Putting Quill to Parchment: Letters in the Potterverse

This last week, I’ve been feeling a strange need to write letters. And not in a romantic, oh what a throwback to simpler times sort of way, but because, genuinely, I think that sometimes, writing to somebody is a much more therapeutic process than messaging them, or even talking over the  phone. This is because, unlike other, more instant forms of communication, you’re not giving your interlocutor a platform through which to respond immediately. It’s impossible for them to interrupt you, or gainsay you, or cut you off midway—all things that happen far too often when we speak to one another. A letter lets you get it all out there in one go, giving you space and, importantly, the  other person, time to absorb your words, and think about what you’re feeling.

It’s for this reason that I really think the  written is the  most powerful, and therefore, to me, meaningful form of communication. Don’t get me wrong, I love heart to hearts with my besties as much, if not more, than the  average person, but in the  absence of that space and time where once those heart to hearts were taken for granted, a letter can step in, and make you feel less alone in a world where we are constantly reminded, every time we log onto social media, that someone out there is probably doing life better than you.

This got me thinking, as many things inevitably do, about Harry Potter, and how the  characters of that world use, so often, letters to share things that bother them. It’s amazing isn’t it, that in a universe where people can literally just pop over to each others’ houses in a blink, where they can roam through fireplaces to more magical locations, they still rely on the  staple of quill and parchment to say so many important things.

harry writing

And letters are hella important in Potter. Letters are what get him out of his Muggle life, for one thing, and the mystery around the ‘letters from no one’ in Philosopher’s Stone is what indicates that Harry is more than meets the eye. Later, letters from his friends are what literally keep Harry motivated, push him through the  horrible summer days at the  Dursleys, even, in a twisted turn of events before second year, tell him that not everything he experienced in Philosopher’s Stone, was a crazy dream. Harry’s friends reach out to him constantly all summer long, for three solid summers, giving him the  support he needs to get through the  days. They even send him literal nourishment and sustenance, birthday cakes and assorted other, healthier food items, coming to him in the  summer before his fourth year in Goblet of Fire.

Letters are also therapeutic in the  series. When Harry is very troubled, woken with an aching scar in Goblet, he writes about his worries to Sirius. Indeed, his correspondence with his godfather is one of the  cementing blocks of their relationship—starting from the  moment when Pigwidgeon arrives, bearing the  note that allows Harry to go to Hogsmeade, to the  last note he reads from Sirius, which, heartbreakingly, talks about the  two way mirror. Sirius and Harry’s relationship, one of, if not the  most, supportive relationships in the  entire series, is constantly imperilled by the  disruption of this form of communication—when it flourishes, before the  start of Book 4, Sirius’s wellbeing is highlighted through the  beautiful, tropical birds he uses to deliver his letters. By the  end, all forms of communication out of Hogwarts have been imperilled, thanks to Umbridge’s snooping, and because of this, this fundamental breach of a channel Harry has long taken for granted, tragedy unwinds.

Riddle_DiaryAnother great example of literal soul baring: Ginny writes to Tom Riddle. She uses Voldemort’s first Horcrux as it was seemingly supposed to be used: as a diary, a record of her innermost feelings. She makes herself so vulnerable by spilling out her soul thus that soon, her body is no longer her own. The implication seems to be that as much as writing can help you affect someone, it can also undo you, pulls a secret, hidden and hence vulnerable part of you outside into a harsh world, where people may not be so kind to it as you hope they will be.

If you think about it, it’s really weird that anyone in the  wizarding world still writes letters, even people who technically no longer have to. You’d think that only the  kids (who can’t do magic outside of school) and those who are under house arrest (Lily, for instance, who writes that letter to Sirius) or in other dire, magic-less situations (Sirius on the  run) would take recourse to such a, well, ‘ordinary’ form of communication. But that’s not the  case. For instance, Bathilda Bagshot, in her scattered interview with Rita Skeeter, mentions that Albus and Grindelwald constantly sent letters back and forth, despite living in the  same village and both (presumably) being old enough to do magic legally. Given what we find out about their relationship later, these letters have a particularly poignant quality, not just the  musings of two, young ambitious wizards but, in the  case of one, at least, also a means to reach out, and unburden oneself, to a fascinating crush.

Paninirdlm023

In the  Potterverse, people do extremely mundane things—fight over petty jealousies, go on disastrous dates, call each other horrible names in the  schoolyard, write letters. These are all ways Rowling uses to humanise her characters, underline the  fact that though they have magic, they are no different from us who don’t. Letters, physically sitting down and creating a message for another, are still the  most magical, meaningful ways to reach out to someone, to prove that the  writer, and the  person being written to, are bound in a matrix of emotion that is real, made tangible by the  creation of this physical message.

 Nothing compares to Harry’s feelings as he looks as Lily’s old letter, drinking in the  sight of her handwriting:

The  letter was an incredible treasure, proof that Lily Potter had lived, really lived, that her warm hand had once moved across this parchment, tracing ink into these letters, these words, words about him, Harry, her son.

Impatiently brushing away the  wetness in his eyes, he reread the  letter, this time concentrating on the  meaning. It was like listening to a half-remembered voice.

alan-rickman-wrote-a-heartwarming-goodbye-letter-to-harry-potter-and-jk-rowling

I think the  greatest example of this, of the  power of such personal writing to wrench feelings about and reduce someone to a puddle of emotion is that last image Rowling leaves us of Snape. A man we’ve always seen as cutting, mean, petty even, is memorialized for readers thus:

…Snape was kneeling in Sirius’s old bedroom. Tears were dripping from the  end of his hooked nose as he read the  old letter from Lily. The  second page carried only a few words:

‘could ever have been friends with Gellert Grindelwald. I think her mind’s going, personally!

‘Lots of love,

‘Lily.’

Advertisements

Coming to terms with Snape

snape poster

Is the Gryffindor scarf a sly allusion to the person he’s really protecting?

I have a poster of Snape on my desk. He stands there, poised for combat, wand raised to fight off someone—whether Death Eater or member of the Order, it’s not clear—set against a broken window pane, the view outside indicative of chaos and fire and dark streaks of ‘evil’ Apparition.

It’s an odd choice for a motivational poster, perhaps. Snape is not (as I have made clear) one of my favourite characters in the series. In fact, I still believe that Alan Rickman’s portrayal of the character has made me even the slightest bit more accepting of the man’s flaws, as I might see them. If Rickman hadn’t owned the performance the way he did, I might never have thought of buying a Snape poster, let alone placing it in pride of place on my desk.

Recently, I’ve begun to think about why I refuse to idolise Snape, what it is about him that made me lash out against the rising adulation he receives, what I saw as blindness and willingness to overlook his extremely glaring flaws. I’ve come to a rather alarming conclusion: he terrifies me, more than any other character from the series does.

I think I should explain myself here. Slytherin House, as I made clear in this post, symbolises for me the ability to change your mind and move on, and how ultimately, it is choices rather than blood that defines you. Sure, Slytherin is the blood purists’ house (as made all too clear by its founder, who literally left behind a monster to kill those he believed unworthy of magic), but its residents also, time and again, show they are more than their blood and history, and make choices that ultimately push the series forward along its heroic path.

snape

Yes, Snape makes what is perhaps the biggest decision in the series, because unlike many other ‘big decision makers’ (namely, Lily), he has to live with what he’s chosen—both the good and the bad—every single day. He has to live with the fact that his choices led to the death of his love, and that he must protect the image of the man who ‘stole’ her from him. He chooses to look at the consequence of his mistakes, and rectify them, knowing all the while that he cannot do so. Protecting Harry stems, at first, from a deep sense of remorse, no matter what it becomes later. In many ways, Marvel’s Penance, a superhero who gives himself a literal, iconic ‘penance’ in the form of incredible pain, reminded me of Snape. Every move Penance makes (please ignore the unintentional Police reference), he is reminded of that terrible decision.

(Go read Marvel’s Civil War comics if you want more details.)

So while I absolutely admire Snape’s courage and the sheer intelligence it took to pull off that double agent role (no matter whether he ‘really’ accomplished anything or not…), I am more than a little horrified at the personal toll it took on him. I dislike how much he had to sacrifice in a universe where everyone, even Sirius (in my view the most abused character in the books), gets some measure of happiness. But all of Snape’s chances at it seem to be taken away on a summer’s day, when he made the mistake of calling his best friend a ‘Mudblood’.

I’m not saying that it’s only circumstances that make Snape’s life what it is; indeed, a lot of his misery can be laid at his own feet. While some of his decisions (such as hanging out with the ‘bad crowd’ at Hogwarts, or his cursing Lily) might generously be explained away as an immature, angry response to being mistreated, the later decisions, to be cruel to his students, for instance, is entirely in his hands. Unless it was a means of maintaining cover, I see no reason to bully Neville quite so thoroughly, or to put down Hermione in the fashion that he did time and again.

My reasons for refusing to romanticise Snape, as so many do, is simple: he frightens me.  It frightens me that in this series full of hope and second chances, he doesn’t really get one, personally. His happiness dies the day Lily does, and it terrifies me to think that such a thing might happen to someone, to anyone. Maybe I’m being a coward, and refusing to see life’s darkness for what it is, but I still believe that Rowling’s portrayal of this flawed, heroic man is not a hopeful one. It is a deeply jarring one in this universe full of magic and ultimate victory. It’s a poignant illustration of the fact that not everyone gets a happy ending. Snape’s life is consistently dark, and the snatching away of his one ray of sunshine, while giving him a new mission, does not, in any sense, give him a new hope. He labours on to protect Harry, hating himself, always knowing that no matter what he does, he can never turn back time and bring Lily back. He can never atone enough for what he’s done,as evidenced by the claim, ‘Always.’

snape and lily

And so, sitting on that desk, he is for me a reminder that sometimes, you might choose to do what’s right, and not be rewarded for it. You might not even be liked very much while you’re doing it. It might not make you happy at all. But still, you can retain strength, and keep going, simply because it’s the thing to do.

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.

Christmas_1995

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.

Harry-potter_mirror-of-erised

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.

marauders_viria

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.