16 September 2011

HP7, aka Frankly, Dumbledore, YOU Disgust ME

I have recently completed a re-listening to Harry Potter and the Death Hallows audio, read by the extraordinary Jim Dale.  It's been a couple of years since I read or listened to this book, and it stirred so many feelings in me that I am compelled to blog about them. 

As with so many other readers, I have been completely swept up in the world that J. K. Rowling created back in 1997.  With the exception of books I & II, I have read or listened to each book in the series more than a dozen times.  I know this world in a fairly intimate way and have dwelled there in my mind more often, no doubt, than is healthy. I am no great fan of the film adaptations, though I like them well enough.  I have spent hundreds of hours reading hundreds of novel-length fanfictions because Rowling's is a world I don't want to leave.

I created the Harry Potter midnight release parties for my bookstore, and when I honeymooned in summer 2003, I arranged for my book to be FedExed overnight to a remote Caribbean island so that I didn't have to wait the 10 days until I got home to read Harry Potter & the Order of the Phoenix, which was released on my wedding day (I got married in Antigua and the book was not available there on its on-sale date).  I knew who RAB was before I turned the page in book six, and after the end of book one, I never, ever doubted Snape's allegiance to Dumbledore.  And until book seven, I never, ever doubted Dumbledore's goodness and wisdom.

While I could have done without some of the characters, I enjoy most of them.  I think the Marauders were a pretty nasty collective piece of work.  I think the twins were bullies, but somewhow they were drawn in a way that I liked them against my own better judgment.  Ron, bless him, I found mostly useless--he rarely reached the potential shown in his epic chess match in the first book.  Ginny is fine and I suspect might have been worth getting to know outside the Harry filter.  Draco was intriguing from day one and has one of the most interesting backstories of any of the students.  Bellatrix and Umbridge were far better drawn enemies than the caricature of Voldemort ever was.  Harry I have serious affection for.

Some of them, however, I love: Hermione, Neville, Luna, McGonagall, and...Snape.  Yes, I am an unapologetic Snape enthusiast.  Now, of course, I'm half in love with him from my fanfiction reading.  But even before I knew what fanfiction was, I was convinced that Snape was by far the most interesting character of the series and expected the proper resolution of the story arc would demand that he and Harry have their moment of confrontation, followed quickly by their moment of understanding and begrudgingly-bestowed respect.  I wanted more, naturally (would've been nice to see Snape, the metaphorical orphan, mentoring Harry, the literal orphan and form a healing alliance for the wizarding world, which would stand in direct contrast to that other orphan, Tom Riddle, and what a wasted opportunity that was), but I expected at least a good resolution between Harry and Snape.  Too bad that I didn't get it.  Because HP7 is a good book that stands on its own pretty well, but as the culmination to the series it's pretty piss-poor, as far as I'm concerned. 

Like many people, including Harry himself, I was surprised to learn of Dumbledore's past, but rather than being disappointed in him, it made him far more interesting in my eyes.  Hard-won wisdom, experience, and self-knowledge make for a better character any day in my book (and make me curious what we would learn if given a glimpse of, say, Gandalf's youthful indescretions).  It's no wonder, then, that in books 1-6 and the backstory we get there that Dumbledore comes across as powerful, wise, and good--he's spent decades reflecting on his past and honing those worthy qualities in atonement.

So why on earth does he not treat Snape with the compassion we would expect in those pensive memories of HP7?  After all, we've just learned that 18-year-old Dumbledore was best friends (we find out later from Rowling after the series has been published that they were probably lovers) with Hitler Grindelwald, he subscribed to his plan for the master  human wizarding race, and he was quite ready to throw over his own siblings and follow Grindelwald's hallows hunt--not to mention he possible killed his own sister.  So it felt like a punch to the solar plexus for older-and-wiser Dumbledore to say to Snape, who in 1981 could not have been older than 21, "You disgust me."  Really, Dumbledore?  Snape disgusts you?  For wanting the only person he ever loved to be kept guarded from Voldemort?  Because he didn't automatically beg to save James Potter, the boy who nearly got him killed a few years earlier but was only given detention for it because *you* didn't want to let the wizarding world know you had allowed a werewolf into Hogwarts?  Frankly, Dumbledore, you disgust me for saying that when at almost the same age you were fucking Grindelwald, subscribing to his anti-muggle policies, and wanting to bring back your dead mother so she could watch over your younger siblings and relieve you of your adult responsibilities. To exaggerate slightly and put it more bluntly, he was well on his way to becoming one half of a two-man Death Eater Squad team, all in the name of The Greater Good. [sidebar: why couldn't he have just been gay in the books instead of being outed after the last book had been published? I can't quite think lowly enough of Ms. I'm-Wealthier-Than-God Rowling that she was worried that she wouldn't sell as many books if a main character were gay. My quibble here isn't that he was *fucking* Grindelwald, but rather that he was fucking *Grindelwald*]

And as if that weren't enough, you make a second knife-thrust to the heart when you say "Perhaps we sort too soon." Why, Albus?  Because Slytherins are second-class citizens?  Incapable of doing good in the world?  Because only Gryffindors can be brave?  Because Slytherins, unlike Gryffindors, don't deserve a second chance when they recover from their adolescent foolery?

It's not that I don't respect Albus for his teenage failings.  We all do things in our younger lives that as adults we are not particularly proud of, and we commit acts in pairs or groups that we wouldn't dream of doing on our own.  In fact, Albus's dabbling with anti-muggle policy in his youth makes him a far more interesting character in my eyes, and I admire his fortitude and redemption in later life all the more.  Which is why I cannot forgive his lack of empathy towards Snape in these pensieve memories.  If it's because Snape reminds Albus of his own teenage self, then it's all the more reason for me to want to bitchslap  ol' Dumby.

I was so upset/disappointed by listening to HP7 last week that I dug a couple of pieces of novel-length fanfiction that I think are superb at addressing the Harry-Snape story arc.  They are well-written, the characters remain firmly rooted in character, and the final denouement is so interesting that it's hard to believe that Rowling took the ordinary, conventional route to actually have a battle of Hogwarts when there were better choices out there.  I am speaking of Theowyn's excellent Harry Potter and the Enemy Within and Harry Potter and the Chained Souls, which can be read here

Of course, it's not all rants that I have for HP7.  There are countless times that I was moved to tears throughout the listening, and some of the plotting is fantastic.  I'm not sure that the Gringotts scene, breaking into the Lestranges' vault, could be improved upon, for one thing.  And despite the total unnecessity of the multiple-Harry escapes from Privet Drive (umm, how 'bout just driving away in a Muggle car, with driver and Harry and fellow passengers all polyjuiced to look like somebody else?), it was also an exciting read.  And learning about Regulus & Kreacher was heartbreaking.  And that Hermione--I lost track of how many times she saved their collective asses.  How awesome is she?  And Neville and Luna, keeping up the resistance on the home front.  I kept wanting to hear more about what they were doing back at Hogwarts every time they were mentioned.  And Harry's deathwalk in the Forbidden Forest, surrounded by his four ghostly protectors--yeah, I was sobbing through that bit.

So it's not that I don't like this book.  It's got a lot going for it.  It's just extremely problematic for me as the concluding book in the series.  And don't even get me started on that infernal epilogue. It's got "insipid" written all over it.  Ron hasn't grown up--he's a real Slytherin bigot.  Ginny apparently has no say in what her children were named.  We all meet our soulmates at the age of 11 because, you know, that's the way the universe works.  And Slytherin, even 19 years later, is still the big, bad House.  Which means that 25% of the wizarding population is condemned at the frickin' age of 11 to be looked down upon by all "right-thinking" magical people. 

Well, there's a fanfic to fix that, too, but unfortunately it got pulled from the internet when the author became a published writer.  Written under the penname Maya, Coda To An Epilogue: Twenty Years Later, or The Kids are All Right, is one of the finest pieces of Slytherin redemption I've ever read.  Albus Severus Potter chooses Slytherin, because he wants to try to heal this rift in the wizarding world.  He becomes best friends with Scorpius Malfoy, adventures ensue, and that's just the beginning.  Only at the end does Papa Harry wake up and realize that his kid has had it right from the start, and that his son will complete the work that he, Harry, should have finished. Gosh, I wish that work (as with many of Maya's other wonderful novels) were still available to read. [sidebar: But I'm very happy (for both myself and her) that she's publishing actual YA books under her own name: Sarah Rees Brennan. If you haven't already looked at her demon trilogy and you're a general fan of YA fantasy, take a look.] 



    This comment will be lengthy.

    I have a friend who just started reading them and she said she's realized if you get two people who've read all of Harry Potter talking, the conversation has no end.

    "I am no great fan of the film adaptations, though I like them well enough." YES. High five, madam. The only one I own on DVD is DH pt 1, because it's the best of all of them. Plus I'm terrified if I watch the movies a lot, they'll color how I see the books.

    SO glad you didn't condemn Dumbledore because of his past. It makes him much more interesting/human, right? And brava to Rowling for being willing to make her characters unlikable (like Harry in book 5). The twins ARE bullies, but they want the right things in the end. And I do not like the Marauders. At all.

    Bellatrix is one of my favorite characters, but I want Slytherin backstory. Meaning, ok, Bellatrix is INSANE from Azkaban, but no one is purely evil, so before she went in, there must have been some kind of humanity in her, like there is in Narcissa (the Malfoys became my favorites in book 7).

    What this all boils down to is I (and a billion other people) want Rowling to have written much more. I think her main talent is in creating characters people love to death. When I read what you wrote, even just referencing Neville, Luna and McGonagall, I smiled like an idiot, because SO MUCH AFFECTION FOR THOSE CHARACTERS.

    I know the main point of this was Dumbledore. I was never a big Snape fan, so I don't feel defensive of him, but yes. That was another Dumbledore mistake. Maybe Rowling meant it that way? As the series progresses, Harry learns more and more that Dumbledore (surrogate father) is not perfect. Snape's choice is understandable to the reader, so Dumbledore seems at fault. I think as long as Rowling isn't supporting his opinion, it's ok.

  2. Yay--a comment in the form of an essay! You're right, of course. We all hungered for more, which is as fine a tribute to a writer as I can think of. Like you, I wanted backstory on almost everybody. But because we all read these books through the Harry Filter, the backstory I craved most because I would never get it was for the various Slytherins. Bellatrix, absolutely. And Snape. And Regulus. And all three Malfoys. And what House was Andromeda in, anyway?

    That's one reason I'm so drawn to Snape & Draco fanfics (not necessarily Snape/Draco, though I'm certainly not opposed), as well as Hermione ones. They let me still dwell in this world of possibility, this world that in my heart of hearts I actually believe in.

  3. Emily, I'm not nearly the Harry Potter expert you are. I haven't re-read all of them, but I remember feeling pretty ambivalent about the last book. I argued with Carla Shirley back around Book 5 that Snape was not evil. Or that if he was really evil, it would make for a pretty crappy story. If Slytherin's are just bad people because only bad people get put into Slytherin, than you've stopped telling a story about real human beings. Because no one's just evil. It's never that simple, and it's what makes novels like The Kite Runner so crappy. I have the Slytherin crest proudly displayed on my fridge, and refuse any kind of sort that puts me into any house besides Slytherin. If there were a t-shirt (there probably is) that said "Slytherin are people, too," I'd proudly wear it.


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