Monday, November 22, 2010

Goodbye, Harry Potter...

This is a long post. You probably don’t have the time to read it.

So, I finished reading the last Harry Potter book – finally. Also, a good friend recently got me thinking about the sometimes perceived to be polar-opposite values of reality and fantasy, or non-reality. I'll comment on both.

Gotta say, I was kind of a reluctant Harry Potter fan at the beginning, but my Hogwarts experience began quite some time ago, though not as long ago as it did for most.

I’m trying to actually place it based on the relationship I was in at the time. I have had no less than long-term 3 significant others who were all passionate fans of the series – each doing their best to get me excited about the books, and each successive one needing to try less as my own interest was beginning to take hold. I read The Philosopher’s Stone some time around the release of The Goblet of Fire book, and the first (Sorcerer’s Stone) film. I know this because I was told I was going to opening night, and that I needed to read the book first.

So, I did. I read it in an afternoon, and made my way to the theatre that night. I remember being lightly charmed by the book, but also a little stand-offish toward it as we often are when we come late to the party for something that is popular.

I’m a guy who camped-out for the first Star Wars prequel, but I really didn’t get carried away in the Potter Craze until later in the game. I was truly surprised to see the theatre full of little kids in wizard robes, hats, and wands. It was some burgeoning element of popular culture that I had completely missed until that day.

I suppose the more recent comparison would be the Twilight films – which I just don’t have enough interest in to bother with, though the obsession some people have with it does peak my curiosity a bit – not in the books or films, but from the perspective of someone who can’t help but be curious about rabid fan-bases for anything.

Anyway, I do and I don’t want to say a lot about the Harry Potter books now that I’m finished reading them. I don’t need to review them, though there are some elements of the books I feel like I want to critique, though I might not bother. I also want to celebrate them, as the series has been one of the most fun reading experiences I have had as an adult.

I remember years ago, when Uncle Surjit, long-time friend of the family, one of the most learned men I’ve met in life, and just a jolly old elf from India and Kenya, told me that he openly wept when he finished reading The Lord of the Rings for the first time. I don’t know what brought the comment up in the first place, but it has stuck with me. I may have been reading The Hobbit at the time. I have nothing but respect for this man, and he has seen a lot in life – more than a lot of people need to see.

Yet, in his later years, he has seemed to turn away from the pursuit of worldly knowledge, to a point. I remember, and I don’t think he would mind me relating this story, being a bit surprised and disappointed, when Uncle Surjit sent back a gift I had mailed out to him at his new home on Vancouver Island.

I had gone to see a talk given by Wole Soyinka, Nobel Prize-winning author, poet, and historian, at the U of C. There. I had purchased his signed memoir: The Open Sore of a Continent: A Personal Narrative of the Nigerian Crisis, and knew in my heart and mind that it would be a perfect gift for Uncle Surjit – he was the person brought to mind most often by Mr. Soyinka’s words, and I knew he would appreciate the gesture.

However, the gift was sent back to me, the book’s spine intact as it remained unread. He didn’t properly explain at the time, but he did later, and I learned that my friend had simply decided, at his stage in life, that he appreciated the kind and thoughtful gesture, but also that it wouldn’t help him at all to know any more about any sad things in the world.

The biggest part of me wanted to force the issue, and a silent part of me even went so far as to ask bigger questions about the man and his intentions, even integrity. Really? It wasn't about him not appreciating my gift. How could such a learned man, and one I respected so much, have given-up on learning about the world?

Of course, nothing’s so simple as that. In retrospect, returning a gift – especially one as thoughtful as that one had been – was about the most honest act I can think of.

My response to a miniature act, thought to be writ large in meaning, has moved through the years from disappointment, to disbelief, to acceptance and even admiration. Why, indeed, should an old man trouble himself with a history he cannot change? There’s truth in that. His kids are grown and gone, one too early, and he has nobody really that he needs to answer to anymore. Even if he did, he rather successfully in my mind holds his ground of that side of the argument – history is never truly as knowable as we like to think it is. Even if it were, would it always be worth doing? Notable Holocaust Survivors have argued this point. Some pasts can’t be directly spoken about with anything even approaching the appropriate measure of truth. In Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah, the most affecting portion of the film for many is when the camera lingers on a survivor, now a barber, who began reluctantly to tell his story of survival, and then simply can’t go on, but the camera stays seemingly forever on his tormented visage, and we somehow know more this way.

Yet, Uncle Surjit loved The Lord of the Rings, and I believe, still does. There’s truth in there, too. I once went to a very impressive staged production of Into the Woods, and in the liner notes, the director, Tarra Riley, had written some memorable words – paraphrased from Carl Jung and others and I’ll quote some of them here:

“What is it about fairy tales? They get under our skin, into our heads, and stay in our lives. Carl Jung, among others, believed it was because they are profound, intimate, uncensored soul-stories, told in metaphor because telling these stories directly would be impossible — or unbearable.

Myth is an attempt to narrate a whole human experience, of which the purpose is too deep, going too deep in the blood and soul, for mental explanation or description.
D.H. Lawrence”

That seems about right. There’s something elementally human about good fantasy – in whatever sub genre you care to explore.

I can’t say I’m a Fantasy guy, at least in terms of the whole dragons and wizards action – the Robert Jordan novels that go on, and on, and on. But maybe I would be if I gave them a chance. My exposure to the fantasy genre came mostly through an option course in University. There, my professor introduced me to The Golden Compass, re-introduced me to and gave me a new appreciation for Dracula, and scared the shit out of me with H.P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness. This, after having one introductory year’s English course augmented by a professor who was really into gothic fiction, and threw us into a lot of Poe, Shelley, and then, most memorably: The Monk, and a short story about horrific dental surgery , pubescent puppy love, and opening one’s mouth to say “Mozart” as blood splashes on piano keys. Truly – some of the best stuff I’ve ever read.

But back to Potter. I’m going to miss it.

I had created a pleasant reading/viewing pattern for myself after having enjoyed the first book and film that way. As a Harry Potter film is set for release, I read the book version just before I get my tickets. I realize that this leads to a great deal of disappointment for some people, but I’m one who accepts that unless your 700 page novel is going to be released as a mini-series on HBO with a budget to equal that of Band of Brothers, then chances are, you are going to have huge chunks of plot and character cleaved from your story. I long ago accepted that the films would not be nearly as rewarding an experience as the books, and I’ve made peace with it.

That being said, I like the movies. To me, they’ll never be as memorable, meaningful, or grand as the filmed versions of The Lord of the Rings, but to me few films can be. I do find it interesting that the series, though the plot was apparently completely conceived before Rowling began writing the first book, has to some extent been informed by the film versions. It’s tough to think of any other story in popular culture that has developed in two mediums – one so closely behind the other. I didn’t have the famous trio of actors in my head when I began reading the books, but it was impossible for me to read the opening chapter of The Deathly Hallows without picturing Ralph Fiennes’ Voldemort in my head. It’s a pretty good fit.

Anyway, I have enjoyed the books over the past few years, and now having finished the last one, I’m feeling a bit melancholy about it.

I liked waiting to read the books. When Hallows was released the summer before I left for Korea, my room mates stayed-up on the porch through the night and well into the next afternoon, finishing the book right then and there. I think I was on Order of the Phoenix, and I remember the look on their faces when it was over for them. Good bye to characters and places they had come to know and love, but I still had 2 and a half more books to go – ha ha! The promise of more of the story still to savour.

I liked most of the predictability of the series – realizing the story over 7 years enrollment at school, breaking midway through each book for a Christmas vacation of sorts. Likable characters, fascinating new characters in every larger successive tome, and a story that, like its main characters, grew in terms of complexity, both plot-wise and morality wise. By book 7, shit is hitting the fan in all directions, and it’s getting blown-back daggers. No loss seems trite or for show, and being that you’re this far into the series, you have invested enough to feel the holes that are left. Though I have some quibbles, the writing, which grew from charming adventure parable in books one and two, to hinting at something much darker and substantial in book three, to a great page-turning game in book 4, has arrived at the tail-end of book 6 and then throughout book seven to be – well, just damn good.

Rowling has made me laugh out loud: when Ron and Harry are "de-gnoming the garden in The Chamber of Secrets, "The air was soon thick with flying gnomes", and has of course made me cry, I can't deny it. She also made me close a chapter or two with a sad smile on my face - shock at her choice to kill certain beloved characters in this widening war, and do so in unapologetic fashion. There is a great deal of gravity and dramatic reward in being an invested reader of this series, and knowing what a teary Hagrid is carrying back to a battered Hogwart’s castle for all to see. That’s some heart-breaking shit, even if things are going another way soon.

Yeah, I’ve got some minor issues – I did tire of Malfoy being a stock bad guy foil – even until the end. One could predict their confrontations like clockwork and by book 3, Malfoy and Potter finding each other and calling each other’s name in challenge became about as threatening as Jerry running into Newman in the hallway. I did also somewhat resent the fact that this albeit challenging overall plot had to be explained to me through exposition every damn time – usually in the form of Harry demanding to know more while Dumbledore kindly looked back at the boy over his half moon glasses and talked about souls, and bonds and destiny and friendship and courage and blah, blah, blah. And I must confess, even after all of the heavy exposition, I couldn’t be completely confident in explaining how or why all of what happened needed to happen by design for all to be well with the world in the end. I might have to re-read them, but will probably wait for a few years.

Anyway, I really just wanted to say that I will miss the books. There’s something, well… lovely, I suppose about such a well-crafted story with characters that you can easily get behind. A series so long that takes our characters through their formative years is hard to let go of. It’s why I’ve always lamented the end of a good TV series more than I have the end of a good film. Films are easily revisited, while series just aren’t. You’ve invited these characters into your life for 5-7 years and then they’re all growns-up and it’s time to say goodbye. Harry Potter isn’t so different, and in Rowling’s world, there’s more at stake. Imagine little Rudy Huxtable under threat from He-who-must-not-be-named. Now imagine 4th year Vanessa, 6th year Theo and visiting grads Denise and Sondra appearing from under the invisibility cloak with wands drawn to save the day, but Cliff and little fat white kid, Peter, have already bought the farm – all scored by Quincy Jones. It’s good to be challenged by a good read, and it’s good to be comforted, and it’s good when you can have both - especially when you’re in the hands of a skilled, creative, and caring author.

I will truly miss opening up a new Harry Potter book in the fall, and seeing what’s happening on Privet Drive before heading back to a magical place and seeing who the new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher is. Of course, those earlier books might seem a bit childish upon a second read, and that is, I suppose, how it should be. It was fun.


Ian said...

Huh, I guess I had the time, what does that say about my life? You know, I could probably have been half way through the first book by now. Anyway, nice thoughts, lots to think about.

Carly C said...

This did take me a couple times to read this all but it was still a nice read. Certainly Harry was fun to read and I also will miss it. I agree about malfoy. In all honesty, Malfoy, I think, is a good kid just mislead by his father. Probably why he didn't out Potter to his aunt. That uncertainty gives him a weakness in his personality. So Malfoy never stood up to the plate to be all bad or all good.. Only an annoyance. He's like the team rocket of pokemon: a blunder grunt.

I think when I have kids, I'll read this series to them. I personally enjoyed how the books matured with he audience since the first book is a 4th grade novel.