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Gods and Worldbuilding in GRRM’s And Seven Times Never Kill Man

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Several covers of George R R Martin's books

Part of the GRRM Reading Project.

Decades before becoming the world-famous writer we all love but hate to wait for, George R. R. Martin (GRRM) was making a name for himself writing science fiction. And Seven Times Never Kill Man marks another step in this path, expanding Martin’s sci-fi universe known as “Thousand Worlds.”

Written in 1974 and published on Analog in the following year, the story was nominated for a Hugo Award for Best Novelette. It became one of Martin’s many Hugo losers, but just the amount of nominations he got is already impressive.

And Seven Times Never Kill Man also generated this iconic Analog cover by John Schoenherr:

Somewhere between wookies and ewoks?

So let’s have a look at another corner of Martin’s “future history” universe.

In a thousand thousand woods and a single city

And Seven Times Never Kill Man takes us to the world of Corlos (no, not the same one), home of the Jaenshi. A sentient humanoid species, the Jaenshi structure their society around their religious beliefs, with each of their small clans worshiping a different pyramid as if it contained their gods.

This society is slowly being annihilated by the Steel Angels, a belligerent human cult devoted to the pale child Bakkalon. The self-titled children of Bakkalon believe it’s their duty to expand and conquer, and Corlos is next on their plans. As the story starts, the pacifist and wild Jaenshi are paying a heavy price for having killed one of the Steel Angels, and now their children hang on the walls of the Angel city.

The cruelty of the Angels enrages Arik neKrol, a human trader who loves Jaenshi art. NeKrol convinces his fellow trader Jannis Ryther that they need to help the Jaenshi, and Jannis leaves the planet promising to return in one year with weapons. Now it’s up to neKrol to teach the Jaenshi how to use them.

Turns out most Jaenshi are uninterested in neKrol’s weapons, confident that their gods will protect them. The exception is a small group of exiles—Jaenshi whose pyramids and clans were destroyed, but they couldn’t find home among others. Led by a Jaenshi known as the bitter speaker, the exiles are determined to fight the Angels and protect the surviving clans.

When the children of Bakkalon advance against a huge Jaenshi clan, neKrol and his ragtag bunch of exiles move to protect them. Strange events take place when the Angels try to destroy this clan’s pyramid:

“NeKrol stood paralyzed. The pyramid on the rock was no longer a reddish slab. Now it sparkled in the sunlight, a canopy of transparent crystal. And below that canopy, perfect in every detail, the pale child Bakkalon stood smiling, with his Demon-Reaver in his hand.”

Most Steel Angels believe it to be a miracle, except for weaponsmaster C’ara DaHan. Before he can order the destruction of the pyramid, he’s killed by one of the exiles. This prompts an armed conflict between Jaenshi and children of Bakkalon, with several deaths on both sides, including neKrol.

Little is known of the Jaenshi after this conflict, but the bitter speaker and two other exiles meet Jannis and prepare to leave with her. The Steel Angels still live in their city, but they become obsessed with their new found god/pyramid. They burn their winter provisions and kill their own children, who now hang on the walls of the Angel city.

They will never kill a man again

As Martin develops his writing and evolves his style, his stories become longer and more complex. And Seven Times Never Kill Man has a wide range of elements worth analyzing, and a few that specifically stood out to me.

Those that know Martin from A Song of Ice and Fire (ASOIAF) are aware of how much he likes to play with the expectations of his readers. Yet his plot twists are born organically from the narrative, seeded and foreshadowed long before they happen. They still surprise you, but at the same time make you wonder how you didn’t see them coming.

This reading project shows that Martin has been playing with reader expectations since the ’70s, with variable degrees of success. Stories like The Second Kind of Loneliness or This Tower of Ashes have important plot twists that change our perception of the story. At the same time, they’re also quite abrupt, and I can’t imagine that many readers guessed those twists beforehand.

And Seven Times Never Kill Man feels closer to ASOIAF, in which the surprise comes from our own narrative expectations. Storytelling conventions tell us that the novelette won’t end simply with the Angels annihilating the Jaenshi and calling it a day. We expect the Jaenshi to fight back, and the narrative toys with this possibility. Then the conflict goes a different route, but one that completely makes sense with everything we’ve been told about the Jaenshi and the Angels. The Jaenshi do defeat the Angels, after all. Just not the way we would have expected them to.

To be honest, I don’t quite like unexplained supernatural elements being so crucial in the end, even knowing that this is Martin’s favorite approach to magic. But the surprise ending is rooted in what we know about that world and those cultures. It’s not a twist because it came out of the left field, it’s a twist because we were expecting a promise that the story never made.

The old gods and the new

Martin goes deeper in the worldbuilding for And Seven Times Never Kill Man than for his previous works. The novelette is clearly part of a larger universe, with several references to other Thousand Worlds planets and cultures.

Truth be told, some of those references feel expository or like clumsy name-dropping that adds very little to the story. But the meat of the narrative, the Jaenshi and Steel Angel cultures, is still remarkably well-developed. We get a good sense of who they are, what they believe in, or how their society operates. Without this foundation, the ending simply wouldn’t work.

The two cultures are clearly distinct and operate according to very different values, but at the same they share important similarities. Jaenshi and Angels have their faith as the center of social organization, with those beliefs also determining who’s excluded or included in that society. There’s a strong focus on collectivity before individuality, with an emphasis on hierarchy and the role of the religious leaders. Both leaders seem confident in their beliefs despite contrary evidence. The Jaenshi and the children of Bakkalon parallel each other along the narrative, so the transformation of the children of Bakkalon into a perverted version of the Jaenshi clans fits them well.

It’s no small feat to create and present two cultures so similar and yet so obviously distinct. Perhaps for this reason, both Jaenshi and Steel Angels are still largely treated as cultural blocks. It’s a struggle Martin will continue to have until his ASOIAF days, as seen in Dothraki and other Essosi cultures. We don’t get a sense of the internal diversity of these cultures because we don’t see the individuals that are part of them. The ones we do get to know, like the bitter speaker or C’ara DaHan, are treated as exceptions.

The text of And Seven Times Never Kill Man feels almost anti-religious sometimes, though I don’t believe this was Martin’s goal. It’s just that his gods are so alien to us. Their true nature is unknown, their intentions a mystery. We see this with the gods of ASOIAF as well: from R’hllor to the Drowned God, Martin’s pantheon is terrifying. No wonder in both stories we only have the words of the prophets, who are often wrong or missing important pieces, but never the gods themselves. We cannot reach Martin’s gods. But which gods can we reach, after all?

The Heart of Bakkalon was sunk forever

Unlike Martin’s usual close point-of-view structure, And Seven Times Never Kill Man presents us with several points-of-view. We follow Arik neKrol more often, but also Jannis Ryther or Wyatt and his Steel Angels. Out of all the main players in the story, we only miss a Jaenshi perspective.

Having the point-of-view of the Steel Angels gives us a better insight in their society and their motivations, as well as the blind spots that will ultimately cause their downfall. The absence of a Jaenshi point-of-view, in turn, makes their culture more mysterious to us. The only Jaenshi that we get to know better, the bitter speaker, is clearly no longer operating by the same rules. This makes the Jaenshi culture truly alien to the reader, allowing multiple interpretations of the final conflict between them and the Angels.

What truly happened with the pyramid of the waterfall clan? Actually, what are the mysterious pyramids the Jaenshi worship? Who built them? How and why did the Jaenshi create sculptures of alien gods? Why did they create the statues of Bakkalon? Did the talkers know what was going to happen? What’s the meaning of the golden glow in Jaenshi’s eyes, absent in the bitter speaker but present in the Steel Angels by the end? Does the Angels killing their own children have some connection with the population control of the Jaenshi? What’s the nature of the Jaenshi gods? Why do the bitter speaker and the other exiles change so much as they distance themselves from these gods? I could go on forever; this story opens more questions than a season of Lost.

I haven’t found any satisfactory answer for those questions, be it by myself or among fan circles. However, I don’t think Martin would have introduced the idea of the “vampires of the mind” or “soul-sucks” for no reason. Being this sloppy with loose ends doesn’t suit Martin’s style, even in his early days. Could this be the key to explain the fate of the Angels? Or is this reference too small and not followed through enough to earn such importance in the narrative? I go back and forth with this idea.

What about you? What’s your interpretation for the ending? What aspects of the story stood out for you? Let me know in the comments!

Next time: Martin goes horror in “Meathouse Man”!

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Ivana
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Ivana

This is a story I really need to re-read. There was so much to think over and so much I’m still not sure of. I’ve read some interesting metas online discussing the possible similarities with ASOAIF and the Children of the Forest and the First Men. There’s also been speculation about Mithraism, as the Persian religion that was adopted by many Roman soldiers, as a possible inspiration for Bakkalon, in the similar vein as Zoroastrianism has obviously influenced the portrayal of R’hllorism. Of course, GRRM has a habit of taking something from real life and making it much darker, more… Read more »

Ivana
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Ivana

I tried to comment as a guest and realized comments need to be approved then (so if this comment appears again, that’s why), so here am I with my new account. This is a story I really need to re-read. There was so much to think over and so much I’m still not sure of. I’ve read some interesting metas online discussing the possible similarities with ASOAIF and the Children of the Forest and the First Men. There’s also been speculation about Mithraism, as the Persian religion that was adopted by many Roman soldiers, as a possible inspiration for Bakkalon,… Read more »

Books

Kel Protects Everybody in Page

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Image courtesy of Penguin Random House

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 LionessPage 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.

Spoilers for all of Page and Pierce’s previous books. Content warning for mentions of attempted sexual assault. (more…)

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Books

Ghân-buri-Ghân and the Pressure of the Past

Katie

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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

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.

Ghân-buri-Ghân

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.

Ghân-buri-Ghân

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.

Ghân-buri-Ghân

why isn’t it blowing asunder, pj

Final Comments

  • 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.

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Analysis

Encroaching Darkness and Endings

Claire

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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-

art by davinciblr

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.

Turning Cruel?

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.

Familiar developments

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”.


 

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