeters on the brink of catastrophe, what Harry really wants to know is: Did Dumbledore love me or what?
The personal is political and love is the ultimate good, or so Rowling insists. Dumbledore repeatedly assures his young protégé that his ultimate superpower--his mighty heart--will finally vanquish the Dark Lord. And yet Harry's love is every bit as personal and immediate as his other preoccupations. He loves his pals, various parental figures and his school, and it is for them that he takes the greatest risks. Unlike Hermione, he shows little compassion for anyone outside his immediate circle of friends, and certainly no interest in the larger issues at stake in the resistance against Voldemort. Yet Rowling reiterates the love mantra over and over again to make the fatuous--and disingenuous--distinction between good and evil. Voldemort, you see, doesn't have any friends, for to be good, one must love and be loved. If that were the sole criterion for goodness, even Nazis would make the grade.
For all Harry's whingeing, Rowling does redeem her hero toward the very end of the book. Cue final revelation, followed by spiritual epiphany and voilà--Harry learns to stop endlessly analyzing his life and embrace death in order to defeat Voldemort. Death has always been big in the Harry Potter series--Death Eaters, deathly hallows, horcruxes and, of course, an ever-mounting body count--since its looming shadow lends a sense of urgency and import. Yes, we all need to learn how to die, but Rowling is oddly coy when it comes to telling us what to die for. What has all this terrible destruction, loss and sacrifice been in service of?
Rowling's answer to this question, which has always been unconvincing, turns out in the end to be no less than damning. In her stinging critique of the Harry Potter series in 2003, author A.S. Byatt rightly observed, "Its values, and everything in it, are, as Gatsby said of his own world when the light had gone out of his dream, 'only personal.' Nobody is trying to save or destroy anything beyond Harry Potter and his friends and family."
Deathly Hallows is a sad confirmation of the same. The shallowness of Rowling's enterprise is revealed in the vapid little epilogue that seems inspired less by great fiction than B-list Hollywood scripts. Where the cataclysmic showdown in The Lord of the Rings leaves the Hobbits and Middle-earth irrevocably altered even in victory, the wizarding world merely returns to business as usual, restoring its most famous citizens to a life of middle-class comfort. At the end of this overly long saga, the reader leaves with the impression that what Harry was fighting for all along was his right--and now that of his children--to play Quidditch, cast cool spells and shop for the right wand. Or what George Bush would call "our way of life."