* * *
The flu has its advantages. I hate the feelings of it--queasiness, headache, weakness, cough, congestion. But almost nothing else gives me this anymore: the excuse to lie down all day and read novels.
I have been a novel-reader all my life, and have attempted nearly every genre. Murder mystery, Western, romance, classic, juvenile, sci-fi, historical fiction, literary, fantasy--I've read, and enjoyed, something in each.
Occasionally I come across a book that is something more than entertainment; more, even, than entertainment that gets me thinking. The books that get me thinking are rare enough. Orson Scott Card's Speaker for the Dead was such a book--I thought it over for weeks afterward. Catherine Marshall's Christy was another; when I get to the line "The joy of the children was in his voice" it generally brings tears to my eyes.
Rarer still, however, is the novel that lifts me out of my petty, selfish struggles and into its pages--this greatest of all types of fiction. A book like this causes me to wrestle on its stage alongside its characters. When I close such a book, it leaves me unfit for reading any other story for awhile; its sense of completion and the strength of its resolution prevent me from being willing to visit other fictional scenes of chaos and climax. The book itself becomes, for a time, sufficient beyond all other books save one--and that one is the very real story of God and all of us.
Charles Dickens' The Christmas Carol is, for me, one of those greatest-of-all-novels. Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre is another. Jane Austen scored twice with Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion. There are only a few more I can think of. Among these, of course, is the Harry Potter series.
They say Joanne Rowling had her moment of inspiration on a train. I wonder if that train took her into, or out of, King's Cross Station.
* * *
I require time, solitude, and silence to deal with some of my deep questions. Not, of course, that such dealings are not acted upon by outside forces. Sometimes the sky helps, with its vast outward-opened expanses of light and color and the infinite. At other times it is the loving understanding that I know to be present in my life even when I am by myself. Always there is God--at my best I firmly believe this, working in those mysterious ways of his. Often, those ways turn out to be good stories.
* * *
In the silence of my own room yesterday, head too sore to tackle non-fiction, I completed my third cover-to-cover read of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.
And I loved it, the way I loved the first HP book that whole blessed first week a year and a half ago. I loved it the way I loved the scene in Dumbledore's office at the end of book 5, where Harry shouts and throws things and Dumbledore explains the prophecy and the power Harry has "which the Dark Lord knows not."
Love. It could seem, at the end of book 5, almost too cheesy to be believed. But "In the end it mattered not that you could not close your mind", says Dumbledore to Harry. "It was your heart that saved you." Voldemort, as evil a villain as ever walked and talked and killed among the pages of fiction, found inexpressible torment in attempting to possess a grief-consumed Harry, who expected death to reunite him with the godfather who died for him.
* * *
J.K. Rowling quoted two Bible verses in book 7. She did not quote John 15:13. She did not need to. Her story said, clearly, "Greater love has no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends."
Of many examples of sacrificial love revealed throughout the first six books, that of the appropriately-named Lily (considering the linking of lilies to purity and to Easter) proves both salvific and prophetic. Lily stands in front of her son's crib, arms flung out to protect, and pleads with Voldemort to kill her instead of her son. Oddly enough, that is what Voldemort--quite unintentionally--did; he killed her, and her act of sacrifice made it impossible for Voldemort to kill her son.
It was looking back on the sacrifice of Lily Evans Potter that made me realize, before the release of Deathly Hallows, that Harry would probably have to do the same thing. I was convinced that Harry would survive, though, if for no other reason than genre. JKR did not write an embittered, Hemingwayan drama. She wrote for an audience still innocent enough to believe that the good guys win.
* * *
I am an adult. I am well acquainted with the feeling of despair pulsing through my heart, poisoning my mind and emotions. Because of this, I hold ever-so-tightly to the childish notion that good will always triumph in the end. It is my link to sanity. This world does not hold perfect happiness for me anymore--the completely unspoiled, wonder-filled, Christmas-morning happiness that I knew as a child. It does hold great happiness and wonder, now; God willing, that will continue. But it is not perfect. That perfect happiness depends entirely on what happens after death.
* * *
"It is the unknown we fear when we look on death and darkness; nothing more."
Dumbledore says this to Harry in--I believe--book 6. The unknown frightens me much more than it ought. All my life I have been ready, willing, anxious to make my peace with whatever 'powers there be.' Perhaps my greatest fear is that I have made my peace with the wrong god--that I'll wake up on the other side of death to find that Jesus wasn't who he said he was and some other being would send me to a place of torment forever.
I cling to some very specific things to give me confidence in life after death. The illuminated face of an aging, blind monk, interviewed for the documentary Into Great Silence, as he said "A Christian need never fear death." The light in Argie Blackburn's eyes as he sang of heaven, not two years before his own death. It is silly, perhaps, but I rarely doubt God when I look into the brilliant mystery that is the sky to me. I lean on the faith of others, and even on the stories of visions. I lean on the truths Rowling put into her books--"... the true master of death does not seek to run away from death, for he has accepted that he must die...."
I lean, for the protection and salvation of my soul, on the love-driven sacrificial death of one whom I believe to be--as He claimed--the Son of God.
"The last enemy to be destroyed is death." Joanne Rowling put those words into the finale of her series. They come from 1 Corinthians 15:26.
* * *
Here and there in Deathly Hallows, I find word choices which seem a little less strong, less smooth, than in the first six books. I wonder if the deadline, the pressure, put too heavy a burden on rewriting and editing.
But book 7 has hardly anything, really, to complain about. Throughout the first six books are scattered scenes of great power, bursting forth from the already strong undercurrent of the story. None of the books have so many of these as does book 7.
The action is all well-drawn, but action doesn't necessarily catch at my heart--or even my attention--like the emotional sides to the story, the character and relational development. One of the first times the story really gets at me is on Harry's birthday, when Ginny calls Harry into her room and gives him the only gift she can think of: one heartrending, passionate parting kiss. Ron's rude interruption and the obvious, though hidden, emotions of both Harry and Ginny added to the impact of the moment. It rang both true and deep for me. I'm a romantic; a romantic in love, at that. What can I say?
The scene in the graveyard at Christmas is magnificent: vivid, hushed; the light and caroling coming from the little church, the snow, the moments by the various graves. "Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also" is written on the grave of Dumbledore's mother and sister; Christ's words expressing Dumbledore's repentance. Harry's unveiled sorrow at the graves of his parents: Lily, her birthday three days after mine; she was three months older than her husband, which strikes me, I guess, because I am a little older than Lou. Lily and James, killed on Halloween; their son, alive because of their sacrifice, tasting despair; Hermione quietly conjuring a wreath of Christmas roses for Harry to lay on the graves.
Ron's return, his rescue of Harry from the icy pool and the Horcrux, and his battle with the Horcrux itself some minutes later--Ron has never hidden his emotions well, but here Rowling lets us see clearly what has tormented him over the years and especially in the previous months. At the end, the Horcrux is destroyed and his eyes are wet. It just makes Hermione's kiss, given much later, all the sweeter.
The death of Dobby and his burial was one of the best scenes in the book. It needed to be, as it became the turning point for Harry in his quest. But I loved the fact that the last words Dobby spoke were Harry's name; that Harry dug the grave by hand, without magic; that Harry and Ron and Dean buried the faithful little elf in clothes of their own; that while digging the grave, amid sweat and blisters and grief, Harry learned to trust Dumbledore even through incomplete information and to close his mind to Voldemort.
The whole chapter where Harry walks, willingly defenseless, to his own death ... is indescribable. His sudden, focused awareness of his living body, especially the frantic beating of his heart--"perhaps it was determined to fill a lifetime's beats before the end"--and the interaction with his parents and Sirius and Lupin through the Resurrection Stone--I held my breath and ached all the way through this; and when his eyes first met his mother's, it brought me to tears.
And Voldemort spoke the Killing Curse, and Harry winds up talking to Dumbledore in a clean, white, practically empty King's Cross Station. Dumbedore is living after death; Harry can choose to 'go on' in death or go back and attempt to defeat Voldemort, finally and completely. Harry hears the whole truth, at last, from Dumbledore; clean and unaltered, lacking the bitterness of Aberforth, the twisted nastiness of Rita Skeeter, and the blindness of Elphias Doge. That scene is beautiful and pure and hope-filled and symbolic on many levels.
One of the most poignant moments in the whole series--arguably my favorite--comes in the epilogue. To explain this, I must talk about Severus Snape. I am not one of those who thinks that Snape was the 'unsung hero' or the 'best character' in the series. Snape forfeited his right to Lily quite thoroughly; and, in later years, could not overcome his hatred of Harry's father enough to treat Harry fairly, even though he protected Harry for Lily's sake. But don't get me wrong: the courage Snape displayed, especially after Voldemort's return, the obvious changing of some of his principles, and his enduring love for Lily were beautiful things. He died looking into Lily's eyes, as replicated in her son. That scene, powerful in itself, was of course not in the epilogue. Neither, I might add, was further information on most of the characters--an act of both bravery and genius on Rowling's part.
What was in the epilogue was a scene between Harry and his second son, who resembles him closely--the only one of Harry's three children to inherit Lily's eyes. Eleven-year-old Al Potter, who has clearly inherited a lot more than looks from his father, is as fearful of being placed in Slytherin house as Harry was at the same age. Harry kneels to speak with his son eye-to-eye and calls him by his full name: Albus Severus. Harry's forgiveness of Snape--and of Dumbledore, for that matter--is complete; more than that, it includes honor and great gratitude. "Albus Severus, you were named after two headmasters of Hogwarts. One of them was a Slytherin, and he was probably the bravest man I ever knew."
* * *
J.K. Rowling, in an interview around the release of Deathly Hallows, described the book as being, in the context of her Christian faith, about her 'struggle to keep believing.' This is clearly, and beautifully, expressed through Harry's feelings about Albus Dumbledore.
Dumbledore plays a God-role to an extent here, much as Harry portrays Christ in other ways: not as a direct, Aslan-style allegory, but as a type. Harry finds reason after reason to distrust his old headmaster: Elphias Doge's determinate blindness, Rita Skeeter's slander couched in hazy facts, Aberforth's anger and his story, the sheer confusing difficulty of the task Dumbledore set Harry and the important information Dumbledore intentionally withheld. But in Dobby's grave, driven by the force of grief, Harry finds--not plain fact, but reason and will to trust. He chooses what to believe. The struggle is well-described here:
"That old berk [Doge]", muttered Aberforth, taking another swig of mead. "Thought the sun shone out of my brother's every orifice, he did. Well, so did a lot of people, you three included, by the looks of it."
Harry kept quiet. He did not want to express the doubts and uncertainties about Dumbledore that had riddled him for months now. He had made his choice while he dug Dobby's grave, he had decided to continue along the winding, dangerous path indicated for him by Albus Dumbledore, to accept that he had not been told everything he wanted to know, but simply to trust. He had no desire to doubt again; he did not want to hear anything that would deflect him from his purpose.
* * *
Joanne Rowling, you will probably never read this, but I must at least say thank you as I may. For submitting to the pressures, the deadlines, the hassles of fame and the dependence of fans. For sharing your creativity, your struggles, your humor and ideals with millions of people you will never meet. Your books have led me to an understanding of courage and love that has helped me face my own life and mortality; courage was a lesson I thought I had lost forever. You have played a role in the rebuilding of my faith and of my confidence in the ultimate triumph of good. And you have told me a beautiful story; one of the best, and one of my favorites, that I've ever found among fiction. I hope you enjoy your freedom and return to a more "normal life"; you have well earned that rest. God bless you.