The Book Club

Rowling Doesn’t Do Shades of Gray

Dear Dan,

That doesn’t sound paranoid at all—I’m the same way. I averted my eyes from Michiko Kakutani’s review, abandoning any hope of learning which bookstore had leaked her copy (fat chance she’d let it spill, anyway). I snapped off my favorite radio show when the host started talking about the darn thing. And like you, I haven’t even dared to read the “Fray”.

Sorry, Fray friends! I love you! I miss you! I’ll read you the second I’ve finished The Deathly Hallows—assuming the second dead character isn’t Us, the Reader.

You’re right, Dan, my Tolkien analogy doesn’t fly. You certainly have a point that Voldemort ≠ Gollum. But the equation Voldemort = Sauron doesn’t quite work, either. Voldemort started life, rather recently, as a wizard who chose evil; you have to go deep into Tolkieniana to find Sauron’s origins, which are supernatural. (If you think The Lord of the Rings has too much Elvish, try The Silmarillion.) Sauron has more in common with fallen angels than sinning mortals. Nor does Gollum = Snape: By your own argument, the cringing, cunning, childish river goblin can’t fairly be compared to one of the greatest living wizards. No, a better parallel to both Voldemort and Snape is Gandalf’s fellow wizard Saruman the White, later Saruman of Many Colors—a literal turncoat who sold out the Council of the Wise for the power of evil.

Except that Snape’s not evil. Nope! I don’t have to read the spoilers to tell you that. He’s a classic not-very-nice good guy, a double agent. Anyone who thinks otherwise hasn’t been reading their John le Carré.

Speaking of spoilers, I love your theories about the ending, but I’m starting to feel silly playing this guessing game when the real answers are so easy to learn—or so hard to avoid. Still, I’ll address a few of your points quickly. I bet you’re right about Harry’s Gryffindor heritage, but, like you, I doubt Harry himself is a Horcrux. True, he has some Slytherish qualities—he’s a parselmouth and he has been known to read Voldemort’s mind from time to time—but as Dumbledore says, he’s pure of heart. The Horcruxes have a piece of Voldemort’s soul in them. They’re evil. Remember Tom Riddle’s sinister diary? If part of Voldemort were living in Harry, Harry would have a dark side.

Perhaps the last Horcrux isn’t Harry himself, but something that belongs to him? His glasses? His owl? His scar? I suspect it’s something we haven’t seen before. Rowling introduces new delights with each book; why not this one?

As for who’s going to die, I thought of Hagrid, too. But would she really kill someone kids identify with so strongly? Hagrid is a great big toddler of a man, the most kidlike of all the grownups. I considered professor McGonagall, but killing her would be redundant after doing in Dumbledore. No need to off both stern, wise, loving authority figures. What about Tonks? She’s a well-loved member of the inner periphery, which seems like a good place to look for victims. Or her boyfriend, Remus Lupin?

All right, I’m done speculating. There’s no percentage. If I get it wrong, I’ll look as foolish as if I’d agreed to be Neville’s partner in Potions practice; if I get it right, you’ll think I cheated.

While we’re waiting for revelations, we can keep ourselves busy considering aspects of the future that we won’t learn at midnight. What will Rowling write next, for example? A realistic novel for adults? A memoir? A picture book? Nothing at all? I wouldn’t blame her a bit if she feels like resting on her haystack of laurels, though of course I’ll be disappointed. And is this the last we’ve seen of the wizarding world? Rowling insists she’s done with Hogwarts and Harry, but other series authors have returned to their old haunts. Ursula K. Le Guin, for example, added a fourth book to her Earthsea trilogy 16 years after what was supposed to be the last.

I wonder, too, what the future will make of Harry Potter. How long will the books’ immense popularity last? I think they’re among the most wonderful children’s fantasy novels of the extended 20th century, but there are others just as wonderful, with—so far—many million fewer readers. (My list includes the fiction of Diana Wynne Jones, Garth Nix, Margaret Mahy, the writers I mentioned in my last post, and others I’m sure I’m forgetting.) Is there something fundamentally different about Rowling and Harry, or did they just happen to win the tipping-point game? Will the future treasure them the way we treasure Lewis Carroll’s Alice, or will it treat them like Little Lord Fauntleroy—as unreadable relics of yesteryear’s peculiar taste?

We can also ponder matters of opinion. You hold up Snape as evidence that Rowling respects shades of gray. Does she really? Besides Snape, what gray characters can you think of? Harry’s father, James, shows up in Snape’s memories in an unflattering light, and there’s stuffy Percy Weasley. Many other characters, maybe even most, have foibles—professor Trelawney can’t keep away from the cooking sherry, Hagrid doesn’t understand the difference between bloodthirsty and cuddly, and even Dumbledore has his vanity: He’s always boasting about his intelligence. But those are adorable follies, not shades of darkness. All the bad guys I can think of are thoroughly bad: the awful Dursleys; the sleazy reporter Rita Skeeter; Draco and his whole dastardly family. Except for Snape, all the good guys are thoroughly good, even if they sometimes squabble with Harry. Then there’s a category of cartoony in-betweeners—Moaning Myrtle, Filch, various magical creatures—but they’re more like forces of nature than flawed heroes or admirable villains. Can you think of anybody who truly inhabits the moral middle ground? Perhaps The Deathly Hallows will be the book where she explores it. Draco Malfoy, maybe? In The Half-Blood Prince, Snape saves him from the irredeemable sin of killing Dumbledore by offing the headmaster himself. Maybe in the last book Draco will surprise us all by moving over to the side of good.

Oh dear—there I go speculating again. Well, it’s mere hours until we can legitimately find out.

Yours in anticipation,