Archive for the ‘Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows’ Category

Harry Potter, Oppressed Peoples, and Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg

July 23, 2007

It’s easy to get lost in Harry Potter’s egocentric war. J.K. Rowling has created a world in which anyone who is not lucky enough to be the-boy-who-lived is either dead or completely inept. In the final installment of the series, Deathly Hallows, the tyrant Voldemort, even though he claims otherwise, has risen to power mostly due to the sheepish acquiescence of the wizarding community to the newly occupied Ministry of Magic.

Voldemort’s political puppets send out a plain summons to members of the public who don’t come from wizarding families, requesting that they appear for “questioning” – those who do, i.e. the majority of the addressed, are subjected to a kangaroo court and unceremoniously locked away.

Rowling is clearly attempting to draw parallels between her world and other regimes which came to power on a platform of supporting the interests of a pure race or people. Rowling fails miserably – whether due to a poor understanding of history or a lack of storytelling ability I cannot say. History has taught Rowling that any group of people who is singled out and lied to by a government they trust will easily submit themselves to whatever injustices are immediately laid before them, happy to live in the illusion that some part of the government will come to its senses soon enough. This is a fallacy.

What history has taught the rest of us is that whenever governments were successful in subduing and controlling a portion of their constituents, along with convincing the population that the double standards they are witnessing are justified by law or reason, it took a lot of time.

Rowling historical recreation of race-based regimes fails to grasp even the most basic concepts of groundwork or cultural foundations. The propaganda issued by the Ministry of Magic, a token afterthought which appears in the form of pamphlets expounding the dangers posed by those who are not of pure-blooded families, pales in comparison to the cultural upheavals undertaken by regimes who succeeded in isolating and imprisoning people they considered inferior.

In a way, one can almost take offence in Rowling’s borrowing from the darkest times of 20th century history. I have no personal connection to the race-related tragedies of our time, but even I cannot help but cringe when Rowling presents us with a parade of easily manipulable victims, completely convinced that their government knows what is best. I blame Rowling, and not some latent hypersensitivity on my side, since to me the connection was immediately apparent after I had read a few chapters of the new book. I’m sure others have felt it as well, although whether they consider it offensive or not will be determined more by their own understanding of the nature of the historical examples and not on the objective fact that Rowling is a bad writer and a terrible reader of history.

This brings me to my next point. Since Harry Potter is surrounded by a nation consisted of thousands of plot devices, unable to help themselves and completely dependent on a 17 year-old boy to save them from Voldemort’s well-organised and resourceful institution, my failed suspension of disbelief prodded me to find historical examples where this might have been the case. If Rowling is going to fail at accurately constructing a mass cultural and political personality for its people, then the least I can do is help her by finding her a factual crutch on which to stand.

All I could come up with was Claus Schenk, Graf von Stauffenberg. Stauffenberg is perhaps the most well-known member of the failed German Resistance during World War II – he was the one attempted to assassinate Hitler with a briefcase bomb. Stauffenberg’s life was sometimes parallel with Potter’s – he came from a well respected noble family, was educated in literature and the arts (Hogwarts), but decided to pursue a military career instead (Harry’s inclination towards destroying Voldemort). A cavalry officer during Hitler’s rise to power and WWII, Stauffenberg found most of Nazism’s ideals either ridiculous or disgusting, but he seems to have been supportive of its Nationalist aspects. Stauffenberg also bore scars, but to a much larger degree than Potter, having been strafed in his car by a British plane and losing an eye, his right hand, and two fingers off his left.

The parallels between Stauffenberg and Potter are forced at best (and non-existent at worst), but it is one of only a handful of times when history lay in the hands of one well-intentioned individual. The attempt occurred on July 20th, 1944, and it was completely the opposite of what Stauffenberg had envisioned. A year before he had planned to kill Adolf Hitler in Berlin and immediately get on the phone with high-ranking Nazi officials around the country in an attempt to convince them to join the coup before they decided otherwise. Due to a series of mishaps and unfortunate coincidences, Stauffenberg was compelled to execute the attempt in Hitler’s fortified command center in Poland – by July 1944, the plot had become almost entirely motivated by ideology, justified by the fact that the world needed to see that not all of Germany agreed with the horrific policies of Nazism.

Stauffenberg succeeded in sneaking the bomb into a meeting with Hitler and other high-ranking staffers. The bomb detonated and killed four of those present, but Hitler was saved by the legs of the heavy oak table at which he sat. Stauffenberg was later arrested and sentenced to death by strangling, which occurred in the courtyard at the Ministry of Defence (known as the Bendlerblock, which I visited last year).

Stauffenberg failed, and if Rowling wants to redeem my opinion of her understanding of history, so should Harry. I purposefully wrote this before finishing the book, so my writing wouldn’t be skewed by how the book ends. Harry Potter, much like Stauffenberg, has absolutely nothing in his favor except for poorly-directed good-will. He receives no support from the population at large, who are content to witness their community falling apart like the crappy characters they are. Were fact and not fiction, it would not be 12 hours before Harry and his co-conspirators would be caught, executed, and cremated. Whether he survives or not, in my mind Rowling has already killed him.

(Afterthought: If Stauffenberg had a grave, he would be rolling in it as I write this, since Tom Cruise is slated to carry his legacy in the upcoming movie Valkyrie. Several high-profile Germans have issued statements disapproving of the producers casting decision, but it looks like he remains the one. Their motivation seems to be that Cruise is associated with the Church of Scientology, whose policy of deception and forceful influence is a dishonor to Stauffenberg’s courage and accomplishments. Mine would be that he is a terrible actor.)

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Harry Potter, Spoilers, and Artistic Expression

July 21, 2007

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.”