August 30, 2007


The Youngest Brother's Tale: Harry Potter's grand finale: a review of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J. K. Rowling (Alan Jacobs, Books & Culture)

Nota Bene: Much that happens in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is revealed here.

A little more than a hundred years ago, a number of British educators, journalists, and intellectuals grew exercised about the reading habits of the nation's children. The particular target of their disapproval was the boy's adventure story—the kind of cheap short novel, full of exotic locations and narrow escapes from mortal peril and false friends and unexpected acts of heroism, that had come to be known as the "penny dreadful." Surely it could not be good for children to immerse themselves in these ill-made fictional worlds, with their formulaic plots and purple prose; surely we should insist that they learn to savor finer fare.

Then came riding into the fray a young man—twenty-five at the time—named Gilbert Keith Chesterton, who, though a journalist and an intellectual himself, repudiated the hand-wringing of his colleagues and planted his flag quite firmly in the camp of the penny dreadfuls: "There is no class of vulgar publications about which there is, to my mind, more utterly ridiculous exaggeration and misconception than the current boys' literature of the lowest stratum." Chesterton is perfectly happy to acknowledge that these books are not in the commendatory sense "literature," because "the simple need for some kind of ideal world in which fictitious persons play an unhampered part is infinitely deeper and older than the rules of good art, and much more important. Every one of us in childhood has constructed such an invisible dramatis personae, but it never occurred to our nurses to correct the composition by careful comparison with Balzac."

Nor should our nurses have done so, because what matters most about the penny dreadfuls is the soundness and accuracy of their moral compass, and their power of inspiring their readers to discern the significance of moral choice:

The vast mass of humanity, with their vast mass of idle books and idle words, have never doubted and never will doubt that courage is splendid, that fidelity is noble, that distressed ladies should be rescued, and vanquished enemies spared … . The average man or boy writes daily in these great gaudy diaries of his soul, which we call Penny Dreadfuls, a plainer and better gospel than any of those iridescent ethical paradoxes that the fashionable change as often as their bonnets.

And above all, what Chesterton loves about the penny dreadful is this: "It is always on the side of life."

I have been meditating on these thoughts in recent days, as I have scanned cyberspace for the many and varying responses to Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the final tale of the Boy Who Lived. It is a story full of exotic locations and narrow escapes from mortal peril and false friends and unexpected acts of heroism; it is a story which suggests that courage is splendid and fidelity noble. Of course, that's not enough for some people; and for others it's precisely the problem.

We already know that some Christians mistrust the Potter series because of its depictions of magic; we already know that some critics (Harold Bloom most prominent among them) deplore the books' lack of literary grace. But another and different set of critics has emerged here at the end of the series, for whom the evident traditionalism of the books is their greatest flaw. One of the participants in's Book Club thinks that the novel, and its epilogue in particular, "feels awfully bourgeois in its concern with little other than our heroes' marriages and children." (I did not know that concern for marriage and children was the exclusive province of the bourgeoisie; but that's why I read Slate, to learn stuff like that.) And as I scanned the blogs I lost track of the number of people who complained that the epilogue, and indeed the whole series, is defaced by "heteronormativity." Not a gay or lesbian couple in sight—though, if it makes anyone feel better, I have seen that a few readers of the previous book, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, think that Harry's obsession with finding out what Draco Malfoy is up to marks a welcome homoerotic interlude.

What could one say in defense of these books, so unliterary, so unsophisticated in their morality and style, so bourgeois, so heteronormative? Perhaps only this: that J. K. Rowling has produced, in the vast, seven-book, thirty-five-hundred-page arc of Harry's story, the greatest penny dreadful ever written. [...]

It should be obvious at this point that the Harry Potter books amount to something more, far more, than your average penny dreadful. But they belong, firmly, to that moral universe, even as they expand it beyond what we might have thought possible. Many years ago Umberto Eco wrote that the greatness of Casablanca stems from its shameless deployment of every narrative cliché known to humankind: "Two clichés make us laugh. A hundred clichés move us. For we sense dimly that the clichés are talking among themselves, and celebrating a reunion." The Harry Potter books are like that: every trope and trick of the penny dreadful raised to the highest power and revealed in all their glory.

Tolkien and the Gift of Mortality (Anna Mathie, November 2003, First Things).

[I] came upon what I still find the most exquisitely sorrowful moment in a book filled with exquisitely beautiful sorrow.

The wise and good Arwen, who has given up her elvish immortality to be the mortal Aragorn’s queen, is overcome at his deathbed and pleads for him to stay with her longer. He refuses, saying that it is right for him to go with good grace and before he grows feeble. Then he tells her:

I speak no comfort to you, for there is no comfort for such pain within the circles of the world. The uttermost choice is before you: to repent and go to the Havens and bear away into the West the memory of our days together that shall there be evergreen but never more than memory; or else to abide the Doom of Men.

Arwen replies that she has no choice:

I must indeed abide the Doom of Men whether I will or nill: the loss and the silence. But I say to you, King of the Numenoreans, not till now have I understood the tale of your people and their fall. As wicked fools I scorned them, but I pity them at last. For if this is indeed, as the Elves say, the gift of the One to Men, it is bitter to receive.

In this new and bitter knowledge, she goes away alone after Aragorn’s death, “the light of her eyes . . . quenched . . . cold and gray as nightfall that comes without a star.” She dies alone in the dead land of Lorien, where deathless Elves once lived.

For Arwen, otherwise infinitely wiser than we, death is the one unknown, a new and unexpected discovery. Aragorn knows better; he knows, as all mortals should, that comfort is impossible and even unworthy in the face of death. Yet he still holds fast to what Arwen has only known as an abstract theological tenet: that death is truly God’s gift.

I cry whenever I reread this passage; it haunts me like no other, though it’s hard to explain why. At the heart of it is the phrase “the gift of the One to Men.” Tolkien looks unblinkingly at “the loss and the silence” of death, but remains steadfast: death is our curse, but also our blessing.

He has hidden this particular tale away in an appendix, but the same idea of mortality permeates the whole book. The plot centers on a ring that gives immortality and corrupts its bearer. Much of the book’s character interest arises from the interactions between mortal and immortal races, who both mystify and fascinate each other. The structure of the work also echoes mortality itself.

Posted by Orrin Judd at August 30, 2007 2:57 PM

Regarding Tolkien, the same point is made in "The Silmarillion", where the Noldor marvel at the willingness of the first Men to fight against Morgoth, giving up their short lives to help those who are immortal.

Hurin shows the same thought when he refuses to submit to Morgoth, holding only to the second-hand memory of the light of Valinor.

There are many similar vignettes in the appendices to Tolkien's book.

The story of Beren and his first death says the same. So does the story of Earendil, and the death of Finrod. Even Boromir's death is like unto it.

Remember that the LOTR ends with Sam telling Rose, "Well, I'm back". Bourgeois indeed.

Posted by: jim hamlen at August 31, 2007 7:14 AM