Tolkien likes borders. I suppose you have to like them, as a fantasy author, otherwise you’d never find the patience to draw up the map. You’d swiftly become bored with all those stories about people who step through an gate in the wood and fall into Faerie, or people who pay the toll to take a ferry across a river and end up in a different world.
Crossing a border happens often in The Lord of the Rings: Sam leaving The Shire for the first time, the hobbits going under the hedge in Buckland to enter into the Old Forest, the crossing the Celebrant to reach Lothlórien, and even Aragorn and Company simply first crossing over into Rohan. This seems to be what’s going to happen again here, as our group approaches the Black Gate. The first sentence of the chapter states that “before the next day dawned their journey to Mordor was over.” It’s… not, quite, and you could argue that a lot of this chapter rehashes what came before. However, the arrival at the Black Gate serves as an emotional fulcrum for both Frodo and Gollum, prompting decisions that shape the rest of the narrative.
Frodo at the Black Gate
“I did,” said Frodo. His face was grim and set, but resolute. He was filthy, haggard, and pinched with weariness, but he cowered no longer, and his eyes were clear. “I said so, because I purpose to enter Mordor, and I know no other way. Therefore I shall go this way. I do no ask anyone to come with me.”
This is the first time Frodo speaks in “The Black Gate Opens,” and it’s startling. It’s a big step away from his behavior in the marshes where he was near silent, dragged down by the weight of his burden and increasingly aware of a deadly gaze ready to pin him to the spot. It’s nice to see Frodo suffering less. At the same time, his new attitude isn’t derived from hope but the realization that his quest is finally over. “I am commanded to go to the land of Mordor, and therefore I shall go,” says Frodo. “If there is only one way, then I shall take it. What comes after must come.” It’s a resoluteness built on certainty, a certainty built on inevitability.
His renewed clarity stems from the fact that Frodo believes he’s reached the point where there aren’t any more choices to make. He’ll try to get through the Black Gate. If he does, he does. Then he’ll take it from there. It’s something that Sam realizes immediately and – like last chapter – does not try to talk him out of, or provide him with any false hope:
Sam said nothing. The look on Frodo’s face was enough for him; he knew that words of his were useless. And after all he never had any real hope in the affair from the beginning; but being a cheerful hobbit he had not needed hope, as long as despair could be postponed. Now they were come to the bitter end. But he had stuck to his master all this way; that was what he had chiefly come for, and he would still stick to him.
Of course, Frodo isn’t given much time to relax with his clarity of mind . Sméagol/Gollum provides him with another choice, as impossible as all the rest. Throughout his journey, Frodo has been remarkably light on the self-pity (no joke, guys, I would have felt sorry for myself every single step). He slides close to it here, wondering why Gandalf’s guidance and advice had been taken from him so early. But he never sinks into it. He comes to the conclusion that it’s not a choice with a right answer, a choice that anyone could make based on wisdom and sound judgement. It’s simply a choice.
And here he was a little halfling from the Shire, a simple hobbit of the quiet countryside, expected to find a way where the great ones could not go, or dared not go. It was an evil fate. But he had taken it on himself in the far-off spring of another year, so remote now that it was like a chapter in a story of the world’s youth, when the Trees of Silver and Gold were still in bloom. This was an evil choice. Which way should he choose? And if both led to terror and death, what good lay in choice?
We never get a direct insight into how Frodo makes his choice. It’s interesting though that he chooses to follow Gollum’s ominous-sounding path right after witnessing Sam sing about oliphaunts, and then talk about them with Sméagol. It’s also interesting that Frodo frees himself from indecision with a laugh—right around the time that, off to the west, Gandalf laughs to free himself from the vestiges of Saruman’s voice.
It’s never stated explicitly, but it’s hard for me to read this section and interpret Frodo as choosing the more hopeful path. I mean, it’s not that hopeful – Gollum is being openly shady in his description of it, and his answer to whether his secret path was guarded is to ignore the question and until finally doing the equivalent of throwing up is hands and yelling, “yeah, PROBABLY.” Attempting to infiltrate the Black Gate would be a suicide mission. In turning away from it with a laugh, Frodo is embracing the reality of having to endure more pain and uncertainty for the improbable hope that it will lead to a better end.
Gollum at the Black Gate
Gollum, of course, is in the inverse situation. While Frodo for a moment seems to be free from further choice, Gollum’s choice becomes impossible to postpone. He fears the Ring falling into the hands of Sauron at least as much as Frodo does, and he fears it more viscerally. “Don’t take the Precious to Him!” he says. “He’ll eat us all, if He gets it, eat all the world.” It’s interesting to see here, too, that Gollum bestows Important Capital Letters not only on the Ring, but also on Sauron. He’s standing right on the border with the land where he underwent what we can assume was some terrible trauma (at one point he says that Sauron’s hand only has four fingers, but “they are enough”). He doesn’t want the Ring to return to it, and he has only a final chance to stop it.
Gollum’s first attempts to do so are rather pitiful. Before he suggests Cirith Ungol as an option, he makes the vague, half-hearted suggestion that Frodo simply give the Ring to him, and go away to “nice places” and not worry about it anymore. Even Gollum doesn’t seem fully convinced that it will work. He only has one real path to take (as Frodo assumes he himself does), but he doesn’t yet want to do it. He doesn’t want to send his master into a spider cave and doesn’t want him to be endangered. So he tries something else, a nebulous, unconvincing proposal to just adopt the Ring and let everyone live happily ever after. But when Frodo states resolutely that he will go into Mordor with it, no matter what, Gollum panics and admits that there is “another way” (another, orc-and-spider-filled way). It was where his choice was heading from the start.
You Will Never Get it Back
When Gollum offers up this choice, things go mentally downhill rather quickly for him. At first he gets a stern warning from Good Cop Frodo (even Bad Cop Sam is approving of his style):
“Already you are being twisted. You revealed yourself to me just now, foolishly. Give it back to Sméagol, you said. Do not say that again. Do not let that thought grow in you! You will never get it back. But the desire may betray you to a bitter end. You will never get it back.”
Frodo then goes on to promise that if Gollum were to try to take the Ring, Frodo would put it on and use it first (in a close foreshadowing of the actual end of “Mount Doom”). It’s an awful moment for Gollum, and he collapses into an “abashed and terrified” mess. It’s hard to know if it’s because of Frodo’s closing threat or the stark repetition: “You will never get it back.” The speech is a telling moment for Frodo as well. As far as I can remember, this is Frodo’s first suggestion that he would be willing to put on the Ring and to use it against someone else. It’s hard for me to tell at this point how much of a hold it has over Frodo, which is part of what makes this moment so frightening. It’s hard to know how much of his speech to Gollum comes from personal experience (the sense of being twisted, perhaps) or from his own fears (you will never get it back).
Now for a somewhat off-topic discussion. While The Lord of the Rings has not been maliciously racist, “The Black Gate Opens” continues the trend of unfortunate racial connotations. I’m not convinced that Sauron’s supporters marching into Mordor are designed to be any particular ethnic group, but they do read like an amalgamation of traits that a white Englishman in the early 20th century would use to describe non-Europeans.
“They have black eyes, and long black hair, and gold rings in their ears; yes, lots of beautiful gold. And some have red paint on their cheeks, and red cloaks; and their flags are red, and the tips of their spears; and they have round shields, yellow and black, with big spikes. Not nice; very cruel, wicked men they look.”
That’s not great, and at best it’s a rather orientalist view of foreignness. At worst, we’re left with the notion that one of the very few non-European peoples in the story were either (a) dim enough to being unquestioningly duped by Sauron, (b) too weak to mount a resistance, or (c) totally on board with Sauron’s whole vibe.
This would be less a problem, of course, had Tolkien not associated most of his heroes with whiteness and fairness. Hobbits are perhaps an exception. As far as I recall hobbit skin tone is only related to the reader as various shades of brown, and the hobbits with the darker skin are described as far more numerous. But even in that scenario, we run into problems. Frodo, for example, is frequently described as being fairer than most of his hobbit brethren. His fairness also tends to be correlated to an inner nobility and moral strength. It’s a relatively small part of Tolkien’s overall thought, I’d say, but an unfortunate one.
- Gollum’s insistence that he did escape from Mordor on his own was very sad, to me. “I did escape, all by my poor self. Indeed I was told to seek for the Precious; and I have searched and searched, of course I have. But not for the Black One. The Precious was ours, it was mine, I tell you. I did escape.” While I’m sure it was not intended this way at all by Frodo and Sam – the questions they were asking were important ones to ask – Gollum seems to have interpreted it as an attack on his agency in escaping a place he views with deep-seated fear.
- This chapter is particularly adept with the foreshadowing. When Frodo is disappointed to discover that it’s not Gondor marching on the Black Gate, he compares the imaginary soldiers as “risen like avenging ghosts from the graves of valor long passed away.” We have quite a few chapters to go until Aragorn reaches the Paths of the Dead, but chronologically it’s only about two days away.
- Frodo’s reference to the Trees of Silver and Gold (Laurelin and Telperion) is another nice reference. Additonally, Shelob—whose unstated presence hovers over this chapter—is the last descendant of Ungoliant, the spider-darkness-monster (?) that destroyed the two trees.
- Sméagol’s insistence that he doesn’t want oliphaunts to even exist again walks the funny/sad line well. “No, no oliphaunts,” said Gollum. “Sméagol has not heard of them. He does not want to see them. He does not want them to be.” Poor Sméagol has been having a tough time, so I can understand not wanting to have to deal with war elephants, but the extent to which he escalates things made me laugh a little.
- I loved this: “He said: we’ll go to the Gate, and then we’ll see. And we do see. O yes, my precious, we do see. Sméagol knew hobbits could not go this way. O yes, Sméagol knew.”
“Then what the plague did you bring us here for?” said Sam.
Never change, Sam.
- Prose Prize: It had always been a notion of his that the kindness of dear Mr. Frodo was of such a high degree that it must imply a fair measure of blindness. I like this so much, both as a sentence and with the following acknowledgment that kindness isn’t the equivalent of naivete.
- Tolkien’s Wanton Cruelty to Innocent Punctuation Marks (sponsored by Mytly): A tough inaugural chapter all things considered. There are boatloads of semicolons, but I wasn’t able to catch any of the rarer three-in-one-sentence uses. At one point he uses a semicolon in three of four consecutive sentences. If we expand our scope, though, to Tolkien’s general language brutality, a clear winner emerges. Tolkien’s use of “amidmost” on the first page of the chapter, to designate the Sea of Nurnen that is presumably… most amid Mordor, is something that I both hate and love. Calm down, J.R.R.
- Contemporary to this Chapter: Tolkien was kind enough to build this one in for me! Thanks, buddy! As noted in the chapter, Gandalf and the Fellowship 2.0 are speaking to Saruman at Isengard. And Pippin’s palms are starting to get itchy.
- Guys, it’s almost Faramir time.
All film stills are from Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002) courtesy of New Line Cinema. The painting of the Black Gate is courtesy of Ted Nasmith.
Kel Protects Everybody in Page
Well, except for herself that is. First published in 2000, Page deals with Kel’s next three years of page training. It takes her on a journey through growing up. It also showcases just how powerful her protective streak is. In this book, Kel protects so many people. While First Test largely focused on distinguishing itself from Song of the Lioness, Page is able to start working on the backbone of this series as a whole. Pierce uses Kel’s protective streak as a way to talk about the various problems in Tortallen society.
Ghân-buri-Ghân and the Pressure of the Past
So. My guys. Ghân-buri-Ghân. I have been low-key dreading this chapter since the start of our re-read, wondering what useful things I could possibly say about a white British professor in the 1950s indulging in an obvious and unfortunate noble savage trope. I mean, there’s a reason that even Peter Jackson—not exactly a bastion of inclusivity and racial sensitivity in his depictions of Tolkien—decided to just leave this bit out.
I’d love to give you a little turn here and reveal that hey-guys-actually-Ghân-buri-Ghân-isn’t-so-bad. But, well… Ghân-buri-Ghân is not great. He could be worse? But that doesn’t seem to be the most useful measuring stick. So instead, let’s take a look at why Ghân-buri-Ghân is in this story at all. And why he is the one to set the stage for one of the most striking passages in Tolkien, where Théoden arrives at the walls of Minas Tirith at dawn and thunders across the Pelennor that only a chapter ago seemed soaked in despair.
Ghân-buri-Ghân and the Wild Men
Let’s start with the obvious: Ghân-buri-Ghân and the Wild-men are dehumanized and exoticized pretty consistently from the start. Within a page or two of his introduction he is compared to a beast, a rock, and a plant. The Wild-men are “remnants of an older time,” Elfhelm tells Merry. And they are “wild and wary as the beasts.” Ghân-buri-Ghân himself is “gnarled as an old stone” and his beard “straggled on his lumpy chin like dry moss.” Merry has difficulty telling him and the other Wild-men apart from each other. And while the Wild-men are never given any explicitly racial characteristics, they are characterized by habits that would be associated with “exoticism” from a European colonial perspective: grass skirts and communication over distances by drums.
To Tolkien’s credit, he does push back against this idea a little bit, largely through Ghân-buri-Ghân’s repeated refusal to be patronized. He repeatedly calls out Éomer for treating him like a child and for interrupting him. He has his own ideas and agenda that extend beyond helping the nice horse lords who happened to stop by. Though on a side-note—Tolkien also manages to make the Wild-men seem preternaturally chill when he casually reveals that they are helping Théoden and his men despite the fact that the Rohirrim, in the past, apparently hunted the Wild-men for sport. Jesus, Rohan.
So. We have a scenario where Ghân-buri-Ghân is given a solid sense of agency in his appearance but is also loaded up with baggage associated with colonial attitudes towards the “uncivilized” peoples of the world. But none of this really answers the question: why is Ghân-buri-Ghân here? Why is he in the story at all? It’d be easy to have the exact same thing happen, but simply have the knowledge of the hidden path lie with one of the Rohirrim or Théoden himself. It would streamline the story and skip the necessity of a whole different group of characters. You could even as gone so far as to simply start the chapter with Théoden’s arrival on the field, and combine it with the next’ chapter’s battle.
Past and Present in The Return of the King
Of course, that’s not what happens. Instead, our next chapter features the imminent fall of Minas Tirith being averted by two sudden arrivals. Théoden and the Rohirrim appear, shepherded there by the Wild-men. And Aragorn and the Dúnedain arrive, backed by the Dead Men of Dunharrow.
Now, I’m not totally sure what this means. I’m open to ideas, and it’s something that I’ll be continuing to think about (the perils of writing an article the day it’s due, sorry friends). But in any case, it seems intriguing to me that both our kings—Théoden and Aragorn—make their triumphant arrival at Minas Tirith thanks solely to the aid of mysterious and unexpected forces of the past. Aragorn calls up a ghost army. Théoden is guided by a people that—as noted in this great article by Ethan Campbell —are directly tied to wodwos, the wild, forest-men of medieval romances like Gawain and the Green Knight. This commonality is only highlighted by Merry’s observation that the Wild-men reminded him of the Púkel-men that lined the way to the Paths of the Dead at Dunharrow.
Neither case is really attributable to plot dynamics. Both of these things could have happened without the last-minute, unexpected assist. So the fact that they do, and that they happen in such tight thematic parallel, makes me think that there must be something more intentional at play. Though it’s hard without more extended interactions with either group, I think it’s at least possible to make the case that this double assist serves as a nice thematic underpinning of Tolkien’s repeated idea that the past is something to be remembered but not necessarily blinded emulated.
While Aragorn’s past is literally what qualifies him for the throne—and what gets him his ghost army—Théoden’s and Rohan’s interactions with their past are much more ambivalent. It’s obvious to the reader that the Wild-men have been mistreated in the past. The same can be said for the treatment of the Dunlendings in The Two Towers. The fact that Minas Tirith is delivered largely thanks to a ghost army who betrayed their leaders in the past and a small group men who have been betrayed themselves, creates an interesting note of moral and historical complexity in a scene that could otherwise easily be read as a standard clash of good and evil.
The Charge of the Rohirrim
Even without that complexity, though: Théoden’s charge and the arrival of the Rohirrim is such a stirring narrative moment. It would have been so easy for it to be cheesy: Widfara’s sudden claims that “the wind is turning” and the dawn is coming are standard fantasy tropes. But man, the execution of it. This is Tolkien at his best.
The Rohirrim’s easy arrival at the wall and painstakingly slow walk across the outer fields makes it feel as if the Riders are literally entering into the tone of the last chapter. The world is filled with darkness, despair, gloom and fire. Merry is horrified. Théoden seemed “to shrink down, cowed by age.” Effort seems wasted, and there seems no place to go. And then, there’s the turn. It’s good enough that I want to look at the whole thing in full:
Then suddenly, Merry felt it at last, beyond doubt: a change. Wind was in his face! Light was glimmering. Far, far away, in the South the clouds could be dimly seen as remote grey shapes, rolling up, drifting: morning lay beyond them.
But at that same moment there was a flash, as if lightning had sprung from the earth beneath the City. For a searing second it stood dazzling far off in black and white, its topmost tower like a glittering needle; and then as darkness closed again there came rolling over the fields a great boom.
At that sound the bent shape of the king sprung suddenly erect. Tall and proud he seemed again; and rising in his stirrups he cried in a loud voice, more clear than any there had ever heard a mortal man achieve before:
Arise, riders of Théoden!
Fell deeds awake: fire and slaughter!
spear shall be shaken, shield shall be splintered,
a sword day, a red day, ere the sun rises!
Ride now, ride now! Ride to Gondor!
With that he seized a great horn from Guthláf his banner-bearer and blew such a blast upon it that it burst asunder… Suddenly the king cried to Snowmane and he sprang away. Behind him his banner blew in the wind, white horse upon a field of green, but he outpaced it. After him thundered the knights of his house, but he was ever before them. Éomer rode there, the white horsetail on his helm floating in his speed, and the front of the first éored roared like a breaker foaming to shore, but Théoden could not be overtaken. Fey he seemed, or the battle-fury of his fathers ran like new fire through his veins, and he was borne upon Snowmane like a god of old, even as Oromë the Great in the battle of the Valar when the world was young. His golden shield was uncovered, and lo! It shone like an image of the Sun, and the grass flamed into green about the white feet of his steed. For morning came, morning and a wind from the sea; and darkness was removed, and the hosts of Mordor wailed, and terror took them, and they fled, and died, and the hoofs of wrath rode over them.
It’s such a wonderful, visceral passage, filled with alliteration and momentum. All those B’s and F’s! The way Tolkien moves from sentences structured along the lines of A, but B (Behind him his banner blew in the wind, white horse upon a field of green, but he outpaced it. After him thundered the knights of his house, but he was ever before them) to a series of shorter and shorter clauses creates a syntax that seems to accelerate along with the riders themselves. It’s a near-perfect passage, a bright release after chapters of mounting dread.
- I’d love to hear anyone’s thoughts on Ghân-buri-Ghân’s diction and speaking patterns. On one side I could sort of see the argument that he’s simply speaking the way anyone would speak in language they aren’t comfortable speaking. Lots of dropped articles, overly-literal translations. But at the same time it just sounds SO MUCH like a stereotype of “uncivilized” speech, like an American Indian in an old western flick. I want to give Tolkien more credit, as a linguist, than indulging in something like that. But I’m not sure it’s warranted.
- Another chapter-related note from Ethan Campbell’s article: Théoden’s speech to his riders before their charge is heavily influenced by the famous Old English poem about the Battle of Maldon. If you are intrigued, Tolkien wrote a fan fiction sequel and published it in a scholarly journal (which is my new professional goal now, I guess).
- Elfhlem and the rest of the company seem to be find with turning a blind eye to Merry’s presence. I’m assuming that they know that Dernhelm is Éowyn as well? It seems pretty likely to me—they have “an understanding,” as Merry notes. And I like the idea of the Rohirrim deciding to cover for her.
- Tolkien continues to get a kick out of the Enemy ironically undermining their own plans through excessive, thoughtless badness. This time through Éomer: “Our Enemy’s devices oft serve us in his despite. The accursed darkness itself has been a cloak to us. And now, lusting to destroy Gondor and throw it down stone from stone, his orcs have taken away my greatest fear. The out-wall could have been held long against us.”
- Merry wished he was a tall rider like Éomer and could blow a horn or something and go galloping to [Pippin’s] rescue. This is such a charming little sentence that nicely underlines how out of his element Merry is here. He doesn’t even quite know what a tall rider would do to go save some one. Blow a horn? Or something?
- Tolkien taught me this week that “writhe” can be an adjective, as in “writhen mountains.” Into it.
- Prose Prize: … last two paragraphs? Honestly, just go read the last page or two. It’s Tolkien at his best, using his prose to craft a wave of momentum, his tone elevated and archaic but crackling with energy at the same time.
- Contemporary to this Chapter: Faramir is wounded, the Pelennor is overrun, the siege of Gondor continues. Off to the south Aragorn is seizing the fleet at Pelagir. Over to the east Frodo gets himself captured and then freed from Cirith Ungol.
- Next time we finally come to the Battle of Pelennor Fields. Bring your own tissues! I am already sad!
All images are from Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003), courtesy of New Line Cinema.
Encroaching Darkness and Endings
Presented by “Harry Potter and the Reread Project”
So it’s been a while since I’ve published the last Harry Potter Reread piece, as unfortunately other obligations kept my away from my favourite book series. To recap quickly, the last reread post essentially took a longer look at most of the Trio’s camping trip: Ron majorly freaked out, abandoning his friends, returning to save Harry’s life and earning the right to destroy a Horcurx in the process, Dumbledore’s goodness was questioned more and more and Harry hit what’s probably his lowest point in the books so far. Ultimately, the Trio decides to visit Xenophilius Lovegood, is tricked and trapped by him and only escapes by the skin of their teeth.
A Dangerous Dream
The fallout of the visit in Ottery St. Catchpole seems, at first look, to be much smaller than the fallout from being trapped in Godric’s Hollow. Godric’s Hollow cost Harry his wand, which he thought of as his most powerful weapon against Voldemort. Visiting Xenophilius Lovegood, on the other hand, shows Harry a way to beat Voldemort: becoming the master of the Deathly Hallows and thus, supposedly, death himself. Unfortunately, Harry learning about the Hallows spectacularly backfires. Much like Dumbledore himself, he becomes so obsessed with the idea of the Hallows that he loses track of everything else for a while and starts to neglect his actual mission-
That’s, however, entirely understandable. When the Trio goes to visit Xenophilius, they are entirely out of other ideas, as Hermione admits. Dumbledore left the Trio with a monumental task and, as has been pointed out continuously ever since the seventh book was published, with very little pointers as to how to accomplish said task.
Additionally, Harry has been doubting Dumbledore more and more since his death, especially because of how little help and preparation he has actually received. Believing that Dumbledore actually did place all of the pieces to saving himself in front of him restores at least some of the faith in his mentor, maybe even in the most crucial aspect of his relationship with Dumbledore. Assuming that the Hallows are real and Dumbledore meant for Harry to find them means that Dumbledore didn’t leave him entirely unprepared and is thus proof that Dumbledore cared about him.
That this leads to a fairly massive conflict between Harry and Hermione is about as unsurprising as Harry’s obsession with the Hallows. After all, Hermione’s narrative job is to be the voice of reason and to balance out Harry’s – and sometimes, Ron’s – hotheadedness. Considering that hotheadedness, it’s also no surprise that Harry messes up and uses Voldemort’s name when he’s fighting with Hermione. The Trio then gets captured and taken to Malfoy Manor, where Bellatrix tortures Hermione and reveals the location of the next Horcrux by chance. After their escape and Dobby’s death, this is what Harry chooses to focus on, rather than continuing his quest for the Hallows.
While JKR leads up to this choice quite interestingly, there are a two aspects of the chapters surrounding that decision that annoy me. For one, we never really get Harry’s actual reasoning for why he decides to give up on the Elder Wand. Until the end of the chapter, JKR doesn’t even make it explicitly clear that this is what Harry decided and just alludes to an important decision having been made instead. Then, when she does make it clear that Harry has decided to prioritize information about the next Horcrux over keeping Voldemort from taking the Elder Wand from Dumbledore’s grave, Harry simply justifies it by saying that Dumbledore didn’t want him to have the Elder Wand. Later on, JKR lets Harry think that he can’t satisfactorily explain what lead to this decision because the internal arguments that lead to this decision – that JKR never actually put on the page – sound feeble to him in the aftermath of the decision.
Additionally, Hermione had to get tortured for Harry to arrive at the decision that Hermione had been arguing for for weeks. There’s a very “woman in the refrigerator” dynamic about this, though she does survive. But making female characters suffer to further the character growth of male characters is an age old dynamic, and it’s not especially enjoyable to read.
The Goblin issue
What also isn’t especially enjoyable to read is the portrayal of Griphook and goblins in general. Creating a fantasy race that is obsessed with wealth, untrustworthy, cunning, hooked-nosed, and then having them decide to take a neutral standpoint in the war against, well, Wizarding fascism comes with its own host of unfortunate implications.
There’s a very good essay on JStor called “Knockers, Knackers, and Ghosts: Immigrant Folklore in the Western Mines” pointing out the connection between “knockers”, folklore creatures that goblins can be said to be based upon, were explicitly connected to the ghosts of Jewish people. The idea of the goblin as a fantasy creature developed from this point onwards, and essentially became a staple of fantasy literature, much like dwarves, dragons, unicorns, werewolves and giants. According to Ronald James’s essay, the belief that the Knockers were Jewish ghosts was lost when the folklore migrated to the American colonies. However, folk creatures linked to the knockers and goblins especially retained the attributes stereotypically associated with antisemitic caricatures of Jews: greed and untrustworthiness.
The fact that a classic fantasy creature that she uses in her writing is clearly influenced by antisemitic stereotypes is, of course, not at all JKR’s fault. But the way she handles it is. And she does handle it fairly badly, especially considering that with other fantasy creatures, she tries to subvert their typical portrayal. I’ve already written about how successful that endeavor is with giants and werewolves, but with goblins, it seems like she barely even tried. Harry is told not to trust goblins in the very first book already, and although Hermione points out that wizards have marginalised goblins for centuries, that distrust ultimately seems to have been justified.
At the same time, there’s a certain irony to the Trio aiming to deceive a goblin, who is used to deception by wizards and thus inherently doesn’t trust them, and being outsmarted by him. One could, of course, argue – like Harry does himself – that promising Griphook Gryffindor’s sword but never specifying when he’d get it and then keeping it until the Horcruxes are destroyed is technically not a deception. Griphook would have gotten the sword at some point, after all. But it’s still a dishonest way of treating an ally and Griphook taking the sword is just him making sure that he got what was promised to him.
One thing I liked about the interactions between the Trio and Griphook was Hermione passionately telling Griphook about fighting not just for wizards, but against all injustice in the wizarding world. It’s essentially a plea for an universally respectful and fair approach to politics that doesn’t fight against the marginalisation of just one group. The contradiction between that appeal and the Trio’s actual way of treating Griphook is pretty obvious, however.
I do get why Harry decides to act the way he does. I also get why he uses the Imperius curse when breaking into Gringotts. It’s essentially a “the end justify the means”-situation. In Harry’s opinion, fighting Voldemort justifies acting in ways that he would normally condemn. Considering what Voldemort is meant to represent, I don’t have a problem with that.
What I do have a problem with is the narrative framing of Harry’s usage of the Unforgivable Curses: there is no moment in which Harry struggles with having used the Imperius curse and when he tortures Amycus Carrow, it’s present as a moment of strength and victory. McGonagall even calls it “gallant”. And while Harry using the Imperius curse in Gringotts can be read as either seeming like an absolute necessity to finish the mission in the moment when he uses it or as something that Griphook manipulated him into, there’s no excuse or reason behind him using the Cruciatus on Carrow.
Considering how much effort JKR put into showing how horrible both the Cruciatus curse and the Carrows are, this could have easily been framed as a moment that Harry breaks, repays the cruelty the Wizarding World has shown him with cruelty, and actually emotionally struggles with. It would have even been fairly easy to include a short scene in which Harry, on the way back to the Room of Requirement from the Great Hall, doubts his actions. There is, after all, a scene in which Harry doubts whether he is turning into Dumbledore, who doesn’t trust anyone, when he is faced with the choice of letting the other DA members help. And how great would it have been if Harry had wondered for a moment what the war was doing to him, realised the risk of it turning him cruel and angry and decided to make a conscious effort to never be cruel? But unfortunately, that’s not the route JKR goes.
The trio breaking into the Ministry to steal Slytherin’s locket on from Umbridge is, as I already discussed, one of my favourite parts of Deathly Hallows. It’s a perfectly executed “undercover mission gone wrong”-plot but with the darker twist of showing what a turn for the worse the Ministry has taken. Something similar is true of the break-in at Gringotts: while it doesn’t go as in depth with its description of the horribleness as the Ministry scenes, there’s the gut-wrenching scene of a man attacking Bellatrix, Voldemort’s right hand, for taking away his children. It’s an act of complete desperation, underlined by the fact that people without wands are treated as less than human.
The break-in at Gringotts has the same basic structure as the break-in into the Ministry: there is a long period of planning, of which the readers see fairly little, there are unforeseen complications during the very first stage of the operation that force the heroes to improvise: splitting up in the Ministry, Imperiusing Travers and Bogrod, which are mostly caused by the heroes own unpreparedness – not doing more research on the ministry workers they are impersonating, not realising that the goblins know that Bellatrix’ wand was stolen. This ultimately forces them into heroic acts to escape, like freeing the Muggleborns who are awaiting trial and the imprisoned dragon. That’s not really surprising: it’s essentially the classic heist-movie plot. Additionally, while both break-ins allow the heroes to accomplish their goal of retrieving a Horcrux, they also set them back.
What’s interesting is that although the basic structure of the chapters is the same and they both work with very similar premises, the break-in at the Ministry feels a lot less triumphant than the break-in at Gringotts. One the one hand, I think it’s because the Ministry chapter explores the dynamics of a Voldemort-ruled Wizarding world much more in depth than the Gringotts break-in. On the other hand, I think it’s because it’s clearer what the break-in at Gringotts is leading up to. The goal of destroying Voldemort is no longer in the far-off distance. Of course, it’s entirely possible that that’s an impression I have based on the fact that I’m reading the books for the hundredth time and that first-time readers perceive it entirely differently.
And Familiar Faces
The second-to-last part of Deathly Hallows brings back a whole bunch of characters that have essentially disappeared for either most of the book or even most of the series. Griphook and Ollivander, for example, were both introduced in Philosopher’s Stone but essentially became completely irrelevant afterwards. That they returned and became crucial in driving the plot forward in the final book is a fairly classic JKR move and, as I’ve mentioned before, one of my favourite aspects of the series.
Then there’s, of course, Dobby. Another thing I’ve already mentioned earlier during this project is that I never really got the love many fans of the series have for him and instead have been rather torn about him. That’s probably why his death isn’t especially high on my list of sad scenes in Deathly Hallows, even though I’m able to see why it’s an objectively sad scene. After all, Dobby engages in the ultimate act of rebellion for a house-elf, turning against his (former) masters, and pays for it with his life. And Dobby is set up to just be an unequivocally morally good being: he is loyal to the point of blindness, he has no intention to harm anyone, he is willing to make sacrifices and push past his own fears to achieve his goals. At the same time, I find his portrayal rather ambiguous. It’s clear that his admiration of Harry is based more on the way Harry treats him than on believing in the values Harry represents and Dobby’s always shown to be rather child-like intellectually, to the point of being incapable of thinking his actions through logically. Looking at the series and his role in it as a whole, his death seems like the logical conclusion of the way his character is set up.
Another character development that seems like the logical endpoint of a journey is Neville, though that could and should have been better executed, in my opinion. As much as Neville is shy, awkward and clumsy at the beginning of the series, the seeds for his great entrance in Deathly Hallows as leader of Dumbledore’s Army at Hogwarts have been there ever since he confronted the Trio in the common room. That he had it in him to be a fierce fighter if necessary became clear when he insisted to go to the Ministry to rescue Sirius and held his ground against the Death Eaters.
Unfortunately, he fades into the background for most of The Half-Blood Prince and is essentially irrelevant in Deathly Hallows until he reappears. That means that his development from a guy who’s usually shy but good under pressure to a complete badass who stands up to violent Death Eaters to the point where they consider murdering him happens entirely off-page. It’s not unbelievable for him to develop in this direction, but it would have been better writing to actually see more of this development.
Which is a statement that is true of the entire Hogwarts-subplot. Other people have suggested in the comments that Deathly Hallows would have been better if it had been split between the narrator accompanying Harry and someone who’s at Hogwarts, but I disagree. I think moving away from the classic school setting into a underground resistance setting as well as splitting the narrative focus between settings for more than one chapter would have been a too radical break from the established style of the series. However, JKR finding a way to keep Harry in touch with people in Hogwarts – Aberforth giving a piece of the two-way mirror to one of the members of Dumbledore’s Army, for example – would have made it possible for the readers and Harry to be up to date on what is happening at Hogwarts without creating the narrative split. Additionally, Harry knowing what was going on at Hogwarts and being torn between his actual mission and wanting to help his friends would have been amazing and heart-breaking to read about.
The next piece of the “Harry Potter Reread Project” takes on the final bit of Deathly Hallows, as Voldemort returns to Hogwarts, “possessed f that cold, cruel sense of purpose that preceded murder”.