Harry Potter and the Magic of Narrative Closure
I finished Deathly Hallows this morning. I have some things to say about the book, the series, the nature of storytelling, authorship, reading, faith, and the meaning of life. I’m not claiming that they are profound or original things – just things.
So if you have finished the book or do not mind having some of its events revealed, continue onward. If you haven’t finished yet, please come back when you have…
My sense as I steamrolled through the final 100 pages was “J.K. Rowling knows what she’s doing.” I see that as high praise. For many (but not all) types of storytelling, I find that a central, if not the chief, pleasure of narrative consumption is that sense of authorial control making the most out of her characters, settings, and storyworld. For series fiction with ambitions to construct large arcs, that sense of control needs to span the entire series, structuring the narrative so that readers feel the early installments were needed to set-up the climax, digressions along the way tied in to convey relevance where it might not have previously appeared, a macro-unity of the whole.
The Harry Potter books convey that sense of control tremendously – as I read the conclusion, I felt the pieces tying together, previous actions gaining justification and depth, digressions earning relevance. I realized that Rowling had really started her books in media res, in the midst of a number of stories that only fully take shape by the end of the series – we’re not just experiencing Harry’s adolescence, but also those of Lily, James, Snape, Tom Riddle, and eventually Dumbledore, encountering the formative stories that provide depth of character and the elaborate plot mechanics for the series. The lengthy digressions into the politics of elf/human relations from earlier books pay off both during Dobby’s heroic rescue and in triggering the long-awaited Hermione/Ron snogging.
I’ve talked about pleasures in observing the mechanics of storytelling in an article on television narrative, considering how viewers experience this operational aesthetic while still being wrapped up in a story. I felt the same sensation most profoundly in the brilliant chapter “The Prince’s Tale” – as we learn the backstories of Severus, Lily and Petunia (!), I saw all the gears falling into place, humanizing these characters and explaining what had been motivating virtually the entire story of the series! And, importantly, I had faith that this had been Rowling’s plan all along.
As I’ve written before, I see faith in storytellers’ abilities to control their narrative world as crucial to the consumption of complex narratives. If we doubt that the creators know what they’re doing, it’s hard to weather the lulls, doubts, and digressions encountered along the way – one of the many reasons I can’t bear to watch 24. As narrative consumers, I believe we want to give over some degree of control to authors, placing our attention in their hands to guide as they see fit. If we doubt that they know precisely what they’re doing, our pleasures are weakened, losing faith in the coherence and rationale of their narrative vision. (I’m not saying this is the only pleasure, nor that it applies to all types of storytelling – but that it seems crucial for plot-driven popular narratives like genre fiction and television.)
More than any other narrative experience in recent memory, I’ve felt complete faith in Rowling’s ability to control the world, pay off the characters & themes she’s been weaving, and offer satisfying resolution to both her plot and mode of storytelling. DH redeemed this faith, providing satisfaction on many levels of engagement. As I wrote before reading the book, my compelling interest was less in the narrative present of Harry’s fate (in part because I had no doubts that he would remain The Boy Who Lived) but more in how the backstory of a previous generation would be woven into the tale – and in this regard, DH surpassed my expectations by interweaving the youthful stories of Snape/Lily/James as before, and Dumbledore for a surprise. As I said, Rowling knows what she’s doing.
And onto the meaning of life: I’m not someone with much use for faith regarding the macro-issues of existence – I believe that the order of the universe comes from emergent interactions on the micro-level, whether it be human relations, birds flocking, or atomic physics. I have no faith in any supreme macro-force, no author in the sky – nor do I much understand why rational educated people place their faith in some unknowable being or consciousness.
The closest I can get to connecting with this impulse to faith is the experience of consuming a great narrative – that sense of order within chaos you get when you see the pieces of a story put together, the revelations of meaning where it had not appeared, the creation of art where it had not been before. When it comes to storytelling, I do place my faith in a higher being, willfully surrendering to the power of a creator to construct coherence and guide my attention, offering little miracles of plot twists, character revelations, and emotional response to words on a page. There is a pleasure in feeling that the world makes sense, that there’s a wise woman in charge who knows what she’s doing. But for me, that sense of order ends in the epilogue, in closing the book on a well-told tale.
And a few final random asides to anyone making it this far: one of my few complaints about previous Potter books was a lack of clarity and coherence in the action set-pieces – I often found I had to reread these climactic battles repeatedly to figure out who was casting what, and how the characters were interacting with each other. DH features the best action scenes in the whole series, with a completely engaging and clear set of battles at the end, and what might be the best action sequence in the series, Dobby’s heroic rescue from the house of Malfoy. At the end, I felt Rowling was issuing a challenge to Warner Bros. to see how much they’d be willing to invest in special effects to film the Battle of Hogwarts and the Gringotts robbery…
I loved how the book gave so many supporting players their moments in the sun, from Neville’s fulfillment of his role in the prophecy to Mrs. Weasley’s maternal smackdown of Lestrange, to Dobby and Kreacher’s heroics. These moments were completely predictable in the concluding book of such a series, but I found each thoroughly satisfying, reminding me why narrative formulas tend to work so well.
Finally, had someone told me two days ago that DH might become my favorite HP book (I’m not sure that it is, but it’s in the running), I would have said they’re crazy. I found the first half of the book unrelentingly grim and depressing, mired in hopelessness and angst to the point of displeasure. I’m really curious how kids react to this part of the book – I know I wouldn’t want mine to read through this one until their teen years ideally. Even knowing that things were bound to turn for the better, Ron’s departure and Harry’s sullen streak were agonizing to read, and I really missed the routine of Hogwarts and any info about Snape. But Rowling knew what she was doing, pulling us down to pay off the redemptive ending.
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