Life and Death and Harry Potter

On the night the last Harry Potter book was published, Christopher Hitchens reflected on the enduring popular archetype of the ‘school story’:

In March 1940, in the ‘midnight of the century’ that marked the depth of the Hitler-Stalin pact (or in other words, at a time when civilization was menaced by an alliance between two Voldemorts or ‘You-Know-Whos’), George Orwell took the time to examine the state of affairs in fantasy fiction for young people. And what he found (in an essay called ‘Boys’ Weeklies’) was an extraordinary level of addiction to the form of story that was set in English boarding schools. Every week, boys (and girls) from the poorer quarters of industrial towns and from the outer edges of the English-speaking Empire would invest some part of their pocket-money to keep up with the adventures of Billy Bunter, Harry Wharton, Bob Cherry, Jack Blake and the other blazer-wearing denizens of Greyfriars and St. Jim’s. As he wrote:

‘It is quite clear that there are tens and scores of thousands of people to whom every detail of life at a ‘posh’ public school is wildly thrilling and romantic. They happen to be outside that mystic world of quadrangles and house-colors, but they can yearn after it, daydream about it, live mentally in it for hours at a stretch.[‘]

Hitchens makes a convincing case for the Harry Potter novels as part of this boarding-school tradition. The Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry is like a traditionalist fantasy world with four competing houses, an annual House Cup, Yule Balls, ridiculous uniforms, preposterous meals, secret passages, mischievous ghosts and a school sport called ‘Quidditch’ – a turnoff for fans as even without magic, the game makes no sense as a sport (see this piece from Cracked for the basic flaw and also, if you’re so inclined, you can watch the real-life LS6 Quidditch team attempt to play a game which requires magical ability plus the power of flight and even then makes no sense as a sport).

What makes Hogwarts different from the universes of George Orwell’s 1930s magazines is the fierce meritocracy of the institution. Professor Dumbledore’s school welcomes students from all ethnic and social backgrounds and there is never mention of any fees. Penniless outcasts like Harry Potter, Severus Snape, even Voldemort himself found a home there. All that is required is some evidence of magical talent. Dumbledore’s liberal democratic ethos is threatened by an army of supremacist wizards, who believe that the show should be run by ‘pure-blood’ wizards (people from ancient magical families) and despise what they call ‘Mud-Bloods’ – wizards from compromised or non-wizarding families. As the books progress this army of wizard elitists, led by the sinister Lord Voldemort, infiltrate the main magical institutions and try to take over the world.

Another distinctive feature of Rowling’s universe – and Hitchens also writes about this – is its secular backdrop. There are wizarding weddings and funerals but never any mention of God. Professor Dumbledore makes a big deal out of the human soul or spirit, but the closest thing to an afterlife is the point during the final battle where Harry and Dumbledore meet in a dreamscape based on King’s Cross station. Coming at a moment of high climactic tension, it’s a beautiful and disturbing scene, the two men chatting about matters of life and death while some weird, pitiful-looking creature expires under a chair. (‘What is that, Professor?’ ‘Something that is beyond either of our help’.) And this piece of dialogue:

‘I’ve got to go back, haven’t I?’

‘That is up to you.’

‘I’ve got a choice?’

‘Oh yes.’ Dumbledore smiled at him. ‘We are in King’s Cross, you say? I think that if you decided not to go back, you would be able to… let’s say… board a train.’

‘And where would it take me?’

‘On,’ said Dumbledore simply.

I quote that because it illustrates the mature attitude to growing up that Rowling tried to get across in the novels. Harry’s marked for death, he knows it’s coming, he does his best to prepare for it. Voldemort by contrast is so freaked out by the idea of his own mortality that he tears his soul into seven pieces and hides it in various different objects in an attempt to live on in some form. Rowling explains: ‘Voldemort’s fear is death, ignominious death. I mean, he regards death itself as ignominious. He thinks that it’s a shameful human weakness, as you know. His worst fear is death.’ As Rowling says, it’s a human fear and it’s intertwined with his elitism and terminal uniqueness. As a boy he rejects his given name of Tom Riddle because ‘there are a lot of Toms.’ He can’t stand the idea of a world going on without him, whereas Harry, who’s had celebrity and grandeur thrust upon him, would be happy to live a quiet anonymous life with Ginny and the kids.

Which brings me to another valuable instruction. Harry lost his parents at a very early age and part of him’s always looking for alternative adult role models. Most of them let him down. His godfather Sirius is a brooding maniac who gets himself killed in book five out of his own recklessness. Even kindly old Professor Dumbledore turns out not as sainted as he appears. (Ironically, probably the only adult in Harry’s life who consistently has his best interests at heart is the great tragic Occlumens Professor Snape, who loathes him.) We grow up with the illusion that the grownups know what they’re doing. Dismiss that illusion, Rowling says. Adults are weak. They get things wrong. They break under pressure. They suffer from neuroses and delusions and big ideas. Rowling is like the wise child in the Martin Amis novel who knows that ‘that adults, too, were small, and pushed and tugged by many forces.’ But she never tells that truth without sympathy.


Image: genius Penguin-style Harry Potter covers from M. S. Corley’s blog via The Book Haven

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