Tuesday 4 September 2012

Does Dumbledore really raise Harry 'like a pig for slaughter'? (Reflections after reading the HP saga aloud.)


Over the past several months I have read aloud the whole Harry Potter series.

It was a wholly enjoyable experience, and confirmed my opinion of the excellence of these books.

(Which is, itself, a revised opinion: I found the early books uninteresting at the time they were published - and it was only after I had been given 'the key' by reading the later parts of the last book that I was able to go back and appreciate the earlier ones. I pretty much first-read the books in reverse order.)


My general impression about quality is that Philosophers Stone and Chamber make up a duo of 'perfect' children's books in which the deeper meanings are only hinted at briefly - but they are certainly present. Azkaban is the teen-novel transition - and also perfect of its kind. I now perceive a sagging in the middle with Goblet and Phoenix, in each volume of which there is some (but not much) 'surplus fat'. And Prince and Hallows become fully adult novels, and make up a single unit, with the quality of writing taking a qualitative step up.


Rowling's main limitation as a writer, aside from the need for better sub-editing - which would tidy-up the writing but not really improve the book; is that the quality of prose writing - while perfectly effective - is not as good as the best of the Fantasy genre (e.g. Tolkien, Lewis, Ray Bradbury).

A second problem is that the author's inventiveness with respect to magical possibilities makes it impossible for her to be consistent. The clearest example is the Time Turner, which is much too powerful a device.

Another example is apparation. Or the ability of wizards to become invisible (either with cloaks or disillusionment charms - no wizard would ever know if they were alone/ unobserved).

Or the Polyjuice potion and Imperius Curse (you could never be sure who you were talking-to, or whether they were responsible for their actions). But in general, she cannot keep the magic fully under control.

Also, the big 'set-pieces' do not work very well for me. For example, the episodes when the trio break into the Ministry of Magic and Gringotts are the only parts of Hallows which are not wholly-successful and absorbing. And the descriptions of battles and duels are contrived, especially by comparison with those of ex-soldiers such as Tolkien, Lewis, or Lloyd Alexander. The tasks in Goblet are unconvincing too.


But this is the price to pay for such richness of ideas - and I can happily suspend my critical faculties most of the time.

As more-then-compensation there is a deep underlying spiritual (indeed Christian) dimension concerning death, a profound meditation upon love, and some gripping character studies in Harry, Snape, Dumbledore, Herminone, Ron, Luna and Neville (plus a terrific supporting cast).

There is a really enjoyable humour throughout - not just jokes, but comedy in its ancient sense of the play of humours, character.

And the detail is wonderful - the detailed descriptions of daily life at school, having meals, doing homework etc.


Yet the biggest virtue of all is the emotional punch of the Deathly Hallows.

I found it harder to read out the Deathly Hallows without breaking down and blubbing, than any other book I have ever read aloud.

That, I think, is a tribute to the author!


Any one of these great emotional climaxes comes in the following passage:

Snape, talking to Dumbeldore about Harry: You have kept him alive so that he can die at the right moment? ... I have spied for you, and lied for you, put myself in mortal danger for you. Everything was supposed to be to keep Lily Potter's son safe. Now you tell me that you have been raising him like a pig for slaughter?

In context, including what follows, this is so moving that we tend to assume it is true, but it is not.

On reflection, we recall that Dumbledore only understood about Horcruxes, and that Harry's scar was a Horcrux, in the last few months of his life - so he could not have raised Harry with this in mind.

On the other hand, what does become clear is that Dumbedore's love for Harry is less than his determination to rid the world of Voldemort - and this is shocking enough, albeit morally less repellent or perhaps even admirable (and Dumbeldore was not asking of Harry more than he was himself prepared to give).  


As a final aside - I was struck by how often, and how readily, Harry lied all throughout the series of books, and without any strong sense that lying was wrong.

I suspect that this may be a male female difference - since I don't recall heroic and good characters in similarly Christian books by men who have Harry's, ummm, instrumental attitude to verbal veracity.

Or perhaps this is more like the attitude of the pagan saga-men for whom successful deception was a virtue, when deployed in a good cause (ie. for the home team).

At any rate, only after his sanctification by death and rebirth, and in the final pages of the series, does Harry become wholly truthful - final recognition that truth is indeed among the highest values.



dearieme said...

To whom do you read?

Bruce Charlton said...

@d - in this particular instance, it was to a member of my immediate family who is not one of my children, nor a sibling nor a parent.

The only problem is that when reading last thing at night I have a tendency to fall asleep in the middle of sentences and spout garbage: the content of which sometimes surprises even myself. This is the penalty for getting up at approx 5.00 am. - to write this blog.

JRRT Reader said...

Dr. Charlton, I take that your occasional posts on this topic are at least a semi-endorsement of the series?

I perhaps ought to have looked into it myself, but have avoided it, deliberately, for several reasons.

First, the "hype" associated with Harry Potter was off-putting to say the least. Even aside from all that, I have long ignored virtually all contemporary literature.

Secondly, I have been told from many people whose opinions I trust that Rowling has many deficiencies as a writer. The most significant charges here are that she borrows rather freely from other authors and her works contain glaring plot-holes. (E.G. there is a necklace capable of permitting the owner to travel time; but which is ignored by the protagonists during certain incidences when it might prove useful. Also, the title character possesses a fortune, but at the same time lives off of the charity of a poverty-stricken friend.)

Finally, I am not familiar enough with the authors "angle". This could be unfair suspicion on my part, but I had assumed that the philosophic outlook of the books would be more or less in conformity with contemporary mores and worldview. That is to say that I assumed that Rowling is essentially a modern liberal/leftist and that such a perspective would appear at least subtly or implicitly in the books.

If I am wrong about any of them above, I welcome correction from all and sundry!

Bruce Charlton said...

@JRRTR - certainly I endorse the Harry Potter books!

Probably the best idea is to search this blog (and the NCPs blog) for 'Potter' and other key words.

They are superficially 'Liberal/ Leftist' but their deep structure is traditional and Christian.

What is interesting is that so many reader miss very obvious signposts to the underlying Christianity - which, for example, include Biblical quotes (but not identified as such) on the gravestones of Harry Potter's parents, and Dumbledore's family.

I have found the HP series very valuable as a way of thinking about Love and salvation.

dearieme said...

I don't know about the later ones, but the couple of early ones I read were good fun - full of jokes and allusions.

Gabe Ruth said...

I had a similar experience in reading order. I have younger sisters who were avid readers of the series early on, but I put the first one down after a few chapters. A few years later one of them made me read Half Blood Prince (I believe; may have been Order of the Phoenix) and I went back and read the previous ones.

I agree with you on the topics where the story is especially valuable: love/sacrifice and salvation, and the relation between them. But I don't have quite the same passion for the series that you do, mostly because of the tedious parts of the early books. A thought struck me as I read this post. Maybe this series has a special place in your heart because you found your way to the faith while you were reading it.

Bruce Charlton said...

@GR - if not exactly correct, no doubt there is something of the kind at work in me - timing is always vital in appreciation of art. But you - personally - should read Deathly Hallows, either way!

Gabe Ruth said...

I have, and I fully agree with your assessment of it (I cried reading it too). But I cringe thinking about re-reading the earlier ones, even though I feel like there is more depth to them than would have been apparent the first time I read them.

Wm Jas said...

I read the first six books back before The Deathly Hallows had been published, and found them good but not especially remarkable. Now I'm thinking I should give Deathly Hallows a try and see if it changes my perspective on the others.

PhilR said...

Rather tangential but still annoying is that not only, as you suggest, does JKR not quite have control over the magic but she doesn't understand sport. The scoring system for Quidditch is a nonsense with all the bludger related efforts being worth only 10 points and then one player being able to bring the game to an end by grabbing the 150 point thing. It's a bit like the PE teacher who says, with the score at 9-0, that the next goal wins.

Bruce Charlton said...

@PhilR - Agree 100 percent. I can see that she wanted to make the seeker role crucial, but the system is ridiculous. Also that the game cannot finish until the snitch has been caught, which is nearly as silly as baseball...

(Sorry, I love baseball really - despite being English - but I was thinking of a short story by WP Kinsella about a game that goes on, well... forever - because the score is always tied at the end of the inning.)

JRRT Reader said...

Dr. Charlton, how does an Englishman develop an interest in baseball?

Though I have no real interest in sport any longer, I do maintain a sentimental attachment to baseball history. The Orthodox American monarchist writer Lee Congdon has written about baseball, calling it a sport that, at its best, rises above a mass spectacle.

Bruce Charlton said...

@JRRTR - in 2004 I began recording live baseball games in the night and watching them the next day - I managed to see a few of the American League playoffs, and that world series which was won by the Red Sox - which I had decided to support having once studied in the city (near the ball park) for a couple of months.

The 2005 season I read a large number of books on and about baseball, and watched games from pretty much all of the teams right through the season.

But this was very time consuming, and my interest has dwindled since to a rather low level - however, I still greatly enjoy watching bits here and there, and I 'know what is going on' in terms of balls and strikes and foul balls, and the balance between pitcher and batter etc - which I guess very few Brits do know.

Incidentally, it was pitching which most intrigued me, especially the idea of the 'knuckle ball'; but also the other variations.

Bruce Charlton said...


"Arakawa has left a new comment on your post "Does Dumbledore really raise Harry 'like a pig for...":

"Or perhaps this is more like the attitude of the pagan saga-men for whom successful deception was a virtue, when deployed in a good cause (ie. for the home team).

At any rate, only after his sanctification by death and rebirth, and in the final pages of the series, does Harry become wholly truthful - final recognition that truth is indeed among the highest values."


After thinking over your articles on the Harry Potter series, I've concluded that the attitude presented towards honesty and deception was probably my primary obstacle to appreciating the series. The "final recognition given to truth" angle came far too late to salvage that for me.

It's not so much that Harry lies easily, it's that the universe he inhabits is set up so that it's a meritorous or at best neutral thing. (Book One is perhaps a bit worse than the others in this regard, but it sets up the general attitude.) I can imagine with the circumstances of the war in later books that deception might be a necessary evil, but that - a necessary evil - would have to be presented as a much more painful and spiritually damaging thing.

It's all a far more substantial indictment for me than typical Christian denunciations of the superficial 'occult' elements, which all-too-frequently rely on taking elements wildly out of context, and slightly miss the point on what the nature of occult temptation is. (I am a bit skeptical of Harry Potter's ability to lift people up to higher truths (though your articles present a plausible picture of how it might, for some), but I am equally skeptical that it's at all efficacious in dragging people down into sin, next to some things that are entirely ignored by the commenters that vehemently denounce Rowling's work....)

From what I've heard, sorcery has an arrogant, toying attitude towards reality that ultimately boils down to Pride; the seduction of hidden truths and connections is part of it; turning the sacred into the instrumental is part of it; pridefully dabbling with the unknown is part of it; the aesthetics or mechanics of any particular school of magic are irrelevant without active ingredients such as the above, and are frequently dispensed with in modern versions of the temptation. Here are some real, live 21st century sorcerers I've had the mispleasure of encountering (...)

And, to be clear, it's not even so much the technology that rankles me, as their attitude.

Bruce Charlton said...

@A - I agree with your general points, and I certainly feel myself the problem you describe in Harry Potter.

As for modern sorcerers - you can see the temptation for intellectuals. The evil is being offered just below the surface in an almost knowing fashion, with a wink which seems to say "You and I know that this is BS for the plebs, and that what we are *really* doing is gratifying our own desires and fantasies - but isn't it *fun* to fool the sheeple with a few slogans drawn from their favourite goodies, so they imagine that we are on their side instead of systematically exploiting them!"