Last hour, we gave some overdue ink to Neville Longbottom, grieved for a spate of sudden corpses, and found out how Aberforth Dumbledore would have fit into Casablanca. Let’s finish this sucker off.
Hour #6: p. 659-end (“The Prince’s Tale” through “Nineteen Years Later.”)
–There’s an offhanded comment made in “The Prince’s Tale” by Dumbledore where he says in reference’s to Snape’s bravery, “You know, I sometimes think we Sort too soon…” It’s one of those moments which utterly demands fanfiction: what if the Hogwarts Houses were peopled in a fundamentally different way? What if, let’s say, first-year students were all put into a first-year House (which we will call “Okapi”) and then Sorted sometime before their second year classes begin? Would Snape have been a Gryffindor if he hadn’t been surrounded with a group of future Death Eaters for his first formative year at Hogwarts? Would Lily Evans have ended up in Ravenclaw, thinking “Not with Sirius Black and James Potter”? Would Ron have faced his true destiny as a Hufflepuff? Wouldn’t a twelve-year-old Albus Dumbledore have been a Slytherin? It’s almost too bad that the Harry Potter series wasn’t a movie that could spawn an Extended Universe of novels, because someone would have changed the Hogwarts school charter like, fifty years after the death of Harry Potter to do just that.
–As someone who still (mercifully) has two living parents, it’s very interesting to read about a person whose relationship with his parents changes and evolves despite having never had a conversation with them in the literal flesh. As a little kid, Harry tends to identify most with his father, whose name he bears, who he looks more like at first glance, who was a brilliant Quidditch player, who seemed to have the same nose for trouble. In Prisoner of Azkaban, Remus Lupin’s presence amplifies that desire to be like his father, as Remus was really his father’s friend and not his mother’s. The shining moment (ha ha) of the entire novel comes when Harry, channeling his father’s strength, comes up with a Patronus that is identical to his father’s. This is the high point of James Potter in the entire series, really; after this, he becomes almost a shameful element of Harry’s persona. In Order of the Phoenix, his father is clearly the aggressor in Snape’s worst memory, and Harry begins to think of his father not as the hero, the man who died trying to fight off Voldemort to in a valiant and half-futile effort to save his family, but a nasty bully. Remus tells us that James “grew up” after Hogwarts, though there wasn’t really much time to do it; he died at 21. Snape, years into Harry’s time at Hogwarts, shouts that “He is his father over again,” but Dumbledore disagrees.
“In looks, perhaps, but his deepest nature is much more like his mother’s.”
That line – after we have found out how Lily was friendly with Snape, even up to the point where he joined the Death Eaters and she forces him to choose – is true. There’s a reason that Harry has Lily’s eyes: they are windows to the soul. Aside from his scar, there is not a physical fact about Harry that is given so much weight or so much priority. Like his mother, he befriends undesirables, or at least questionables. His best friends are a poor blood traitor and a Muggle-born who is something of an acquired taste in terms of personality. Neville, who is a doofus for ages, is counted as one of Harry’s best friends, and it doesn’t take him much time to bring Loony Luna Lovegood into his confidence. Like his mother, Harry is not picky about where his friends come from as long as they have traits he values, like loyalty or kindness or fair play (or, let it not be shouted from the Owlery, but also a certain willingness to follow him around as he proposes and follows through on absolutely insane endeavors). One of the great triumphs of the books as a whole is that Harry is, as we hope children become, the best of his parents. He has every bit of his father’s impetuosity and ambition and bravery, yet all of those hypermasculine traits are tempered by his mother’s kindness and her intuition about people. Despite the fact that James was good enough to let a werewolf into his group, one gets the sense that the thrill of becoming an Animagus was a strong motivating factor, almost as strong as his feelings for Remus; James also errs badly on letting Peter Pettigrew into his trust, and could not recognize Snape’s value. Lily has no such mistakes about people on her conscience; in the end, once Harry understands more about Snape, neither does he.
–It’s been about nine years since this book was released, and at this point the read on Severus Snape is so different than it was back in like, 2000. When Snape killed Dumbledore, virtually everyone just hated the guy. The people who were pro-Snape were either way ahead of the game (and absent any knowledge on the Elder Wand, I’m not really sure how they got there), or they were emo kids who were attracted to Snape’s brooding rather than Harry’s excitement. Now, of course, everyone has swung dramatically on that pendulum over to the “Snape is a hero, the last martyr in the Potter series, he loved Lily so much,” etc. I think that overstates the case a little bit. Snape, in his late teens, early twenties, is like another similarly aged kind of magical literary character in Abigail Williams. There’s a scene in The Crucible the movie where Abigail admits to John Proctor, now imprisoned and hours away from execution: “I wanted you was all.” Snape’s involvement in Lily’s protection – and in her sudden, violent death – works along the same lines. As I argued recently on the B&B B&B, I think Snape doesn’t actually fall in love with Lily until she’s dead; it’s the memory of her that he treasures, the girl who was never James Potter’s wife but someone he lost along the way through a series of his own terrible choices. Snape never does get to be happy. He lives wanting Lily, lives regretting her death, and dies hated by just about everyone left alive, a double agent who might have been undercover forever if Voldemort hadn’t decided to get creative about the way he wanted to kill him.
–I think part of the reason that the Prince’s Tale sort of bounced off me – and I’m sure I was not the only reader who had this problem in the first moment – is because Harry realizes that to defeat Voldemort, he has to die. In hindsight, that decision almost feels slick, but still very smart. And it’s not as if people hadn’t thought about the possibility already; I know in my circle of discussion, the “Harry is a Horcrux” theory had a great deal of credence. It didn’t make the moment itself, or Harry’s realization I must die feel any less powerful to me. There’s not a lot else that I have to say about it, but it’s such a key moment that I can’t pass it over.
–I’m kind of a sucker for character foils in literature. They are so easy to write and so easy to pick out that they’re almost not fun, but when done well, they create such a powerful impression on one’s mind. I always think about Providence, one of the several novels by Anita Brookner that isn’t Hotel du Lac, which features three women, all about the same age. All three are single and about the same age; two of them work in academia; two of them have slightly overbearing relationships with an older woman relative; two of them are looking for a man. The similarities run on and on, and you can see how the main character could go in the direction of her flashy, sort of pathetic neighbor or the direction of her competent, sort of pathetic colleague if she loses her footing. For thousands of pages, the presumed foils are Harry, Ron, and Hermione, who are at the center of just about everything that happens over six books. How interesting it is that Rowling makes character foils out of Harry, Voldemort, and Snape in the last hundred pages of Deathly Hallows, and that this trio has become more and more essential to our readings of these novels in the years since Deathly Hallows was published. Harry and Voldemort have been, almost since the beginning, thrown against one another, compared endlessly. The similarities and continuities between the two are at the very center of the series, like a green and red coil of electricity humming and sparking. Throwing Snape into the mix is what makes the comparison interesting, because Harry and Voldemort are very much thrown to the sides when you add Snape; Snape fits the “two out of three” category much more neatly than either Voldemort or Harry do, without regard to nearly any characterization you can come up with, from sporting prowess to emotional adequacy to nearness with Dumbledore. Snape certainly bludgeons his way into this relationship forcefully, but among the half-blood “abandoned boys” Snape absolutely fits in.
–Dumbledore’s backstory is, throughout the series, one of the great unspoken mysteries of the wizarding world. Everyone seems to know more than Harry does about Dumbledore, from the first time that he runs into the man’s face on a Chocolate Frog card. Hagrid had already pumped up Dumbledore – again, from the first time that Harry hears Dumbledore’s name, Hagrid praises Dumbledore as the finest wizard living – and Harry’s early meetings with Dumbledore convince him that Dumbledore is a little odd but a marvelous man. His past comes into focus with the help of that Chocolate Frog card (that sneaky reference to Nicolas Flamel!) and his interests (woollen socks, jam, chamber music) pop up utterly at random. His family is mentioned like they’re part of a wizarding sitcom; the first two times Aberforth is mentioned, it’s got to do with goats and his presumed illiteracy. The Life and Lies of Albus Dumbledore receives significant screentime in Deathly Hallows, though it’s brought up more sporadically and with less of a concordance than Voldemort’s story in Half-Blood Prince. The key moments of Dumbledore’s early life, according to Rita Skeeter (and unfortunately, not having the book we have rather less than we’d like to judge for ourselves) all happen in his Summer of My Gellert Grindelwald. Dumbledore’s family emergency forces him back home; he casually plans world domination with Grindelwald, pretending that a benevolent dictatorship will be his; Grindelwald, Dumbledore, and Aberforth duel and one of them kills Ariana, the youngest Dumbledore. It’s a factoid that has been hinted at since the first hundred pages of Sorcerer’s Stone, back when we learned that Dumbledore defeated Grindelwald in a 1945 duel (which is utterly brilliant, by the way). We learn that that duel made Dumbledore master of the Elder Wand – a title his seventeen-year-old self may have literally killed to earn – and we learn far more about the man. We learn that Dumbledore recognizes his own imperfections, understands that he pretends to be a good man as often as he really is a good man. He’s not a kindly old coot; he’s ten minutes away from becoming as great a tyrant as Voldemort. He wants power like an alcoholic wants a drink, and like any recovering alcoholic, knows that the best way to stay safe is to stay away from the hook.
Dumbledore doesn’t give Harry much more than a piece of chewed up gum and a pointed stick to work with as he sets off, in the wake of Dumbledore’s death, to find and destroy Horcruxes. The fact that Harry manages to do it is something like a miracle, or at least dangerously close to plot-first writing. Why on earth would Dumbledore hold back all of this information from Harry? Isn’t that just bad policy? It probably is, but it’s also not in Dumbledore’s character to do anything besides play things close to the vest. For whatever reason, Dumbledore has decided to keep his own counsel, a move that Snape criticizes only a few pages earlier, and one that is eminently frustrating to Harry as well. (Ironically, no one understands as much about Dumbledore as Snape and Harry.) Dumbledore opens up fully to someone just one time, and that one person was Grindelwald. Everyone else – including Snape and Harry – are kept at some distance. Dumbledore realizes, I think, that being that open with someone else means that they get to come in and stay as long as they like; you take on someone else’s personality more when you open up so totally. Dumbledore realizes as an older man, I think, that even though he tried to varnish Grindelwald’s radical, potentially genocidal politics, he still let them inside. Keeping one’s distance is the best way to make sure that you don’t take anyone else’s failings on as your own. The problem is – and Dumbledore, who dies without a family, having kept a respectful distance from virtually every child who came through Hogwarts for generations – it’s an awfully lonely way to be.
–Remember that time Harry killed Voldemort in single combat? Yeah, after all that buildup it was a little flat, and Harry’s long-winded explanation of how the Elder Wand works was a little bit Inherit the Wind but like, how were we really going to get a moment that lived up to the billing? The real emotional payoff in the story, as it should be, comes…
— The end of the Potter timeline – the last moments where teenage Harry, as he has been for so long and as he will always be remembered, I hope – occurs in the headmaster’s office at Hogwarts. Snape is dead. Voldemort is dead. Dumbledore is dead, but his portrait is up and talking. Harry, Ron, and Hermione are alone together, as they so often are. Harry repairs his wand with the Elder Wand and then puts the latter away. Ron, ever the adolescent, can’t believe that Harry would part with an unbeatable wand; Hermione, ever wiser than Ron, recognizes that it’s the right choice. He has chosen them to come with him up to the headmaster’s office, away from the people who deserve to be alone with their own loved ones. It’s a powerful moment, maybe cheapened a little with weird nods to Phineas Nigellus and Dexter Fortescue and Harry’s abiding dream that Kreacher will bring him a sandwich in bed (did you not remember that part either? look it up, it’s there and it’s weird), but the three of them fit together, and make sense together, and are little parts of the reader together. There’s a very strong sense of finality watching those three be themselves around one another, and knowing that there isn’t more of that to find. We’ve witnessed Ron and Hermione’s last pointless argument, Harry’s last “HARRY YES!” moment, Harry and Hermione’s last meaningful, pointed conversation, Harry and Ron’s last shared stupid joke, all of it encapsulated in Harry’s dry wish.
“And quite honestly, I’ve had enough trouble for a lifetime.”
“Nineteen Years Later,” our first hint that J.K. Rowling would be absolutely unable to keep her hands off of what she had written, was panned even in the days after Deathly Hallows was published. It didn’t add very much to our understanding of the characters, other than noting that everyone had a zillion kids, Ron sounds like he escaped from the set of According to Jim, and Harry has now been a wizard long enough to give his children stupid names. It’s hard to blame her. I had feels just thinking about saying goodbye to Harry and Ron and Hermione, not to mention every other character and every other place in seven books. I can’t imagine what it must be like to feel that way over ten years of actually writing those characters and those places and those events, and to have so much more in one’s head than could possibly come down onto the paper. Rowling is in that enviable but difficult position: what she has, in seven novels and three short companion pieces, are wildly successful and deeply beloved. But it’s hard not to look at “Nineteen Years Later” and feel like she’s writing fanfiction for her own work. Harry gave up the Elder Wand; one reads that and wishes she would give up her pen that writes about Harry and his gang. Like I said last night, I would be very much in favor of seven more books about the Marauders, or seven more books about Harry’s children or grandchildren. I would read anything she wrote, and yet maybe, like Freaks and Geeks or The Smiths, it’s best to quit while you’re ahead, before your work becomes self-parody. Maybe, in the end, it would have been best to leave us with Harry, Ron, and Hermione in that office, surrounded by cheers and finally able to rest.