JOHN OSTRANDER: Potter’s End
We’re at something of a cultural crossroads.
On July 21, Saturday, the last new Harry Potter book, Harry Potter and the Deadly Hallows, will be published. With this, J.K. Rowling completes her story and a literary phenomenon is completed. Yes, I know there are two more movies and scads of related tie-ins still to come but the story itself will be complete. We’ll know how it ends.
I have a mistrust of anything that labels itself an “instant classic.” It suggests adding water to a half-baked idea, mix, and you have something for the ages. For something to be classic, time must pass. The work must speak to more than one generation. In the 1920 and the 1930s, the detective Philo Vance was all the rage; today, virtually nobody has heard of him, let alone read him.
All that said, I do think the Harry Potter books have the potential to become classics, to be read and loved by future generations. There is a timeless quality to them; they create their own separate but accessible world; and – as with all truly great children’s literature – they are accessible to adults as well as children. I’m 58 years old; I write GrimJack and have written things like Wasteland. I’m a fan of hard-boiled noir detective fiction and, yes, I’m a Potter-head as well.
What is going to decide whether or not the Potter books become classics or not, I think, is going to depend on how author J.K. Rowling winds up the series. I have nothing but respect for Ms. Rowling; she went from being a single mother on welfare when she wrote the first Potter book to being worth more than the Queen of England as she winds up the series. By the end of the summer, they’ll have to start inviting her to G8 meetings. On a simple commercial level, the writer in me is in awe.
The writer in me also admires her clear-headed vision of herself and of her work. I’ve dealt with fans, my own and Star Wars fans, and while I love them I know how fanatical some can get. There can be this sense of identification with a work to where they can feel entitlement or ownership even above the creator his or herself. On a video, I heard Ms. Rowling address this and say, pretty close to verbatim, “Is it important to me what the fans think? Absolutely. Should it change one word of what I’m doing? Absolutely not.” For the record, I think Ms. Rowling is spot on.
As I was saying, however, whether or not the Harry Potter books go on to become a classic or a flash in the pan will depend on this final book – on how she winds up the series. That ending must satisfy everyone, young readers and older ones alike, who have made an emotional investment that spans years. That doesn’t necessarily imply a happy ending; the movie Casablanca doesn’t have a “happy” ending in that the two lovers, Rick and Ilsa, are together. But, boy, does the ending satisfy the viewer.
There’s been a lot of speculation about how the series will end. Word has it that two of the series’ characters will die and that one of them could be Harry Potter himself. Since this is my last shot at it before the book comes out, I’m going to chime in with my own opinions/speculations. WARNING: SAID SPECULATIONS WILL NECESSITATE REVEALING EVENTS THAT HAVE HAPPENED IN PREVIOUS BOOKS. IF YOU’RE NOT CAUGHT UP AND HAVE SOMEHOW AVOIDED LEARNING WHAT’S HAPPENED AND WANT TO LEAVE IT THAT WAY, GO READ SOMETHING ELSE. NOT THIS.
Among the speculations is the one saying that Harry Potter will die. Some professorial types (who I would have thought would know better) have even gone so far as to insist that that Harry’s death really is the ONLY logical conclusion to the series. Some have called Harry a “Christ-figure” who will give up his life to save his friends. I find it amusing that people might think of the Potter books as a Christian allegory, considering that the Christian Right denounces the Potter books as neo-paganism at best and engraved invitations to devil-worship at worst.
However, within the context of the stories, there is some reason to think this. We’ve gradually learned that some of Lord Voldemort’s (the evil wizard who is the series main villain; what Buffy fans like to refer to as the ‘Big Bad”) power was infused into Harry when Harry was a babe. The suggestion is that, in order to finally destroy Lord Voldemort, Harry himself may have to die.
I’m not convinced. I know that Ms. Rowling cannily refuses to say that Harry won’t be knocked off but I’m convinced that’s just some really good fan-baiting on her part. (I do it myself; it’s lots of fun and really keeps fan interest ramped up to 11.) It’s not that she’s above killing off Harry – Ms. Rowling has made death a real and fairly constant factor in the books. However, other sages have pointed out that the books really are about growing up, not only for Harry but his two best friends, Ron and Hermione. Moreover, the younger readers have grown up with Harry. To have Harry dead at the end of the series would seem to make the process futile.
It’s not that children don’t die before they grow up. Sadly, some do. However, Harry is the central character, the one with whom the readers are meant to most identify. If he dies then, in a sense, they die. That’s a little too bleak, especially for this series. The Potter books can be dark but have never been bleak. It’s also the ending which, IMO, would wreck its chances at becoming a classic and I think Ms. Rowling is too clever to fall into that trap. It’s not an ending that would satisfy and so I don’t think it likely.
For similar reasons, I think Ron and Hermione are less likely to end of victims. Higher possibility than Harry, perhaps, but still a low probability, IMO.
So – who is for the chop? Well, I’d have to consider the Big Bad, Lord Voldemort, for one. I really don’t think you can have him still walking around at the end of the series and have an ending that satisfies. Another possibility could be Professor Severus Snape. He did kill the beloved headmaster of Hogwarts (Harry’s school) at the end of the last book and Harry has sworn vengeance. (Don’t give in to the Dark Side, Harry! Wait – different galaxy, far, far away.) Mind you, while I was saddened by Dumbledore’s death, I wasn’t surprised. When the groundskeeper, Hagrid (another beloved character), said in an early book that nothing was going to go wrong with Hogwarts so long as Professor Dumbledore was there, I figured the kindly Professor would not be with us at the finish. To be honest, I was surprised he got as far as he did. All in all, it makes sense that Snape must die.
Except that I think he did what he did as part of a scheme by the mysterious Order of the Phoenix and with Dumbledore’s connivance in order to get Snape into Voldemort’s inner circle, the better to give him a chance to kill the Big Bad. I think it will be revealed that Dumbledore was already dying and so sacrificed himself – to help save Harry. Snape is likewise sacrificing himself.
So who will be the other big death? I’m betting on the aforementioned Hagrid, perhaps the best loved character in the Potter saga, possibly even more than Dumbledore or even Harry himself. His death would have impact and re-enforce the idea that no victory is without cost. It would give that final victory resonance and, to my mind, satisfy and make the story complete and give that resonance that would make people come back to it over and over again.
We’ll know for sure one way or the other on July 21st. One thing I can safely say is that the scene at bookstores at midnight on July 21st will be something to see. A couple of Potter books ago, I went to my local chain at midnight since I was awake and up anyway. Thought I’d pick up a copy real fast and get home. It was a PR gimmick; kids weren’t going to be up that late. I thought.
I was wrong. Delightfully wrong. Kids were there, some dressed up as characters, all waiting breathlessly for midnight. There was a ritual of sorts; the ones who had pre-ordered had their names called out and were allowed to buy their books first. The rest of us had to wait. I watched the kids leave, books clutched to them or already reading as they were led out by their parents. They were so excited; they couldn’t wait. They finally had a chance to find out what was going to happen next.
The writer in me exulted. Despite everything calling for their attention – video games, television, movies, DVDs and so on – what made them so excited was a book. Reading a book. And the Potter books are not simple, easy reads, either. They’ve gotten longer, more complex, more demanding – and more rewarding – as the series has gone on. The kids have risen to that challenge and embraced it.
On July 21st, the phenomenon climaxes. I think a literary phenomenon like this happens once in a generation; the last comparable one was Lord of the Rings. I’m betting that Rowling gets its right. She wrote the ending long ago, back when she started it all. That last chapter has remained locked away, waiting for this book. Having an ending enables you to plot and create with far greater assurance. Ms. Rowling has had a destination in mind all this time and we’re about to arrive at it. That’s why I think the Potter books will be books that get handed down to successive generations and become a classic.
But those later generations will never have the pleasure of living through the first publications of those books as we have. The ending will be a given. All the wondering and waiting and delicious anticipation and speculation will be gone. The ending will be known. Right now, there is still a wealth of possibilities of how the story could end and there is a magic in that and, for a few more hours, that is still ours and something successive generations of readers of the Potter books won’t know, can’t have.
At 12:01 AM on July 21st, we’ll know. The story ends. And a little of the magic will go away.
Writer / actor / playwright John Ostrander is man behind the typewriter at such vaunted comics as GrimJack, Suicide Squad, Star Wars: Legacy, Munden’s Bar and Batman. His own personal blog is at http://www.comicscommunity.com/boards/ostrander/.