The Potter Christmas

Hogwarts_Christmas_tour_2013

Merry Christmas, world! Today, I thought I’d take a tour through the Potter Christmases, and focus on my favourite one. Thanks to the school-year structure of the books, Rowling as ample time to explore the various wizarding holiday traditions, and Christmas often receives special treatment in her books. It forms a kind of turning point, functioning as a halfway-mark for the adventures of Harry and company. You’ll notice that no matter how crazy the rest of the world, or their own lives, Christmas provides at least a few moments of calm and reflection for our favourite wizards, and Rowling often uses it to underscore the series’ themes of family, love and dealing with loss.

I love her Christmas chapters, some more than others. For instance, Order of the Phoenix’s is, in my opinion, undeniably the happiest, with Harry seated amongst the loving Weasley family, Hermione, Ron and Sirius at his side. It seems to be,really, the series’ peak moment, a bittersweet one, in retrospect, that shows us what could have been Harry’s life, had the school year not ended the way it did.

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But my favourite Potter Christmas by far is Harry’s first one in Hogwarts, when he sees his parents for the first time.

When Harry wakes on Christmas morning, he is surprised by the pile of presents at the foot of his bed. The Dursleys, after all, had never made his Christmases particularly wonderful. Not only do all his new friends give him gifts, but he also receives a key plot device that makes his adventuring a little bit easier: the Invisibility Cloak. Being a good little hero, Harry puts it into service right away, and lands up in front of the Mirror of Erised, where he sees his family waving back at him.

This moment is exceptionally beautiful, delivered as it is in Rowling’s trademark simple prose.

mirroroferised

The Potters smiles and waved at Harry and he stared hungrily back at them, his hands pressed flat against the glass as though he was hoping to fall right through it and reach them. He had a powerful kind of ache inside him, half joy, half terrible sadness.

Rowling ties back to this first Christmas in the seventh, and final ‘canon’ Christmas, when Harry and Hermione visit Godric’s Hollow in Deathly Hallows. Apart from actually seeing the home he inhabited so briefly with his parents, Harry’s connection to Voldemort enables him to relive his final evening in the cottage, watching as his father plays with him, and his mother scoops him up to carry him to bed. Again, the parallels between Voldemort and Harry are underlined by this full circling: where Harry stands before the mirror, aching to join his parents but unable to, Voldemort too stands outside, watching as the family carries on with their everyday lives, so close to destruction, and yet so far from him, experiencing things he will never himself understand.

Similarly, Rowling closes the circle begun in Philosopher’s Stone by having Harry’s parents appear before him and speak to him, no longer just images waving from a mirror. Lily’s words to him, ‘We never left,’ are a beautiful allusion to the distance that Harry felt, in Book 1, and how that distance never really existed at all. It’s evident that, at the close, Harry has realized the truth of Sirius’s words to him in Prisoner of Azkaban: ‘The ones we love never truly leave us.’

Harry’s first wizarding Christmas is, I would argue, the most pivotal one in the series. Not only is his traipse through the castle his first solo adventure (it’s the first time he ventures out without Ron at his side), but the Mirror also provides his first real test. Harry has a choice, as Dumbledore reminds him. He can spend days before the Mirror, wasting away, or he can take the glimpse of his parents it has offered him, and use it as an anchor in the testing times to come. ‘It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live,’ Dumbledore tells him. The eleven-year-old Harry takes this to heart, I assume, because the next time he stands before the Mirror, it isn’t impossible dreams that haunt him, but a single-minded desire to do the right thing, a trait that he carries forward hereon out.

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Sirius, adulthood and moving on

(The fan art used in this post is by Viria–an artist whose work you can check out here)

In a previous post, I wrote about Sirius Black and how his crazily devout loyalty to his friends signals some very positive, as well as negative things. I wrote about how he might see ‘changes’ in people as a terrible thing, a form of betrayal nearly, a wavering from what he has chosen to devote himself to. It struck me then as it strikes me now that Sirius may not have been a very good adult role model, and it was for this reason among others that Rowling chose to kill him off in Book 5, before Harry had entirely emotionally outpaced him.

siriusI suppose it’s disturbing then that I’ve increasingly grown to identify with Sirius on certain matters. This doesn’t bode well for the emotional health of a seeking-to-be-well-adjusted 26 year old, does it? One of these struck me particularly hard recently, before and shortly after a trip to what was once a stomping ground, Delhi.

I’ve entered that age bracket where my friends are starting to get married. This is at once exciting and alarming.Exciting because who doesn’t love celebrations and excuses to get dressed up (okay, don’t answer that question, I actually know people who would disagree with me quite vociferously) and alarming because it seems to indicate that we’ve gotten…older. We’re no longer gushing about crushes and being excited that a friend is maybe kind of dating someone. Now we’re celebrating the legalization of that relationship, and how life is going to change after that.

Anyway, one of my closest friends is getting married very soon. It is an occasion for celebration, as she and her fiance seem very happy about it. I went to Delhi to spend some time with her, but things had changed already—she was no longer in the old house we once shared, for one thing. For some reason, this upset me greatly, and it was up to another friend to tell me ‘We’re all moving on.’

This reminded me of Snape’s infamous memory, our one glimpse into the dynamics of the Marauders as they were in Hogwarts. When the boys are relaxing near the lake after the exam, James is described as preening and running his hands through his hair, trying to catch the attention of a group of girls seated across from them. It’s understood that he’s trying to snag Lily’s eyes. Remus is buried in a book, attempting to study for the next paper and Peter watches James’s play with a Snitch, wide eyed.

Sirius is bored, and it’s this that sets the bullying of Snivellus in motion.

I should amend that, actually. Sirius is primarily bored. But he betrays another sentiment during this scene that sort of stands out, both in comparison to how he’s usually portrayed, as well as the sort of foresight it seems to indicate—something that most Potterverse characters don’t display. Sirius looks annoyed by James’s attention to Lily.

When I read the scene a couple of years ago I rather romantically saw it as Sirius being jealous because he was, well, attracted to James. Now I see how, while that might be true, there are other, more platonic reasons for his attitude. This may be because I’ve begun to personally understand and experience them.

Sirius, at this moment, sees Lily as what she is, though for no fault of her own: a disruption. Lily signals change for the group. James’s feelings for her, immature though they are, are a break away from his until-now unquestioned devotion to his friends. This is something he cannot share with Sirius, and opens up a whole new world that he is not a part of. Along with ‘growing up’, it’s a ‘growing away’, as Sirius reads it, and if he has to play up James’s immature side to keep him away from Lily a little longer, he will do so.

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Of course, I’m not saying I’m going to break up my friend’s impending marriage, or those of the others who are in line to tie the knot. It’s not part of the plan at all. I do, however, understand why Sirius felt the way he did. Things change, people move on, and you may not be (any longer) one of their first priorities. Evidently Sirius grew up enough to make his peace with James’s infatuation (and extend his devotion to two more people—Lily and Harry), but I’m sort of glad he wasn’t tested by Remus and Tonks’s marriage—that might have been too much for the post-Azkaban Sirius to handle.

As the wise Mindy Kaling says, in her guise as scatterbrained Mindy Lahiri, ‘Being an adult is hard. It’s not all smiley faced emojis wearing sunglasses.’

It’s kind of cool that Rowling, through that brief foray into the past, gives us this little picture of a strangely prescient Sirius. She has all of maybe seven pages to do it, but it’s important enough to his characterization that she slides it in there. It never ceases to amaze me how, with just the lightest of strokes, she adds to a character and gives her readers yet another facet to identify with. Now that’s truly incredible writing.

Growing up Potter: The Sins of the Father

In the third year of the my undergrad degree, my class studied a play called ‘Ghosts’ by Norwegian heavyweight, Henrik Ibsen. The play brings to life an old adage, ‘the sins of the father shall be visited upon the sons’. Oswald, a bright, young artist is laid low by a congenital disease he’s inherited from his debauched sire, and ends the play (spoiler) mindlessly chanting ‘the sun, the sun’ while his mother wrestles with the weight of a past that has brought them to this.

Now, a lot’s been written about the role of mothers in the Potterverse, how they shape their children, provide a grounding force in the face of evil and sometimes, literally give their kids another chance at life with their sacrifices. In this post, I want to look at the other half of that parenting equation, with a study of how fathers shape their (specifically) sons. I would argue that this shaping is, more often than not, a root cause of several problems that characters face. It seems a negative rather than positive force in many male characters’ lives, a negativity that is only corrected with the application of a mother’s love and influence.

In short, fathers mess up the sons so that the mothers can set them right.

I’ll illustrate this with, what seems to me, the most glaring examples in the Potter canon. By asserting that fathers are often a negative force, I don’t mean to cast aspersions on the integrity and character of the fathers themselves. Some of them, such as Arthur Weasley and James Potter, are no doubt wonderful (in James’s case, become wonderful) human beings, who do all that can be expected, and more, to defend and protect those they love. Nonetheless, their actions, whether meant in good faith or not, often rebound in a negative manner on their offspring. Let’s consider a few examples, shall we?

1)       James and Harry Potter

jamesJames is absent for most of the books, but it was his behaviour in school that, allegedly, caused Snape’s undying hatred of him and resulted in the bullying that Harry faced for six years. If Lily had married someone else, would Snape’s virulence been as pronounced? Idle speculation, probably, but no doubt his hatred of Harry was exacerbated a huge amount by the fact that he was his schoolyard rival’s son.

 

James is held up as a shining paragon for all of four and a half books—until that terrible moment in Order of the Phoenix where all of Snape’s worst stories seem to be confirmed. The viewing of ‘Snape’s worst memory’ causes perhaps the most profound moral crisis Harry has faced until this point, a crisis that never really gets resolved, given that James, from this point on, begins to lose his lustre (a move that only gets cemented with the death of his staunchest supporter and the strongest link—Sirius) and Lily becomes much more of a player in Harry’s life.

 

2)      Lyall and Remus Lupin

remusThanks to recently published information on Pottermore, we now know that Lyall Lupin, Remus’s father, was a ‘world renowned authority on Non-Human Spiritous Apparitions’ such as Boggarts. He was unlucky (and bigoted enough) to express an opinion on werewolves to Fenrir Greyback, calling them ‘soulless, evil and deserving nothing but death’. To teach the Ministry man a lesson, Greyback retaliated by biting his almost five-year-old son, Remus Lupin.

You can read the full story here: http://harrypotter.wikia.com/wiki/Lyall_Lupin

Do I really need to spell this out for you? Remus’s whole life has been shaped by that moment, his ‘furry little problem’ dictating both his career and personal
choices for many, many years. Right until Deathly Hallows, Remus is struggling with his identity as a werewolf, his fear of his own strength and darkness prompting him to run away from his pregnant wife.

 

3)      Lucius and Draco Malfoy

lucius and dracoIf there’s one thing that little Draco knows, it’s the power his father’s name commands in the wizarding world. ‘My father will be hearing about this’ is his catch phrase, and he uses it on everyone, from Hagrid to fake!Moody to Ron and Harry. Lucius is the brick on which Draco rests his own importance, whether it be his facilitating Draco’s entrance into the Slytherin Quidditch team in Chamber of Secrets or cozening up to Snape and suggesting that he take up Headmastership in Dumbledore’s absence. Draco’s near hero worship of his father reaches a head at the end of Order of the Phoenix when he promises to make Harry and his friends ‘pay’ for putting him behind bars. Draco’s unquestioning love of his father extends to a wholesale acceptance of his ideals, leading to an unthinking parroting of conservative pureblood attitudes from a very young age. It also, scarily enough, leads to his acceptance of a position in Voldemort’s circle.

There’s no doubt that Draco’s Death Eater status is a result both of his espousal of their ideals (or what he thinks their ideals to be) and careful bullying from Voldemort’s supporters. Draco’s service under the Dark Lord is marked by a crumbling of illusions; by halfway through Half Blood Prince Draco has understood the reality of his position and the complete lack of glamour it possesses. It’s thanks to Narcissa’s snap decision in the Forbidden Forest that Draco gets out of Hogwarts relatively unharmed. I don’t see him lasting happily under Voldemort’s reign.

 

4)      Arthur and Percy Weasley

arthurI know, this is an incredible assertion to make: Arthur Weasley, model father in the Potterverse (i.e. the only one who fulfils basic criteria like being alive, being one of the good guys and not running out on his family, unlike the three previously mentioned) messed up his son? But consider this: one of the reasons Percy gives for walking out on his family is that his father was unambitious, that he didn’t do all he could to better the status of the family or his own position in the Ministry. Percy sees Arthur’s lack of ambition and eccentricity as a handicap, something he has had to struggle against in his own professional life. A self constructed sin, perhaps, but certainly something that resulted in Percy’s morally questionable actions and decisions in the latter half of the series.

 

5)      Barty and Barty Crouch Jr., Tom and Tom Marvolo Riddle

Barty_Crouch_JrFake!Moody/Barty Crouch Jr himself draws the parallels between him and his master at the close of Goblet of Fire. Both are ashamed of/opposed to their fathers; both were ‘abandoned’ by them; both paid the ultimate price for their abandonment. Crouch’s negligence of his home life, the subject of furious gossip after his son’s trial, resulted perhaps in his son’s straying to the ‘wrong’ side. Tom Riddle’s abandonment of Merope resulted in Tom growing up unloved in an orphanage, setting in course a series of events that would see him rise as a vengeful Dark Lord with no desire for forgiveness or understanding. If Tom Riddle Sr hadn’t left his wife, would Voldemort have turned out the way he did? Rowling stated that he was ‘incapable’ of love since he was conceived under the effect of a love potion, but perhaps the presence of a parental figure might have remedied that. Who knows?

And so we have it: the dad’s job in the Potterverse is to pass on prejudice, be the cause for prejudice, or set up skewed morals in his son. There’s a hint of this being carried on even in Harry’s generation: Ron warns Rose against Scorpius Malfoy, telling her that she has to ‘beat him in every test’ and that ‘Grandpa Weasley’ would never forgive her if she married a pureblood. Hermione, strikingly, says nothing.

You have to admit this is a little disturbing: Scorpius is being judged, much like Harry was, on the basis of his parentage and not his own merits or lack thereof. Evidently some things don’t change.

 

 

 

 

A Sirius Play-list

Sirius-sirius-black-7016622-697-470 I felt like doing something silly and light, so here I’ve compiled a list of songs that remind me of Sirius Black. Yes, I do have a playlist on my ITunes called ‘Sirius moods’ (no pun intended), which I listen to when I’m feeling particularly in love with this character. It’s a collection of rather random pieces of music, which fit, in my imagination, with different parts of his life. You’re welcome to try the list and tell me what you think.

Warning: some of it is rather, well, teenybopper and/or angsty. Then again, so much of Sirius’s life is/was angsty, so I think I’m excused.

1)       ‘Prodigal’ by One Republic

Have you listened to the words of this song? It’s all about someone who’s running away. I was in the midst of a pile of running-away-from-home Sirius fanfic when  I discovered One Republic, and I thought it fit so well. Coupled with the fact that he eventually returns to his home (albeit, not willingly), I’ve sort of imagined him as Rowling’s retelling of the Prodigal Son tale.

 2)      What Makes You Beautiful by One Direction

I know, I should be ashamed of myself. Listening to One Direction at my age? It’s true, many of my friends do judge me a little for this (but many of my friends also listen to it on the sly, so clearly I’m not alone). But really, no matter how silly their lyrics (an entire verse of na-na-na?), they have an inability to light up my mood from their sheer inanity. They’re a time machine, taking me back to a time when I thought Backstreet Boys were the coolest and most profound singers I had ever heard. And Sirius does have a way of flipping back his hair (I imagine) that would get me ‘overwhelmed’. Also, you can’t deny that he turns heads when he walks through any door. And he does have an amazing way of lighting up my world. J

3)      Walking in the Air by Celtic Woman

This song magical and dreamy and talks about flying above the world while everyone sleeps below. Is there anything more appropriate for a Potter love-song, or a gentle lullaby while Sirius steers his bike among the clouds? There’s even talk of monsters arising and facing the air-walkers. It’s a gentle song, and the waifish voice makes it even more Potteresque to my ears.

4)      Before the Dawn by Evanescence

This song has, for me, very specific association. I was reading the third instalment of the ‘Sacrifices Arc’ by the immensely talented Lightning on the Wave when I was on an Evanescence backtrack, and came across this, one of their lesser-known songs. ‘Darkness Comes Before morn’ is pretty loaded with Sirius, and the angsty pull of the lyrics, I thought, captured his presentation perfectly. Sirius, whether in the Potterverse canon or its fanfic, is often tortured and bound by the weight of his history and/or blood and much of Evanescence’s haunting music suits him. ‘Even in Death’ is another favourite, encapsulating what I believe Lupin feels post Sirius’s death.

 5)      The Unknown Soldier by Breaking Benjamin

This doubles as my ode to Theon Greyjoy, since it talks about falling apart and yet persisting in the long and determined fight. Both characters fall to pieces, see the world in shades of grey (cue Sirius’s advice to Harry and Theon’s long climb to sanity from his Ramsay-inflected madness), and redeem themselves despite being discarded as traitors. I agree that Theon is actually guilt of betrayal, but hey, his terrible torture makes up for it.

6)      The Way it Ends by Landon Pigg

‘Is this to be our fate?’ Pigg asks at the start of this song. When I think about the kind of boys the Marauders were in Hogwarts, I have no doubt that they are amazed at where their lives led them. There they were, four shining boys, the (seemingly) perfect quartet, and then a little more than a decade later, one is dead, one is on the run for a crime he didn’t commit, one is an out-of-work werewolf and the last is a servant of the Dark Lord. And yet, there’s a sense of defiance in this song, an acceptance that if this is the terrible way things were supposed to go, there’s no regret at the close. Instead, the close is where ‘life begins’, echoing Dumbledore’s assertion that ‘Death is but the next great adventure’.

 7)      Ending (Brokeback Mountain OST) by Gustavo Santaolalla

Calm after the storm of Sirius’s life, I need comforting music when I close the covers of The Order of the Phoenix. This piece provides a quiet close to the chaos of emotion that Sirius’s passing generates in me time and time again. I like to think of him walking away into the sunset, his handsome face no longer ‘ravaged’ in death.

8)      Paradise by Coldplay

I know the song is about a girl, but the theme is pretty universal and no-gendered. Someone has a crappy life that doesn’t fulfil any of their expectations, so when they dream they go away into a personal paradise. Sirius’s life is pretty crappy. I would imagine he expected the world when he was young, only to have it fly out of his reach when he grew older and things fell apart so spectacularly. This song not only constructs a world to escape to, it always evokes, for me, an image of Sirius getting on his bike and riding off in a storm, hallooing across the billowing waves.

 9)      Are We Human or Are we Dancer by The Killers

 Yet another goodbye-to-life song for Sirius Black. I do need a lot of uplifting music to get over the end of Book 5. It’s a little disturbing.  It’s much more upbeat than the others I’ve listed and different from them in that it questions the idea of Sirius as ‘human’ at all, as a real person, instead bringing in the notion of him as a character whose ‘sign is vital’ but whose ‘hands are cold’. Are characters real if the book they’re housed in is not read? These are very profound questions that I’m not in a mood to answer. Sufficeth to say that I like the idea of a ‘dancer’ who moves through his host pages, twirling emotions and ideas in his wake.

10)   You’re Still Here by Poets of the Fall

When everything fades away, there’s still the stories we tell and the characters we celebrate. Come rain or shine or hailstorms of despair, the characters we love are always there to shine a beacon of hope, of inspiration, be a comfort. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve turned to a familiar book to hold myself together when particularly upset, or smelled its pages to remember ‘yesteryear’. As evident from my blogposts, Harry Potter is one of the series I’ve dipped into more than once, for various reasons. Yes, every re-read yields something new, but it also acts as an anchor, a reminder that the more things change, the more some things, including great stories, remain the same.

The ones we love never truly leave us.

 

 

 

Growing up Potter: A Little Ambition Never Killed Nobody

It wasn’t until I passed through college and into the portals of post-graduation that I realized how demonized ‘ambition’ was in Rowling’s universe. An entire house is set up for those whose overarching trait is their desire to ‘get somewhere’ in life, who will use ‘any means’ to achieve their ‘ends’ (I’m quoting the Sorting Hat here). And that house is that one which produces all the ‘bad wizards’, if Hagrid is to be believed: ‘There wasn’t a wizard who went bad who wasn’t in Slytherin’.

Rowling is not the first author to equate ambition and cunning with the snake. The equation was set up way back in Genesis, where Eve was tempted to ‘disobedience’ by the wily serpent. Milton elaborated further in Paradise Lost, where ambition became the reason Satan fell from Heaven in the first place. ‘Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven’ has become one of the most out-of-context quoted lines in literature, and Satan and his bastard court in Pandemonium are the greatest exemplars of Pride and of course, burning ambition.

It seems only expected that most fantasy authors take their cue from this trope, as Tolkien, Lewis and Jordan (whose Lanfear is certainly a Satanic figure) have done. Samit Basu problematized the easy acceptance of ambition=recipe for Dark Evil Overlord in his Gameworld Trilogy, as has Martin. Rowling, however, has more or less accepted the premise of ambition=unscrupulousness=snake in her world, and it’s this that I’ll be examining in the following post.

Image First off, it’s strange that an entire house is devoted to kids who are ‘ambitious’. Are we saying that the other brave, intelligent and loyal kids are not? Or are these just the kids who were not any of the other things (besides being pureblood-crazed) and hence were labeled ‘ambitious’? What resources are they supposed to use in their quest to prove their ambition, if not bravery, intelligence or loyalty?

Oh, wait. I forgot that the Sorting Hat already gave me that answer: cunning.

So Slytherin is the House for all those who are ready to slime their way up the professional ladder, using old money connections, family networks and other suitably ‘cunning’ means. It makes sense, then, that the one weapon that Snape excels at using is Occlumency, which relies on mentally lying to someone who is reading the person’s mind. It demands intelligence and bravery to hold up, yes, but more than anything, it requires smoke-screening and deft sleight-of-hand with thoughts and emotions, something that a cunning, slippery Slytherin would know how to do.

I think Rowling realized she needed an easy punching bag full of bullies and obnoxious, over-privileged kids and decided that the snake would be a fitting mascot for the House they belonged to. And what trait can you link to a snake? The Ravenclaws have already snapped up intelligence so that leaves the Satanic staple: ambition.

Now let’s look at those in the Potterverse who are ambitious. There’s the classic Slytherin, Tom Riddle, who uses his good looks, intelligence and native skill with spells and research to make himself near-immortal. His career prospects as an Evil Dark Overlord are dampened by a Prophecy, of course, and it’s an everyman with an extraordinary capacity for ‘love’ that brings him down, not someone, say, as driven or career-oriented as Hermione Granger. Though she does contribute a great amount to the downfall of Voldemort, it’s Harry who walks away with the lion’s share of the praise, as is, in the context, fitting.

Then there’s Percy Weasley, the one red-head who makes noticeable, nerdy effort to better his situation and climb the power ladder at the Ministry of Magic. Percy sticks out like a sore thumb in the Weasley clan because, unlike his brothers and sister, he thinks his dad’s desire to settle down in the back-end of the Ministry is a mistake, one that he himself will not make. This, of course, makes him a thoroughly unpleasant character in Rowling’s hands. Instead of complicating his presentation, she makes him out to be a pedant and a bore, one whose academic and extra curricular achievements are outclassed by his need to read books on the lives of Hogwarts prefects, whose ability to run an entire Department one year out of school is eclipsed by his inability to tell that his superior, who was largely absent for most his tenure, was under an expertly-cast Unforgivable curse. Percy gets no slack even in Book 5, where he is made to sympathize with Dolores Umbridge and instigate Ron to turn away from Harry. It is telling that the one Weasley to ever question his family’s blind adoration of Dumbledore gets ‘schooled’ and made to beg forgiveness, while the rest of his emotionally immature siblings sit around claiming credit for who put the most parsnips in his hair.

Even if Percy makes some wrong choices (and I’m not saying he doesn’t), he comes back and apologizes for them, unlike Sirius or James who are never made to say, on screen, that they are sorry for their treatment of those less fortunate than themselves. But we are made to understand implicity that Sirius and James are good people, unlike the boring Percy. They are glamorous and ride motorbikes and play sports; all Percy does is work hard, be responsible and strive for a ‘boring’, influential position in the Ministry.

With her research- and book-honed intelligence, Hermione possesses a skill-set similar to Percy, but her ability to make the correct decisions (unlike Percy and even the young Dumbledore) sets her apart in the category of ambitious characters. You can’t deny that Hermione is ambitious, that she’s aiming to do the best she can in school, better than anyone else in her year. Even after Hogwarts, we are told that she joined the Department of Magical Law Enforcement, campaigning and overturning many restrictive laws used against House Elves, Goblins and other magical beings. If changing the world, one law at a time, doesn’t show ambition, I don’t know what does.

Because of her insistence on using it to define the ‘evil’, snakey House, Rowling has perpetuated the Western literary tradition of seeing ambition as a negative quality, with characters like Hermione being the exception rather than the rule. Never is it stated straight out that Harry is ambitious, or Neville, or Ron. All of them are fairly laid-back characters, content to react rather than act, except in the last book, where Neville steps up and takes on the hero’s burden. In this matter, Rowling differs considerably from Jordan who questions the accepted legacy of ambition=disaster in characters such as Egwene al’Vere and Elayne Trakand. While their world too harbors megalomaniacs, there is a clear distinction between those who strive to reach the top to do good and those who covet power for its own sake.

Perhaps if Rowling had had more Hermione type characters, driven, focused individuals who were shown to possess traits other than the unscrupulousness that defines Voldemort and his ilk, I would not be so uncomfortable with the portrayal of ambitious people. The fact remains however that Hermione is a sole voice of reason among her fellows, who all too often seem to forget that there are more ‘important things’ like ‘friendship, bravery’. Perhaps I too am being unfair in expecting her to shuck centuries of literary weight from the symbol of the serpent and set it gleaming in a new, positive light. We are bowed down by the canon’s weight, as Bloom would argue, and even the best of us cannot hope to carve new meanings for our devices with just seven books to stand against the ceaseless batterings of Literary Convention.

Poor Little Rich Boy

What do Jaime Lannister and Sirius Black have in common? A lot, it turns out. They’re both very rich, from proud, aristocratic families (which are very powerful in their respective worlds), firstborn sons with great talent and wit, and, of course, wonderfully handsome. They also turn out to be parental disappointments, trust the wrong people and suffer terrible trials that cause them to question the very foundation of their worth. And yes, they have ‘sons’ who know nothing about them for a very, very long time.

Image

Jaime and Sirius are shining examples of that up and coming trope, the Poor Little Rich Boy (or PLRB, for short). Shae defines the trope better than I ever could; in Episode 10 of Season 2 of Game of Thrones, she snaps at Tyrion: ‘I’m a poor little rich boy and no one loves me so I say funny things and pay people to laugh at my jokes’, she mocks. Tyrion looks appropriately chastened.*

The PLRB, in my opinion, is popular culture’s response to the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, painting a picture that few ‘real’ men could ever hope to live up to. Movies, books, TV shows are rife with this character- just sit in thought for a few moments and you’ll be reeling off a string of names: Chuck Bass, Christian Grey, Gawyn Trakand, Evan Chambers … While the details of their insecurity and weakness might differ, they share some traits including the notion that they have and will always continue to disappoint someone in the course of their (seemingly) empty, worthless lives.

Of course, this is remedied in the case of Chuck and Christian, but poor Gawyn damns himself and Egwene because (spoiler) he can’t get over his Rand-inflected inferiority complex. As for Evan, he was left alone at the end of GREEK, the only character who had nothing specific to look forward to.

In this post, I will examine what makes the PLRB such a compelling character, especially its manifestation in the form of Jaime and Sirius. Certainly a great deal of their allure comes from the fact that they have all that is normally associated with a ‘successful’ person: they’re rich, handsome, smart and very good at what they do, whether it’s swinging a sword or firing spells and planning pranks. At the same time, they are enormously vulnerable, whether because of love, lack of it, or their spotted, not entirely deserved reputations.

Sticks and Stones May Break my Bones, but Words Will Sorely Wound Me

Let’s begin with Jaime. When we meet him in A Game of Thrones, there seems little to like about him. He’s ‘golden’ and handsome, true, but he’s also the treacherous ‘Kingslayer’, the man who slew the ruler he was sworn to defend. A few pages after he rides onto the scene, he throws a six year old boy out of a tower and cripples him for life. After this he disappears, returns to wound honourable Ned Stark, and then is only seen again when in chains before the righteous Young Wolf.

If you came to A Song of Ice and Fire as I did, fresh from a world where characters in fantasy books were good or evil, no doubt your head spun when you reached A Storm of Swords and found yourself listening to a man you had decided to hate two books ago. When I first read ASoIaF, the TV series wasn’t even a whisper on the horizon, and so my experience of Jaime (in those first two books) was in no way as well-rounded as that of readers who came to him through the show. In A Game of Thrones , producers and scriptwriters don’t stay inside a few chosen characters the way Martin does—they present a more omniscient perspective, and so we get to see a less than wholly evil Jaime right from the start.

Instead, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau plays a man who wears his spotted reputation with a mixture of pride, resignation and a careful layering of carelessness. He ends the famous declaration ‘There are no men like me. Only me.’ with a half-grimace, underlining the character’s peculiar solitude and consequent loneliness. Coster-Waldeau presents a Jaime never entirely certain of his father’s regard for him, the scene in Tywin’s tent is Season 1, episode 7 (‘You Win or You Die’) being a great example. This scene does not take place in the books (at least, we are never witness to it), but serves, in the show, to begin building the figure of a man who is not entirely inhuman, even if he does do some monstrous ‘things’ for ‘love’.

It’s this lingering sense of honour, of idealism that sets Jaime apart from his twin and his father and makes him similar to Tyrion. For all his devil-may-care swagger, Jaime does set some store by what others think of him—how else does one explain the bitterness that coats his words every time he speaks of ‘honourable’ Eddard Stark and his quicksilver judgments? The strange ‘honor’ that Jaime possesses, that he slowly builds upon in the course of the books, emerges when he is divorced from his family and forced to confront the seamier, less than gilded side of Westeros. Once he is disowned by his father and heads into the riverlands and back to the warfront, the transformation of Ser Jaime is nearly complete.

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Post-capture, Jaime begins to lose some of his swagger and thus begin his journey to ‘likeable’ character in the books.

Black as He’s Bred

Just like Jaime, Sirius too is brought up as the firstborn son and heir of a rich and powerful house, one that holds certain beliefs that often seem to put it at odds (at least, in the years the Potter books are set in and make extensive reference to) with the rest of the wizarding world. To the Blacks, duty to family and bloodline is above all, as enshrined in their motto, ‘Toujours Pur’. Sirius’s breaking of Black family tradition via Sorting into Gryffindor house only marks the beginning of his stated (and canon-supported) rebellion. At the age of fifteen, he famously runs away to join another family (though he never formally changes his name), marking his clear emergence on the ‘right’ side.

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Fan art representation of Sirius Black

Like Jaime, however, the stain of Sirius’ blood/actions never quite leaves him in the text. Misapprehended as the Secret Keeper for the Potters, Sirius is jailed for twelve long, harrowing years and publicly maligned as a traitor of the worst kind. He is never exonerated during his lifetime, forced to hide and ‘escape justice’ for three years on the run for a crime he never committed. The chief reasons for the easy tarnishing of Sirius’s reputation lie, I believe, both in his family’s reputation and his own actions in Hogwarts. As Severus Snape bites out, ‘Sirius Black proved he was capable of murder at sixteen’. Though it’s never stated in the books outright, I believe this was a reason, however slight, for Dumbledore, McGonagall, indeed, most clear-thinking characters’ easy acceptance of his ‘guilt’.

O Brother, Where Art thou?

Another factor that constitutes a large part of both characters’ portrayals  is their relationship with their younger brothers. Both Jaime and Sirius ‘abandon’ their forebears’ definition of family duty to pursue their own goals: Jaime as a member of the Kingsguard and Sirius as a fighter for the ‘blood-traitors’’ side. As stated earlier, at the start of the books, Jaime does not come across as anything other than a dutiful son (chiefly because we do not actually get to look into his head in this section of Martin’s saga). He loves his brother, his worry for him driving him to recklessness and sparking off violence in the heart of King’s Landing. Tyrion himself often thinks of Jaime fondly in the first three books. The regard comes crashing down only when Jaime reveals his own part in the tragic tale of Tysha. At this point, Jaime has already broken from Tywin; this act leads to a schism in his relationship with his brother, one that I am not sure they will ever be able to repair.

Though barely glanced at in the text, it is implied that Sirius too failed Regulus, abandoning him to the manipulations and overbearing nature of his parents. Sirius speaks of his brother with bitterness in The Order of the Phoenix, implying that he was a low-ranking coward who didn’t even have the sort of twisted bravery that would carry him through his chosen service with the Dark Lord. We have no way of knowing whether he ever tried to persuade his brother to abandon the Black beliefs after he ran away from home, but given the Marauders’ general attitude to Slytherins and Sirius’s overwhelming bitterness towards his family, we can assume that whatever attempts he might have made were feeble and, above all, unsuccessful. At least as far as Sirius knew.

‘There are no men like me, only me’

Yes, I’ve already referenced this quote earlier, but I think it’s a perfect summation of the presentation of both Jaime and Sirius in their respective universes. Is there anyone quite as handsome, as well-bred, as good with a weapon or as misunderstood? James Potter may have stood in close competition with Sirius, but the former’s early removal from the series ensures that all we have of him is hearsay (and the occasional jaunt down Pensieve-lane). Besides, the ‘Potter’ name doesn’t seem to have quite the power and dark magic that ‘Black’ has attached to it, the same way ‘Lannister’ sounds a deal more heavyweight than ‘Tyrell’ in Westeros.

Jaime and Sirius’s life choices ensure that they do not follow the ‘conventional’ paths, i.e., marry and settle down to produce equally wonderful children. However, they both do have ‘sons’ (and in Jaime’s case, a daughter as well): Joffrey, Tommen and Myrcella for Jaime, and a godson, Harry, for Sirius. Neither of them is there for their children for much of their lives. For Jaime, this is a safety issue, where his very life, his sister’s and the children’s depends on the continued belief of the masses (and the king) that the children are Robert’s. For Sirius, this is because of his being locked away in Azkaban. Even later, however, Harry reflects rather ungratefully (in a throwaway line in Deathly Hallows) upon how ‘reckless’ a godfather Sirius was, hoping that he himself will not be such to Teddy Lupin. Personally, I found this reflection rather astonishing, given Harry’s immediate reaction to Sirius’s death was to blame himself for his own hastiness and willingness to succumb to Voldemort’s trap. The reading of his death as a result of his own recklessness was something I would have assumed Dumbledore would make, not Sirius’s beloved and adoring godson.

Speaking of recklessness, can we forget Jaime’s impetuous wounding of Ned Stark? Or indeed his shoving of Bran out the window? Both are the result of his ‘unthinking’ quickness, a characteristic that Cersei laments and Tyrion cannot afford. Jaime is ‘reckless’, he stabs first and thinks about it later, he cannot be ‘serious’ about anything precisely because, up until his maiming, things come so easy to him. In the world he inhabits, he does not have to wonder about his ability to succeed. Neither does Sirius. This is why they are able to treat combat and perilous situations the way they do: with a laugh, a jest and a casual grace that others cannot hope to achieve.

And yet, we still love them

They have everything, as I’ve no doubt underlined multiple times. They have everything that would make for unparalleled success in any context. And yet, they don’t find it. And that’s why they work.

I had the misfortune to brush through a terrible ‘fantasy’ novel some months ago, where the protagonist was a well-toned, intelligent, handsome man who ‘fought’ to find release. Within a few sentences, I hated him. He was too self-confident (even while being presented very obviously as a flawed and under-confident being), too successful, too together. No one wants a hero you can’t sympathize with, especially in a fantasy novel, where everything else is supposed to be sort of alien anyway.

So what makes these particular near-perfect characters, Jaime and Sirius, work? One reason, I think, is because they are not the main characters. Though Jaime is a viewpoint in A Storm of Swords and the books that come after, he is one among many voices and, he is not one we have been with from the start, as in the case of Jon Snow, Danaerys, or Tyrion. The Harry Potter books, of course, are written primarily from Harry’s point of view, and Sirius ranks far below characters like Ron and Hermione and Neville in terms of screen-time. We don’t see too much of either of these figures, a fact which, I think, makes them more attractive and less jealousy/cringe-inducing as was the case with the earlier mentioned character.

Besides, Martin and Rowling are far better writers than that guy was.

Second, I believe the manner of their introduction has a huge part to play. Both Jaime and Sirius are presented first as ‘bad guys’, and it’s only later that we learn the stories behind their supposed crimes. The readers’ initial dislike or negative impression of them is slowly corrected only after surprising and thought-provoking revelations, which raise complicated questions about duty and loyalty. It turns out, surprisingly, that these guys were placed in hellish situations (especially in Jaime’s case) and tried to make the best of what they were offered. I think our surprise at their ‘good guy-ness’ and the revelation that we, the judging readers, have also condemned them without hearing the whole story, does a lot to help us forgive them their Rich Boy angst. We are now eager to make them understand that we are different from their dense, unmoved peers. We hear them, we see their ordeals, we appreciate what they’ve been through. We are now there for them, heart and soul.

This finally, is what makes characters like Darcy, Christian Gray, Jaime and Sirius tick—the readers’ desire to be forgiving and benevolent, to hand out comfort to those who are otherwise misunderstood by their own society. We are all a little bit like Sansa Stark in that way—these ‘monsters’ won’t hurt us because we know their weaknesses and unlike the rest of the mileu, we understand them.  We know the real Jaime Lannister, we see past the glamorous exterior of Sirius Black, we really have the power to forgive them their stupidities and mistakes.

I think it’s that, really, that makes these characters so seductive. The idea that, no matter how perfect they are, they have weaknesses that only we as readers are privy to and can forgive. It’s hard, if not impossible, to exert the same kind of power in real life—all the glamorous, powerful people are not waiting for you to come to them and assure them that everything is okay. Neither would they be supremely grateful for it. But these guys—they’re all ours to forgive and love. And everyone knows that in fantasy, it’s the forgiver who’s the real hero at the end of the day.

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Frodo taught us well.

* I haven’t included Tyrion in this definition because he does not have the same physical and social advantages that these Rich Boys have. He’s a Poor Little Rich Boy with a lot more problems than these guys could ever dream of.

The James Potter Complex

Author Note: I’m flexing my literary muscles after what seems forever. 

 

Let’s face it. We all want to be fictional characters at some point in our lives (those of us who are not Arjo at least) and the more literary (or neurotic) among us strive to emulate, sometimes unconsciously, our favourites. Fictional people are so, well, organized. They have their lives mapped out for them by someone else, they sometimes look like they got their perfection/beauty/intelligence/Achiever Status without really working for it and, best of all, even the dullest, the stupidest, the most horrifyingly banal of them can boast of having people interested in his thoughts. I know many people, me included, would love to have that particular honour.

 

 Since we cannot actually be them (or maybe we all are, really, and the Universe is one big novel-setting and history a novel in which case everything I’m writing becomes metafictional and therefore profound and too deep to be taken seriously) we strive to live like them. If I’m as cursed and earnest as Harry Potter, surely people will give a damn about what I’m up to? If I’m as flitty-flighty as Holly Golightly, surely I’ll leave a string of yearning men behind me? And if I’m as steadfast and innocent as Anastasia Steele, I’ll definitely win the heart of a man as broken, handsome and rich as Christian Gray.

 

 Yes, I went there and made the reference.

 

 Of course, there are characters none of us want to be: Josef K, Julien Sorel, Kurtz- but that’s a concern for another day.

 

( It is strange that most of the characters that spring to mind as undesirable Objects of Emulation are found within the covers of D.U. prescribed books.)

 

 Who we want to be also changes with time, of course, and not just because of the changing nature of the books we read. For instance, nine years ago I wanted to be Lanfear from the Wheel of Time books. I wanted to be beautiful and powerful and I was a budding megalomaniac. Now I want to be Egwene from the same universe- beautiful and powerful and at the top of my professional ladder at the tender age of 20. Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem much chance of that happening.

 

 The people around me have ‘literarily’ grown up as well. The girls aren’t queuing up to be Belle from Disney’s ‘Beauty and the Beast’ or Ariel from ‘The Little Mermaid’. No, now we all, boys and girls alike, want to be one particular character, and we want to be him with a psychotic intensity that is profoundly disturbing.

 

 We all want to be James Potter.

 

 What’s that, you say? James Potter? Harry Potter’s DAD? Oh please, surely there are more popular choices in the series. Look at Hermione, Ron, Harry- even someone as random as Bill Weasley gets more screen time than James Potter.

 

 But I doubt anyone has had the effect that James has had on my budding psychoanalytical skills. Together, me and a friend diagnosed what we call the James Potter Complex, a serious condition that affects one out of every five Arts students in their postgrad.

 

 What are the characteristics of the James Potter Complex? Just think of James in his Hogwarts years, and you’ll start to get an idea of what I’m going to talk about. In case you are not familiar with the Potterverse, I will elaborate for you.

 

 James Potter is, to put it succinctly, bloody brilliant. He is top of his class, he is an ace Quidditch player, he has a band of loyal friends and an equally fabulous best friend[i], he is popular and, of course, he wins in the romance department as well. There is no category in which he loses out, unless you count his messy hair and nearsightedness, which I don’t.

 

 The best thing about him is his all-rounder status. He appears to be socially celebrated as well as academically brilliant- and he puts no apparent effort into the attainment of either status. When Sirius says he will be ‘surprised’ if he doesn’t get ‘an Outstanding at least’ in his DADA OWL exam, James drawls ‘me too’. Coming from him, we can believe it. He starts playing with a Snitch and bullying Snape right after the paper, while Remus tries to study for (what is presumably) an upcoming Transfiguration exam. James clearly has better things to do than cram for his board exams, but he will still do better than Remus probably ever will.

 

 The problem is, not everyone can be James Potter. Most of us know this, and are not ashamed to admit to Lupinesque hard work. And why should we be ashamed, anyway? There’s nothing wrong with being a geek, as Hermione has so admirably demonstrated. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with reading your books ahead of schedule, with staying up late nights to get that cramming done, to working yourself crazy in order to keep up with multiple classes.

 

 But it’s just not cool. Not in an age where Facebook rules our lives. We’re on display all the time, we’re finally starring in our own movies (complete with soundtracks in the form of status messages), we are fictional characters who check in and take pictures and like things. We can be as perfect and amazing and enviable as we want. We can be James Potter.

 

 And so begins the ‘I-don’t –study-see-I-just-went-for-a-movie’ or the ‘I-was-too-busy-making-out-with-my-new-partner-to-do-that-reading’ or ‘I-am-like-so-brilliant-I-scored-amazingly-in-my-exam-even-though-I-am-too-busy-snorkeling-in-Malaysia-to-read-my-course-books’. It’s absolute anathema to those in the grip of the JPC to be seen opening a book that is not far, far from the concerns of the academic moment. It is unthinkable that they admit to having read the assigned material the night before the tutorial- no, it must be read only half an hour before the scheduled meeting time, because otherwise, people would think they actually studied. Gasp. That is not to be borne. How would they continue to look cool? Where would the Jamesian spirit be in that?

 

  I could go into a long spiel about the decreasing value of hard work in a society that privileges snapshot success and quick thinking go-getters. I could spend a page boring you with faux sociological theses on the decline of Hufflepuffian ethics and the coolification of Gryffindor daring and Slytherin slickness. These things do tie into the proliferation of the JPC, but a thorough dissection will require a pseudo thesis[ii], not something I think anyone wants to read on a social networking site.

 

I don’t intend to condemn those who suffer the JPC, since I can sympathize with them. To be like James is to have it all, without trying very hard. For a long time, fantasy was held to be the domain of lonely little nerds, who needed tales of underdogs and unlikely foundlings becoming leaders of their people and succeeding where no one else had succeeded before. While the perception of the demographic has changed considerably, we’re still looking for the same things. We want someone who will convince us that no matter how small we are, how lost and confused, we can make a difference.

 

 So while we want to be James Potter, brilliant and popular, we will never admire him the way we admire Harry. For all my self proclaimed brilliance, I can never be James Potter. I’m just not good enough.

 

 But somewhere deep down is the hope that maybe, just maybe, I can be his much less impressive, but so much more heroic son.

 

 

 

 

 

 

[i] The reason I objected to calling the psychological condition the Sirius Black Complex is twofold. First, Sirius is not nearly so lucky as James- he has had a traumatic childhood, been disowned by his family, and rather than a clean death, he was thrown into a soul-sucking prison for twelve years. I think that balances out his gifts. Second, I don’t think any mere mortal compares to him, but you are free to disagree.

 

[ii] I will, hopefully, do just that. Some day.