Harry Potter, the Everyman Hero

Recently, in a letter, I tried to describe what various books mean to me, the relationships I share with them. Of course, most of those described were fantasy books, ranging from Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland to the stupendously weighty (literally) Wheel of Time books. I called The Lord of the Rings my ‘Bible’, the book that I harry sorcererslove and, as much as I might find elements of it jarring or disturbing, would not presume to pull down from its hallowed space. And I called Harry Potter a best friend, a companion found early on whom I tussle with, ignore sometimes, but ultimately, and overwhelmingly, adore.

Enough and more has been written about the books, and what they’ve done for readers across the world. Fans have started charities in the name of Harry Potter spells, Emma Watson has channeled Hermione-like spirit and called for change in the name of feminism, and there are probably fans everywhere who try to live by the tenets embodied in the characters: justice, patience, and acceptance. But what does Harry himself, the character, mean to someone who is, now, approaching the not-so-YA age of 26, who has declared on many occasions that Harry is far from her favourite character, and would rather be sorted into his rival house than the one he himself is in?

(I think that last might be wishful thinking though. Honestly I’m more likely to be a moody and tempestuous Gryffindor than a calculating Slytherin. But hey, the Sorting Hat judges us on the basis of what we choose, right?)

Who is Harry Potter? You can get the biographical details easily enough. He’s a fanciable Dark Wizard destroyer, who carried the burden of his destiny from a young age. He is a
harry_potter_-_quidditch_hbp_promo_2social media celebrity in the age before social media celebrities, the sort of boy who might have become the star of a Vine or Youtube video made by other people, against his will. Through this relatively innocent character, Rowling explored a magical world that has delighted a host of us, imparted some lessons about good and evil and inspired a wave of fanfiction, some of which (gods forgive me) builds upon her creation so amazingly well that it’s been hailed as better than the original.

But after the initial rush of reading the series, it’s easy to let Harry himself slide. He is, after all, a stand in for the reader more often than not, a relatively empty canvas upon which you can paint yourself and stand in to better observe the people around him. It’s the other characters—Hermione, Snape, Dumbledore, SIRIUS— who command my attention as a reader, who make me want to go back to the books again and again and have consumed a majority of my posts. Harry? He sort of slides into the background.

This is obviously a deliberate move on Rowling’s part, to make it easier for people to step into Harry’s shoes and sympathize with his dilemmas. She allows her readers to make Harry a character of their own, to become a part of themselves in an unconscious manner. You might not love Harry as an individual—and god knows I have enough problems with him—but you can’t utterly detest him either. If you did, you wouldn’t be able to read the books.

And Rowling does a brilliant job of making him so utterly believable. I can’t think of another YA/fantasy (not the GRRM variety!) whose hero is as flawed, and yet heroic as Harry. He’s an average sort of boy—he’s okay with his lessons, but Hermione’s always going to be better. He’s great at Quidditch, but even here, he’s aware that there are some people,
harry-potter_original-new-harry-potter-movie-trilogy-announced-jpeg-42959Viktor Krum and Diggory being examples, who are better and always will be better than him. He’s pleasant looking, but he’s no Bill Weasley, able to pull off long ponytails and dragon fang earrings. He’s funny, but he’ll probably never be known for it. He’s not wise in the same manner as Luna, or as successful on his own as Neville. And he’s certainly not half as conventionally popular as his girlfriends—Cho or Ginny.

Even his bravery, the sort of quiet, steady strength that propels him through his quest, is not flashy, not the hijinks of Sirius or Fred and George. What really sets him apart from his fellows is his faith in himself, and his ability to simply push on and, in spite of everything, to trust people. These are not qualities that are sexy, easy to impart. They’re the reason someone like Frodo isn’t the most attractive character in LOTR. Both of them would be dead meat in the world of Westeros, you know, the character most similar being Sansa Stark, and even she’s changing to cope with the big, bad world.

But it’s Harry’s very averageness that makes him a hero, and makes him so much more of a friend than his compatriots in the Potterverse. He is easy to slip into, to see oneself in, and he provides consolation more often than any other character in the series does. It doens’t matter if you’re not the best, not the smartest or most popular. It doesn’t matter if it looks like you’re wandering mindlessly through a forest, circling around a goal you’ve told yourself you need to complete, that seems, at the moment, impossible. Harry loses his way spectacularly, and then things fall into place by sheer luck, or coincedence, but they fall into place. Being lost is okay, he seems to show us, you’ll pull through it in the end.

HP7-1-FP-0484 
DANIEL RADCLIFFE as Harry Potter in Warner Bros. Pictures’ fantasy adventure “HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS – PART 1,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release.    Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

In my 20s, this last has become increasingly important. It’s been a time of some confusion but, as a very very wise person told me, ‘everything passes’. And as long as I, like Harry, have my Rons, Hermiones, my Siriuses and Dumbledores and Lupins, my Molly Weasleys and Nevilles around, things will be okay. The Dark Lords will be defeated, the woods will end, and all will, eventually, be ‘well’.

Advertisements

The Devourers

Literature is all about answering the big questions in life: who are we? Where do we come from? What are we doing here? And, subtly different from that, what should we be doing here? Fantasy books take these questions up in some very zany ways, thanks to their ability to spirit us off into completely different worlds where the laws of physics bend at the whim of a controlling spirit (also known as the author) and we get that wonderful thing called ‘magic’.

the-devourers-coverIndra Das’s debut novel, The Devourers, is no exception in this regard. Its many narrators grapple with some huge questions, some of which consume them completely, in spite of all the magic and strength they might possess.

Approached by a mysterious stranger at a baul mela, Alok, an unassuming, largely asocial professor of history in a college, has no idea that his life and what he knows of the world will be taken for a complete spin. The stranger gives him no name, only asking him if he wants to hear a story. And for the record, the stranger calls himself a half-werewolf.

Thus begins a journey through time and space—through the words of the stranger’s parents, Fenrir, a shapeshifter of the Scandinavian icelands, and Cyrah, the human woman he raped in a caravanserai in Mumtazabad of the Mughal empire. Desperate to avenge herself on her rapist, Cyrah journeys with Gevaudan, Fenrir’s one-time companion and fellow shapeshifter, to find the father of her child and bring him to justice. It is, as she discovers, the journey of a lifetime, and one that leaves her with perhaps more questions than those she set out to answer.

The Devourers is a very…sensual novel. Its author paints a vivid portrait of a world lost to most of us city-dwelling, ignorant ‘khrissals’ (the word shapeshifter use for humans, their rightful prey), rife with blood and sweat and musk, the scents and tastes that remind us, painfully, that we are physical beings, and that the characters we read about, for all their supernatural powers, are physical beings of musk and blood too. In fact, that actually seem, in some ways, more vividly ‘present’ than ordinary humans. It is humans who possess these wavering, single souls. Humans who turn into ‘ghost fires’ when consumed by their predators. The wispy and transient is associated with us pathetic khrissals, and the magical beings are a far cry from the removed, ethereal, almost sanitised Elves of the western fantasy canon.

Here, Das paints a powerful, ‘pungent’ portrait of one of these shapeshifters:

He pulls off his boots and stands tall and proud and naked his bare feet, taking his hardening penis in his hands an dpissing a steaming circle around his clothes. The rising smell of his waters fills my nostrils, pungent, clinging to the winter air as the ground melts to frothing mud. He stares at the mausoleum rising out of the ground. The many bone trophies sewn and burned into his skin writhe with his movements, the rib shards down his back bristling like the nubs of worn skeletal wings.

Das’s thesis, and what he attempts to illustrate through the monstrous act of Fenrir, is that what makes us human, what sets us apart from these ravenous, powerful creatures is that fantasy staple: our power to engender and share love. Not just romantic love, but the bonds of family and kin, the emotion that prompts a woman to hug her child to her chest, or an emperor to build a timeless tomb for his wife. Set as it is against the backdrop of the construction of the Taj Mahal, Fenrir’s rape of Cyrah, his attempt to ‘create’ something in a world where is just a ‘devourer’ becomes even more obviously a twisted attempt to possess, for one brief moment, that transient human emotion, to leave behind a vestige of feeling rather than simply snapping up and consuming it in one rending of his powerful jaws.

While this is a classic moral, and one that many many books have grappled with, what derails Das is his attempt to shoehorn another big question into this relatively slim novel: the timeless one of ‘who am I?’. Given the literal split soul of some of his characters, this question assumes fantastical dimensions, but even the humans—the defiant Cyrah, or the timid Alok—grapple with it as well. After undertaking the supernatural journeys they do, having come into contact with worlds they never knew existed, Cyrah and Alok are both forced to confront it. While Cyrah handles it by making her home on the borderlands between the human and the shapeshifter realm, Alok’s fate is left uncertain at the close. Perhaps it was this uncertainty, the multiplicty of the voices that arises at the novel’s conclusion, pointing to no certain path or closure, that left me feeling a little lost and less than enthused.

The Devourers is a rare thing in the Indian fantasy canon, though: a book that does not repeat religious myth in a spunky new format and label itself ‘fantasy fiction’. It is a solid attempt at crafting a new world atop the canvas of an old one, the Taj Mahal gleaming bright in the background as the shapeshifters bay for blood under the star spangled sky.