Last hour, we had our first Potter Lightning Round (which doesn’t really need to be in boldface, but I kinda like it that way), wondered why there are four Hogwarts houses instead of three, and celebrated the sinking of the good ‘ship Harmony. On with the show!
Hour #4: p. 388 to p. 518 (“Xenophilius Lovegood” through “Shell Cottage”)
–The Taboo is a really clever method to create drama in this novel; otherwise, all too often it would just be Harry, Ron, and Hermione slogging around the British countryside and burning time while they think about where to look for Horcruxes and how on earth they’re supposed to dispatch them. Harry’s quest to say “Voldemort” as much as possible becomes the best way to find people like Harry, who have limited fear of Voldemort and defy him at every turn. Within the novel, it becomes a way to further mystify and shroud Voldemort, keeping even those with the courage to say his name from doing so out of fear; from a reader’s point of view, it’s a nifty way to keep fomenting possible conflicts, either with Death Eaters or Snatchers or whoever else; from a writer’s point of view, it gets the Trio into Malfoy Manor, settles the issue of who controls the Elder Wand (sneaky Jo!), and reunites Harry with Griphook on the eve of a Gringotts raid.
–From the standpoint of narratology, “The Tale of the Three Brothers” functions well as a new fairy tale in a way that something like, oh, Into the Woods or Shrek can’t quite replicate. Be not afraid: I’m not going to play in the realm of fabula and sjuzhet, nor am I going to try to align “The Tale of the Three Brothers” to the Propp’s functions. I am not a Russian formalist. However, Rowling does manage to integrate “The Tale of the Three Brothers” into the larger tradition of fairy tales. Like most fairy tales, it disposes of any background information that we’re going to get within the first couple sentences, while leaving lots of other questions largely unanswered. Like, what exactly happened to Cinderella’s parents? Why is the fisherman of “The Fisherman and the Jinni” so completely destitute? Is porridge a first time recipe for Mama Bear? And so on. The three brothers show up at the crossing at twilight without any indication of where they came from. The fact that there are three of them also fits in nicely…I could make an exhaustive list of threes in folklore, but I have other things I want to do with my next decade. A major antagonist shows up (in this case “Death,” but who could also be “Evil Stepmother,” “Evil Queen,” or “Wolf”); the protagonists understand that the villain has shown up, and yet they are still beguiled by what the villain offers; Snow White takes the apple despite it looking like a terrible idea, Red Riding Hood talks to the wolf despite understanding that’s bad news, and Antioch and Cadmus Peverell still take poisoned gifts from a guy who was previously undefeated and would like to get back to that. The story also has a large enough cast of characters that it has to shift its focus from one to another to achieve the full dramatic effect. Just as we have to shift our narrative focus from one pig with mediocre construction ideas to the next, and just as the dramatic tension in “Cinderella” is heightened because only the reader knows all of the swirling events of the denouement (the stepmother’s locked up Cinderella! but the prince is there and looking for her despite not knowing it’s Cindy! etc.), so too is the drama heightened in this tale, as we know the brothers, who separated, don’t have the blow-by-blow accounts of each other that might make them re-evaluate their choices; as is also common, it takes us two foolish examples to get to the wise one, who provides the moral of the story through his/her virtue. All in all, it’s a great story. Not only is it a great vessel for so much that happens in the back half of this book, but it’s also a story which fits really nicely into the fairy tale tradition.
–A short continuation on the Three Brothers detour…I’m reminded of a particular History of Magic class (probably the most important HoM class period proper in the entire series), in which Professor Binns is asked, “Please, sir, don’t legends always have a basis in fact?” If, while we were reading DH for the first time, we had remembered that dialogue about the Chamber of Secrets and how that legend had a distinct basis in fact, we could have guessed, just as Harry did, that the relation of the Peverells to the story provides the link; in short, the legend of the Three Brothers has not just one basis in fact, but six: the Peverell brothers and their Deathly Hallows. Sorry, I’m just geeking out over here. But really, Hermione is the one who said that thing about legend and fact, and that appears to be the one thing that she doesn’t remember over the course of the series. Geeking out!
–I enjoy the companion books to the Potter series that Rowling wrote for charity (that’s Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, Quidditch Through the Ages, and The Tales of Beedle the Bard) almost as much as I enjoy the books themselves. They fill a niche about the wizarding world that can’t get from anything else Potter-related, in practical terms they are as a canon as the Potter books themselves (in the way that Rowling’s personal speculations and the video games, for example, are not), and you can read one of them during a bathroom stint, so that’s bonus points. I don’t have a whole lot to say about them other than “They’re super cool!”…but I feel like if I’ve made the case in a few hundred words that lycanthropy is HIV, then those three books certainly deserve a shout-out.
–From p. 429 of the first American edition (with an omission):
And he saw himself, possessor of the Hallows, facing Voldemort, whose Horcruxes were no match…Was this the answer? Hallows versus Horcruxes?
You remember that last hour, I said that “I have seen your heart and it is mine” came into my vocabulary after reading it in DH. “Hallows versus Horcruxes” is in a similar mold, though it showed up in my college notes about twice a semester. Talking about the beginnings of the Thirty Years’ War in a European history course? “Ferdinand of Styria v. Frederick of the Palatinate, Hallows v. Horcruxes.” Talking about the role of grammar in a linguistics course? “Descriptive v. prescriptive, Hallows v. Horcruxes.” Reading The Hamlet in my Faulkner course? “V.K. Ratliff v. Flem Snopes, Hallows v. Horcruxes.” It’s a sickness.
–I’ve almost written about this in every previous installment of this series, but I think it fits best here. On page 426, Harry is somewhere between Hermione’s skepticism of the existence of the Hallows and Ron’s relative sureness. On page 433, Harry has come to the following conclusions without any new evidence falling his way:
- the Deathly Hallows exist.
- Marvolo Gaunt’s ring, the Horcrux that Dumbledore destroyed, had the Peverell coat of arms (that is, the Deathly Hallows symbol) on it.
- The ring actually contained the Resurrection Stone.
- His Invisibility Cloak was Ignotus Peverell’s Invisibility Cloak, and thus…
- …James Potter, who was the Cloak’s owner (though not the Cloak’s holder) at the time of his death, is descended from Ignotus, and so is Harry.
- Dumbledore left Harry the Resurrection Stone inside a Snitch.
- Voldemort is looking for the Elder Wand.
- Harry is in possession of two of the Hallows, while Voldemort is tearing up heaven and earth for the last one.
- The reason Dumbledore did not mention any of this is because he usually let Harry “find out stuff for” himself.
Maybe living in a world where magic is real for several years can convince you otherwise, but the only two propositions that really hold up are: Harry’s cloak was Ignotus’ cloak, and Voldemort is looking for the Elder Wand. Going back to Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, I, probably like anyone else who picked up the book, was pretty sure after reading it that Harry had an Invisibility Cloak made out of Demiguise hair. Of course, Xeno Lovegood’s discussion of the “true” cloak makes it pretty clear from the get-go that Harry definitely has a Hallow. And it also makes real sense that Voldemort, who has been having trouble with his wand ever since he first targeted Harry…wait. I have to stop for a second.
–Okay, I’m sorry, but you know how Freud said that sometimes a cigar is just a cigar? In The Tales of Beedle the Bard, there’s a footnote that says that all of the holders of the Elder Wand have been male, followed by a really wonderful sentence: “Make of that what you will.” In this book, a wand isn’t just a wand. I mean, Voldemort’s got severe wand envy throughout this book, and the quest to satisfy it leads him to question the guy he took the title of “most evil wizard of all time” from and to ultimately take it from the only wizard superior to him. Harry has wand issues throughout most of this book, whether it’s because his wand breaks (which is totally aligned with his inability to date Ginny anymore), because he has to borrow Hermione’s wand while Ron is gone, which has to be a nightmare for Ron’s jealousy, and it’s even worse because Hermione, who butts heads with him about the details of the Horcruxes, is the one who broke his wand. Carrying on.
–So yeah, Voldemort, who is rare among Potter characters in that he has a real eye for history, has to understand that the Elder Wand is a wand of great power…and knowing his hubris, it makes sense that he thinks that he might be the one guy who could hold it and not be beaten. So as far as two Hallows go, Harry makes sense. But about the Resurrection Stone, which has always felt like the odd one out in the bunch to me (perhaps because it went to the presumed middle child?), Harry is lucky that he managed to stumble upon all of that correctly. For once, his characteristic sureness saw him through.
That’s not always been the case for arguably the most muleheaded boy at Hogwarts. His Snape assumptions are wrong, and always have been wrong from PS/SS through DH. He is wrong about Sirius in PoA (though, in his defense, everyone else was too), and he is wrong about Voldemort capturing Sirius in OotP, which seems more and more like this every time I think about it. He’s right more often as he gets older, to be perfectly honest. He hits Malfoy’s plot and his Death Eater accession right on the head in HBP, and he also manages, weirdly enough, to figure out all of this stuff about the Deathly Hallows pretty rapidly and with no mistakes. The point to all this is that Harry’s total sureness, his absolute confidence in his hypotheses (no matter how on point or how off the mark they are), is an integral part of the character…sometimes it means he’s partly responsible for the death of his godfather, and sometimes it means that he figures out the Deathly Hallows. There’s a great hypothetical situation that Stephen Greenblatt raises (and who else would think of it but the guy who says that Shakespeare probably witnessed an exorcism as a kid and that inspired him to become an actor) in which he basically says that if you put Macbeth in Hamlet, then Claudius would be dead by the end of Act I, but if you put Hamlet in Macbeth, then Hamlet would get around to killing Duncan somewhere in Act V, if ever. Harry’s a lot more like Macbeth than he is Hamlet. It’s related to this passage from p. 502:
The enormity of his decision not to race Voldemort to the wand still scared Harry. He could not remember, ever before, choosing *not* to act. He was full of doubts, doubts that Ron could not help voicing whenever they were together.
Harry’s confidence and his consistently gung ho approach go hand-in-hand with one another throughout his teenage years. But here, when his confidence is being gnawed at a little and he chooses passivity instead of activity, we understand that our little boy is really growing up.
—There was a time (I’m really on a roll now) when Draco Malfoy was the character that I think most Potter readers would have wanted to punch in the gonads if given the opportunity. (However, at least in the circles I was running in, Tom Felton was the Potter movies heartthrob.) Aside from the death of Albus Dumbledore, the most interesting thing that happens in the last fifty pages of HBP is that Malfoy belies some shreds of decency, which he had been hiding, apparently, since Harry met him in Madam Malkin’s in the summer of 1991. It had been happening throughout the book, of course; he was venting to Moaning Myrtle about his task when Harry shredded him. But the little pieces add up while Malfoy and Dumbledore talk on top of the tower: Malfoy was never going to kill Dumbledore, because if he was, he would have done it immediately; Malfoy never gives a firm negative to Dumbledore’s offer of safety for him and his family; Malfoy didn’t know that Fenrir Greyback would be coming and, although Dumbledore puts words in his mouth here, it seems likely that Malfoy is worried about the security of his schoolmates with the militant werewolf present. Malfoy’s redemption is less talked about than Snape’s, but it’s not any less important for its lack of lost love or a memorable quote. Malfoy could absolutely have sunk the Trio for good at his home, but he refuses to positively identify Harry, Ron, or Hermione, despite the pleading of his parents; doing so would have led to their deaths at the hands of Voldemort personally, but also would have raised the Malfoy family at least back to the position they held during OotP. Yet with glory and relative safety staring him in the face, Malfoy only says that “It could be” Ron, that “maybe” it’s Hermione, that he doesn’t know if it’s Harry. Harry and Malfoy never become friends — they never really could have been friends any more than Sirius and Snape could have been — but in the epilogue they acknowledge each other. Malfoy is one of the series’ most important characters, and he’ll probably always be remembered as the bully of PS/SS and CoS, but he saves Harry’s skin here in early 1998…that would have been unthinkable less than a year previous.
–Here’s something which even I knew was coming when I was a kid: Wormtail owed Harry for sparing his life all the way back in PoA, and finally Harry comes to collect. I honestly thought as a teenager that this recompense would have kicked in way before in the series (I had been hoping for it in GoF, but alas; heck, every time I read it, I still hope, as Harry does, that something would go wrong with Voldemort’s rebirth and that he’d drown…), though it works as well here as it would have anywhere else. Perhaps more importantly, it illustrates a repeating motif in this series: namely, virtues are magic as well and when they are acted upon, that’s got a tangible effect. Lily loved Harry more than she loved her own life, and thus Harry has a protection that Voldemort can’t manage to work around for years. Harry shows loyalty to Dumbledore in the Chamber of Secrets and immense bravery as well; thus, Fawkes shows up unbidden (but certainly not unwelcome) and Harry can pull a sword out of a hat. And here, the life debt that Peter Pettigrew owes Harry is paid in full when the hand that Voldemort gave him recognizes Pettigrew’s expression of “pity.”
–Oh, Dobby. His death is almost certainly the most mourned in this novel by readers (apologies to Fred Weasley), and yet it’s obvious from the moment that he appeared that he had to die. Just as Hedwig couldn’t be allowed to live from a plot standpoint because she might have allowed the Trio communication, Dobby couldn’t be allowed to live from a plot standpoint because he was the avatar of infinite rescue. (I suppose that if the Trio had been ready to take a real risk, Harry could have summoned Kreacher at any point…I dunno. That seems to me like a really important unexplored consideration. Just because they couldn’t go back to 12 Grimmauld Place doesn’t mean that the risk was anything near as great bringing Kreacher to them.) If Harry could look into that mirror fragment and get help from Aberforth via Dobby any time he needed it, then that’d make it too easy. What I don’t think the movie does a terribly good job of emphasizing while we’re all being sad about Dobby (and trust me, I know I was sad about it) is what’s emphasized in the book; Dobby’s death manages to snap Harry out of a Deathly Hallows obsession which had only existed for fifty pages, but which otherwise would have derailed the Horcrux-destructo quest. It’s the reason that, given the choice, he decides to speak to Griphook about the possibility of raiding a Gringotts vault to destroy a Horcrux before he talks to Ollivander about the possibility of denying Voldemort the Elder Wand. In that way, Dobby’s death ranks higher in importance than just about anyone not named “Lily,” “James,” or “Albus.”
–While we’re burying Dobby, it’s worth noticing that Harry knows immediately that the “shorter wand,” Malfoy’s, works better for him than the longer one. Little textual hints.
–The last thing to talk about here (apologies to our happy reunion with Luna, Dean’s surprisingly quiet reappearance, and Ollivander’s final moments in the limelight) is the relationship between wizards and other races. I know I actually kind of brushed over this topic in my “How come this in the wizarding world?” section of Hour 2, but it works out okay because it fits better here.
I occasionally wonder what American Harry Potter would look like. I mean, aside from the probability that Harry and his friends would board the Bacongoiter Special at Grand Central and go to school in the wilds of western Massachusetts, playing Quodpot and criticizing the practices of Magic Congress. Britain has a “nation” problem, especially as concerns Ireland; there will be bad blood between Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom for just about forever even if the violence completely disappears. But the United States has a race problem which is even less likely to disappear. Would an American Harry Potter have to bridge racial gaps between Caucasian-Americans, Hispanic-Americans, African-Americans, Asian-Americans, and Native Americans? Or would stand-ins like goblins and house-elves suffice as well? It’s an interesting question, though rather less answerable than “What if The Beatles were Irish?”
But what Rowling does here reminds us that once upon a time, she was working for Amnesty International. She’s slipped sermons into the novels practically since the beginning. Riding Firenze in PS/SS marks Harry’s first experience with the deep pride of centaurs and their general mistrust of wizards. In CoS, Harry realizes that Dobby’s got a really raw deal almost off the bat, and until Dobby starts trying to keep Harry alive by making him miserable/maiming him, there’s a great deal of sympathy on Harry’s part. In GoF, Hermione’s SPEW/HELF episode accelerates the point further, associated as it is with Winky’s unhappiness and Sirius’ advice about how to take the measure of a person: see how s/he treats inferiors, not equals. From there, we’re instructed by the Fountain of Magical Brethren in OotP, which not only presumes human superiority but is rather sexist as well. Sirius’ death has many contributing factors, but one of them is the fact that Kreacher felt no loyalty to a master who hated him and viewed his feelings as “subhuman,” and thus helped lead Harry into the trap which would kill him.
But as much as we talk about centaurs and house-elves, goblins are largely ignored up until this point in the series. Griphook, of course, takes Harry to his vault for the first time at Gringotts, and we learn one word of Gobbledegook from Ludo “Bladvak” Bagman, who is hounded by goblins trying to make him pay up his gambling debts. But until now, we don’t really know much about them. Griphook’s comment about “wand-carriers” is certainly memorable (I’m reminded of “Son of Adam” and “Daughter of Eve” from the Narnia books, though that might just be me), and we’re appropriately creeped out by Griphook’s amusement at the thought of inflicting pain.
Yet Bill’s words to Harry not long before the Gringotts invasion is effected are the ones which stick with me. This kind of advice has traditionally been dispensed by Arthur Weasley, not Bill, but it works just as well coming from Arthur’s eldest. The concept of goblin ownership, with the possible exception of the wand-carrying that we’ve discussed, is what really differentiates them most from humans. I personally think it’s a really interesting one; it’s got more than a little Marx in it, since it favors labor over capital. It’s also subtly alien. Most people from expressly capitalist nations (and some Vietnamese from the time of the Vietnam War, like the Engineer) buy into the concept of “if you pay for it, it’s yours.” The idea that you don’t get to keep what you pay for, that your Stradivarius, your Tiffany, your Louisville Slugger gets returned to the maker at death in a fair world, is a strange one for us, yet that’s how goblins operate. It’s one of Rowling’s most nuanced creations in the whole series.