Friday, May 24, 2024

All Becomes Well

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Presented by “Harry Potter and the Reread Project

So. There it is then. The Harry Potter and the Reread Project post where I’ll be discussing the final chapters of the final book of the series – though this might not be the last post, as some of the overall impressions and conclusions this project has left me with will probably necessitate at least one more.

Harry Potter has been part of my life for essentially all of said life: I think it was one of the first books I actually enjoyed reading, and it’s the first movie I actually remember seeing at the cinema. I’ve reread the books countless times since then, though never as slowly and diligently as I’ve done over the last two years. Of course, I don’t react as emotionally to many of the scenes as I did the first few times I read the books, but especially the chapters during which the Battle of Hogwarts took place got under my skin. I had goosebumps – during a 30 degrees Celsius summer day.

The final chapters of Deathly Hallows are some of the most well-written ones of the entire series. They’re atmospheric and action-packed, they bring together many of the well-known characters and tie up the open plot points in a neat bow without feeling overstuffed or rushed. The fact that it’s not entirely clear what happened to some of the characters, like Firenze or Lavender Brown, is simultaneously nicely realistic and frustrating. And it becomes clear, once again, that action scenes are one of JKR’s particular strengths: the Battle of Hogwarts seems disorienting and confusing and scary, but it’s actually fairly easily possible to reconstruct what happened without plot holes being left open.

Full Circles with Disappointing Endings

Another thing that I really liked about the Battle of Hogwarts chapters is the symbolism of Hogwarts being attacked and partially destroyed. Hogwarts – and by extension, the Wizarding World – was Harry’s safe place, his home, where he was liked, admired and supported. The fact that it wasn’t perfect became obvious pretty quickly, but in Philosopher’s Stone, Voldemort and pureblood supremacy are a thing of the past that is trying to return.

art by arbutus-blossom

However, over the course of the series, it becomes clear that the problems with Wizarding society go far deeper. Chamber of Secrets sets this up by placing a threat inside Hogwarts, but making clear that it springs from an ideology that is deeply rooted in Wizarding society and that hasn’t been eradicated with Voldemort being defeated by Harry. The cracks in the facade of the Wizarding World as a safe, happy place only become wider and wider over the course of ther series, as the malevolence of the Ministry takes centre stage in Prisoner of Azkaban and Voldemort returns in Goblet of Fire. The fact that the Ministry and the majority of Wizarding society turn a blind eye to this in Order of the Phoenix is the logical consequence of the flaws of the Wizarding World, and the high point of JKR’s deconstruction of it. In Half-Blood Prince, when the Ministry actually starts to act on the fact that Voldemort has returned, it is essentially too late to stop the construction of what is the fictionalised equivalent of a fascist state that Harry, Ron and Hermione fight in the final book. Ultimately, British Wizarding society is shown as not a safe place but a breeding ground for fictionalised fascism and thus also incapable of stopping that fascism from coming into power.

Hogwarts, over the course of the series, has either had to contend with an external threat trying to get into the school, as in Prisoner of Azkaban, or, more frequently, with a threat or sinister plot that was taking place inside the school and needed to be uncovered, like in Chamber of Secrets, Goblet of Fire, and Half-Blood Prince. In both Chamber of Secrets and Goblet of Fire, that sinister plot was something that was controlled or brought into the school by outsiders, by people who were neither school staff nor students. In Half-Blood Prince, the threat came from Draco, who Harry suspected, and Snape, who everyone trusted – two people who belonged to the school, something that made it clear that the threat that Voldemort represented had arrived in the middle of the Wizarding community. Hogwarts then first being turned into an authoritarian hellhole where students are forced to torture each other and then being partially destroyed is essentially mirroring what is happening to Wizarding society at large.

The interesting thing is that it’s the Great Hall, the place where the last moments of the battle and Harry’s great triumph take place. Said Great Hall has always been portrayed as the heart of Hogwarts, essentially the centre of the physical representation of Wizarding society, where students become a part of said society. It’s also the Great Hall that is the least damaged part of the castle, where the wounded and the dead are collected during the break in the fighting. The reading that the centre of Wizarding society isn’t destroyed, just like the centre of Hogwarts isn’t damaged or destroyed is almost painfully obvious, especially considering the epilogue – and it’s essentially what makes the end of Deathly Hallows so disappointing.

Flaws in the Plan

Another aspect of the final book that I found disappointing were the eponymous Hallows. The criticism of them as a deux ex machina plot device is pretty well-known, and it’s a criticism that I share. Ultimately, the problem with the Hallows is a similar one as with the Horcruxes: while the objects are there from almost the beginning and their existence is hinted at from early on in the books, the actual introduction and explanation of them is rushed and too close to each other while simultaneously being too late in the actual book they’re introduced in. The hunt for the first Horcrux, Slytherin’s locket, takes up a large part of the first half of the seventh book and multiple months, but both finding the other Horcruxes and discovering the Hallows happens over what seems like weeks.

Additionally, Dumbledore’s entire plan – to reveal the Hallows to Harry and just hope that he will be a better person than he was and continue to hunt the Horcruxes – is plain weird. Dumbledore trusts that Harry will be selfless enough not to desire and search for the Hallows for their immense power, but he doesn’t trust that Harry would have been selfless enough to try and defeat Voldemort knowing that it would mean that he head to sacrifice himself?

The fact that the plan doesn’t actually work is made even more frustrating by the fact that JKR doesn’t even seem to realise that. Dumbledore tells Harry that he was worried that Harry’s hot head would dominate his good heart, that he counted on Hermione to slow Harry up so that Harry would one day be able to possess the Hallows safely, and that he’s glad that Harry proved himself worthy of the Hallows. But as I pointed out already, Harry does get obsessed with the Hallows, to the point where he values it over looking for the Horcruxes, and only stops after the Trio is discovered and Hermione tortured.

What I originally also disliked about the Hallows was that in my opinion, Harry didn’t defeat Voldemort because of his own skill but because of some mysterious magical power that he got his hands on thanks to others’ planning. Rereading the books, I realised that that’s not entirely true: Harry defeats Voldemort because he is the true master of the Elder Wand, a fact that only he realised because only he wasn’t taken in by the legends of the Elder Wand needing to pass by murder. Dumbledore thought Voldemort wouldn’t be able to get to the Elder Wand because he had agreed to Snape killing him, meaning that he thought that it was necessary for Snape to kill him to be owner of the wand. He didn’t consider that Snape disarming him might be enough and thus didn’t consider that Draco could become owner of the Elder Wand.

However, there are two problems with this. For one, Dumbledore should have realised this. After all, he didn’t kill Grindelwald; he only beat him in a magical duel, and then owned and used the wand for years. Additionally, Dumbledore should have expected that Voldemort would realise that the wand wasn’t working properly for him because it was Snape who killed Dumbledore, and would then kill Snape in turn. It’s an obvious line of thought, and Dumbledore should have warned Snape of that possibility and planned around it.

Ultimately, Dumbledore’s entire plan only worked because the Trio got lucky, and both a plan and a plot that rely on the right characters being lucky could and should have been done better. JKR essentially wrote herself in a corner with the Hallows, especially the Elder Wand, and had to dumb Dumbledore down for plot reasons do that he wouldn’t predict both of these things.

Moral Judgements

Rereading the final chapters of Deathly Hallows also brought back the big moral questions: Does using the Imperius curse because it seems like the only option to reach a goal that you need to reach in the moment make you just as bad as the Death Eaters you are trying to defeat? Is it morally acceptable to raise a boy into sacrificing himself for the safety of the society he lives in? Does the fact that Dumbledore essentially acts like a chess grandmaster, moving around the allies he supposedly cares about like chess figures make him a terrible person or simply a person who sees what needs to be done to defeat Wizarding Hitler and does is?

Or, in short, do ends justify the means?

It’s a question that’s essentially been endlessly discussed among Harry Potter fans, including in my previous piece and the comment sections of some of my previous pieces, so I won’t repeat myself, at least with regards to the question of Harry and the Unforgivable Curses.

I’ve often said that I understand why Dumbledore raises Harry like a pig for slaughter, why he does think that protecting all of Wizarding society from Voldemort is worth manipulating a boy into sacrificing his life. After all, Dumbledore has intimate knowledge of what people like Voldemort plan to do: he’s planned something similar with Grindelwald himself, and after it essentially ruined his family, he’s dedicated his life to stopping it.

But understanding why Dumbledore acted the way he did and finding it morally acceptable are two different things. The problem with it is that it turns it turns human lives from an end – from something that has to be protected – into a means to a supposedly bigger end. It is, quite literally, dehumanising. And once you make it acceptable to dehumanise and use people for one bigger purpose, who’s to say that the justification won’t be used again and again?

At the same time, what would have been the alternative? Not sacrificing Harry and thus keeping Voldemort alive, allowing him to continue to rule Wizarding society and, ultimately, Muggle society as well? The entire “Harry Potter” series is essentially an Utilitarian argument on how to fight fascism. Within the internal logic of the series, it does then absolutely make sense that JKR absolves Dumbledore and names Harry’s child after him.

In terms of the Doylist, moral discussion, I’m still torn on Dumbledore’s actions, both as they pertain to Harry sacrificing himself and Dumbledore’s general treatment of his supposed allies, like Snape, Remus and Hagrid. Like I said, I understand why he acted the way he did, and I also see why the way he acted can be seen as morally wrong. JKR herself makes a perfect argument for why it didn’t have to be the way it was, at least with regards to Harry’s sacrifice when she lets Aberforth talk about his brother’s love for secrecy. The books make it seem like Harry wouldn’t have been willing to sacrifice himself if he had known that it was necessary, like Harry couldn’t have decided to die for the sake of his friends and the greater good if he’d found out about it, in book five, for example. But the answer to the question whether it was both really necessary and morally justifiable to instrumentalise and use him rather than just Dumbledore’s need for control and secrecy is what, in my opinion, makes or breaks how you judge Dumbledore.

art by kassillus

Funnily enough, I have a lot less trouble judging Snape, who – as especially those who’ve read this Harry Potter Reread Project from the beginning – I used to hate with a fiery passion. Rereading the books, especially his pretty gruesome death and “The Prince’s Tale” has sort of softened me towards him: I’ve come to both understand more why he turned out the way he did and see the sacrifices he made to bring down Voldemort as heroic sacrifices that at least makes up for his decision to join the Death Eaters in the first place.

That being said, I still wish JKR had made it more clear that he ultimately turned away from Voldemort’s ideology instead of just hinting at it by making him tell off Phineas Nigellus for calling Hermione a mudblood. And, more importantly, I still think that Snape was not a good person, but primarily a selfish person who cared about bringing Voldemort down because it would alleviate his guilt over getting Lily killed and not because it was the right thing to do. When he finds out that Harry has to die and that the sacrifices he made to keep Harry safe, he is enraged not because he sees Dumbledore lying to and manipulating Harry as wrong, but because Dumbledore used him by making him give a promise he knew Snape wouldn’t be able to keep. It’s the fact that he won’t be able to fulfill his purpose in life – to protect Lily Evans’ son – and thus make up for Lily’s death that leads to his emotional break-down in Dumbledore’s office, and while that breakdown is understandable, it suggests that if Dumbledore hadn’t framed protecting Harry and bringing down Voldemort as making up for Snape sort of getting Lily killed, Snape wouldn’t have ever done it. The fact that that is supposedly the best thing he ever did really tells you everything you need to know about Snape.

At the same time, it fits with JKR’s ultimate message: that it’s love for one another that saves us. That has never been as pronounced as it is in the last part of Deathly Hallows, where Lupin and Tonks die to make a better world for the child they love, Narcissa lies to Voldemort because she’s afraid for the son she loves, wanting to protect her daughter enrages Molly Weasley so much that she can beat Bellatrix Lestrange, Lily sacrificing herself for Harry ties him to live not just once, but twice, and the love he feels for his friends motivates Harry to sacrifice himself and in turn protects them from Voldemort.

That message, kitschy as it may seem on the surface, is one of the things that makes me love Harry Potter so much. The other thing is that as a series, Harry Potter believes in redemption, in realising that you have made a wrong choice, even if you realise it out of selfishness, as with the Malfoys and Snape, and coming back from those wrong choices. And it’s a series that portrays humans as being more than the circumstances they are born into, as people being made who they are not just by their families and their circumstances, though they are undoubtly important, but by their choices as well.

Harry Potter is unashamedly optimistic. It doesn’t shy away from portraying the terrible aspects of the world, of selfishness and bigotry and war and death, but it also knows that people can be good and that, as hard as choosing to be good can be, it is worth it. In a world where selfishness has become a state policy and cynicism and violence seem to dominate the stories being told, that is not just refreshing but a valuable lesson to remember.


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