What Harry Potter could have learned from Hamlet

Despite his best intentions, Emsworth has occasional brushes with popular culture. A few years ago, for example, he fell prey to the addictive tales of J. K. Rowling. What a story-teller! But the way she concluded her Potter story in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, released about a year ago, was hugely unsatisfactory.  Now, after spending some time with Shakespearean tragedy (for example, see Emsworth’s review of Hamlet at the Stratford Festival in this post), Emsworth is in a position to explain why.

J. K. Rowling simply failed to respect the rules of tragedy. For six heart-racing volumes, the Harry Potter saga was shaping up as one of the grand tragedies in our literature. But in the end, Rowling lacked the intestinal fortitude needed to end her tale properly.

The rules of tragedy have been well understood since Aristotle laid them down 2,000 years ago, and I summarize them here, not intending to patronize any readers, but merely to refresh them on what they learned while studying Julius Caesar in ninth grade. A tragedy must, first, be a serious story about a conflict between a hero and a great malign force. In a tragedy, moreover, the hero must undergo a change of fortune, preferably because of his own mistake or flaw, leading to a disastrous, heart-rending denouement.

Consider Lear, that warrior king and grand personality, whose fatal mistake is to misjudge the characters of his daughters and to surrender his kingdom prematurely. With his world aligned against him, he loses everything. King Lear ends, oh so satisfyingly, with a stage strewn with corpses. Kent and Edgar, who survive, rule in Lear’s place.

Consider Othello, that great general and commanding figure, whose fatal weakness is to trust the sociopathic Iago and to allow him to plant fatal seeds of jealousy in his bosom. Weakened, Othello loses everything, and the play ends (once again, most gratifyingly) with blood and bodies everywhere. Gratiano, a minor character, succeeds to Othello’s place.

Daniel Radcliffe as Harry Potter in "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix"

Now consider Harry Potter, a hero among heroes, a wizard prodigy, a born leader and Quidditch captain, whose destiny is to battle the world’s greatest wizard. Like Lear, Othello, and Hamlet, Harry has a fatal weakness: a powerful connection with Voldemort tempts him to the dark side. Harry flirts too closely with evil and, in a moment of ambition and weakness, betrays his friends. Too late, he repents, and the story ends with bodies (including his own) and wands broken and strewn over the great hall at Hogwarts. The wizard world starts anew; a minor character, Neville Longbottom, succeeds to the place in the world of wizards that Harry might have held.

Only, of course, that’s not how J. K. Rowling wrote it. Because she lost her nerve plotting and writing the final volume, Harry never makes a fatal mistake, never loses his way, and rises safely and blandly from the wreckage of the final battle.

And so do Hermione and Ron. And so does practically everyone else. In fact, after all the hullabaloo and speculation by Potter fans over what would transpire, who among the Order of the Phoenix actually dies? An elf. The werewolf. The duplicitous Severus Snape. One of the Weasley twins (the twins do not have distinct personalities). Tonks (you probably don’t remember who she was, either).

J.K. Rowling lost her nerve in "Deathly Hollows"

In fact, at no point in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows — for that matter, at no point in the series — are readers called upon to deal emotionally with the deaths of any character they have truly come to care about, except Dumbledore, and his age and infirmity take the sting out of his loss. J. K. Rowling flinched at her final task, which was to break our hearts.

She even shrunk from disposing of her villains. What possible reason could Rowling have had for letting Percy Weasley live? When a character in a tragedy has lost his way and gone over to the enemy, he must perish, even if he has belatedly seen the light. J.R.R. Tolkien understood this; that’s why the great warrior Boromir was slain at the end of The Fellowship of the Ring.

And why, oh why, does Draco Malfoy survive? In a properly staged final battle, Harry’s arch-enemy would repent and, in a moment of high drama, would strike a critical blow on Harry’s side. Then, having atoned for his earlier wickness, and in a state of grace, Draco would die fighting. At the very least, Draco should die at the hand of the Dark Lord, so as to punish his parents for their wickedness. But nothing of the sort happens. Readers are not even told what happens to Draco after Harry last encounters him.

Let there be no mistake: J. K. Rowling wanted to write a tragedy. Why else would she have attached an epigraph to the Deathly Hallows in the form of a quotation from the playwright Aeschylus, the father of Greek tragedy (died 455 B.C.)?  But when it came down to cases, she lacked the stomach for the tragic conclusion that her story deserved.

From the dark tone of the fifth and sixth books, we were fully justified in expecting that (a) the forces of good would, in the final conflict, sustain serious losses and (b) that even if the Dark Lord were defeated, the wizard world would never be the same. In The Lord of the Rings, for example, to which the Harry Potter saga owes much, the defeat of Sauron marked the end of an age and the departure of the elves from Middle-earth.

Instead, Rowling left readers in a wizard world where all was copacetic, where the survivors were happily mated up, and where their little wizard offspring were happily heading off to Hogwarts. Sentimental rubbish, and a good tragedy wasted.

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