Thursday, June 13, 2013

a cauldron full of hot, strong love

As I said earlier this week, I've been meaning to write an article on Harry Potter.

We've had a history, Potter and I. I first discovered it when I was somewhere around 10, still living in Argentina, walking on the mall with my parents. I saw a book on a display, a boy grabbing onto a broom with a confused expression in his face on the cover and realised, though I couldn't remember where, that it wasn't the first time I'd seen it. And so a few days later I saw it again, in the hands of one of my friends, and she agreed to lend it to me (I must say that since I was 6, I had been an avid reader, going as far as reading a book a day - a feat I haven't been able to replicate in my boring busy adult life). I read it in a couple of days and then its two sequels (at the time, we were on the brink of Goblet's publication - in Argentina, at least). I was completely enthralled. I only talked about it with my friends. I was dying to see the movie. I bought the fourth and did indeed read it in a day, facing a later day of migraines form the strain. When the fifth came out, I read an unofficial translation in my computer (from a floppy disk - I know, it seems weird now).

And then, waiting in line at the premiere of the Azkaban movie, it hit me - for the first time, I didn't care anymore. I saw the movie all right, but I just wasn't as enthralled. Somewhere along growing up and moving to Brazil, I lost the magic. I had grown up.

What I didn't expect, though, is that Harry would grow up with me. If the fifth book is a prime example of teenage drama mixed with magic, the Half-Blood Prince sees Harry entering (or rather being forced into) adulthood. I read the sixth book as soon as it came out - the first time I read one of the books in its original language. I didn't buy it though, for as I said, I wasn't as devoted anymore. I just went to a bookstore near my house, picked up a copy, sat in a sofa and read it day after day, always memorising the page number I left it on the day before. And boy did I visit that bookstore. This was a different Harry Potter. This was an adult book. A book about secrets, terrors, and death (or the lack of, in Voldemort's case). Though I couldn't quite  grasp what had changed, I could feel a tangible change in the printed pages before me. To this day, Prince is my favourite Harry Potter book.

Then came the seventh, and with it, what I considered at the time a step back. I just couldn't understand why, seven volumes in, J. K. decided to introduce a new element, the Hallows, which, you know, we had never heard of but they were there all along, and they had a crucial part on the story. She'd barely pulled it off with the Horcruxes (specially Riddle's diary) so why insist again, and in the end of it all? Wasn't it just better to build on what had come before, instead of building more things? I liked it, but barely. It just didn't feel as good as the masterpiece that preceded it.

Then I forgot all about it. The movies ended (from the third on they were just visual summaries, except Hallows Volume I and II, which really felt like movies and not adaptations) and so did the Potter franchise, to me at least.

A few days back, though, flipping through channels, I stumbled upon The Half Blood Prince, and let it play for a while. It made me think of my beloved book, so I decided to pick it up again and read it. After going through what felt like a Great Wall of China to actually download it on my Kindle (seriously, that Pottermore thing feels like a conscious effort to stop people from buying and reading the books), I sat down, ready to fall in love again, and I did. From the very first chapter, the brilliant "The Other Minister", I was hooked, which is a feat considering I already knew what was going to happen. But now, wiser and more knowledgeable/stuck up than before, I realised what had changed. What made Prince such a different book from its predecessors.

The basic Harry Potter plot for five volumes was:

- Harry is unhappy at the Dursleys'
- He goes to Howgwarts and loves it
- Something weird is happening, that has some connection to Voldemort
- Harry faces this mystery and defeats Voldemort
- Harry ends up at the infirmary, where he has a long talk with Dumbledore in which the headmaster reveals nothing and talks about love

One of the reasons the Half Blood Prince is different is because, right of the bat, Dumbledore comes to Harry, instead of being sought after. Through book 6, the Gandalf-like protector-and-guide-always-on-the-sideline always-has-an-answer image of Dumbledore is violently deconstructed to show as a scared but very decided man who has a plan and needs others to carry it out if he can't. Dumbledore is done helping others, now he asks them to help him, to be loyal and sometimes blindly trusting. We see a Dumbledore with no time to answer questions (rather giving others all the clues they need to find the answers themselves), a Dumbledore with a job to do. The good, innocent grandfather becomes a stern, sometimes apathetic leader. Dumbledore is dying, and he has to make use of the time he has left.

Prince also reveals a different Voldemort. Previous installments had presented us with a dark, power hungry wizard who wants, at all cost, to avoid death, and to dominate and rule over everything and everyone. No book took the time to tell that wizard's story - he was The Enemy, and that's all we needed to know. Prince tells us otherwise: Harry needs to know a lot more if Voldemort is to be defeated. Through a recollection of memories piecing together Tom Riddle's back story, we learn of his quest to defeat death, and along the way, his reasons for wanting to do so.

When I ended book 6, I realized my original plan of reading it and only it was not going to work. I needed to read book 7 to understand the story fully. Those two books have a stronger connection than any other in the series. And so I read the seventh.

I still disagree with the inclusion of the Hallows and the somewhat Hollywoodyan turn of events (the Gringotts escape, the big final battle). I still think that while Prince creates a darkened, decaying London, a sense of desolation and a plot of dark, misterious and dangerous magic, Hallows puts the reader through many over-dramatic deaths, fictional magic that can't be taken seriously (the whole recovering of Gryffindor's sword in the frozen lake is a prime example), many moments that only make sense on the premise that Harry had a "feeling" of what to do and a terrible, should-have-never-been-written-epilogue. But now I also saw what makes this book worthwhile, and that's Albus Dumbledore and Severus Snape.

First, Dumbledore. An essay could be written on how a character that is dead (and doesn't reappear in any way except for a dream sequence and a portrait that talks) can play such an important role in a story. While Prince gave as a different, hardened Dumbledore, Hallows tells us the story behing the greatest wizard of all time and the reason for his pre-death change. Dumbledore, as it turns out, was just as or more human than many of the book's characters. He had a family he neglected. He once engaged in very Voldemort-like Muggle domination discussions. He was buddies with the pre-Voldemort, Grindelwald. He felt regret for all of that, and brought about his demise for trying to undo it (wearing the cursed Resurrection Stone to bring back his parents and sister). And, last but not least, he planned his last steps down to the moment he died (and after, as he left everyone orders and clues to finosh Voldemort for good).

So, in the course of books 6 and 7, the great good wizard whith fairy godmather qualities became a repentant man who left hopes and dreams to keep his (and everyone elses') power hunger in check. The great bad wizard became an orphan boy who came from a loveless relationship and was never loved, which led him to believe that power (and thus everlasting life) was the only goal worth pursuing. But then, a few chapters form the end, another character comes in the spotlight: the teacher everyone hates and who hates eveybody, just because.

We knew there was something other than spite and oily hair to Severus Snape ever since Harry peeked at his memory in book 5 and saw, to his shock, Snape being bullied by James Potter. But Snape's last act before dying, giving Harry a handful of memories to see, was the real reveal we had all been waiting for: Snape wasn't a good guy,  but he was, unlike Voldemort, capable of feeling love, and boy did he love. Lily's death, which he would forever feel (rightly so) responsible for made him capable of a series of corageous, selfless acts to defend her son and, ultimately, make Voldemort's destruction possible. If Dumbledore gave Harry the information on how to do it, Snape gave him the chance, by keeping him safe, guiding him along and putting his life at risk up to the very end (ironically, Voldemort doesn't kill Snape because he discovers his true alligeance - it would be impossible for him to imagine a love so strong - but because he thinks Snape is hampering his quest to ultimate power. Voldemort dies without suspecting Snape was a traitor).

After finishing Hallows, I could finally see what Rowling did on those two last books. She took the three archetipes (the good old wizard, the scary bad monster and the despicable teacher) and pulled the curtain. She told us the stories (in all three cases, since childhood) of three kids (an orphan, a child of abuse and a loved one) who at some point sought the same thing - power - and which were taken in opposite directions (one who loved everybody, one who loved only one person, and one who loved no one). Of course, I doubt she did this as cold and logically as I am describing it, but there is not denying that Dumbledore, Snape and Voldemort represent different points of the love-power spectrum. And love, as it is to be expected, really does conquer all.

So I finished Harry's story again, but this time, it felt like I was closing a different book (also because I refused to read the epilogue). A book where heroes are made by their choices and not solely by their desires or backgrounds. Where good and evil boil down to selfishness and selflessness. And where previous wrongs can be made up by an act of love, the "most powerful kind of magic".

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