The Hullabaloo About Harry

by | Jul 18, 2007 | Literature

You’d have to have your head in the sand to not be aware that the whole world is on tenterhooks to find out what happens to Harry Potter. Pollsters tell us that 17% of Potter fans intend to flip to the last page of the book rather than let the story unfold. Frankly, the way Rowling has been writing lately I can’t say I blame them so much, but I’ll also say that anyone who doesn’t know how the series will end doesn’t know anything about stories. Here’s a hint: How does Beowulf end? How does Le Morte d’Arthur end?

Rowling has been writing an epic about the struggle between good and evil. The only way for a story like this to end, unless Rowling wants to turn her back on the whole tradition, is for both Harry and Voldemort to die, thus clearing the field for a new hero and villain to carry on the struggle. Now, Rowling does have a minor problem on her hands, and that is that she’s writing kids’ books. Note that a classic kids’ version of Le Morte d’Arthur is called The Sword in the Stone. The story ends with Wart transmogrified into King Arthur, and everyone lives happily ever after. The American movie version of the story is Camelot, in which, although Arthur loses Guenevere, he is still alive and still king. These are both false readings of the tale. The ultimate purpose of a hero is not to live forever, but to inspire the rest of us to our own acts of heroism. But I don’t think Rowling will make the mistake of letting Harry live. She let Dumbledore die (although he lives on in his portrait in the master’s chambers); I suspect Harry will live on in some similar fashion.

So who will be the next Harry? Unless Harry knocks up Hermione, which I rather doubt, my guess is that, if it is not some new babe found among the bulrushes, it will be Neville. And the new Voldemort? Everything points to Draco. These would be the obvious choices, anyway, so if Rowling throws a curve at us instead I won’t at all surprised.

Which brings me back to my point. Stories, if they have any value at all, are not about surprises. We know the tragic hero will die. We know the comic hero will prevail over the villain. Black hats and white hats. The epic form that Harry Potter has been following requires the hero to die, because a hero who lives forever eventually gets in the way of anyone else becoming the hero; in other words, he becomes a tyrant. Please note that this, precisely, is part of Voldemort’s evil; he wants to live forever. It’s even in his name: Lord Returns-From-Death.

I watched a lecture by Joseph Campbell the other day in which he expressed this idea very nicely. In a lecture hall, say, there are these light bulbs overhead. One of them burns out. The maintenance guy comes in. Does he wring his hands, wailing over the loss of his favorite light bulb? No. He replaces it with a new one. It is not the individual bulbs that are important, but the light.