29 November 2007

Harry Potter and the Renewal of Hope

The last couple of weeks have been quite interesting. I wanted to read Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows again but decided that I needed to read the whole lot, just in case I missed something the first several hundred times I've read the first six books.... I've just finished Deathly Hallows, only for the fourth or fifth time (well, it only came out in July and I have had a few other things to do!). And I still have to take my hat, head, hands, whatever, off to JK Rowling.

There are books that have good stories; there are books with huge personal impact. It is rare to find a book with both that is also breathlessly paced, intricately woven, and with a twist in the tail that none of the millions of frantically theorising fans guessed prior to its release. Oh, we came close, and one or two were closer than most, but no-one got it all - and I don't think that even if we had we could have been disappointed with what Jo gave us when we finally got the book in our hands. What gets me about Deathly Hallows is the emotional impact. Okay, so we've journeyed with Harry through seven years of his time (rather more of ours) and the characters are our friends, but there is so much that happens to them in this book. For me, it is the final three or four chapters that make me cry every time (and yes, I really did cry when I read it first - and again today when I read it again) - when Harry walks to his own destruction accompanied by his dead parents and Sirius and Lupin. It is Harry's extraordinary courage, knowing that the only way he can win is if he dies.

It always annoys me when people said that "Harry Potter is evil" or "Harry Potter teaches kids witchcraft". To quote Vernon Dursley, "That's a load of old tosh!" Sacrifice for love, for others, is a central core in JK's books - Lily died to save Harry, Sirius dies to save Harry, Dumbledore dies to save Harry (and everyone else, we find out later), and finally Harry dies to save everyone else and to kill Voldemort. But in Deathly Hallows, JK gave us the other side of her story: resurrection; a resurrection that made it possible for love to survive and evil to die. I've known for years that JK Rowling is an Anglican and when I read Deathly Hallows that first time I knew that finally she was answering some of the more rabidly frothing-at-the-mouth critics in the best way she knew how: she told a fabulous story fabulously well, and oh, by the way, wove in some of the greatest themes in storytelling that also just happen to include a willing hero choosing to die in order that others might live, and having that death turn into resurrection and life ever after. Oops. Maybe there's a little bit of humble pie to be eaten, hmm?

There's something interesting that happens to me when I read certain books. Maybe that's why I picked up Harry Potter again over the last fortnight. Some books bring something with them, like a gift, and every time I go back to them it's just waiting for me again. Partly it's familiarity, revisiting old friends, but in some cases it's something more, something special. It's a mix of hope, of courage, of love - of understanding some of the beauty in the world in a different way, because some author has opened themselves to it and in doing so has shown the rest of us how to get there too. Harry Potter does this, some books more than others: Goblet of Fire, Order of the Phoenix, and Deathly Hallows particularly. CS Lewis' The Chronicles of Narnia: The Last Battle does it too, and so does The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. Just in case you think it's only in fantasy books, I find that same thing in The Called and the Chosen (Monica Baldwin), Tessa Duder's Songs for Alex, AA Milne's Winnie-the-Pooh, Helene Hanff's 84 Charing Cross Road, and LM Montgomery's Anne series. And there are others.

But I do think this characteristic "specialness" (for want of a better word) is especially related to good fantasy writing. People have pooh-poohed fantasy for ages, thinking it's not serious writing, not "literature", and yet the best writing in this genre creates worlds where we can explore some of the greatest and most important themes in life: faith, hope, love, courage, friendship, endurance, and plain old grit in hard places; how to cope with death and despair, how not to give up in the face of seemingly impossible odds, how to deal with those who may be very different from ourselves. All lessons we can learn from life, but if we can take others' experience, even if written as a novel, maybe we might learn it a bit quicker....

One can only hope. As Dumbledore put it, in the words he had carved on his sister's headstone, "The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death." I think he was quoting something....

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