Monday 12 November 2007

Potter's end

I've just finished reading the final book in the Harry Potter series. Yes, I know, it's a bit sad, a grown man reading books meant for children, etc . But before you conclude that this is a sorry case of arrested development, I'd like to remind you that I do read other stuff, and I make no apologies for reading those children's books (Philip Pullman's trilogy would be another example) that have an appeal far beyond their intended youthful audience. We read the first Potter book with our children when they were at junior school. By the time the later instalments appeared they were teenagers and had put away such childish things, but leaving us with a lingering need to see how the story ended.

To begin with I found The Deathly Hallows far less appealing than the earlier books. It's much darker, for one thing, and its murderous opening sequence is more reminiscent of adult horror fiction than children's fantasy. There is little relief in the chapters that follow, as Rowling departs from the familiar and comforting framework of the Hogwarts school year and follows Harry and friends as they pursue their dogged quest to defeat Voldemort. There's an excessive emphasis on the 'technology' of magic, too, in this book, which will alienate less-than-fanatical readers who can't tell their Hallows from their Horcruxes and won't remember every detail and plot-twist from previous volumes. And just as the first book was criticised for taking too much time in setting up the context, so this final volume can be taken to task for devoting page after page to authorial tying up of loose ends.

None of which detracts from the beautifully-constructed final denouement (spoilers follow), which sees Harry sacrifice himself Christ-like to save the wizarding world from the satanic Voldemort, only to experience resurrection and a restoration of the old order. There's also a postscript which gives us a glimpse of an adult Harry seeing his children off on the train to Hogwarts. The book, and the series, ends with the brief sentence: 'All was well'. That this recalls Dame Julian of Norwich's 'All shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well' is hardly accidental. This concluding book is replete with unmistakably Christian references, something Rowling herself has acknowledged in recent interviews.

All of which is one in the eye for those fundamentalist Christians who have disapproved of Harry Potter from the outset: their literal belief in the devil and the occult precluding any positive depiction of magic. Their tin ear for metaphor and allegory appears to be shared by Simon Jenkins, who recently interpreted the popularity of Potter as a sign of renascent 'pagan fundamentalism'. Jenkins' mention of the enduring appeal of The Lord of the Rings as additional evidence in this regard must have had the ultra-Catholic Tolkien spinning in his grave.

Surely it can't be long before Rowling's heptology (?) is accepted in the canon of modern Christian literature, alongside Tolkien's epic and C.S.Lewis' Narnia books? For those with an interest in such things, it's curious, and a little depressing, that it's hard to name a recent major work of fiction with an explicitly Christian theme that isn't written primarily for children, or set in a fantastic alternative world. Question: Is convincing realist fiction with a religious meaning possible in a secular age?

Finally, how's this for a succinct summary of the Potter series:

Geeky wizard goes to school. Has adventures. Dies. (OK maybe).

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