Harry Potter, Spoilers, and Artistic Expression

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Scroll down and highlight white space for spoilers.

In the history of literature, has there ever been so much of an uproar about a book’s plot? Doubt it — between high readership, widespread publication, and the speed of the Internet you can bet that this furor over “spoilers” in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is totally unprecedented.

But there’s another reason you’ve never seen so much talk about spoilers in your life: the word is only about 20 years old. The OED just added it to its pages in it 1997, and it still hasn’t got the common definition quite right. It reads:

Journalism. A news story or other newspaper item published to spoil the impact of and divert attention from a related item published elsewhere. Also used transf. in other news media, or to denote an event which is intended to generate news coverage with a similarly distracting effect.

Really, when we talk about a “spoiler” we mean an “extremely brief plot revelation, with emphasis on climax, surprises, twists, etc.”

It’s clear that the word “spoiler” hasn’t been around for very long, but what’s less clear is how old the concept — as I’ve just described it — is. Just because the word is new doesn’t mean people weren’t going around in the Middle Ages talking about “ruiners.” Now this is pure speculation, but I’d bet that the concept isn’t much older than the word itself. Why? Think about the history of literature.

From Homer to Shakespeare, plots have been based either on well-known historical events, or other well-known stories. Everyone knew that Odysseus was going to make it back to Ithaca because the same song had been sung for centuries — so long that the line between fact and fiction had grown fuzzy. People didn’t flock to the Globe Theater to see Hamlet because they wanted to know what would happen to the guy. The play was called a “tragedie” for a reason.

I don’t know how or why, but over time people began to tell new stories. And somewhere along the way — it might have coincided with Gothic novels — people realized that it was highly profitable to keep the reader in suspense about the ending. That brings us to the most profitable series of all time, Harry Potter.

Is a work like Harry Potter inferior to a work like Hamlet simply because it places more emphasis on its plot and ending? Does a book so heavy in content necessarily sacrifice some form? I’m not sure. But go back to the word “spoiler.” It’s derived from the verb “spoil.” The implication is that a spoiler ruins whatever work it targets. When you tug at some loose thread and unravel the whole sweater, you’re talking about shoddy craftsmanship. Isn’t the same thing true of books? If knowing the ending of Harry Potter spoils the whole thing, doesn’t that say something negative about J.K. Rowling?

The key, I think, is that “spoiler” in its most recent incarnation has only a weak connection to the act of spoiling. Plenty of avid Harry Potter readers probably already know what happens to Harry & friends, but the work is by no means spoiled for them. Likewise, most readers are probably trying to avoid any spoilers, but even if the ending were revealed they would read the book anyway. A good work is one that can have spoilers without being spoiled.

Ultimately then, the suspense of a plot has no intrinsic impact on the work’s form or quality. Suspense, plot twists, and wild endings can be used to gain a wide readership, but their presence can coexist with brilliant writing. The problem sits with the reader, whose fascination with the plot might detract from his attention to some of the finer aspects of the text. Therefore, the only way to accurately measure the quality of Rowling’s writing and the artistic value of Harry Potter is to read a spoiler, and see if the book maintains its appeal like the timeless classics or unravels like a cheap sweater.

With that, highlight below for spoilers:

Burbage dies. Hedwig dies. Mad-Eye dies. Scrimgeour dies. Wormtail dies. Dobby dies. Fred Weasley dies. Voldemort kills Harry, who meets Dumbledore in the Underworld before coming back to life. Nagini gets beheaded by Neville. Tonks, Lupin, and Colin Creevy die. Voldemort kills Snape. Voldemort kills himself trying to kill Harry. Ron marries Hermione, their two children are named Rose and Hugo. Harry marries Ginny, three children are named Lily, James, and Albus Severus. Draco Malfoy has a son named Scorpius. The final line in the book is “The scar had not pained Harry for nineteen years. All was well.”

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5 Responses to “Harry Potter, Spoilers, and Artistic Expression”

  1. petitioning Says:

    I thought the last line was a bit of a cop-out.

  2. Top Posts « WordPress.com Says:

    […] Harry Potter, Spoilers, and Artistic Expression Scroll down and highlight white space for spoilers. In the history of literature, has there ever been so much of an […] […]

  3. irrele Says:

    Lots to mull over here…thanks!

    I’m really puzzled by your suggestion that there was a time when no one was telling “new” stories, and then sometime in the 17th or 18th century, more “new” stories came onto the scene. I imagine that every tale is new to someone who hasn’t already heard it, and that would have been as much true of Homer’s audiences 2500+ years ago as it is of the folks who eager camped out at the bookstore to get Deathly Hallows.

    Because of that fact, I also think that there are a few different ways in which one person can “spoil” a tale for some other person. First, you might not know the ending at all. But even when you already know the ending in the most general sense, you might not know the details. Or — given that a tale can take many different paths to reach the very same ending — you might not know which path(s) the tale takes. Or — given that a tale might rely on hints, foreshadowing, metaphor, imagery, symbolism — you might not already know (how) to look for those things. Or….

    Each of those things is a possible discovery for the reader, and each of them — by being revealed before the reader has made that discovery for herself — is a possible source of spoilage. Again, I think that that would have been true thousands of years ago. All spoilers, I think, spoil that possibility of discovery-for-oneself, even as they leave open other sorts of discovery-for-oneself.

    So, there are probably some tales (or forms of tale) that can withstand some of those spoilers more easily than others. The more interesting question, I agree with you, has to do with whether some PEOPLE can withstand some of those spoilers more easily than others!

  4. Pedro Morgado Says:

    Please, don’t let J. K. Rowling kill Harry Potter. 🙂

    http://avenidacentral.blogspot.com/2007/07/pottermania.html

  5. Elijah Says:

    Those spoilers are incorrect the person who posted this should kill theirself

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