A couple months ago, while still in Rome, I logged into my account for the public library near to the Sabine Farm and reserved a copy of the ultimate Harry Potter book. I was number 16 in the queue.
The day of the release a chirpy library worker called a few minutes after their morning opening to let me know my copy of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was available (which means they bought more than 16 copies at $39.99 a pop. NB: reinforced library bindings are more expensive). Since I had to go into town for errands, including returning some inter-library loan book – stuff like the Anathemata: fragments of an attempted wrting by David Jones – I picked up the copy.
Later in the day, having resolved my daily list of things to do, I delved into the book. I have read these books because people as questions about them.
I was amazed at the very onset to find this even before the title page:
The Libation Bearers
Oh, the torment bred in the race,
the grinding scream of death
and the stroke that hits the vein,
the haemorrhage none can staunch, the grief,
the curse no man can bear.
But there is a cure in the house
and not outside it, no,
not from others but from them,
their bloody strife. We sing to you,
dark gods beneath the earth.
Now hear, you blissful powers underground—
answer the call, send help.
Bless the children, give them triumph now.
—Aeschylus, The Libation Bearers
That cheery little quip sets the stage in this very dark book.
There is another quote from William Penn’s More Fruits of Solitude, which I take to be as much about Rowling”s feelings about ending the series as it is about the resolution of the book itself.
The Libation Bearers is one of the plays in the tragic trilogy the Oresteia including Agamemnon, the Libation Bearers, the Eumenides. A friend tipped me off that J.K. Rowling had read Classics. The Libation Bearers picks up after the homecoming of King Agamemnon after the Trojan War. In the first play, his wife Clytemnestra, who has in the meantime taken a lover, murders Agamemnon in his bath, much in the manner of a sacrifice. The send play deals wtih the revenge exacted by Orestes and Electra, the children of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra. Clytemnestra now shares bed and throne with a lover Aegisthes. In the beginning of the play she wakes from a nightmare in which she gives birth to a snake, which is now sucking blood from her breast. Clytemnestra, alarmed, sends her highly abused daughter Electra to pour libations on the grave of Agamemnon as appeasment offerings to the gods whom she fears she has angered by the murder of her husband. Electra finds her brother Orestes at the grave. Together they plot their revenge.
Aside from the snake business, there are not many obvious connections between The Libation Bearers and HP and the Deathly Hallows. Certainly the theme of revenge for a slain parent is present in both, but in Aeschylus the children kill their own mother. Perhaps the theme of self-perpetuating cycles of bloodshed might fit, but that is a stretch.
I think the choice of the quote was more to impose a general sense of sorrow for the trials of the children in the book.
I will not provide spoilers.
I will say, however, that this book is all about finding one’s way through loss, trying to find identity and peace when life has been so truncated at its very start. The loss of Harry’s parents while so young deals a profound wound which does not heal in him. He always looking for his father in father figures in the whole series and everyone of them is stripped away from him with violence. He finds surrogates and redemptive figures all along the way. He has close friends and even an adoptive family who shares his pains but only in part. He is always very much alone. The bildungsroman is always going to be popular, but with the fracturing of families today, the confusion and wounds and the never-healing loneliness many young people have grown up with over the last decades, I understand how these books have met with such success.
Rowlings has tapped a dark and bloody vein in our post-Christian psyche.
"But Father! But Father!", … I can hear it even now. "Aren’t books the work of the devil? How can you recommend them?! If my little Mindy reads Harry Potter, will she go to hell!"
First, pay attention. I am not recommending the books, or movies, one way or other. I have read them mostly because I need to know what it going on in pop culture and what literature is shaping young minds. I can read a book like this last one in a few hours, anyway. They are a briefly amusing sideshow to fighting through the sludgy pages of Catherine Pickstock or the intricacies of Ambrose and Augustine.
Kids may read Harry Potter. But – as with all books – parents should read everything first, or read with their children, even aloud! There is something wonderful about reading aloud.
Also, I urge all parents or teachers to read Michael P. O’Brien’s A Landscape With Dragons: The Battle for Your Child’s Mind. This helps you understand the proper use and misuse of archetypal images and the concepts of good and evil, how in some books they are blurred so that a child could be subtly influenced into a confused view of what good and evil are. My view is that over the course of the Harry Potter books, what was at first a bit vague regarding good and evil, became more and more sharply defined. Read with parents involvment, the books are alright. They are not great literature. Harry Potter ain’t Frodo Baggins. There are many great books on the Great Books list to read.
I don’t think you will go to hell if you read Harry Potter.
Some non-spoiler observations.
First, a lot of thought went into this book. What interested me was not so much how Rowlings bound up the threads of the series resolved plots, but how the characters grew and interacted. Women seem better at writing this sort of thing. They seem to write the best mysteries.
Next, there are strong Christian, biblical allusions, even slightly adjusted quotes from Scripture at key moments (cf. Matthew 6:21 and 1 Corinthians 15: 26). As I ran across them they leapt off the page. Of course, someone like me is going to pick up on these and know them for what they are. Still, the way they are woven in, the moment, and the very concepts are so striking when they appear that even the biblically or culturally unlettered will probably take notice of them as being different in some way and worthy of attention.
There is an epilogue. Some suggest that Rowlings might be trying to curtail fan fiction. I rather think she needed to help the reader see that while some wounds do not heal, there is hope and life continues. The dark makes the light brighter, but only when you have some perspective.
If you read the book, don’t post spoilers, which I would consider very bad form.