Harry Potter & the Deathly Hallows: Afterword

by Dan H

Dan concludes his series of articles and his Ferretbrain coup.
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Having just dedicated the best part of a fortnight to producing a chapter-by-chapter review of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, I thought it best to conclude with an overview of the series, highlighting some of the things I found most discomforting about Rowling's Opus.

This is going to be in three sections, so bear with me.

Chekhov's Guns: Rowling and Style

Commendation has, of course, been heaped upon Rowling from all corners for her epic septology, and one of the most common articles of praise is her supposed mastery of something that the internet likes to call "Chekhov's Gun".

This is the thing JK uses all the time, where something gets mentioned in passing in book X, only to become a crucial plot point in book X+1. See, for example, Harry's ability to speak to snakes, the diary from book 2 turning out to be a Horcrux in book 6, or the diadem of Rowena Ravenclaw showing up in the Room of Lost Things as a random piece of junk.

Rowling's fans view this sort of trick as the Height of Good Writing, and they frequently cite Anton Chekov in support of this.

The actual line they are referencing (or, as I hope I am about to demonstrate, mis-referencing) is the following:
One must not put a loaded rifle on stage if no-one is thinking of firing it

It is sometimes also couched in the following terms:
If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise do not put it there.

There are two crucial things about Chekhov's guns which The Internet At Large fails to notice.

The first is that in both cases, Chekhov is talking about the stage. Small details matter a lot more on stage than in a book, because novelists are expected to describe their locations in greater detail than playwrights are.

The second, and significantly more important thing which people seem to get wrong about this Chekhov quote is that they seem to mentally reverse the word order. In particular, people seem to read it as:

If in the second act, you intend for a pistol to be fired, you must have hung it on the wall in the first act.
The difference here is important. The first (original, correct) sentence is an admonition. It's basically saying (and I take some license with this, I admit) "do not introduce details into your text which do not serve to drive the narrative forwards." People usually take "Chekov's Gun" to be something implied more strongly by the second sentence, very roughly: "if something is important to your narrative, it should be introduced well in advance." Or, to put it in the most condescending way possible "it is desirable to introduce seemingly pointless details, so that you will look clever when they become important later on."

"But Dan," I can hear at least one person shouting from the electronic wilderness. "Why does it matter what Chekhov might or might not have originally said, and what he might or might not have meant by it? If people enjoy the way that Rowling introduces seemingly irrelevant detail, only to have it become important later on, isn't that good enough?"

Well no. It isn't.

Chekhov's Guns are an example demonstrating the importance of placing the focus on the story you are trying to tell. You don't put a gun on stage unless somebody is intending to fire it. You don't give the hero's mentor a Dark Past unless it is going to be somehow important.

Rowling's "Guns" are the exact opposite. They represent the primacy of world over narrative. The difference here is subtle but vital. Chekhov's Gun is a setting detail which drives the story. Rowling's Guns are story details which drive the setting.

Take the Dumbledore backstory. In Book 1 we read, on a chocolate frog card, that Dumbledore defeated the Dark Wizard Grindelwald. In Book Seven we learn that in fact he and Grindelwald were close friends, and plotted to take over the world together. But neither of these revelations drive the story. They are both equally unimportant, and Anton Chekhov would, I am certain, have considered both of them to be an unfired gun.

"But Dan," the guy from before is still saying "some people clearly liked the Dumbledore backplot, so why does it matter what you think Chekhov would have thought of it?"

And here, frankly, I'm going to get snarky.

By using Chekov's Gun to validate the fact that the pointless crap in the previous books gets revealed to be bigger but equally pointless crap in the final book, people are claiming that a cheap trick has literary merit. They are equating the fannish desire to be rewarded for obsession with detail with the creation of a strong, tautly plotted story.

The Invisible Man: Rowling and Virtue

JK Rowling has stated on a number of occasions that, if she were to join Hogwarts, she would want to be sorted into Gryffindor, because she values bravery above all things.

I genuinely believe this. I also believe that JK Rowling has a really messed up definition of "bravery".

In the final book of the series it is revealed that the Invisibility Cloak, which Harry has carried around since book one, is in fact the greatest of the Deathly Hallows. Its true glory, Dumbledore explains in the final chapter, is that it can "protect others as well as the wearer." Why that is more true of the Cloak than the Wand (which can presumably be used for shield charms as well as killing curses) I will never know.

I do, however, think it is very telling that JK Rowling's great hero possesses, as his defining quality, invisibility.

The original invisible man is driven slowly mad by his condition. Of course it's a slightly different situation, since Griffin's condition is irreversible, whereas Harry can put the cloak on or take it off as he pleases. However, the central point of the original Invisible Man story is that to be invisible is to lose all sense of identity, all contact with the world, and all need to face the consequences of your actions. This image (or perhaps non-image) resonates throughout fiction. The invisible man is no man at all.

Yet for Rowling, invisibility is a hero's virtue. This becomes even more interesting when we realise that as well as having the power to become physically invisible, Harry is "invisible" in many other ways as well. His very lack of personality, of drive or motivation, is held as his greatest and most admirable virtue.

This strange situation goes right back to the first book. In Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, Quirrel is unable to find the stone, because when he looks into the Mirror of Erised, all he sees is himself handing the stone over to Voldemort. The mirror spies into his mind, and determines his true motivation for wanting the stone, and finds him lacking. Harry, however, looks into the mirror, and sees himself finding the stone. Dumbledore later explains that "only one who wished only to find the stone, find it and not use it" would be able to pass that particular test.

Now by itself, there's nothing wrong with that. It's a standard children's fantasy setup: the magical doohickey looks into your heart and sees that you are Good and True and Pure, and you win. In the context of the wider series, however, it sets a strange precedent. Harry is able to find the Philosopher's Stone because he has no motivation for looking for it in the first place, and this continues throughout the series, and is singled out as the quality which makes Harry a "better man" than the other characters.

Throughout the series, the most noble reason for any course of action is no reason at all. Harry seeks the Deathly Hallows because he thinks it might maybe be what Dumbledore was expecting him to do. And according to Dumbledore, had he sought them for any other reason, he would not have been worthy to find them. When Dumbledore tried to unite the Hallows, he was actually trying to achieve something, and therefore proved himself unworthy.

Harry spends seven years doing what he thinks other people might expect him to. He's utterly passive. The piece de resistance in this directionless saga is, of course, Harry's "sacrifice" at the "climax" of the seventh book. Having seen in the pensieve that Dumbledore intended for him to be killed by Voldemort, he immediately decides to lay down and die. Rowling, apparently, views this as the height of courage. The act of a True Gryffindor. I view it as utterly craven.

JK Rowling seems to view "courage" as the quality which allows you to accept the world as you find it. Now if we were talking about things which genuinely were beyond your control, that would be one thing, but Potter is a hero, and the protagonist of the stories. He is supposed to be changing the world (and according to Rowling's later interviews, he totally does, after the books end).

Harry goes willingly to his death, not to protect anybody, not to save the world, not to destroy Voldemort, but because somebody tells him he's meant to. It's pathetic. But in the afterlife, Dumbledore heaps praise upon him, and tells him that he has become the true "Master of Death" because he killed himself on instruction.

The flip-side to Harry's passive Gryffindor "courage" is of course the "ambition" of House Slytherin. Many fans were deeply upset that the Slytherins all abandoned Hogwarts in the final fight: "they were supposed to be ambitious, not evil" is a common complaint. To Rowling, however, ambition is evil in and of itself. Actual desires, actual motivations, are reprehensible things. No action is pure unless it is motivated by a nonspecific sense of duty.

I'm currently reading Robin Hobb's Farseer trilogy (the ones about the assassin). It's interesting to compare Fitz unwavering loyalty to the Farseer line, and Harry's unwavering loyalty to Dumbledore. Fitz's absolute loyalty is presented as much as a failing as a virtue. While laudable, his utter devotion to a single master gets in the way of his developing real human relationships. In many ways, Fitz is prevented from becoming a complete human being by his dedication to his master.

Harry, on the other hand, shows a similar blind loyalty, not only to Dumbledore, but increasingly to a spurious and nebulous sense of "should be" and this is what makes him a "better man" than Dumbledore. JK Rowling glorifies her hero for having no personality, and tells us that his blind following of the plot makes him a great man.

Like fuck.

Dulce et Decorum Est: Rowling on Death

This is where I go from being a bitter ex-fan, to being genuinely angry. JK Rowling's attitude to death in the books is trite, patronising and offensive.

In the penultimate chapter of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Harry becomes the "Master of Death." He does this by willingly sacrificing his life to Voldemort, and by "understanding that there far worse things in the living world than dying."

I'm onside with the idea that there are worse things than death. It is most certainly better to die than to - say - slaughter hundreds of innocent people in a misguided attempt to divide your soul into seven pieces and attain immortality. I might even go so far as to accept that it's better to die than to betray your friend, his wife, and his infant son to a murderous psychopath.

However Harry does not go to his death for any of these reasons. Harry goes to his death because Dumbledore told him to.

Now before you all start writing in, I get the whole "Harry was a Horcrux" deal. I understand that Voldemort couldn't die while Harry was alive. I get the prophecy. I understand why Dumbledore told Harry to go and kill himself. But it's not the issue. The issue is that nobody tried to find a solution to the problem that did not involve Harry sacrificing himself. Harry's death is considered to be a desirable end in and of itself.

And this is what gets me. It is not courage which Rowling praises, it is not struggling, or striving, or fighting. It is not defiance in the face of evi. It is the very act of dying which she glorifies.

As I pointed out in my earlier article, every single man, woman and child who stayed to fight the Battle of Hogwarts was willing to die to protect something or somebody. But because they fought, because they tried to stay alive, because they tried to solve their problems by confronting them head on, their struggle is considered somehow less noble than Harry's ritual suicide.

Perhaps I would find Rowling's portrayal of death less offensive if I didn't know she took such pride in it. She talks about how being a children's writer means being a "cold, callous killer."

Then there's this interview with msnbc, in which she tells us, with reference to the death of Lupin and Tonks:
"I think one of the most devastating things about war is the children left behind. As happened in the first war when Harry's left behind, I wanted us to see another child left behind. And it made it very poignant that it was their newborn son."


Except that we don't see the child until the epilogue, and when we do, we don't see any sign that he has been affected in any way by the death of his parents. Harry expresses no sense of obligation towards his orphaned godson, no sense of responsibility. Harry's words of wisdom are to his natural son Albus Severus, not to fellow war-orphan Teddy Lupin.

And of course, Teddy Lupin was only orphaned at all because Remus and Nymphadora chose to fight at Hogwarts. They clearly felt not only that there were worse things in the living world than dying, but that parenthood was one of them.

Of course, the Lupins aren't the only couple to completely reject their parental duties the moment they get the whiff of an opportunity for heroism. The late James and Lily Potter make an all-singing all-dancing cameo as the Super Suicide Cheerleader Squad, when they appear before Harry and tell him that they are "very proud" that he is marching blindly to his death and that it "won't be long now" and that dying is "quicker and easier than falling asleep."

I said it before, and I'll say it again. That is fucking fucked up. He is their fucking son for fuck's sake. I don't care how evil Voldemort is. I don't care how cool your afterlife is. Did Lily Potter really stand in front of a Killing Curse for Harry just so that he could go and stand in front of another one sixteen years later?

As I think I have already said, the message of the Harry Potter books is supposed to be "there are far worse things than death." Now to be honest, I don't think that's a massively controversial statement. But she takes it way too far. She spends so much time talking about how it's okay to be dead, so much time telling us that Harry's decision to die is Brave and Right and Honourable, and so much time talking about dead characters, that it seems like in the Potterverse, life is just an unfortunate preamble to the main event.

Interestingly, this is exactly the same attitude which C.S. Lewis is routinely lambasted for presenting. The difference is that Lewis presented it deliberately, and it was founded in a devout Christian faith. Rowling's freaky death-cult is the accidental result of a bad writer cramming one too many sentimental cliches into a badly thought-out treatise on bereavement.

I think the basic problem is that JK herself doesn't know what she thinks about death. She just knows that it's Very Very Important and that she wants to say something about it. She knows that when people die it is very sad, but wants to reassure her readers (and dare I suggest, herself) that ultimately death is a perfectly natural part of life. The problem is that all of these conflicting motivations spill out into a terrible jumble on the page. So sometimes we're told how terrible death is ("the suddenness and completeness of death was with them like a presence" and of course murder is the "supreme act of evil") but at the same time we are told that actually dying and being dead are perfectly fine. Even if you're only seventeen, or have a new-born child to bring up.

I'm going to get into some slightly murky water now, and play the "what I think a complete stranger's life is like" card.

It's fairly well publicised that, around the time Harry Potter was first getting going, JK's mother died. She apparently had MS and the last six months of her life were hellish. This being the case, I can well see that you would develop an idea of death as something tragic but ultimately merciful. But what is a welcome release to an old woman with a terminal illness is just a senseless waste for a young couple with children, or a seventeen year old boy.

Rowling tries to confront the horror of death and the futility of war, but because she is unwilling to present any of the characters who die as anything but heroic (if they are good) or irredeemable (if they are evil), she manages only to glorify it. Sweet and honourable it is to die for Hogwarts.

And indeed, Owen says it better than I can, so I'll leave you with him. If you're reading JK, I'd take some notes.
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.
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Comments (go to latest)
Wardog at 15:41 on 2007-08-10
I think you're being a little harsh on the Chekov's Gun (aka Puzzlebox) style of book. I'm not say it's great literature and I'm not actually sure who is claiming its great literature but one of the few things that DH Appreciators can actually sell me on is how fun it is to see the books fitting together. David, for example, loves that sort of thing. And apparently if you read back it's very rewarding. I'm just saying.
Dan H at 16:02 on 2007-08-10
I'm totally fine with the Puzzlebox style. I just find it annoying that people confuse it with literary merit (which I think they do).
Mystiquefire at 18:05 on 2007-08-11
I read all your DH reviews and I couldn't stop laughing. I agree with every single word. As much I used to love HP, I completely hate DH. I honestly think you're a 100 times better writer than JKR.
Dan H at 21:46 on 2007-08-11
That's very kind of you.
Wardog at 21:53 on 2007-08-11
Hehe, that's not saying much - a large portion of her fan community are better writers than JK ;)

My jumping off point was definitely the 5th book ... retrospectively I'm a bit peeved with the 4th but I remember just being hungry for more Potter at the time and not minding the length much beyond thinking "well, this is a wee bit indulgent."
Arthur B at 01:18 on 2007-08-12
I think the reason I tend to hold the 4th book in higher esteem than, say, the 5th is that a) something actually happens in it, and it is actually - while flabby - much leaner than book 5, and b) when blokey dies at the end it's genuinely striking and powerful, because none of the good guys have ever actually died in a HP book so far, so you had a sense that a line had been crossed.

The problem is, with the exception of Dumbledore, Voldemort and (arguably) Sirius and Hedwig, every death after that has been of a less important character, rather than a more important character.
http://lunabell14.livejournal.com/ at 04:56 on 2010-01-06
I hadn't thought about a lot of these points until I had read your reviews, and even then I was unwilling to completely side with your point of view. I did notice I didn't like the characters as much once it hit Half-Blood Prince, but I've also been reading the series since I was 8, and I'm currently 19, so I really, really wanted to continue loving the series. But I must admit, you are pretty much completely correct about Harry Potter, particularly Deathly Hallows.

The only disagreement I have is about the suicide cult. They truly, honest-to-God, believed that the only way to destroy Voldemort and save the Wizarding World was for him to sacrifice himself. They were proud of him for doing the right thing and making an ultimate sacrifice. I can see why you do think the mauraders and Lily encouraging his walk to death was creepy, though.

Dan H at 11:22 on 2010-01-08
I think the issue here is that I tend to engage with texts on a more (for want of a better term) "meta" level. Yes in the text Harry sacrificing himself is the only way to defeat Voldemort, but the reason it's the only way to defeat Voldemort is that Rowling chose to *make* it the only way to defeat Voldemort.

This is partially a personal, political preference, but I have real issues with the fetishisation of martyrdom, particularly when the martyrs are children. "Killing yourself in order to kill your enemies" isn't noble, it's suicide bombing.

There's also the simple fact that there was no actual reason to *kill* Voldemort other than the (again rather dubious) notion that it is desirable to slay one's enemies. His Horcruxes didn't make Voldemort all-powerful, or even indestructible. They didn't stop anybody from putting him in prison or even from simply taking his wand away (which would have rendered him entirely powerless). As I think I point out in the reviews, Harry's sacrifice very specifically *isn't* about saving anybody, it's about killing somebody.
Frank at 16:45 on 2010-01-08
"Killing yourself in order to kill your enemies" isn't noble, it's suicide bombing.

It isn't suicide bombing. It's just suicide, and Harry's attempt at it killed no one.


taking his wand away (which would have rendered him entirely powerless).

As for being wandless, Quirrel and the kids at the orphanage didn't find him lacking power.


Harry's sacrifice very specifically *isn't* about saving anybody, it's about killing somebody.

I agree. More specifically, it's about making someone killable. This would be cool if Rowling did more with it, making him more human, having Harry forgive Voldemort who would then experience different sort of love magic.
But alas, she limp-dicked it, made it an action movie lacking thought, heart or potency.
Shimmin at 17:09 on 2010-01-08
Sorry Frank, I have to go with Dan on this one. On a pedantic level (my usual level) it's not strictly actual suicide bombing, but I think it's a reasonable comparison.

On the other hand, I seem to remember people casting spells without a wand, so I'm with you there.

On a third, mutant hand, I'm not sure about the forgiveness bit - it's been done and is typically a bit nauseating and unlikely (especially given Harry isn't exactly the pure noble benevolent type who usually gets taht role). But taking away his power and locking him up, or indeed going through some kind of Due Process and executing him (the wizarding world being fairly brutal) - that'd work.
Sister Magpie at 20:01 on 2010-01-08
That makes me think of the mixed fan reaction to the finale of Avatar (the Last Airbender series, not the James Cameron film!).

Spoiler alert:

Ozai, the villain, is stripped of his powers and put in jail--this after the main conflict for the hero is how to succeed without killing, because he comes from a pacifist society (that was wiped out by these bad guys). A lot of people just couldn't accept at all that this was a victory because Ozai would still be a threat as long as he was alive.

Myself, I thought it worked. A guy without powers was neutralized and wouldn't get out of prison--and if somebody wanted to write him doing that in a fanfic that's fine, but it wasn't really a problem. But it just struck me how people didn't see "strip him of his magic powers and put him in prison" was a viable option.
Dan H at 01:46 on 2010-01-10
I suspect that part of this is just narrative neatness. If the villain doesn't die, then there's a lot of awkward questions to ask about what actually *does* happen to them. It's often the same with ex-lovers - better for them to die than for them to be hanging around spoiling the ending. Heck it's the same with mentors.

On the other hand, there's something more than a bit iffy about a mentality that says "no, just stopping them from hurting anybody ever again isn't enough, we need to kill them in public."
Robinson L at 15:00 on 2010-01-15
I'm not sure about the forgiveness bit - it's been done and is typically a bit nauseating and unlikely
Well, that's not to say it can't be pulled off, even in fiction (as my father is pointing out, there's a lot of stuff you can get away with in nonfiction that would be infinitely less credible in fiction). I do agree, however, that Harry was probably not the best candidate for that role.

I suspect that part of this is just narrative neatness. If the villain doesn't die, then there's a lot of awkward questions to ask about what actually *does* happen to them.
You're more forgiving than I am, Dan. I consider it lazy, often as not. Many times, I'll grant you, killing off the villain (as opposed to merely neutralizing them) is integral to the plot - but I've seen loads of other examples where the only reason for killing off the villain seems to be that it's the cultural default. (While killing off the mentor is even more cliche, it, at least, can often serve to advance the plot.)

On the other hand, there's something more than a bit iffy about a mentality that says "no, just stopping them from hurting anybody ever again isn't enough, we need to kill them in public."
I don't know about "in public," but yes, I am painfully aware of said mentality (it's practically a staple here in the US) and it's very, very disturbing.
Robinson L at 00:00 on 2010-01-20
Bugger! I forgot to point out that while an “all as forgiven” ending (as written by Rowling) would undoubtedly have been nauseating and unlikely, I question whether it would've been actively worse than the epic anticlimax she actually delivered.
http://deralte.livejournal.com/ at 07:04 on 2011-06-04
*wandering by very late after the fact* Thank you for these reviews. I was surrounded by Rowling fans after I read the book and never really had the chance to rant properly about the book so reading this was cathartic.

I think you missed out on a point that drove me insane about Rowling from Book 5 onwards. Namely, she started requiring Harry et al to be stupid for her plot to work. That was hard to forgive after she plotted her third book so well.

That and the fact that in each book, Harry acted exactly as a kid/teen at that exact age is supposed to act (in Rowling's mind at least) and never seemed to have a personality beyond that (capslock!Harry is a good example), were the two things that really drove me insane, up until the final book when interminable camping trips and illogical mcguffins were added to the list. I also like your three points above;)
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