Friday, July 20, 2007

Vengeance and Harry Potter

Its only a couple of hours before Deathly Hallows hits the stores...and I already have a beef. Actually, it's been stewing for about two years now. Alright, J.K., let's have at it.

Book 6 has been sitting on the floor next to my bed for about six weeks now, collecting dust. I figured I'd pop it open sometime before the 20th and get myself ready for book 7. But there it sits. Where's the excitement I had for books 5 and 6? Where's the animal rabidity I unearthed ripping through books 1-4? I've been wondering some about that and doing some thinking.

And this is what I thought. This series rests on one central fact -- Harry wants revenge. In the first three books, Harry and his clan were so enamored with wonder and discovery that the vengeance aspect of the series took a back seat. At their core, these Potter books are about exploration -- discovery of self and wonder of world. All throughout volumes 1-5 it was clear that these books were wonderful examples of sacrifice and love.

But somewhere along the line, things changed. Book 5 was the first in the series I read as it came out. I loved it. But Sirius Black's death near the end introduced a new tone to the series, or perhaps more accurately, brought to light a shadowy undercurrent that had been running through the books all along. For Harry to "win", he needed vengeance. He needed revenge against Voldemort for killing his parents, his uncle and many others. With the death of Dumbledoor in book 6, this need for vengeance only became more acute. By the end of Half-Blood Prince, the only avenue left for Harry was to leave school and focus his efforts on ending Voldemort once and for all.

And there's my worry. That the Potter books, such a miraculous example of sacrificial love, are going to degenerate into a simple quest for vengeance. Did Harry's parents die to give Harry life? Or did they sacrifice themselves simply because Harry was the only one who could defeat (and kill) Voldemort? And what's the distinction?

When using Harry's mother (and her sacrifice) as an example of Christ's sacrificial love, the answer leans towards the former. But if Harry's quest for redemption can only succeed through the application of vengeance, the whole "Christian defense" of the Potter books crumbles. Imagine if Christ died so that his followers would rise up in revenge against a hypocritical religious establishment and a secular political order. What if his death had nothing to do with forgiveness or remission, and was simply the first spark in a long war for retribution through the application of violence and war?

If that sounds absurd, then the potential for a violent book 7 should scare us. Some of Christ's followers no doubt would have wanted to return violence for violence in response to Christ's death, just as Harry wishes violence upon Voldemort. But the problem they struggled with is the problem we all deal with on a daily basis (and more acutely since 9/11). Namely, that vengeance is not Christian. The concept of revenge should be as foreign to the Christ-follower as greed or adultery. And the thirst for it is anathema to the spirit of the Christian faith.

Love your enemies. Pray for them. Turn the other cheek. Go the extra mile. Bust most importantly:

Vengeance is mine, thus saith the LORD.

That's not to say that old Voldey deserves a pat on the back and a big bowl of ice cream. While vengeance is God's, justice is something the Christian should be supremely concerned with. Not only justice for the poor and oppressed, but justice upon those who abuse their wealth and power. Justice is to be served on both the oppressors and the oppressed. Thieves, warmongers and murderers deserve justice, too.

And that's where the arguments start. That's where the trouble lies. Can violence be used as a means towards justice? Unjust states have been violently overthrown with both great and terrible results. But as Christ-followers we have to ask if it's ever worth it? Can the ends justify the means?

But now we're way off topic. Because justice is not vengeance. These are two very different concepts, with very different outcomes. Is justice served if Harry kills Voldemort? Perhaps. Most certainly, vengeance is served. Yet there's this inescapable idea that we can't have both. In dispensing justice, it's difficult for the aggrieved party to accurately mete out a suitable punishment, because in most cases, it's difficult for them to be rational adjudicators of justice. Ideally, judges are meant to be impartial arbiters of confiscation, correction and reparation. Maybe that's not entirely possible, but it's important to strive for it, and the aggrieved will have the hardest of times doing so.

Justice restores things to their proper order and balance. That's its purpose, and it's a righteous concept. Vengeance, while not its stark opposite, is still diametrically opposed to justice. It is the (irrational?) use of force in a state of rage to punish a wrong with an even greater wrong. It does not concern itself with restoration or recompense. Only revenge.

And that's the difference. The world of Harry Potter began in the last days of the roaring 90s. But it ends in a post-9/11 world, where we ask questions like "what is justice?" and "what is vengeance?" on a daily basis.

I hope book 7 has Harry deal with these issues in a frank and startling way. I hope he wrestles with what it means to kill or be killed in his final confrontation with Voldemort. War is hell. There's death and blood and guts and vomit. When you move from restorative justice to singular vengeance, you have to deal with the consequences in all their muddy glory.

And in my heart of hearts, I hope there's way for Harry to restore things to their rightful place without resorting to vengeance. It's the difference between a Mel Gibson war movie and Terrence Malik one. There ought to be a struggle in Harry Potter, as he grows from an adolescent into a young man, and deals with how far he's willing to go in his quest to restore the right things to their proper places.

But I fear that won't happen. Miss Rowling has been leading us down this vengeful path for two books now (maybe more), and I fear it's simply too late to turn back. There were signs in books 4 and 5, but we had invested so much in the character by that time, that it was hard to recognize the warning signs. It wasn't until halfway through book 6 that I finally realized where this was going. It all ends in revenge. It all ends in a final confrontation, where Harry will have the opportunity to seek vengeance upon those who have wronged him. And most likely, he will succeed.

But what then? In reality, life doesn't end after book 7. It doesn't end at age 18. In reality, killing killers doesn't bring resolution, it just eliminates the danger of them killing again. In reality, bombs dropped in Afghanistan fail to bring closure to a grieving nation. Instead, they bring even greater violence, leaving oppression and corruption and unrelenting guilt in their wake.

But Harry (most likely) will never have to deal with that. Because his life ends, whether he dies or not, on July 21st. He'll never have to come to grips with the fact that he's ended the lives of other human people, actual human beings, and that their deaths will never bring back his parents, or his friends, or his mentor. No one will have to deal with the aftermath, six years later, because that portion of his life will never be written.

What kind of message is that? Mission Accomplished? Not one of self-sacrifice and unfailing love, but one of hatred and rage and ignorance. Because in Harry's world, there are no long-term consequences for his actions. There's no long term anythings.

And the sad thing is, we know that's bullshit. It's just simply not true. We see it for the lie it is every night we watch the news, or open the paper, or surf the internet. There are always consequences. There is rarely closure.

And there is always more violence.

1 comment:

Jamie said...

Without giving anything away...I strongly urge you to read the 7th book. I had similar concerns about the series. But I thik that she does a fabulous job wraping things up. I can't say anything more without giving things away...but you should definitely read it!