The past is always tense July 24, 2009Posted by dolorosa12 in books, reviews.
Tags: books, fangirl, harry potter, harry potter and the half-blood prince, review
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.