Monday, July 18, 2011

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows 2

Maybe, if I were more of a “rational actor” homo economicus, perhaps I might have waited to get home in Knoxville to see Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows 2 - rather than seeing it at New York City prices here in Manhattan this past weekend. But I am not – and so I didn’t. And I’m glad (about both). I am, however, enough of a “rational actor” to delay gratification – at least modestly. Left to myself, I’d probably have gone to the morning show on Friday. Two NY friends, however, suggested I got with them on Saturday night. It’s always more fun to go to a movie with someone else rather than alone, and it’s certainly more fun to stand on line with someone else rather than alone! (Even though the tickets are bought in advance, one wants to be in a good spot on the line to get a decent seat and not end up sitting separately or in the front row).

I have read all 7 Harry Potter books (published almost every year from 1997 to 2007) and now seen all 8 Harry Potter movies (issued in turn over the course of the decade 2001-2011). I fell in love with the first book and have been a fan ever since. In an era when reading is in decline, good literature (i.e., well composed stories, written in really good English) is itself a true treasure. Being a bit of an Anglophile, I suppose I liked the portrayal (especially in the earlier books) of what was in effect (however magical) something like a British Public School - with the accompanying message that, however much such a school may be a fun place to study and a good place to make life-long contacts, it might also be a dangerous place (as well as a haven for bullies). Having grown up with fairy-tales, I was no doubt attracted to a new fairy tale, with lots of classic fairy-tale characteristics, set in our own time. That, to me, answers the uniquely contemporary, nanny-ish objection that the Harry Potter stories are frightening (as if the fairy-tales I grew up with weren’t) and also the fundamentalist Christian objection that the Harry Potter stories are neo-pagan (as if classic fairy-tales about witches, fairies, etc., were all somehow Christian in origin). Most of all, however, the Harry Potter stories highlight some of the most socially significant human virtues – qualities like personal integrity, friendship, and loyalty, virtues practiced conspicuously by Harry himself, but also by his cadre of good, close friends. In fact, it is one of the most enduringly appealing features of the series (right from the beginning) that great deeds get done, not just by Harry (of whom great deeds were always expected) but by Harry’s friends (notably Ron Weasley), apparently ordinary folks from whom great deeds were not necessarily expected.

In the earlier books (and their corresponding movies), Harry, Ron, Hermione, and their classmates are still kids. There is indeed danger, and Harry (helped by Ron and others) responds heroically. Even so, however, the overall tone is truly magical (in the joyful as well as literal sense). As the kids grow and pass puberty, the typical crises of adolescence appear in all their typically teen-age apocalyptic intensity – perfectly paralleled in turn by the increasing intensity of an increasingly apocalyptic threat to the magical wizarding world, highlighted in a series of intensely tragic deaths of a fellow student, of Harry’s godfather and friend, and finally Harry’s mentor and main protector, Dumbledore. At length, in the final book (and the last two movies), what should have been Harry’s “senior” year at Hogwarts has Harry hiding and on the run, far from the fun of school – only to return there for the climactic battle at the end.

The final book’s division into two movies was presumably necessitated by the enormous length and complexity of the last book. One incidental advantage of that division has been to highlight the final playing-put of Harry, Ron, and Hermione’s relational adolescent angst in the earlier movie, leaving the last one to focus almost entirely on the apocalyptic conflict and the final battle scene.

Especially in the final scenes, it is hard not to notice quasi-Christian symbolism. Harry voluntarily goes to die – offering his life in sacrifice to save the many. He returns to life again, however, resulting in the ultimate victory over evil. In the background, both facilitating Harry’s sacrifice of himself and his return to life, Dumbledore can be seen as a kind of God-the-Father figure. While it would seem strange to suggest that such imagery is accidental or inadvertent, it is not necessary to interpret the Harry Potter series primarily as a Christian parable. After all, such Christian symbolism is deeply rooted in Western culture and literary tradition.

In the Harry Potter series (as in fairy-tales in general), good ultimately triumphs over evil. The magic makes it exciting (and produces plenty of exciting special effects), but it is the ordinary, human virtues, traditionally celebrated in Western morality (Christian and pre-Christian) that are exemplified by the heroes and make the ultimate victory possible.

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