A little touch of Harry in the night

[This is, among other things, a series of reflections - both review and analysis- on Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. It will certainly contain spoilers for those who have not read the series, and may contain spoilers for those who have not yet finished the final installment. Be forewarned!]

The poor condemned English,
Like sacrifices, by their watchful fires
Sit patiently and inly ruminate
The morning's danger; and their gesture sad
Investing lank-lean cheeks and war-worn coats
Presenteth them unto the gazing moon
So many horrid ghosts. O, now, who will behold
The royal captain of this ruin'd band
Walking from watch to watch, from tent to tent,
Let him cry 'Praise and glory on his head!'
For forth he goes and visits all his host;
Bids them good morrow with a modest smile,
And calls them brothers, friends, and countrymen.
Upon his royal face there is no note
How dread an army hath enrounded him;
Nor doth he dedicate one jot of colour
Unto the weary and all-watched night;
But freshly looks, and over-bears attaint
With cheerful semblance and sweet majesty;
That every wretch, pining and pale before,
Beholding him, plucks comfort from his looks;
A largess universal, like the sun,
His liberal eye doth give to every one,
Thawing cold fear, that mean and gentle all
Behold, as may unworthiness define,
A little touch of Harry in the night. (Henry V Act IV Prologue)

The ubiquitous all-American hero, or hero-as-America, often seems to crop up as "Jack," a name that embodies a lot of the qualities at the heart of our national self-image - straightforward, uninflected (in the American context) by class connotations, informal, unpretentious, but strong. Think of two of the most contemporary examples - Jack Bauer and Jack Shephard (the latter of whom is, like the nation he symbolizes, the offspring of a flawed but puritanically named forefather, Christian Shephard) - men of the law but above the law, who must unify those around them in times of crisis while remaining (often disastrously) heroically independent of any attempt to control or correct them. Of course, the two Jacks currently symbolizing America all over the airwaves are not alone: Tom Clancy's hero is a Jack, as are the leads in Titanic, Speed and Brokeback Mountain. It is revealing to see, in Wikipedia's list of fictional Jacks from television, the difference between the American list and the British one.

If America fictionalizes itself as the unifying but iconoclastic, strong and class-defying Jack, Britain's symbolic personification is caught between two poles of Harrydom - Shakespeare's Henry V and J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter. One thing which strikes me about the two Harrys, apart from their similarity tales of development into responsibility (more on this in a minute), is the common ground they share with their fictional/colonial descendents, the Jacks. They too occupy a liminal ground between formality (kingliness, in the Harrys' cases) and colloquial comfort, authority and popularity, enforcing the law and proving the law's exception.

I finished the last of the Harry Potter books over the weekend, and, looking back over the whole trajectory of the series, I thought I would use this idea of the two Harrys, and of symbolic Britishness, as a way to structure my reflections on the series and its culminating volume. Because, of course, as David Louis Edelman argues in his review of Deathly Hallows, the archetypal familiarity of Harry Potter is its intent, not its greatest flaw: "I’ve heard a lot of people complain that the Harry Potter novels are “too derivative.” To which I say, Yes! J.K. Rowling is derivative! And that’s the entire point. One of the things that makes these books so terrific is the fact that the author is very consciously following traditional patterns." The Harry Potter series is archetypally heroic, tapping into a transnational tradition of coming-of-age stories and epic achievements, but it is also distinctively Anglo-Saxon in its tradition, and, even more specifically, distinctively British.

The speech from Henry V that I quote above is from the "Deathly Hallows" moment of Shakespeare's Henriad. The young king, Henry, has spent the last few plays being beloved of the people, but distrusted by his father, who casts a suspicious eye on his debauched cavorting with the expansive Sir John Falstaff (another Jack - "sweet Jack Falstaff, kind Jack Falstaff, true Jack Falstaff, valiant Jack Falstaff, and therefore more valiant, being, as he is, old Jack Falstaff, banish not him thy Harry's company, banish not him thy Harry's company: banish plump Jack, and banish all the world!" - 1 Henry IV, II, iv. Apparently Jack can symbolize the world, and worldliness, as well as just America.). He has had to prove himself worthy of the kingship and of his father's love, and he does so (in a somewhat un-Potterish manner) by casting off his old life and friendships (he claims to have surrounded himself with scandal so that his later, regal behavior will shine more brightly) and setting his cap at earning military glory. In Henry V he is finally king, has gone to war on very slender grounds in France, and, with his troops, is surrounded by a vastly superior (at least in size) French army at Agincourt. The next day they will fight one of the most famous battles in British literature and history, after what I think I can accurately call the most famous pre-battle exhortation in our language - the St. Crispin's Day Speech:
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he today that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition:
And gentlemen in England now abed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day. (IV.iii)
But this night, the night before the great battle, these fraternal bonds have not been made and the community of Britishness has not yet been cemented with hope or victory. So Henry, curious to see how the common soldier views him (not positively, it turns out) and to buoy morale, wanders the camp in disguise, giving his comrades "a little touch of Harry in the night."

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows opens at just such a moment: Harry, Ron and Hermione have left Hogwarts amidst the reemergence of Voldermort and his Death Eaters and the widespread corruption of both the media and the Ministry of Magic. Having come to adulthood, they are free of both the control and the stabilizing advice of their parents (I want to know more about Hermione's family life, by the way, which is by far the most intriguing and most cryptic of the three friends' back-stories), and they spend much of the novel, like the new Henry V before Agincourt, lurking about beneath invisibility cloaks, trying to understand the lay of the land, how they are perceived, who they can trust, and what their role is in history. Like Prince Hal/Harry/Henry V, Harry Potter's is a tale of development into leadership, and though Shakespeare's Hal takes a much more contrived, even sinister approach to forming his leaderly persona than Harry Potter does, both must contend with their reputation and the problem of forming a community of fighters in the face of widespread, gossipy mistrust. We know, even as we begin the novel, that it will end in a battle of Agincourt's proportions, a battle which will be a badge of honor and belonging. To have fought with Harry Potter on that day marks you as one of the Chosen.

I share many of the minor complaints that have already been voiced time and time again by reviewers of this last book and the series. The epilogue is both unnecessary and condescending; it displays a lack of trust in the imaginary abilities of the readers and a baffling unconsciousness of how reading works (the reader is engaged by filling in the gaps left by the text). There is an exploitative use of minor characters who are only given enough time in the book (and on this earth) to fulfill their narrative role, and then often die flippant or hollowly heroic deaths. The fact that this often happens to animals and racially and class-coded characters (like house elves, for instance - the oppressed) is even more uncomfortable. Often Rowling's characters speak not so much like teenagers as like a middle-aged woman ventriloquizing youthful diction, trying to sound hip (as in the queasy ending to Harry's otherwise intriguing encounter with his cousin Dudley).

Unlike many other reviewers, I didn't find the long, "dormant" or "liminal" first section of the novel tiresome, perhaps because I was reading it as a less calculating version of Henry V's development into leadership. There has to be a period of distrust and widespread misunderstanding, of attempting to go it alone, before community (the crucial aspect of leadership) can be established.

I will admit that when the battle of Agincourt, er, Hogwarts began, I was on the edge of my seat, particularly delighted by the cinematic detail of the portrait subjects rushing from frame to frame in great crowds, babbling to each other about events in various parts of the school/battlefield. At that moment, I wished aloud for the last movie to have a director with a profound respect for the detail and nuance of his fictional world - a Terry Gilliam or a Peter Jackson. This is where the last film went wrong in its second half: in the rush to get through large plot points, the intricacy of character and place was lost, and this narrative is nothing without its intricacy of detail.

Oddly, I found the end of the book, from the point in which Harry finally takes on the mantle of authority and sloughs off the anxiety and doubt that have been his hallmarks for so many years, hazy and rather sluggish. I kept wishing that "the camera" (the whole novel has a very cinematic feel) would take us to some other point of view, in more lively and quip-filled part of the castle. Which is undoubtedly what many wished during Harry and Hermione's long separation from society. At the same time, I rather admire Rowling's bold choice to limit the narrative so strictly to Harry's point of view, even when he self-consciously removes himself from the heart of the action for much of the novel. This is, in fact, the most successful means of encouraging our identification with her hero's claustrophobic state of mind, and may explain why I had so much trouble letting go of the doubts and anxieties, the fascinating flaws, when Harry takes on his most heroic, adult, or authoritative role.

But what I found most interesting about this final book, and about the series as a whole, was its distinctive Britishness. What has made Harry so iconic, I kept asking myself, so much a successor to Shakespeare's Prince Hal? In part it is the fact that he is simply average yet quite extraordinary; in other words, his success is not a result of his excellence of skill, intelligence, or social grace. His success is merely the product of his success; he was born with it and needs only to grow into his aristocratic inheritance.

But another thing struck me repeatedly throughout the series - why don't the wizarding communities of other nations (America, say, or India, Japan, Turkey, etc.) care at all that Armageddon is happening in the UK? We get the vaguest mention of Fleur and Viktor Krum here, but their countrymen and -women don't seem terribly eager to join in the fight against evil, despite Voldemort's repeated incursions into their lands. There is a profound (and, I think, distinctly and archetypally British) insularity to this world, an isolation from all bureaucratic, governmental and international systems that could give aid to Harry and his friends. For all the lip service given to not condescending to Muggles in this volume of the series, the Muggles are both ignorant and helpless in the face of Death Eater terrorism. [This is perhaps connected to the fact that the novel takes place just before 9/11 and 7/7, and then (thanks to the epilogue) more than a decade after them. I am uncomfortable with the implication (which I couldn't quite get my head around) that Voldemort was defeated, and then evil and pain were gone from the world and the wizards didn't really worry about the fact that their Muggle contemporaries were dying in the streets and going off to war.] You know what would have been great to see? Muggles and wizards fighting together against Voldemort, each with their own skills. The PM working with those who were uncorrupted in the Ministry of Magic to unify the people of Britain. (Have you noticed, by the way, that wizardly Britain is MUCH less a culture of surveillance than the real-world UK? Characters are always sneaking about, accomplishing trickery that would ALWAYS have been caught on camera in the Muggle World.)

But that wouldn't be totally in keeping with what the novel is really about: isolation and learning to trust your friends, even to the point of allowing them to risk themselves for you. Harry is repeatedly betrayed by the institutions that are meant to support him throughout the series. He is slandered by the government, maligned by friends at school (even the social group meant to promote bonding - his fellow Gryffindors), abused by teachers (and often not saved by other, helpless teachers who know of the abuse), attacked by the press, deprived of familial protection/advice, and consistently denied the full story about his life and responsibilities. It is, in many ways, a residue of the Blitz mentality in all its power and defensiveness: first Harry must learn how to be alone, how not to look outside himself for help, and then he must learn to let go of some control, to trust in friendship, the (only) social bond of belonging that will create a community capable of enduring and even defeating evil. This is not a unification of the whole country, or certainly the whole world - rather, it is the triumph of we few, we happy few, we band of brothers.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (2007)
J.K. Rowling
  • You can find Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Book 7) at both Amazon (the link above takes you there) and Powells, as well as at most libraries and independent bookstores (especially if you are willing to get at the back of a very long queue for a library copy!). I just figured out how to become a partner at Powells, and am excited to be able to include an alternate link to Amazon's!
  • The internet is filled with reviews of this novel, so I will leave it to you to find your favorites, but here is Wikipedia's entry.
  • I wanted to mention, by way of postscript, that this is by far the most cleverly titled of any of the Harry Potter books. The Deathly Hallows manage to represent, all at once, the fear of death (often mistaken for Death itself) with which all heroes must (archetypally) battle and overcome, and the unrecognized power of children's stories to contain and transmit great truths (as well as values, both sinister and enlightening) through the ages. I would also like to praise Rowling effusively for including a quotation from The Libation Bearers as the epigraph to the novel. Snakes, and parent issues, and fleeing the past, oh my!
  • LibraryThing is holding a Harry Potter review contest which will reward both 1) the highest rated reviews and 2) members who participate in both sides of the reviewing/rating system (by posting a review and rating others' reviews). So go to the Deathly Hallows page before Monday, August 6, when the contest ends, post your reviews, and vote for your favorites! [You have to be a member to participate, I believe, but membership is free, so don't hold back!] My review (plug plug plug) can be found here.

4 Responses so far.

  1. Laura says:

    This is a fantastic review! I'm impressed on so many levels, and especially the analysis of Henry V, and the connection to British culture and identity. In fact, rather than write my own review I decided to just acknowledge yours as the best I've seen. Here's my "review": http://laura0218.livejournal.com/20227.html

  2. You are so nice, Laura! I am glad to hear that you enjoyed both the review and the book.

    I have to say, "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" (which I am now reading) is a very strange follow-up to Harry Potter. Although it does make me wish we had gotten even more time with Neville and his family during the last book. Although I was glad to see that Neville got to partake in his part of the prophecy as well, in sense.

  3. Anonymous says:

    I must say that I, too, was deeply disappointed in the lack of Muggle involvement. I had held out hope in the first few pages, that the scene with Dudley was a harbinger of that interconnectedness. Sadly, in so many ways, I was wrong.

    As many problems as I had with the book (many of which I am coming to accept), that is the one that lingers and feels strange. The others are mostly issues of resolving characters (for instance, why didn't Ginny just go and fight!). And as my friend put it, that just shows you how much Jo made you care for the characters.

    One question: did you read the Brit versions? or the Yankee ones?

    It is a fabulous review that extended my horizons considerably (you know well that I confine my fiction wanderings quite strictly and I haven't visited the demanding territory of the Bard in some years). I thank you for it.

  4. I agree wholeheartedly about Ginny's exclusion from the fighting - would Harry, Hermione and Ron ever have been sidelined because they were minors? I think the first six books attest to the fact that they weren't (and that they firmly disobeyed all attempts to contain them to proper, safe, child-like roles).

    In answer to your question, however, I was reading the American version. Were there textual differences between the two editions? Do tell!

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