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.

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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.’

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Albus Severus and the Burden of History

cursed child

There be liberal spoilers for Cursed Child below.

There were many things I didn’t like about Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. I read it in a haze of disbelief, often resorting to texting a friend in the format Harry made so famous in Order of the Phoenix: using all-caps to communicate my rage and frustration. ‘How is this a thing?’ I demanded at one point, and her responses, which ranged along the lines of ‘I knew you would say that’ did little to soothe me.

It’s been a couple of weeks now since the ordeal, and while I’ve safely moved on and begun reading other, less disappointing follow-ups to fantasy series, I haven’t been able to get some of Cursed Child’s more startling ‘revelations’ out of my head. So much about the story didn’t make sense given the context of Rowling’s carefully built world, and the themes she espoused with such fervour in the Potter books. Just one tiny, but irritating example: people went around saying ‘By Dumbledore!’ or ‘Thank Dumbledore!’ the same way they say ‘Thank God’ in the ‘real world’. In Deathly Hallows, Rowling made it very clear that no one, least of all Dumbledore, is perfect, god-like. In fact, she took care to point out that he was much more flawed than many other characters, including Harry. So to suddenly raise him on this pedestal was not just alarming, it was so profoundly antithetical to all she had drilled into us before.

And let’s not even get into that ridiculous stuff about Voldemort having a child. Not only do I seriously doubt he was physically capable of conceiving one (the ‘man’ was built of a dead person’s bones, Pettigrew’s severed hand, Harry’s blood and a baby form that had lead_largebeen reared on snake ‘milk’ and had no nose—are we expected to believe he had a penis?), but why on earth would he want one at all? He believed he was immortal, so there was no need for him to have an heir, and second, at no point has Voldemort ever been shown as capable of experiencing feelings as ‘human’ as love, or even lust. He had one goal, and I sincerely doubt child rearing would have been anything but a hindrance to it.

So yeah, many things bothered me. There was the Panju nonsense, the fact that Ron was a blundering idiot, that Ginny existed merely to soothe Harry and her son (whatever happened to her important career?), that Hermione had little to no security on her office (seriously, the same woman who was part of a plan to get into the Ministry at the age of 17 using Polyjuice Potion wouldn’t ensure the glitch wasn’t repaired when she was Minister?), that the Fidelius charm makes zilch sense to me anymore (if Lily and James were under the charm when they were in Godric’s Hollow, how were Harry and company able to see them when they traveled back in time? Pettigrew had never revealed the secret to them!), and that’s just scratching the surface. If I start talking about how the Time Turner was just the worst plot device ever, I’ll probably implode.

But what really bothered me was Harry, and his lack of relationship with this child, Albus. For whatever reason, Albus seems to have always had a victim complex. Perhaps it was the result of growing up with James for a brother; in a curious twist, the kids seem a lot like the people they were named after, James being popular, brash and sure of himself, and Albus ‘Severus’ the misunderstood misfit, whose need for attention drives him to do silly and ultimately, destructive things. So much for the whole ‘we are more than our abilities and blood’ spiel that the Hogwarts years were all about; so much for nothing but choices, much less names, deciding our fate.

In the Epilogue to Hallows, it looked like history was set to repeat itself in certain ways: Rose was already being touted as the smart kid, this time blessed with a magical background that she didn’t have to scramble for; Scorpius was the designated enemy, the one to be beaten, and Albus was, well, Albus was most like Harry. Not only had he inherited the green eyes, the ones that Severus basically threw his life away for (still not getting over that), but he had the insecurity and worries that plagued Harry too. It was to him that Harry imparted the secret of his own Sorting, so readers could be forgiven for thinking that out of all his kids, Albus was the one who Harry understood best.

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Evidently not. So much for Harry’s saying he doesn’t mind if Albus ends up in Slytherin, since his Sorting is what seems to set the ball rolling, culminating in a surprising declaration about Harry sometimes not wanting him as a son. While I completely agree that, given his own history, Harry is likely to be a lousy father, it was still a huge surprise that Albus, and not someone like, say, James, brought this on. Albus is the kid who is actually most like Harry: awkward, unsure of himself, holding onto one friend rather than making pals with loads of students. Harry too had faced the burden of history and expectation during his early years in school, and been alternately mocked, feared by, or lauded by peers. Hogwarts was never smooth sailing for him, and whatever happened in Year 6, before that, his time was marked by a less than stellar experience. Whether it was the aftermath of losing a landslide of points during his first year, being shunned for speaking Parseltongue, derided for fainting before Dementors, or haunted by whispers of death during Sirius’s escape from Azkaban, not to forget the anger that followed his announcement as Hogwarts champion, Harry knows what it’s like to not be understood or liked by Hogwarts students. So it’s really stunning that seeing what’s happening to his son, he does little to nothing about it for three whole years. When he does confront Albus, it’s with spectacularly bad results.

Ultimately, this is my major problem with Cursed Child. It’s not so much the ridiculous plot and the ridiculous turns and devices it employs to make its ridiculous ‘progress’, but what it does to the things we think we ‘know’ about these characters. Would Hermione simply hot-headedly cancel meetings and show up at Hogwarts with no plan? Would Ron just joke around and give out love potions, like he’s never done something more daring than leave the shop alone for a day? And would Harry, who’s seen so much and gone through so much shit himself, act out the way he does with a son who, more than any of his other kids, seems to bring to life the worst aspects of his own time at Hogwarts? Maybe they would, and maybe he would, but I’d prefer not to know it, thanks. I’d prefer to think he’d be a little more sensitive about it.

But oh well, that’s the price of not letting an end be the end.

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.

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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.

To be told stories

This post is dedicated to Alan Rickman (21 Feb 1946 – 14 Jan 2016)

ootp-us-jacket-artWhenever I read The Order of the Phoenix, a weird thing happens: the last few chapters of the book leave me, quite literally, in tears. No matter what time it is, no matter what I may have been doing earlier that day, or planning to do later, every time Sirius arcs through the veil, I break down and end up weeping.

A few years ago, I tried to rationalise it to myself. ‘It’s  because I expect to cry, and that’s why I cry,’ I thought, a reading that Pavlov might be proud of. Sirius dying= negative reinforcement:: crying= learned response. Having cried the first or second time, my body has learned that it is expected to shed tears at this literary moment, and so indulges me. 

But then, that doesn’t explain the total, all-out sorrow that assailed me towards the final chapters of Wheel of Time, when characters I knew and loved fell one after the other. When a friend registered alarm at my reaction, I tried to explain, ‘It’s like losing a friend I’ve grown up with for ten years.’ It didn’t seem to make much sense to my interrogator. How could someone who lived in the covers of  a book, no matter how wonderfully written, exist so vividly in my mind, have such an impact on my feelings that I actually shed tears at their imaginary demise? It happened the first time, and it happened recently, on a re-read of A Memory of Light.

Someone said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results. In that case, perhaps it is only ‘sane’ that I cry time and again. But we can chase for those reasons and just go around in circles, serving only to confuse ourselves (do we cry because we’ve done it before and therefore expect to? Is it, in that sense, like the climax of Prisoner of Azkaban where Harry casts a Patronus without worrying because he’s done it before, and therefore knows he can even if he couldn’t have possibly known because Time is weird and it’s all a paradox and well, magic?). We’d end up like Hermione, blinking and saying ‘No, that doesn’t make sense at all!’

What is it about losing a fictional character that is, sometimes, so emotionally devastating? Well, in some cases you watch someone you’ve read about, whose head you’ve lived in for years, perish without the happy ending you’d been hoping they’d get. Sometimes it’s someone you think would ‘get’ you in a way that few other people ever can, or do. Sometimes it’s because you can relate to how the other characters, those left snapebehind, feel. When you live so vividly through someone else’s words, it shouldn’t be surprising that loss, one of those most helplessness-inducing, agonising feelings, filters through,even if the loss is happening to people who don’t, in all physical and ‘realistic’ senses, exist.

In some ways, losing an actor is sort of like this. Actors, and other contemporary celebrities, come, ins some sense, closest to fictional characters. To many of us, they will never be more than the roles they play on screen—I will never know Alan Rickman as a man, but I will always have his movies, recordings of interviews, plays, his voice reading poetry on a Youtube channel. But however much I may read of what he’s said, or watch his more candid moments, I cannot claim to have ‘lost’ him in the way his family or friends have. In the most ‘realistic’ sense, having no ‘real’ connection to him, I haven’t lost him at all.

But still, there is that sense, of something missing. Perhaps it’s because, like I have through many, many of their fictional kin, I lived through Rickman’s characters. He brought to life a person and a story that has played, and continues to play, an incredibly important role in my life. And for that, I will always be grateful to him. For that, I felt, and do feel, no matter how strange it might sound, a vague emptiness, an echo that resounds a little hauntingly with that one word, ‘Always.’

‘It is an ancient need to be told stories,’ Rickman once wrote. It’s a need that he played his part in fulfilling, so brilliantly and incredibly well.

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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.

House Talk: Slytherin

I’ve been a self-Sorted Slytherin for a while now. This might seem odd coming from someone whose favourite characters are mostly Gryffindors, but various things about the House of Snakes has convinced me, over the years, that this is where I truly belong. Here I present my reasons for loving Slytherin, apart, of course, from its beautiful underwater dorms.

Slytherin_by_SherlingtonDunnenWhat’s it mean to be Slytherin?

Before I begin, I should come clean about something. I didn’t always consider myself a Slytherin. In fact, when I first read the books, I told myself that of course I was Gryffindor. There could be no doubt about it. My conviction was based purely on the fact that Harry and his besties were in this House, and I, as the rightful Mrs. Potter, belonged there, by his side.

And obviously I was brave, and ‘chivalrous’, whatever that was.

But now that I think of it, even the reasons I wanted to be in Gryffindor were very, well, Slytherin. I saw the House as a means to an end, a way to fulfill an ambition (ie, declaring myself like Harry and therefore heroic), a means of living up to a desired image in my own head. I didn’t honestly relish the idea of living by a set of ideals that, at the age of 11, I would have been in no position to understand. I am not entirely fond of being thrown into the centre of attention anywhere, and was certainy not at the forefront of social activities during my middle and high school years. In short, I was not really cool enough to be a Gryffindor.

But still, why Slytherin? Why not Ravenclaw, full of smart kids? Wouldn’t I rather be considered a nerd than a slimy megalomaniac?

I think it’s all too easy to forget that when it’s first introduced by the Sorting Hat, the Slytherin quality that is emphasised in ‘cunning’ and a certain kind of ruthlessness—these are the people, the Hat stresses, who use ‘any means to achieve their ends’. It also says, strangely enough, that this is House where you’ll meet your ‘real friends’. A rather odd choice of words for a place we later find out is filled with Death Eaters and bigots, isn’t it?

Slytherin definitely suffers from bad press. Given the thousands of students who have no doubt passed through its watery common room, a few have made themselves so infamous that their actions overshadow any other achievements the House might have made. And because of the pure blood mania, we forget that what really defines Slytherins, from Draco to Snape to Voldemort, is a desire to prove onself, to be tenacious enough to succeed at something that they have set their minds to.

This, really, is what pulls me towards this House, and makes me want to be a part of it. Slytherin has no moral illusions—the things its members want vary from protecting a child to killing just to make a point—but what its members learn is that while ambition and grand dreams are all very well, it takes tremendous work and dedication to pulling them off. Whatfacts-about-severus-snape-severus-snape-391241 gives these people the drive to do those things is not just bravery or loyalty or smarts, it’s tenacity. And coupled with that a quality that none of the other Houses demonstrate as ably: an ability to admit wrong and turn around and start again, with just as much drive as before.

What else would you call Snape’s switching over to Dumbledore’s side? Or Narcissa Malfoy’s near-suicidal declaration that Harry was dead, all evidence to the contrary? Regulus’s suicidal mission to get revenge on the Dark Lord? They show that people change—like a moulting snake, you can cast off an old set of ideals and move on. And sometimes you should, because that’s just how life works.

What Slytherin and its tenets taught me was that you should dream big, but sometimes, you’ll find out that you’ve been incredibly wrong. People make terrible mistakes, but you can always be humble enough to turn around and try to set them right. The energy that you bring to ‘achieving’ your ‘ends’ will be undiminished, no matter what those ‘ends’ are.

I’m not idealistically convinced of the strength of my own morality and convictions, like a Gryffindor. I like glamour and charm way too much to not receive adulation and praise, which disqualifies me from Hufflepuff. I’m not happy just being the smart kid, and don’t see learning as an end in itself, so no airy Ravenclaw towers for me.

But I can choose a goal and bend my ambitions towards it, and if the need arises, change myself or my circumstances to ensure its completed. And if I change my mind and decide to go another way? No one can fault me for it. Slytherin promises its denizens that freedom, and embraces the possibility of change, which makes it, for me, really the most realistic House of them all.

The ‘more important things’ AKA Why Hermione is an Exemplary Gryffindor

hermione
Reading the Harry Potter books, it is safe to say, changed my life to an extent that only The Lord of the Rings can claim to match. Since I read the first page of ‘The Prisoner of Azkaban’ all those years ago, they have become an integral part of me, allowing me to define myself during years where self worth and identity were hard to come by, picking me up when I thought I had hit rock bottom emotionally and mentally. Even now, when I need a quick reminder of how to get past something that seems insurmountable, I turn to Harry Potter and the different kinds of bravery enshrined within its covers.

Two of those I’ve already spoken about here, on this blog: Sirius’s sort of heady, crazed defiance, which pays little heed to personal safety; and Harry’s much more quiet, dedicated sort of bravery, that enables him to keep his nose to the grindstone and shoulder on even when people tell him to just stop already. In this post, I’m going to tackle another kind, and one that has become a sort of fascination for me, precisely because it’s the kind I feel the most in need of/have felt at some point in the past: the sheer gutsiness of Hermione Granger.

Hermione is walking encyclopaedia of knowledge in the Potterverse, and makes that obvious right at our first encounter. She’s read nearly everything she could get her hands on within two months of being notified that she is a witch, and reels off names to a stunned Harry and Ron. She has read everything in advance, and is the only person who seems prepared to answer the questions Snape puts to Harry during that calamitous first Potions class.

Hermione-hermione-granger-33203720-1383-2100This is a consistent character trait, for most of the series. Hermione, the character who comes from a world and background utterly alien to the magical one, knows more than most wizards and witches her age, or even older. She over-prepares for every test, and her worst fear is, literally, failing all her exams.

Rowling described Hermione as ‘terrified’, explaining that this terror at being unprepared, at finding herself caught out without an answer, is what drives her manic need to know it all and know it now. What propels Hermione’s academic brilliance is not only her near-idetic memory and inherent gift for the subjects, is the simple thirst for knowledge. And
she doesn’t grab it all up for the sake of competing and emerging ahead of the others—she does it because she is terrified of what would happen to her if she doesn’t know.

Hermione is, in some senses, the ideal student, and the most organized human being in the Potterverse. She is amazingly rational, tackling problems with a combination of logic and skill. Identify the cause, identify the solution (through methods of deduction that even Holmes would approve of) and then proceed to apply. The results will be flawless as all the books tell you they should be.

What keeps Hermione from being the hero, though, is her lack of spontaneity, and her need to follow a path laid down for her by books. This is best exemplified in the first Potions lesson of Half Blood Prince, where Hemione refuses point blank to listen to

When playing by the rules gets you nowhere...

When playing by the rules gets you nowhere…

Harry’s notes (rather, the ‘Prince’s’ notes) and proceeds doggedly according to the trusted book’s instructions. Her inability to veer from the printed matter results in Harry, for once, beating her at the subject and taking the lead from then on.

Rebelling against these rules—Hermione’s one guide to a completely unfamiliar world—happens rarely, and when it does, Hermione’s rebellion is usually quite spectacular. She slaps Malfoy across the face, helps to break a convict out of death row (pretty much), starts an underground Defence league and then, finally, bunks an entire school year to bring down the most feared Dark Wizard for a century, following a friend who, she finds out along the way, has absolutely no idea of what he’s doing.

Given that rule breaking and improvisation is really not her thing, it’s a huge huge HUGE deal that Hermione becomes the irreverent, quick thinking witch she does in ‘Deathly Hallows’. What’s perhaps the biggest indication of this change and maturity is the fact that when they finally realize that Harry has no set plan, it’s Ron, the much more impulsive,
badass hermspontaneous character, who walks out on him. Hermione sticks by his side, and doesn’t even give him grief. She keeps her feelings to herself, and shoulders much more of the burden from then on.

The reason I find Hermione so inspiring is, simply put, this: when you’ve been a model student all your life, when you’ve lived your life, clinging desperately to rules and books to anchor you in a wholly new and unfamiliar world, it’s really hard to throw all that aside and just make a go of it on your brains alone. It indicates an extremely high level of maturity and belief not only in your friends, but in yourself. Hermione, by this point, has hermione wandtruly grown up, no longer hiding behind pure logic and reason to guide her. Of course, those remain her greatest weapons, but she finally brings to bear the words she’d uttered all those years ago in the chamber housing Snape’s riddling potions:

‘Books! And cleverness! There are more important things—friendship and bravery…’

No one utterly refashions themselves and gets over their inner hurdles the way Hermione does. And for that, she’s a bloody amazing character and one hell of a role model.

Sirius Black and the Dangers of Loyalty

Great plans in fantasy literature have a tendency to go wrong. This is not really through any fault of the heroes’—to give them their due credit, they slog on even when things go really, steeply downhill. Great plans go wrong in fantasy because, well, that’s how things often turn out (or don’t) in real life, and say what you will, a lot of fantasy’s power as a genre comes from its ability to spin out amazingly ‘real’ and true-sounding stories in universes and settings nothing like our own.

But in fantasy, people, or events tend to show up and, sometimes, make the bad things go away, or salvage the situation before it is completely beyond repair. If done convincingly, this looks nothing like a deus-ex-machina, and instead segues smoothly into the narrative. Rowling is a master of this, and the character who perhaps best depicts this ability to just show up when needed is Sirius Black.

azkabanThe plotting of any novel requires precision, and I don’t think anything exemplifies this better than Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. In my review of the book for Fantasy Book Critic, I stated that what really impressed me about this novel was the sheer intricacy of its plotting—how each character, each event and seeming coincidence had a function to play in the larger scheme. To me this is still the most tightly plotted of the Potter books, and a real treasure of the mystery genre. Given that Sirius found his way onto the stage proper in this book, it seems fitting that it be the most well constructed and (pun not intended) well-‘timed’ of its fellows.

In an earlier post, I had celebrated Sirius’s unparalleled ability to love, and how I believe his unwavering, unconditional loyalty really defines his character. In that same post, I alluded to how his ability to just show up when needed, with no questions asked, is one of the greatest markers of said love for Harry. Sirius’s drive to drop all and be there for his godson is, to a large extent, simply a function of who he is—he is a dog, loyal, unquestioning, bound by feelings deeper than most around him would understand to someone he barely really knows. I think, however, that this tendency in him was probably exacerbated by ‘mistakes’ made early on in life, including that most crucial one of all: the decision to trust Peter over Remus in the first war against Voldemort.

Enough and more fan fiction has been written speculating on why Sirius chose to trust Sirius-sirius-black-7016619-937-1024Peter. The most compelling reading, for me at least, is that Sirius, always so hopped up on his own beliefs and loyalties, would never have considered for a second that the same didn’t apply to one of those he had chosen to protect, unless he had, at some point in his life, betrayed that other person. Sirius’s childhood, whatever little we know of it, seems far from a warm and nourishing experience. When Sirius turned his back on his family, he appears to have done it without any intention of ever going back, asking forgiveness, or even giving them a chance to change and come around to understanding his point of view. In the case of the Blacks this was probably a judicious decision, given how most of them turned out, but it also cut out any prospect of reconciling with those who did—such as Regulus.

Given this, I think there are two character traits that, if taken together, could explain Sirius’s lack of trust in Remus and resulting decision to turn to Peter:

(i) Sirius values loyalty above all else, and seems to believe, to a great extent, that others should do the same. ‘Then you should have died,’ he tells Peter in the Shack, ‘died rather than betrayed your friends, as we would have done for you.’ There is no other option for a ‘true friend’, in his mind. The only reason anyone might not remain incredibly, steadfastly loyal to someone they ‘should’ stick with is if they have been badly treated by those same people, as he was by his family. The infamous ‘prank’ involving Snape and the exposure of Remus’s secret could, in all fairness, constitute such a betrayal of trust and friendship, and thereby expose Sirius and his pack to the same sort of betrayal from Remus’s side.

(ii) Sirius does not have great faith in people’s ability to change. This could be put down to the fact that he is the only adult character to have been actively disallowed from ‘growing up’, instead being frozen into an emotional mess at the age of 21-22. Sirius does not have the same sort of maturity and mellowness that most of the other adult characters (with the exception of Snape) seem to possess. It’s ironic that the two characters who seem to snape siriusdetest each other the most are actually in many ways the most similar—fiercely loyal to those they have sworn to protect and/or love and unable, very often, to contain their interactions and emotions in a mature fashion. They just have different ways of expressing that chosen loyalty. I also think this lack of ability to believe in change is a result of Sirius’s own unwavering nature. He perceives any sort of shift in his preconceived notions of how a person should be as some sort of betrayal—such as when Harry decides that the ‘fun’ of Sirius coming up to Hogwarts in Order of Phoenix is not worth the risk. At this point, Sirius coolly tells him that he is ‘less like James than [he] thought’, and its evident to Harry that he is, for the first time ever, upset with him. Peter, who had never been betrayed (as far as Sirius could tell), and had always remained faithful, could not possibly change—at least until he went and proved Sirius dramatically wrong.

Rowling gives her characters amazing strengths—but she also does a very clever thing wherein she makes these strengths function as their weaknesses as well. Dumbledore’s cleverness and skill and consequent pride proved his youthful undoing; Harry’s selfless ability to throw all aside and play the hero leads to the death of his godfather, Sirius’s stubborn and unwavering nature played a decisive role in the tragedy that marked his, and his godson’s, life. Loyalty has a price, and one slip exacts demands from Sirius, drives him to push himself ever more to be there for his godson.

But hey, if it weren’t for that slip, we might not have had a series at all.

Master Manipulators: Albus Dumbledore

I ambitiously began a series I called ‘Master Manipulators’, profiling characters who fit this category in their respective worlds, tweaking circumstances and their peers to fit, more often than not, some hidden agenda. The object of this was to give readers a chance to objectively view their strengths and weaknesses and then, perhaps, judge for themselves as to who would win a throw-down between them. A specialised Suvudu cage match, as it were, where the cage would be the known world, or as much of it as they might be able to influence.

I profiled the most obvious candidate first, Petyr Baelish from Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire books. Today, I’ll present the vital stats of Master Manipulator #2: Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore.

manipulative dumbles

Strengths

Age and experience: Besides Nicholas Flamel, Dumbledore is easily the oldest person, with the most extensive career, that we meet in the series. The full range of his achievements is hinted at in the first book, and by the time we reach the seventh, they’ve only been substantiated. Dumbledore was around 115-116 when he died, and has dabbled with all kinds of magic (both light and dark, one would imagine), so he brings considerably experience, whether of people or technique, to bear on any situation.

Extensive political reach: Dumbledore is a mover and shaker despite being Headmaster of a school. He sits on councils, he has a hand in the government through his influence on Cornelius Fudge (supposedly he was sending Dumbledore constant owls at one point, soliciting his advice) and was even offered the top position himself. Yes, he gets painted as a liar and a madman at one point in the series, but the fact that the government bothers to do this at all shows how terrified they are of him and his influence.

Kindly old man persona: The other manipulators (Baelish and his fellows) have one major drawback, and that’s that no one really trusts them implicitly, the way people in the Potterverse trust Dumbledore. As long as he is around, they feel, things will turn out all right. ‘Dumbledore trusts him, and I trust Dumbledore’ is the reasoning much of the Order has for trusting Snape; his arrival at the Ministry makes everything magically all right that night in Order of the Phoenix; Harry’s response to Hermione’s worry in Half Blood Prince is ‘I’ll be fine. I’ll be with Dumbledore.’ He provides a steady, anchoring presence in Hogwarts, at least for the ‘right’ students, inspiring them to follow him. Because of this, most people don’t even realize when they’re being manipulated, except, of course, for poor old Snape.

Weaknesses

Emotional attachment: I’m rather sceptical about this professed weakness. Dumbledore tearfully confesses to Harry in Order that he ‘cared’ too much for him to place the burden of the prophecy on his young shoulders. He distances himself from his protege in order to better protect him from Voldemort. He refuses to explain things to Harry, a decision that results in Sirius’s death and major emotional turmoil for our hero. Dumbledore’s plan almost goes awry before the Horcruxes are even introduced, let alone destroyed; Harry could have died countless times during that ill-advised rescue mission.

Severus-Snape-Albus-Dumbledore-severus-snape-4853008-1279-541

Pride: In my post on Snape, I mentioned that the success of Dumbledore’s grand plan hinged on three things:

a)      Snape would linger long enough to tell Harry the truth of the last Horcrux (which honestly was rather presumptuous, considering it was a goddamn war and Snape, as a ‘traitor’ to the Order, would have been high on everyone’s hit-list. This begs the question of how competent Dumbledore thought his own Order members were. Did he not think any of them capable of vengeance?).

b)     That Harry would trust him enough to believe him (again, rather stupid because, let’s face it, Harry has not exactly been shown to be the type to listen first when he has a grudge. The only reason Sirius survived that night in the Shack was because Lupin turned up and calmed everyone down) and

c)      That Snape was probably the only person who would not get too emotionally overhauled by the revelation and withhold it in a mad desire to protect Harry.

Dumbledore made these assumptions because he is used to being correct, he believes he knows people better than they know themselves. ‘I am a great deal…cleverer than you,’ he tells Harry rather snappily,when pressed for the reason why he trusts Snape. Dumbledore never believes he has to explain himself except in cases of utmost distress (notably in that office scene in Order and during his King’s Cross walk with Harry in Deathly Hallows), but this sort of overweening pride could easily have caught up with him and tripped him spectacularly in a more realistic, less kid-friendly universe. I think this is a serious blind spot that Dumbledore really needs to watch out for. His pride, in some instances, makes him as bad as Voldemort.

Need for ‘moral’ backing: Dumbledore’s teenage insecurities made him such a mess that he refused to step in while Grindelwald ravaged Europe. He waited years to make his move, too terrified to hear that he might have killed his own sister. I find this a really crippling weakness; Dumbledore gave his enemy leeway to destroy both him and the lives of countless others. In this instance, Dumbledore betrayed stupidity: even if he did tell him that Dumbledore was the one who cast the final, fatal spell on Ariana, what reason did Grindelwald have to tell him the truth? If Grindelwald were any kind of villain worth his salt, wouldn’t he lie if he knew it would throw Dumbledore off his game?

Dumbledore’s need to be morally in the right puts him at a severe disadvantage when battling masters like Littlefinger. I understand that  good deal of this is because he is in a young adult/children’s series, and needs to stand in moral opposition to Voldemort, but since he’s proven he is not afraid to get his hands dirty in other ways—such as by ruthlessly manipulating Snape or lying all his life to Harry—this one scruple makes him seem ridiculous rather than admirable.

Conclusion: If it came down to sheer firepower, Dumbledore has it all. Magic is a great asset. But if you threw Dumbledore and Littlefinger on opposite sides of a chessboard stacked with real people, placed some ‘sympathetic’ figures on Dumbledore’s side and then asked them to play, I think poor old Albus would have a tough time seeing the bigger picture for the tears in his eyes. 

Ten ways in which reading fantasy screws up your love life

Lo and behold, herein are written the ways in which an overdose of the fantastical can screw up any right thinking, clear headed person. As though the socially accepted form of insanity doesn’t do that well enough anyway.

1) When someone says ‘I can’t be with you’, you automatically assume they are being self-sacrificing and noble and trying to protect you from some darker power.

arwen and aragorn

2) Because of this, you only decide to love them more.

3) You think ‘waiting’ for said person is a wonderful thing and will surely result in a reward, i.e., returned regard.

There is still hope.

                 There is still hope.

4) Even if it doesn’t, literature and the heroes have taught you that unrequited love is the most noble and wonderful thing evah. Just look at all the love Snape got after it was revealed he was crazy about Lily Evans.

5) This is a lie. Unrequited love is a bitch and it would hurt like hell to love like Severus Snape. But you’ve ‘known’ otherwise for so long that it will take you months, maybe even years, to accept that.

snape and lily

‘Always’: Not a word to be uttered lightly.

6) When all your friends tell you that someone is wrong for you, is not giving you what you deserve, you think it’s just because they don’t see the nobility and courage the other person hides so successfully from the rest of the world. Only you are blessed with that vaunted ability because you are not fooled by the mundane world and its standards.

7) Also, fantasy heroes and heroines are always ridiculed at some point in their lives for their beliefs, so you think it’s part of the deal to be considered a complete, blind idiot. At some point, like all those heroes, you’ll have the chance to turn around and say ‘I told you so.’

'Everybody thinks I'm lying. That's okay. I'm used to it.'

‘Everybody thinks I’m lying. That’s okay. I’m used to it.’

8) There is no such thing as bad timing, or coincidence, or, for that matter, all-around unbeatable circumstances. There is only Fate and you, the lone warrior who will defy it in order to be with the one you so desperately love. Bring on the shitstorm, universe!

'I can totes handle this.'

‘I can totes handle this.’

9) The more reasons the person throws at you to stay away, the more drawn you feel to them. Because they are just more demons for you to overcome and prove yourself a worthy champion.

10) Fantasy heroes never give up, you tell yourself. No matter how tough the going gets, no matter how terrible they feel, they don’t ever give up. And neither will you, no matter how much it might kill you to flog yourself on.

'I shall carry on until I collapse and even then I will crawl my way up this damn mountain. You shall not defeat me!'

‘I shall carry on until I collapse and even then I will crawl my way up this damn mountain. You shall not defeat me!’

Ain’t no love like tortured, angsty fantasy love.

 

After all, they lived happily ever after...for a while.

After all, they lived happily ever after…for a while.