Wednesday, July 25, 2007

First Thought on Harry Potter's End

Note: Do not read this if you don't want to know what happened in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.

The last enemy to be destroyed is death.

The Harry Potter series is finally at an end. I read the final volume practically at one sitting. I used to do this all the time, but now that I'm older, I'm far harder to captivate. Harry Potter captivated me. It’s been quite an adventure, and since to make an end is also to make a beginning, I feel moved to share my first thoughts about its end. My initial and unconsidered response upon closing the seventh book was happiness for its young readers. The series ended in a way entirely appropriate to children’s literature, which is, after all, what Harry Potter is. In children’s stories, people live happily ever after, the wheel turns, and the children of one generation turn into the parents of the next. In “adult” mythology, on the other hand, there is usually a higher price to pay for the kind of trials that Harry endured. Thus, as an "adult" reader, I have to confess an initial frisson of disbelief. But as I thought further, realizing that J.K. Rowling is a serious and good storyteller, and that I should trust her instinct above my own, my view began to chage. I began by doing the math. This revealed that, in “real” time at least, the ending hasn’t happened yet. Nineteen years later lies not only in Harry’s, but also in our, future. As the wise ones are constantly reminding us, in the eyes of Heaven, or the Divine, or, if you prefer, simply the Universe, we are all still children and our ending hasn’t happened yet. Unlike Harry, none of us who have read the books, have yet to meet our end. That happiness is possible, therefore, is a great affirmation of hope.

When I speak of the end of the Harry Potter series, I’m not talking about its denouement. That was handled really rather perfectly by anyone’s standard: the willing sacrifice, the veil of the temple rent as Harry gives up the ghost and meets his own Holy of Holies face to face, even the redemption of Snape. All this was both satisfying and inspiring, for from its very beginning, Harry’s tale was a tale told in the shadow of death, and as such we needed to pass through that shadow. Voldemort’s quest for immortality was less an act of wizardry than the avatar of our industrialized world where death is the ultimate enemy and no price, including total warfare and medical bankruptcy is too high for the elite’s survival. Yes, the denouement was a good one, and much, much more might be said about it, but for now, I want to stay with the end, because this is where Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows appears to be most original.

Mythic tales of Harry's magnitude have a tendency toward bittersweet epilogs. The chosen one accomplishes what he came for, but the quest costs him everything. Look at the Trojan War. The Greeks win the war, but lose their civilization. Against all odds, Odysseus makes it home, but he’s a wreck and who knows what is left after twenty years have been robbed from his marriage to Penelope? King Arthur's peaceful kingdom is shattered when he is slain in battle by his twisted half brother Mordred and both he and Excalibur are received back into the arms of the Lady of the Lake. The Holy Grail disappears. In more recent quest stories, Frodo destroys the ring, but at the cost of both himself and Middle Earth. He sails to the west with the elves, leaving behind a world bereft of magic. In C.S. Lewis' series, all the friends of Narnia, save Susan, perish in a train wreck. Star Wars’ Luke Skywalker overthrows the empire, but will remain forever haunted by what happened to him, while Leia and Han find happiness in one another’s arms. In the Philip Pullman series, we are expected to find happiness in being returned to random atoms. By all the rules of these Western myths, Harry should have emerged from his ordeal as something more than human. as Dumbledore, a figure set apart, wise beyond all measure, but not an ordinary friend, husband and father.

But that is precisely what Harry becomes. Harry actually succeeds at conquering death. And the only way to really conquer death is to live. Harry and Ginny settle down to a happy married life. The series ends not far from where it began, at the wall of Platform 9-3/4 with all the joy of wizard children setting off into a life that is not dreary, mechanical and standardized like our own, but magical, infused with wonder. For these children, education will not be literal and mechanical, but transforming, surprising, life giving, powerful and fun.

“The last enemy to be destroyed is death,” read the inscription on the tomb of James and Lily Potter. This is a quote from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. Harry comes to this place on Christmas Eve and later that same night is almost killed by the serpent Nagini, disguised as an old woman. That should have cued us if we hadn’t known before, that Harry’s journey was a journey of faith, as old as time, as old as Moses telling the Israelites in the deadly desert, "Choose life."

Dante’s great epic was called Commedia because as a Christian, Dante knew that the story of his faith did not result in fallen cultures and broken heroes, but in happy endings: aliveness beyond all measure in the center of a universe whose greatest power is love. Jesus did not return from the cross a broken man, but one who had conquered death. When Buddha encountered the armies of his own Voldemort Mara under the Bodhi tree, he discovered that violence and death and terror are not real, but only the manifestations of a disturbed mind.

My own personal heroine Rowena Ravenclaw said it so well on the inscription on her diadem, the last of the external horcruxes that Harry discovered: “Wit beyond measure is man’s greatest treasure.” In English, we think of wit as mere cleverness, the ability to be droll. The French know better. Their word for “wit” is “l’esprit,” spirit. Spirit is breath, inspiration, intelligence. It is free. It is alive. How could Harry have really defeated death and not found life in abundance on the other side?

Love trumps all things. Amen.

1 comment:

sally said...

The whole time I was reading this final volume, I had the sense that this excellent story was also becoming a parable...something that would mean what it means at this moment and then change the next time I read it. Finishing the book this morning, my heart lept with the normalcy of life in the epilogue...that despite dire challenges and events, we (wizards and muggles alike!) seek return to that which is most, relationships, rhythm.

What a wonderful way to end the series!