jump to navigation

The past is always tense July 24, 2009

Posted by dolorosa12 in books, reviews.
Tags: , , , ,

I’ve been told that this is necessary: SPOILER WARNING FOR THE ENTIRE HARRY POTTER SERIES. Sorry to anyone who might’ve been inadvertently been spoiled.

When shall I be dead and rid
Of the wrong my father did?
How long, how long, till spade and hearse
Put to sleep my mother’s curse?

This quote comes from A. E. Housman’s ‘The Welsh Marches’, and also serves as the epigraph to The Witch In The Wood, the second book in T. H. White’s Arthurian cycle The Once And Future King. But it could just as easily serve as an epigraph to J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books.

I sense confusion may be emanating from my readers at this point, so I will elaborate. I’ve been participating in a bit of discussion on the Republic of Heaven since the Half-Blood Prince film came out, and one conclusion that I reached was that, for me at least, the Harry Potter books ceased to be about the magic a long time ago.

We all take different things from books, and for me, Harry Potter is above all a story not about magic, not about growing up, and certainly not about the Campbellian hero’s journey. It’s about family and history.

When Book 3, The Prisoner of Azkaban came out, focusing as it did on Sirius Black, I decided that Rowling was a genius. She’d taken a ‘throwaway reference’ to a ‘minor character’ in Book 1 and woven a whole new strand of the story around him. By the time we’d got to Book 5, however, I realised that the reference was not quite as ‘throwaway’ as it might’ve seemed. No, Rowling had planned, right from the beginning, to write a story about (for matters of simplicity) three generations. The ‘grandparent generation’ (Dumbledore, Grindelwald and Tom Riddle, whom I’m including in this generation although he doesn’t fit into it perfectly) caused the problems. The ‘parent generation’ (Harry’s parents, Sirius, Remus Lupin, the extended Black family, and, above all, Severus Snape) were unable to make common cause in the face of the problems and thus exacerbated them. The ‘present generation’ (Harry and his friends and nemeses from Hogwarts) is thus forced to deal with conflicts and problems that have been accumulating and intensifying for more than two generations.

What’s interesting, though, is that none of this is revealed at the beginning of the series. In fact, it really takes five books for readers to gain this information (although clever readers with a talent for riddles might’ve picked up more from earlier books), and it is not until the seventh book that the extent and scope of this theme becomes completely clear. There have certainly been countless fantasy books written about young characters having to overcome the traumas and difficulties of the past, but the difference is that such traumas are explicit from the beginning. A young boy’s father was a traitor: how does he convince everyone that he is loyal? A teenage girl wants to be a seer, but her mother burnt down the seer school: can the girl be trusted? Nothing in Harry Potter is so clear.

Rowling has said that the series is ‘all about death’, but in fact it is all about families: the family we are born into (and burdened with) and the family that we find, choose and make for ourselves. This is reinforced by the wizarding world’s preoccupation with matters of purity of the blood, and the incestuous, tangled family trees that result from many old wizarding families’ racism. Dumbledore and Sirius are born into just such ‘pureblood’ families, and spend their lifetimes trying to repent for this (Dumbledore after a youthful flirtation with a belief in pureblood superiority, Sirius after entering Hogwarts and choosing to rebel from his family in the way most calculated to horrify them). Tom Riddle, Snape and Harry are all, essentially, half-bloods (I’m aware Harry’s mother was a witch, but she came from a Muggle background, and the parallels between these three characters are obvious), and all orphans, and it is their reaction to this that really drives the narrative of the series. Riddle clings to half-remembered tales of his wizarding ancestors’ glories, and in the process becomes inhuman, Snape succumbs to self-hatred, choosing bigotry because it’s easier than examining his soul (except when he has a change of heart, but I’m getting to that), and Harry, in a sense, is left to clean up the mess caused by the choices of these other two half-blooded wizards.

The point Rowling is making is that in life, we all have to make choices, and when we make the crucial choices, we are bound by our families both blood and chosen. We have an upbringing we can accept or reject in making such choices, but any outcome will be influenced by our upbringing (and the beliefs it instills). Dumbledore chooses Grindelwald, and then spends a lifetime making up for it. Tom Riddle chooses, and becomes Lord Voldemort. Sirius chooses, and spends a lifetime extending his middle finger to the Black family. Lily Evans chooses James Potter, and then chooses to sacrifice herself for her son. Snape chooses, and chooses bigotry before Lily, only to be unable to accept the ultimate outcome of this choice – and so he does something odd for characters in this book: he chooses again. He chooses to change sides, hated by all, trusted by none (save Dumbledore), alone. His redemption is not entirely convincing. He does not become a nice person. He does not really renounce his objectionable beliefs. He lives beset by contradictions: he did the right thing to save a dead woman, and ends up sacrificing everything in order to save her son (whom he despises).

Ultimately, it’s this struggle to escape the sins of the past that makes the series so powerful. Rowling’s is a world where history is heavy, constraining and ever-present. To quote Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, ‘the past is always tense’ in the Potterverse. The sins of the father (and the mother, and the grandfather, and the second cousin once-removed) are repeated and passed on, and never properly dealt with. It is only when several characters make incredibly difficult choices that they take responsibility for this history and things are made right.


1. Raphael - July 24, 2009

Beautifully written, Ronni, and rings true. I’m a bit under the weather right now so I may be missing some of you nuances but I think you’ve definitely given me a view of the Potterverse I hadn’t really seen before. How much of the view, do you think, is influenced by the Irish mythology you so love?

(Also, did you ever think Rowling was a little complicate-as-you-go-along Dickensian in her obsession with leaving no character unconnected and no act-one-gun-on-the-wall unshot? I can’t say, of course, if she’d planned every single thing by book one, or even two – but it seems almost unlikely.)

2. dolorosa12 - July 24, 2009

You can’t tempt me with your Chekhov’s Gun reference – I’m not clicking on any TV Tropes links!

There are two schools of thought relating to Rowling’s planning of the books. The first says that she went about it in a haphazard way, making stuff up as she went along (Tom Riddle’s diary being a Horcrux, etc). The second says that she was a master planner, and knew exactly what she was doing from the beginning. After many years of being in the first camp, I’ve now switched views entirely: I think the whole thing was planned, which increases my respect for Rowling greatly.

As for the Irish mythology, it, like all mythologies, explores the theme of family (only orphans/people with odd family backgrounds have adventures) but I can’t say it was in the forefront of my mind when I wrote this post.

3. Ally - July 24, 2009

Considering the seven year period between the time she thought up the story and the release of Philosopher’s stone, I don’t doubt she planned the vast majority of it all. That’s one of the things I found most enjoyable about growing up with HP. It was all about going back and searching the books for clues that she had distinctly placed for us to find. I think it was a unique experience, having to wait for each book, because it gave everyone time to reflect and come up with all these inventive and sometimes crazy theories. I’m not sure how reading them all in one go for the first time would compare.

Ronni, I love your interpretation of the three generations. I completely agree that HP was never really about the magic, no matter how much that played a part in its success with this generation. And your description of Snape is a breath of fresh air, because I’m so sick of HP fans worshiping the ground on which he walks because of what he did when he wasn’t ever a nice man, and sometimes he was downright cruel. He’s complicated, and that’s what makes him interesting.

4. dolorosa12 - July 24, 2009

Yes, what you say about ‘growing up with the books’ is spot on (and sums up my experience with other favourite series – HDM, Obernewtyn, Buffy, etc). I feel that people who come to the series now will lose something essential in lacking that clue-hunting and theorising.

In relation to Snape, I agree. I’m not as involved in Harry Potter fandom as you, but I can imagine only too well the worship he gets from fans. It sounds odd when I say that he’s my favourite character, but I don’t mean that I like him. I think he’s the best-written character in the book, complex, tragic, nasty, constantly making choices that were right but which isolated him further and further from everyone around him. He did a terribly brave thing, but that doesn’t make him nice, and it doesn’t really make him a hero.

5. kaoshoneybun - July 25, 2009

Loved it! It made so much sense to me. While I loved discovering more about the parent generation, I was also getting sick of Rowling’s obcessions with family trees – I hadn’t liked The Lord of the Rings because it became a history textbook full of huge family trees rather than an adventure story.
I havn’t looked, but I’m guessing theres more prequel fanfics than sequels as Sirius, Snape etc sound more interesting than Harry & Ron’s poor kids.

6. Mr Zero - July 27, 2009

“His redemption is not entirely convincing. He does not become a nice person. …etc”

For those exact reasons I find his redemption far far more compelling than most others in fiction.

(Also your description of Snape above is also Rorschach…hmnnnnn. I predict you will end up with a bad-un young lady)

7. dolorosa12 - August 1, 2009

kaoshoneybun and Zero, sorry to take so long to reply and approve your comments. I’ve been in Ireland and away from the internet for a week and only just got back.

Zero, I agree completely with everything you said (including ending up with a bad-un…).

kaosoneybun, I don’t read Potter fanfic but I would suspect you’re right (although a quick dip into FF.net suggest that Albus Severus/Scorpius and Scorpius/Lily Potter II pairings are very popular. To each his/her own, I suppose).

8. Sooophie - August 8, 2009

I agree with you on the Snape thing – one of the (few) things I admired about the last books was that she had created a character that was not at all likeable or nice or even necessarily good (in the kind of.. black and white sense) but who was doing something good. I hate that so many characters in so many books are black and white – either good or evil. I love that Snape is everything an evil character should be – he hates the protaganist and seems to be working for Voldemort, but at the end he’s not, but he never changes the fact that he hates Harry and that he’s a nasty piece of crap.

I also agree with you about Potter being more about families than about death. For one thing, as I’ve said before, I think Rowling is really really bad at writing death scenes – it’s hard to create a good death scene when all that has to happen for someone to die is a wave of a wand and a few words. they just die – it doesn’t appear painful, or long, or difficult and it doesn’t have much of an impact. but she can do families and relationships a lot better.

9. dolorosa12 - August 9, 2009

That’s a very good point, Sophie. I think you’re right in that Snape is one of the more complex characters in the book and that for that reason, he’s probably the most interesting. I think morally compromised (or morally grey) characters are so much more interesting than the black-and-white ones.

Rowling being bad at writing death scenes is something I’ve been complaining about since OotP (not GoF, since at that point I thought her strangely unemotive death scene was an anomaly). I think part of the problem is she loves her characters far too much (she’s always saying in interviews that she cried as she wrote such-and-such-a-character’s death scene, which strikes me as hilarious, since hardly any of her readers ever cry in said death scenes).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: