Monday, June 05, 2006

Bellyaching about ORDER OF THE PHOENIX

I am a Potter fan. While I do not think Potter is the greatest thing since sliced bread, it is certainly on the order of the greatest thing since pop-tarts. The writing is solid and workmanlike, the characters engaging. Potter is the only modern example of what used to be a common type of boy's fiction: loyal-school-chums fighting evil spies.

In this case, the school chums are in Roke, the school for Wizards, and that adds a Halloween flavor to the mix.

In addition, JK Rawlings adds some dignity to the proceedings by touching on deep themes: the death of Harry's mother, the power of her salvific love, is something deeper than what one might find in a TOM SWIFT Jr. book, or DANNY DUNN.

I would not call these books 'Modern Fantasy' if by that we mean the genre promoted by Lin Carter at Ballantine in the post-Tolkien 70's. Fantasy has certain conventions, certain expectations in the audience that the reader of HARRY POTTER need not know to enjoy the book. From time to time, Rawlings will do something that displays an ignorance of fantasy conventions.

Fantasy, like science fiction, relies for its appeal on the unearthly and extraterrestrial. The fantasy reader wants to visit the strange dreamscapes of Elfland. But there is nothing strange in POTTER. The reader is not called upon to stretch his imagination to a new world view, or reach into the past to embrace the world view of our grim and noble pagan ancestors. POTTER takes place in Halloweenland: everything you need to know about ghosts and witches and black cats and werewolves, you already know from the common green of modern pop culture. Sabrina the Teenage Witch and Casper the Friendly Ghost and Count Chocula can tell you everything you need to know about how magic works in the POTTER universe. We all know witches ride broomsticks Ghosts haunt castles and wizard's have pointy hats. Rowling’s genius is that she adds a little zest and fun to these tropes by having the broomstick riders play soccer with magically animate dodge balls, the Ghosts have Christmas parties, and the pointy hat sorts you into your house at school.

So it is fun. But I would not call it Modern Fantasy. Even the worst-written Conan story, or the weakest Tolkien rip-off requires some greater act of imagination from the reader, an embrace of strangeness. Conan's world, his mental life, is not like ours: in his world, skeletons rise from unquiet graves and can be vanquished by blows from the ancestral sword of one's fathers; Crom, the god of the barbarians, sits on his mountain and sends death in battle to those he wishes to honor. In LORD OF THE RINGS, a moral character informs even the actions of storms or clouds; brave forests rise up in vengeance against modern factories; evil volcanoes blot out the sun. Foxes and trees and even mountains are alive in a fashion no modern philosophy admits. A WIZARD OF EARTHSEA or WHEEL OF TIME have a dualistic, perhaps Taoist flavor to them which requires a stretch of imagination from a modern English reader.

Here are two examples of awkwardness that Modern Fantasy might avoid, which Rowling, a Halloweenland writer (if I may coin that term) stumbles over: first, when a major character is killed, why doesn’t he come back as a ghost, in the fashion of Nearly Headless Nick? Potter’s parents, or the helpful adults who die in the course of the books, do not seem to be able to leave ghosts behind, and no necromancers of the school can contact them in the afterlife. Why? Well, that’s a silly question. The ghosts in Hogwarts are part of the silly charm of the school, like the quill pens and the broomsticks, they are there for atmosphere.

A Science Fiction writer would have thought through the logical implications of a world where ghosts were readily available. Can a ghost revise a will he made in life? Can he testify at his own murder hearing? Can he be used as a spy in wartime? But this type of logical investigation, fascinating to SF fans, is a big turn off for mood and atmosphere; it robs the ghosts of their menace and their magic by making ghosthood too analytical.

But a fantasy writer would have at least come up with an explanation as to where the other ghosts were. If Nearly Headless Nick is allowed to walk the earth for the same reason as Hamlet’s father: as an act of purgatory and penance, the ghost of Lily Potter need not be suffering the same fate. Or perhaps her “life-energy” was employed protecting Harry from Voldemort, eliminating, for technical reasons, the components needed to cast the Raise Ghost Spell. Whatever; doesn’t matter what the explanation is. A Modern Fantasy writer would have made one up.

The second mistake occurs with the death of a major character in ORDER OF THE PHOENIX, and, to a lesser degree, in HALF BLOOD PRINCE. This is a mistake very easy for the unwary visitor to fantasyland. All of the great fairy tales (including that One Greatest Fairy Tale that happens to be True) include themes of resurrection, from SNOW WHITE to FARTHEST SHORE to THE LORD OF THE RINGS. Even DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL had it (sort of). Comic Books have resurrections occur so often that they must put turnstiles on the graveyards in the Marvel Universe. Hence, in order for a character in a fantasy story to be dead and stay dead, the death must be unambiguous, and the rules for resurrection must be laid out plain and clear.

To make sure a character in a fantasy stays dead, you have to show the body. The Apostle Thomas must come by and put his hands in the wounds. The Munchkin coroner must aver he’s thoroughly examined her; and the Witch not only merely dead, but really quite sincerely dead. Then you have put garlic in his mouth, cut off his head, and stake him through the heart: OTHERWISE YOUR READERS WILL EXPECT YOUR GANDALF TO RISE UP AGAIN.

Now, this problem is particularly acute in Rowling’s background. The whole point, the whole root of evil of Lord Voldemort, is his necromantic quest for life and more life. It is an ancient and honorable theme: the source of the Unnatural in FARTHEST SHORE was the same unholy desire to use magic to extend life. But one this means that none of the characters can come back from the dead. To resurrect a dead character would be to violate the whole moral principle Harry Potter and the Good Guys are fighting for. Hence any character who dies must die unambiguously. Rowling does not do this. Her characters die offstage. Fantasy readers know that a man who vanishes in a puff of smoke might have been teleported away, not disintegrated, but mainstream readers have not been conditioned by decade of false deaths to assume this, and so mainstream writers do not know that they need to emphasize a death in order to make it unambiguous.

There are other things I disliked, despite my general love for the series. ORDER OF THE PHOENIX is one of my least favorite of a favorite series.

WARNING! Many Spoilers Below! If you haven't read the book, Do Not Look!

<>(1) Harry is too angry too often. I do not care for books where the main character, no matter what his age, shows no self-control. If the anger had turned out to be a spell cast by Voldemort, due to their psychic connection, that would have been fine. As it was, it was annoying.
<>(2) The McGuffin was supposed to be this prophecy that Voldemort is dying to get his hands on, willing to kill (and risk capture) to do. However, when the prophecy finally comes on stage, it tells us nothing we have not known since book one: that Voldemort and Harry are mortal enemies, one must kill the other to live. Suppose Voldemort had gotten his hands on the prophecy: how would it have affected his plans? Not one wit, as he was already trying his utmost to kill Harry. If the McGuffin in a story makes no difference in a story, why is it in the story? Imagine the movie STAR WARS where the plans to the Death Star carried by the brave little droid turn out not to contain the secret of any weak spot, and not to have any value: Luke’s parents die for nothing.
<>(3) The death of Harry godfather seemed cynical and unmotivated to me. Cynical, because the author, in order to keep Harry an orphan, has to make sure he has no parents to help him in his struggles. Since the prophecy he is trying to fight the Death-Eaters from getting has no information of any value in it, his death is doubly pointless. Hence, the death is pointless and annoying. His method of death? He falls through a sinister looking curtain. Since the reader is never told that falling through sinister curtains leads to certain and immediate death, and since we do not see his corpse, we cannot be certain he is dead.
(4) Harry is given a package by his godfather, with the instructions that he is to use it when he needs him. However, not until after his death, does Harry bother to open the package and discover it is a magical mirror, a wizardly version of a cellphone, which would have allowed Harry to call Sirius at any time, and not have been fooled by his dream into thinking Sirius was in danger. The sheer improbability of this is staggering. Imagine you are an orphan at school. You have a present from your godfather. Not only do you never open it, it does not occur to you to look at it during periods when you are desperate for any contact with your godfather. It might contain cookies, or a note, or a magical mirror: and so you throw it into the bottom of your trunk and promptly forget about it.
(5) Professor Umbrage threatens to torture a student in front of several witnesses; she also opens fire on another Professor and sends her to the hospital; she also arranges to have several dementors attempt to murder Harry and any muggles who might be in the area where he lives. What is her punishment for these crimes? Is she sent to Azkaban? Is she killed by Centaurs after insulting them? Does she fall through a sinister looking curtain, never to be seen again? No. She is discharged from her post, and a ghost beats her with a walking stick while she flees the area. As far as I can tell, her job at the ministry is not even in danger. A woman guilty of the attempted murder of a child, and there is no satisfying end to her career.
(6) Neville Longbottom is in a running gun-fight (well, wand-fight) with several Death-Eaters, including the woman who tormented his parents to madness. He has been trained by Harry for page after page to be able to fight against the Dark Arts. What is his reaction to seeing this woman again? Where is his vengeance? No mention is made of any attempt by Longbottom to avenge himself; instead, the woman gets involved in a shoot-out with Harry. Unsatisfying.
(7) During the same scene, why were Ginny, Luna, etc. involved in the break-in to the Ministry of Magic? What was the point of including these characters in the climactic battle scene, since we never see them battle?
(8) Harry discovers his father picked on Snape, but nothing is made of this. What should have reconciled the two into their common cause, instead is added for no purpose. I hope something is made of this in the final book.


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