Sunday, May 19, 2024

A Camping Trip Full of Horror

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Presented by “Harry Potter and the Reread Project

We left Harry, Ron and Hermione directly after one of their acts of fundamental heroism: during their break-in at the Ministry, Harry decides to free the Muggleborns on trial for, well, the crime of being Muggleborns, just because it’s the right thing to do and despite it putting their mission at risk. It’s a way of behaving that absolutely fulfills the definition of heroic and, as I wrote already, one of the reasons I love Harry so much.

At the same time, this act of heroism costs the Trio dearly: when they escape from the Ministry, a Death Eater named Yaxley grabs Hermione and is taken to Grimmauld Place alongside her. The Trio escapes but can no longer return to Grimmauld Place, meaning they’re forced to move from one lonely, secluded place to the next. The undercover mission at the Ministry essentially kickstarts the most depressing part of Deathly Hallows, and the part that many people dislike the most about the books (except for the Epilogue, of course.)

Timing and Plot Issues

One of the key issues of Half-Blood Prince was timing: the main plots of the book were rushed in some places and drawn out in others. It takes Dumbledore until after Christmas to even tell Harry about the existence of Horcruxes in the first place, even though finding and destroying Horcruxes is supposed to be the key plot of both Half-Blood Prince and Deathly Hallows. The final book also has a similar timing issue: it takes a good fifth of the book before the hunt for the Horcruxes even starts and, after the Trio finds the locket, it feels like little but camping all over Great Britain happens.

That’s, of course, not entirely true: a lot happens during the chapters that the Trio spends camping – but most of it only seems tangentially important to the main plot. There’s a pretty clear sense of frustration among not just the characters themselves, but also among many fans of the series.However, reading the book, I didn’t mind the slower pace of the chapters: they allowed for some much needed character development and exploration, especially of Dumbledore and Harry’s relationship with him.

At the same time, though the Trio spend months camping all over the British countryside, JKR makes that time span feel shorter through summarising it and interspersing it with scenes of conflict and action, like Harry’s fight with Ron, the trip to Godric’s Hollow and the trap at the Lovegood home. Rereading this part of Deathly Hallows, I had the distinct feeling that interesting things kept happening in short succession. Additionally, good and bad things happen alternately: the Trio finds out that they can use Gryffindor’s sword to destroy Horcruxes and that it’s not at Hogwarts, but Ron abandons the cause immediately afterwards. Another example is Harry’s wand being destroyed in the fight against Nagini in Godric’s Hollow but the reappearance of the sword, Ron’s return and the destruction of the Horcrux taking place only a few pages later.

On the other hand, it’s clear that this isn’t the best plot JKR could have written for the final book. The Deathly Hallows are introduced way too late, their origin and how they actually work remains completely unexplained. JKR also puts a lot of effort into making it seem like they couldn’t possibly exist, only to then do what feels like a complete one-eighty. Yes, she has mislead her readers and characters in the past, but whenever she did so, she has also explained the truth more in-depth than she does with the existence of the Hallows. The Hallows are very much a Deus ex Machina and, unfortunately, they’re not an especially well-done or convincing one. Introducing the Tale of the Three Brothers or the symbol of the Hallows earlier, maybe even in one of the earlier books, or just having Hermione and Harry visit Xenophilius before they went to Godric’s Hollow, would have at least remedied the aspect of lateness.

Another issue with the plot is the isolation that the Trio mostly moves in. The fight against Voldemort is something that affects the entire British Wizarding community, but for most of the book it seems like a conflict between three teenagers in a tent and the Death Eaters. The appearance of Dean Thomas, Dirk Cresswell, Ted Tonks and the two goblins is a nice example of how one could, theoretically, make clear what is happening in the rest of Britain, but it only happens once. There’s no good reason for Harry, Ron and Hermione to not interact more with other wizards and witches trying to hide from the Death Eaters except their own paranoia, and plenty of good Watsonian reasons why they should have.

There’s also the fact that, while JKR makes it clear through Phineas Nigelus that there’s a resistance movement at Hogwarts, there’s little information about it. Again, there’s a fairly easy way this could have been remedied: by giving Harry and Ginny two way mirrors. That way, we’d know what’s going on at Hogwarts and Harry and Ginny’s romantic relationship could have continued throughout the novel, making them marrying at the end of the book seem better set up.

Those are just three minor fixes I thought of for the plot issues Deathly Hallows has. In general, I think, the two last books of the series would have profited if JKR had written some of the plot of book seven into Half-Blood Prince instead. That way, the sense that the final book is also quite disconnected from the rest of the series because it breaks with so many traditions at once would have also been lessened.

An emotional Breakdown

One of the most important plot points in this part of Deathly Hallows is probably the fight between Ron and Harry and Ron subsequently walking out on him and Hermione. The conflict develops pretty quickly after the infiltration of the Ministry due to Ron’s frustration with their circumstances. Their mission is barely progressing, they’re constantly going to sleep cold and hungry, Ron’s arm has been hurt and they don’t even have the basic foundations of a plan. He’s also concerned about his family and hearing that his sister was sent into the Forbidden Forest as punishment for rebelling against Snape is the straw that breaks the camel’s back.

art by stilesstays

Ron’s frustration is understandable and the fact that it leads to a metaphorical explosion is unsurprising, but his behaviour still lead to me hating Ron the first time I read this part of the book. Nowadays, I don’t hate him for it but I’m still deeply irritated and disappointed in him as a fictional character. That’s probably because I generally can’t abide people who constantly complain about a shitty situation but barely lift a finger to actually change said situation. It’s clear that Ron is the least mature of the Trio and, due to his immaturity, also the least able to deal with his frustration in a healthy or fair way. Ron walking out on Harry and Hermione under these circumstances isn’t especially surprising, but at the same time, it kind of is: one of Ron’s core traits has always been his loyalty towards Harry. That’s what makes this so effective and hurtful, after all.

And while his behaviour is understandable, I don’t think it’s actually excusable: not only does he abandon his best friend at a point in time when Harry needs him most, he also puts the entire mission at risk. He also generally acts like a selfish ass, especially when he implies that Harry and Hermione don’t care about the Weasleys or don’t understand how Ron feels because Harry’s parents are dead and Hermione erased her parents memories. But as unsurprising as Ron’s frustration and breakdown is, his return is even more unsurprising. Unfortunately, it is also quite unexplained: how or why exactly the Deluminator is able to transport Ron back to Harry and Hermione is just as mysterious as the way the Hallows work.

Ron’s return is otherwise almost perfectly executed: he returns when Harry’s at the lowest point of his life, when Harry has lost not only his godfather, his mentor, his owl and seemingly his best friend, but even his wand. He also saves Harry’s life, gets the sword of Gryffindor and destroys the locket, essentially propelling the fight against Voldemort forward. This is, narratively, framed as making up for abandoning Harry and Hermione and I’m never sure if I agree. Considering how shit Harry and Hermione’s situation was after (and maybe partially because) Ron abandoned them and how safe Ron was, I don’t think that Ron completely made up for his behaviour, especially for some of the hurtful things he said to his best friends, by jumping into a pond to save Harry and apologising.

At the same time, this is clearly written as a turning point for Ron. Essentially, the Horcrux confronts Ron with his worst fears and insecurities: the suspicion (or knowledge) that his mother loves him the least and that the girl he’s in love with actually loves his best friend, to whom he’s essentially always felt inferior. The implication is that, as Ron destroys the Horcrux, he also overcomes those fears and feelings. It’s a great moment of character growth, but I think it’s not entirely earned. Harry feels like Ron should open the Horcrux because he returned and saved Harry’s life but in my opinion, Ron only did what he was supposed to do anyway when he returned. Manning up and doing what you promised to do feels like a bit of a low bar to pass to earn character development.

However, I also wonder if I might be biased against Ron. For one, he was always the member of the Trio whose character flaws annoyed me the most because I think many of them are based on a selfishness that is caused by feeling like the least interesting, least liked among both his siblings and his friends. As realistic and relatable as this is, especially in a teenager, it’s also a bit unlikeable. Additionally, I’ve always adored Hermione and I think I might tend to take her side whenever she’s arguing with Ron because of that.

The short End of the Stick

What especially annoys me is how Hermione’s feelings and anger are given the least priority: when Ron returns, she rages at and attacks him and Harry, Ron and the narrative itself treat it as an overreaction. She’s described as acting almost deranged and looking quite demented. Considering that Ron accused her of “choosing” Harry over him because she was fulfilling her promise at a point when they were, once again, seemingly moving towards a romantic relationship, entirely ignored her pleas to stay and attempts to mediate between him and Harry against her, Hermione’s anger isn’t entirely unwarranted. When she isn’t satisfied with Ron simply saying that he’s sorry, it’s treated as if she is demanding too much. Her continued anger and resulting cold behaviour towards Ron is portrayed as silly and over the top.

The root of my annoyance lies with the impression that this is the way Hermione is always treated when she fights with Ron. In Prisoner of Azkaban and Half-Blood Prince, Ron didn’t even bother to apologise to her, instead, the two just made up after something terrible happened. In both cases, it was treated as if both of them were equally to blame for the fight. In Deathly Hallows, it’s clear that Ron messed up terribly but by portraying Hermione as overreacting and irrationally holding on to her anger, it seems like they’re even again.

Overall, I have the impression that Hermione gets the shortest end of the stick. Not only are the two main male characters given far more room to express their thoughts and feelings, Hermione also barely develops or changes. It’s, of course, unsurprising that Harry’s growth into a hero takes up more space than anything else, but while Ron overcomes his inferiority complex, Hermione is almost the same person at the end of the series as she was at the beginning.

Though she’s originally quite stuck up and a stickler for the rules, she essentially stars becoming more daring almost immediately after befriending Ron and Harry. Over the course of the books, she has set a teacher on fire, incited her friends to steal from that same teacher, illegally brewed a complicated potion, illegally messed with time and founded a secret student resistance group. She’s also always been quite vicious and ready to hurt people for the cause, for example when she petrified Neville, blackmailed Rita Skeeter and permanently scarred Marietta Edgecomb.

It’s frustrating to realise how much both Hermione’s feelings and her character development are pushed to the background. It’s no surprise that it’s less important than what happens with Harry, the protagonist, but she and Ron are supposed to be the two most important characters after him. However, it’s pretty clear who JKR prioritizes – and it’s not Hermione, her supposedly favourite character.

A Plethora of Information, two Traps and a Bunch of Questions

There seems to be an interesting narrative pattern in this part of Deathly Hallows: the characters receive new information that moves the plot forwards, followed immediately by an action sequence. It’s the basic structure of the trip to Godric’s Hollow as well as the Lovegood home, though in the first instance it’s only Harry and Hermione.

art by pembroke

However, on closer look, it becomes clear that the pattern isn’t there: In Godric’s Hollow, Harry and Hermione only receive shreds of information – seeing the Peverell’s grave and finding the picture of the young Grindelwald – before being lured into a trap by Nagini/Bathilda and are only able to piece together the full picture with regards to Dumbledore’s past afterwards. When they go to see Xenophilius Lovegood, they are told about the three brothers and the Deathly Hallows before being trapped by him.

Xenophilius is among my least favourite characters in the entire series, interestingly enough. One of the reasons I dislike him is, obviously, the fact that he sells out Harry to the Death Eaters. While it’s understandable that he wants to protect his daughter and JKR does show that he’s struggling with the situation, I’m kind of sure Luna would at least be disappointed in him. But the fact that I have no patience for stubborn, arrogant conspiracy theorists is the more crucial factor. Luna is just as much into conspiracy theories as her father, but at least she’s more aloof about them and doesn’t show that she thinks Hermione is narrow minded as openly as Xenophilius does.

The trip to the graveyard and Harry’s childhood home in Godric’s Hollow, on the other hand, is one of my all time favourite sequences. It’s incredibly touching without ever being cheesy or overly sentimental and perfectly build up to. I especially like the Potters’ statue and the messages left on the sign at the ruin of Harry’s home as signs of the importance of Harry to all of Wizarding society. Funnily enough, what happens afterwards is also one of my favourite parts of the books, but for entirely different reasons. The trap at Bathilda Bagshot’s home has the perfect “no, something is about to go really wrong”-horror-atmosphere, combined with an action sequence that I needed to read really carefully and slowly to be able to picture what was happening.

There’s an extra layer of horror under the general fairly typical horror-atmosphere regarding Bathilda Bagshot’s story and I’m not sure if JKR is even aware of it. What happened to possibly the greatest historian of the British Wizarding society again exposes the callous, uncaring nature of that society. For one, there seems to have been no support net for wizards and witches with dementia; instead, they’re treated as crazy outcasts. Then there’s the fact that Rita Skeeter essentially admitted to something that sounds like magically torturing information out of Bathilda to write her book and no one seems to bat an eye. Most horrific of all of this, however, is the fact that Bathilda seems to have been killed by Voldemort and used as a costume by his snake for quite a while before Harry came to Godric’s Hollow and no one noticed.

I also quite like what JKR does with Dumbledore’s backstory. It’s a very clever deconstruction of the wise mentor trope by throwing to aspects of Dumbledore into question: his ideological and political stances, especially on Muggle rights, and his personal willingness to stand up against injustices. Both are traits that seemingly separated him from the rest of Wizarding society and calling them into question is the most effective way of kicking him of the pedestal. Ariana’s story is another example of how good JKR is at misleading the readers and characters and then revealing a truth that has been hinted at the entire time.

JKR also gives Harry lots of very good reasons to be angry at Dumbledore, both with regards to his past and Harry’s present. She highlights how terrible his plan of telling Harry to destroy the Horcruxes but not giving him all the tools to do so actually is. The fact that she also makes Harry question what he was for Dumbledore is another nice way of deconstructing the mentor pedestal he was placed on. All in all, Half-Blood Prince and Deathly Hallows build up and deconstruct this trope really well and I enjoy it immensely. That makes the mess JKR ultimately makes of it in the end even more regrettable.

Another mess, in my opinion, is the story of the Three Brothers. They supposedly cheated Death by magically constructing a bridge, were given magic items by him and, apart from the youngest brother, were tricked by Death in turn. JKR originally portrays this as a childhood story with no basis in reality but when she reveals that the Hallows are real, she gives no other explanation for their existence. That means that Death is an inherently magical being and a pretty powerful one at that. And while little is impossible in the world of Harry Potter, this does stretch my suspension of disbelief. It touches on the fundamental aspects questions of where magic even comes from and, because JKR doesn’t bother to explain how Death can be capable of wizardry, it just causes lots of question marks.

Next time: A break-out followed by a break-in

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