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Day July 25, 2007

Harry Potter and Everyman as Hero

One last post on the now-completed Harry Potter series and then I’ll shut up; after all, Congress has just issued contempt subpoenas and it’s time for the next act in the Constitutional kabuki being played out in ultra-slow motion in Washington, D.C.

Among the more obtuse commentaries on the wrap-up of Harry Potter 7 is Will Leitch, on Slate this week, who hated the Epilogue for its ordinariness, domesticity, and its lack of apparent grandeur, calling it an “apparent waste.” Leitch asks, “Did we really go through all this just to see Harry, Ron, and Hermione take up residence on a cul-de-sac?

Well, Mr. Leitch – yes we did. And anything else would have been very disappointing, given the previous six books.

I believe Rowling brought us full circle to reinforce a central theme of the series. Aside from Voldemort, who until the final pages is superhuman, good and evil in the series are fought over by very ordinary people. Those who fight on both sides, with the exception of the sociopathic Bellatrix Lestrange, are relatively normal (apart from being magical, of course), with ordinary concerns and fears. Even the Malfoys, long a focus of evil deeds in the series, are revealed as being not that different than you or I. The Malfoys appear to welcome Voldemort’s return, but everyone (including the Dark Lord) can tell that they’d be just as happy if the past had stayed safely buried and Lucius could continue cashing in on his reputation as a former badass, instead of subjecting his wife and son to the realities of being part of the inner circle of Death Eaters once more. Ditto with his wife and son. There’s barely a scene in Book Seven where Draco doesn’t look sick at how this long-imagined power and freedom from morality really turned out.

On the side of good in the series, our combatants are — if anything — even more ordinary. Harry is revealed in Book Six as the purely accidental focus of Voldemort’s grand plans. His greatness stems not from his parentage (though of course some of his protection does), but from his need to deal with the consequences of that accident of history. Dumbledore himself has a complex past, revealed for the first time only in Book Seven, but capable of mistakes and hubris and miscalculation as any ordinary person is. Snape’s motivation in playing double-agent and protecting Harry turns out to be the oldest and simplest motivation around: love. Nor does life stop being lived: even as the final battle between good and evil approaches, Remus and Tonks have a son, Bill and Fleur are married, and our protagonists finally reach the age where romance is nearly as important as the location of the Horcruxes. Ordinariness permeates even the final showdown: Mrs. Weasley launches into battle with the purely evil Bellatrix, with the war cry of a mother defending her young: “Not my daughter, you b*tch!” The casualties, unlike the largely nameless dead of Tolkien’s classic battles, are friends, family, loved ones.

In short, Rowling shows us how we would fight (and hopefully defeat) tyranny and evil — not as professionals, not as superheroes — but just as normal people like you and I. Even the worst threat to our way of life requires nothing more than mobilizing ourselves, recognizing the threats, and organizing to meet them, or so I think Rowling would have us believe. Unlike the Lord of the Rings — from which Rowling seems to take inspiration in many ways, but in which humble Strider turns out to be King Aragorn, destined to rule all Middle-Earth, and the Ring-bearing hobbits are granted eternal life — Rowling shows us that ordinary people can act in extraordinary ways to stop extraordinary evil, and yet desire nothing more as reward than the return of normalcy. The cozy domesticity of the epilogue is thus critical to the entire series. Harry, for all his strength and eventual wisdom, gets precisely what he’s always wanted: a normal life, with the ability to send his children off to school knowing they’ll be safe, returning with Ginny to their house on Leitch’s imagined cul-de-sac.

We used to call that kind of ending “living happily ever after.”