Harry Potter and the One Who Didn’t Want to Read Him

In case you haven’t guessed, this blog is not just going to be me talking endlessly about my writing, but will also feature me talking endlessly about other things that interest me, and, hopefully, you.  I will happily take requests!  Today, I wanted to put in my $0.02 to the gigantically rich bank of ideas and thoughts about Harry Potter, since I watched the last movie of the series on Sunday.

When the series first came out and became so wildly popular, I was a little irritated, and for awhile resisted reading the books.  It was like the whole world suddenly discovered reading and magic and fantasy, which was great, but seemed to think that it was a new, revelatory experience that had never existed before, which was decidedly untrue.  I confess, I was jealous on behalf of my childhood favorites, the series I had adored and devoured and re-read again and again. My understanding of magic and mystery was Narnian from the first; my young wizards were those given me by Diane Duane; my vision of a fantastical world layered on our own, and the moral questions in the layers, owed a great deal to Madeleine L’Engle.  Even after I read the Harry Potter books that were out at the time (1-4, I think), I was not totally convinced that this was something novel and revolutionary.

And I’m still not, actually.  But I am convinced that it’s something special and delightful.  I came to love the stories and the characters, and to love even more the sense of collective story-sharing that is possible when so many people care about the same tales.  That, to me, is maybe the most exciting part.  And it happens some through talent and good story-telling, and some through luck, and some just through sheer momentum.  When the 6th book came out, I happened to be in the midst of one of the most communal times of my life thus far: living with lots and lots of people in a very small apartment and doing theater , and whenever anyone would finish the book, she would be pulled aside with the others who had finished to privately conference.  Who, among book lovers, doesn’t want to talk about a book like it’s the most urgent, exciting news around?

At that point, I was hooked, and I insisted on buying the 7th book right when it came out, the weekend of my cousin’s wedding, and reading it all the way back to Boston, as I traveled on the train.  A late convert, perhaps, but a convert.

The story of Harry and me wouldn’t be complete without a mention of my feelings about fanfiction.  I learned that fanfiction existed when I read a snippet of a Harry/Draco fic in, of all things, Esquire magazine.  I thought it was hilarious… and I was totally disdainful.  People who couldn’t be bothered to make up their own stories, I thought, silly, adolescent parasites and scavengers.

Let that be a lesson: Be careful of anything for which you feel an excited, animated contempt.  It is often, in some ways, attraction.  Be careful, if you are a writer, of calling anyone a scavenger too loudly, for everyone who writes is a scavenger, everyone who writes takes cold meat and drags it around the desert, hoping for a dragon to come along and give you a blast so you can enjoy it cooked.  And if the dragon never comes, you’ll probably end up trying it raw.

That is to say, I wrote a fanfic.  I heard that my dear friend Maddie had a taste for Harry/Draco fics.  And I thought I would write one for her birthday.

A year and a half-ish later, I had what is still the longest complete thing I’ve written, in which I got to play and twist and justify and world-build to my heart’s content, while trying not to contradict a thing, psychologically, that had been offered up by J.K. Rowling at that point.  I didn’t care so much about the factual details, though I stuck as closely to those as I could, but the psychological ones… these were a perfect game, a marvelous treat.  How could I get characters to do the strange and impossible things I wanted them to do without making them totally different at the center than Rowling had?  I tried.  I think in some ways, I succeeded.  And I got to play, knowing this work would never be published, and I think I’m a better writer because of these games.  I guess fanfiction isn’t quite what I thought it was…

So that’s a gift that Harry and friends have given me.  And, oh, did I say that fic I wrote was about Harry and Draco?  Because, um, yes, but really… it was the Redemption of Snape.

I adore Snape.  I adore Alan Rickman.  When I see Alan Rickman playing Snape, my heart actually does this funny flutter in my chest.  I love seeing him, hearing him, and I loved having the chance to believe in him while everyone argued.  There’s not much more I can say about that without simply sounding ridiculous, but what I do want to say is that a strength of these stories is their belief in redemption paired up with many different thoughts about how people find it, achieve it, try for it, don’t try for it, etc.  Snape is perhaps the most obvious example, but it’s all over the place, in the “good” characters and the “bad” ones, and this complexity in character building and in what makes a person a hero or a villain is one of my favorite things, whenever it occurs, in any story.  And isn’t it fascinating to watch Snape and Dumbledore, Snape, who would sacrifice anything for one person, and Dumbledore, who would sacrifice any person–himself included, Snape included, Harry included– to what he believed to be right and true and essential? So interesting.

But Dumbledore leads me to my real complaint about the series.  I have criticisms and things about parts of the writing I like and parts I don’t, etc.  But I have one serious complaint and it is this: if Dumbledore is gay, the story should say that he’s gay.  It deals simply and honestly with all the romantic affections of all the straight people in the story, and should do the same with Dumbledore.  Not saying it, simply, honestly, as a reference to who he was in love with in the past (because we can all see that in the backstory, right?), does say that gay relationships are qualitatively different than straight relationships, that they have to be handled carefully and tiptoed around, that there is something about the simple fact of them that cannot be stated plainly to children.  And I think that is a disturbing thing for this series to do, in both the books and the movies.  I was hoping it would be rectified in this last movie, but in fact the whole movie seemed to be bizarrely freaked out about men even touching each other (no hug for Harry and Ron?  Really?), so my serious complaint about the whole story stands.  And I think the reason I want to mention it is this: if you see yourself as an ally of queer people, and the quality of your alliance is such that you never mention their queerness, even when it would totally come up in a straight context, or the fact of queer relationships is something you consistently avoid mentioning– think again, and please try again.  A stronger stance is needed, especially from powerful story-tellers.

Now, lastly, in watching this movie, I was totally struck by the visual and thematic parallels to England’s experience of World War II.  I saw it in a number of places, and I’m not really qualified to draw it out, but I would love to see someone read through the whole series, books and movies, and think about how World War II is weaving in and out of the story.  I think it would be a really worthwhile reading, not to look at the books and movies as simple allegory, but more as ways of processing and responding to that national experience.

All right, this is totally long and totally disjointed, which I guess is what happens when I sit to write and am hot and tired and want to simply put down a bunch of thoughts.  I hope some Harry-Potter-interested folks enjoyed the ride.

All in all, I am delighted I gave in, and read and saw and experienced these stories after all.  It has, in fact, been magical.