Monday, September 24, 2007

Harry Potter, Boy Hero?

I've started [re-]reading the Harry Potter series. Yes, for those of you who don't know, I never got past Chamber of Secrets. I read that far in Sicily because that was as far as our little impromptu library went, and I didn't find them compelling enough to be worth reading any further at the time. The writing style bothered me, and so did the plot. I don't mind improbable plots (heck, I enjoy improbable plots) so long as they're internally consistent - the magic foundation approach to storytelling. Take an improbable or impossible set of premises, and build a tightly logical narrative on top. Chamber of Secrets, I felt, was a different kind of storytelling - the suspension of disbelief approach. Take an improbable or impossible set of premises, and build an improbable narrative on top.

That sounds disparaging but it isn't meant to be. There's absolutely nothing wrong with skating by on the sheer coolness of your world, or your aesthetic, or your narrative voice, or whatever. There are lots of books that "skate by" in that way that are much better than magical foundation books, taken as total packages. But at the time all anybody could talk about was how cool Rowling's world/aesthetic/imagination was, and that was (probably unreasonably) offensive to me. More imaginative than Wrede? More imaginative than Pierce?

Well ... maybe. Looking at the question afresh, though, that doesn't seem to be the question. The merit of a fantasy world is to be judged by the way it plays with fantasy formulae, not by the imagination on display in its original elements. I'm not really far enough in to comment on Rowling's use of formulae.

But here's something that nobody ever talks about with regard to Harry Potter, even now: what is the call of the story? What is the story itself saying about the world, philosophy, morality? When people did discuss this sort of thing when I was reading them the first time, it seemed that all anybody could say was that the call of the story was to let it be okay to be a bratty ten year old kid. That ten year olds were naturally bratty and antiauthoritarian, and that was okay.

Which is, of course, total nonsense, and made me really uninterested in reading further. I can read a book with a bad aesthetic, I can read a book that's unimaginative, I can read a book that's badly constructed; I can even read a book that's all three if it has a really, really good call. But a bad call just kills it for me. I have plenty of time to contemplate the base and low in the real world (I was doing it just now, reading about politicians' response to Ahmadinejad's talk at Columbia. Honestly, people, it's a university). Who wants to spend leisure time contemplating anything other than the noble and good?

Perhaps it was a fluke of my sample of fans back then, or perhaps it's just that the series is finished now, but when I've managed to get people to talk about Harry Potter's call these days they tell a different story. And that makes me interested again. I'm sure the books get perfectly formulaic and clunkily written after you've read about four of them with your literary critic hat on. Whatever; I'm absolutely certain I've read worse and enjoyed every second. Never mind Rowling's adverbs; what is the woman trying to say?

Here's what I hope I'm going to find. No, let me back up. There are basically two types of hero stories in the world. One type of hero is typified by, say, Honor Harrington. Honor is a compelling protagonist because she is practically perfect in every way, morally larger than life. She has a strong sense of duty, an indomitable courage, an unwavering moral compass, and the physical and mental skills to back them. She isn't perfect, of course; I find her character flaws quite compelling, but she is, in short, predisposed towards heroism. And yet she is ever the underdog, and the reason Honor is a heroine is because she continues to choose the right course of action in the face of ever more horrible threats from the outside world. And when she spits in the world's eye and does the right thing anyway and the world follows through with its threats and something horrible happens to her because she did the right thing, she takes it without complaint and is just as determined to do it again the next time. Anybody who's ever felt that the world is just too much for them to handle, that doing the right thing was too much cost for no reward, should be able to recognize the appeal of this kind of heroism. This is holding fast to your heroism in the face of the world trying to seduce (or bludgeon) you away from it.

And then there's the other type of hero, the kind that I hope Harry Potter will turn out to be. Because Harry, so far as I remember, isn't predisposed towards heroism. It's not just that he isn't a tactical genius, crack shot, and doesn't have a black belt. He isn't even mentally or morally disposed to do the right thing; he isn't mentally or morally remarkable in any way. I don't mean that his heroic qualities are overlooked by those around him, like Disney's Aladdin. I mean he doesn't have any, even deep down inside. Not that he has a great store of villainous tendencies deep down inside, either. He's just a normal kid, which is to say he's kind of a brat. Back when I was in college this seemed to be the very thing that made people so enamored of him. Personally I felt when I was his age (and continue to feel) that calling that kind of behavior "normal" is a sad commentary on the quality of contemporary parents.

But here's the rub: Harry isn't predisposed towards heroism, but he has the option to be a hero anyway. Everyone does, after all. And it's just as heroic to choose heroism in spite of your natural proclivities as it is to choose it assisted by your natural proclivities. Harry's story (I hope) is the choice of a boy who ultimately chose to do right not because that's the kind of person he was but because he chose to do so. With help, of course - indispensable help, I imagine - but because he chose to. This is the kind of heroism that the anti-hero exhibits. Harry may not be Honor Harrington, but I hope he's Han Solo.

And this is, ultimately, the kind of heroism that we all exhibit as well. Maybe some people are more predisposed towards heroism than others. But ultimately all of us choose it in spite of ourselves more than we do because of ourselves. And we have help, yes, the kind of help without which we could not choose the right thing no matter how much we tried. The important thing is not that we chose it alone or with help, or that we chose it because or inspite of ourselves. Just that we choose it.