Thursday, July 26, 2007

Harry Potter and the Deadly Denouements

The Ugly

When you see Tuco in "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly", you don't know why he's "Ugly". He's not deformed or scarred, he doesn't have some horrible disfiguring disease or wound on him to make him so. He's about as cleaned up and well kept as Eastwood and Van Cleef. In the end, he's the Ugly because he's neither "Good" nor "Bad". Which is what this post deals with - things that you notice, that neither add to nor detract from the book on the whole. You just notice them, because they're odd or striking.

Deathly Hallows is pretty unusual among HP books in its markedly PG-13 setup. I mentioned the intense make-out scenes in a previous post. Additionally, a good deal of violence is described
in the book. Most striking is the language. For the first time, you see people curse about proper (The worst in previous books was 'cow' as an abusive/derisive adjective). Ron at one point tells Harry the situation is "effing hopeless", and Aberforth (read the book to find out who he is) talks about the 'bastards' who assaulted his sister, rendering her psychologically (and by consequence, magically) unstable for life. 'hell' is part of the strong vocabulary. "Why the hell" is used at one point (no rage like italicized rage) and Neville Longbottom bravely says he'll join the dark side when "hell freezes over"

This struck me as odd. The Potterverse is, by and large, an agnostic, if not atheistic universe. The only mentions of religion come during the celebrations of Christmas and Easter through the usual festive trappings of either - Christmas dinners, presents, easter eggs and so forth. When there is no God/s (which makes sense when you can magic away reality yourself), how does the concept of hell and heaven come up? The presence of ghosts (regulated strictly by the Ministry) is about the closest the books come to describing an aferlife. So, how do the wizards understand the connotations of hell? And why do they imagine it as we do, a place of fire and brimstone which could only freeze at the end of time or something? "when the earth meets the sky" or "when the skarnrock grows stripes" would be more plausible exaggerations for a wizard, especially one brought up by wizards (as opposed to Muggle-borns).

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows resembles at different levels, Tolkein's "The Return of the King". Both basically are about climaxes, when heroes and villains are gathered and open, armed conflict has begun. Both involve small, relatively weak or poorly-armed protagonists who hold the real key to the conflict, as opposed to amassed power on either side. And both end with a thunderous battle wherein it is uncertain how things will turn out, and both sides strike out with desperate fury.

Key plot elements are similar too. The Deathly Hallows revolves about Harry's attempts to find and destroy four Horcruxes - artifacts into which Voldemort has sealed fragments of his soul. Shortly into the plot, Harry finds one - an ancient locket. The interesting thing about this is that the Horcrux is seemingly indestructible. Non-magical techniques and even conventional magical spells have no effect on the Horcrux, and to destroy it, one must destroy the object beyond repair. To ensure safety, Harry and his friends start to wear the locket. Each, upon wearing it, finds that the Horcrux alters behaviour, making him/her more depressed, more agressive, more fearful and reluctant to go on. Harry at one point discovers the only weapon capable of destroying the thing at the bottom of a lake. When he dives in, wearing the locket to retrieve it, he suddenly finds the chain shortening around his neck. When the weapon is finally obtained, Ron, Harry's friend, finds himself unable to destroy the Horcrux, as it voices his fears and projects illusions of them coming true. It is with great difficulty (I mean it, I was reading the thing and saying "Destroy the f#*@ing Horcrux already" halfway through this scene) that the thing is destroyed once and for all.

To anyone who has read The Lord of the Rings, the parallels of this scene to those involving Frodo, Sam and the One Ring will be obvious. The two objects are similar enough as it is, each being a receptacle of an otherwise invulnerable Dark Lord's soul/spirit, which can only be destroyed through extremely powerful magic. That they have similar effects on the people around them shows the homage Rowling pays to Tolkein in her finale.

The homage is also present in the final battle, when reinforcements arrive at a seemingly hopeless point in battle (When it seems Harry is dead on the lawns of Hogwarts vis-a-vis When it seems Frodo and the Ring are captured at the Black Gates). The battle restarts, and it is only at its absolute peak that the final hope (Harry reappearing/Mount Doom exploding) shows itself. There has been, in the interim, a good deal of death and destruction. Kind of apt (I don't know if that's the right word to use) that Rowling, who's the queen of modern fantasy fiction (On the sheer basis of number of books sold) pays a homage to Tolkein, the baap of epic fantasy writing. Nice way to enter the Big League of fantasy writing.

Homages apart, however, Harry Potter is, at heart a kids' fairy tale. The story, when you search in your memories, somehow brings back memories of Enid Blyton more than anything else, she of the Noddy series and The Three Golliwogs and the Famous Five and fairies and talking rabbits who, whatever else they do, do not miss tea and girls who don't get jam and cake at the same for screaming their heads half off. The books are about children, more than anything else. They are about a real world, which is just more fantastic than we know - you don't have to imagine a tower and Medieval Europe to get her stories. They are quintessentially British - with the 'propah' speech, manners and tea-cakes (and equivalents for modern day Britain). And they are fairy tales, in ending good and proper with "they all lived happily ever after"

And that is about all I can possibly say about "The Deathly Hallows". It's been about a week since I got it, and the damn thing has got me posting thrice in a week, when twice a month is the standard rate. Ok, that's the last thing I can say. Some book.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Harry Potter and the Deadly Denouements

Ok, this is something of a pointless excercise. I mean, the book was the fastest selling book in history before it was released. William Shakespeare, Geoffrey Chaucer and J.R.R Tolkein jointly giving it two thumbs down wouldn't take a cent off the billions it's going to make. But anyways.....


Awesome though the book was, it had several things that well, niggle at the reader. By far the biggest niggler (no racist implications there) is plot predictability.

While waiting for the book release I, like any number of jobless HP fans with broadband access, scoured the Leaky Cauldron for info about the book release. In the process I ended up reading several predictions made about book 7. The most important ones:

(a) Snape would turn out to be a good guy after all, because he'd loved Lily
(b) Harry would willingly sacrifice himself to Voldemort in the end
(c) Harry would turn out to be the final Horcrux beyond the 6 destroyed (which is why he'd have to sacrifice himself)

Not only did all three turn out to be true, the book used the exact reasoning the predictors did. Take the Horcrux thing for example. The analyst's logic was that while Voldemort used specific murders to create Horcruxes with the torn portions of his soul, the number of murders he committed would make his an extremely damaged soul (think torn and patched here and there). It would make sense that since he killed two people before attempting to kill Harry, those one or two bits of soul would be hanging loosely and, when his rebound curse turned him into Shadowmort (the popular internet term is Vapormort), they'd disconnect. They'd then enter Harry, he being the only receptacle around. Hence his scar, Parseltongue-abilities and Voldy-sense.

In the climax, Harry finds out he is the final Horcrux, for the same reasons as described at the Leaky Cauldron. This was a bit of a let down. I mean, you don't think J K Rowling's plot would be foreseen with such accuracy, least of all by ginny_potterfan75 (fictitious). And surprise, surprise, he has to give himself up to Voldemort and die so Voldemort can be killed. I wonder - has Rowling been posting spoilers under a pseudonym to raise the fever pitch a bit? Or hiring ginny_potterfan75 to, ahem, help out with the writing?

The next bad is Harry's "power". The prophecy mentions "power he knows not", and as we all know, this is love. LOVE. LUUV. LOVEY DOVEY WOVEY Love. And the fact that Voldy's a bipolar sociopath who can't understand it. So, what role does it play, apart from getting Harry and Ron each an intense PG-13+ make-out scene? (Oh yeah, J K Rowling's put in something for everyone)

In a nutshell, none. Harry's finally defeating Voldemort has zilch to do with love, or his ability to love. It has to do with Voldemort not checking the fine print of:
  • Genesus horcruxus or Fuin jutsu: Horcrux fujin or whatever that spell was that seals a piece of your soul into something
  • That whole business of rebuilding his body with Harry's blood
and a series of duels - one in 1945, one in the Half Blood Prince and a couple in this book - that had nothing to do with love. Harry's love-powered self sacrifices helped set up Voldy for aeventual defeat, but in no way was love Harry's power, at least not the power you'd expect a "Chosen One" to have. From the previous book I figured Harry'd either use his Luuuv EQ to beat Voldemort in some mental struggle or make a Loveton: Rasengan or something. Neither happens. Disappointing.

Next, the Deathly Hallows - 3 objects that enable their owner to 'master' death. Their mysteerious background sets them up to be the focus of the 100th minute, the point where the villian's united the fragments and is either in possession of some super-supernatural ray gun, or has unleashed Cthulhu and Ghatanothoa from another dimension, and it's upto the hero/es to fix either in about 10 minutes, before the world ends and credits roll.

What they turn out to be is a setup to facilitate a terrific Deus Ex Machina, and a step short of a MacGuffin.

Deus Ex first. As with the Horcruxes, these things have been hidden (the difference of course is they have passed down through the ages). They started out though, with the Peverell family. Through a series of events, they moved from owner to owner. When the protagonist spends like 340 pages looking for a great Invisibility Cloak, it isn't the best of plots that reveals it to be the one in his pocket. Wouldn't you just know his great-great -great -great -great -great -great -granddaddy was the last Peverell or something? Ditto, when a superwand everyone's been looking for turns out to be Dumbledore's. The super-wand apparently gives allegiance to its owner, which transfers to whoever beats the owner ('beats' is hazily defined. All we know is to defeat in a duel, kill in sleep or simply disarm from behind count as 'beat') This is what finally saves Harry's posterior - Voldy didn't know a weak underling, whom Harry 'beat' earlier, 'beat' Dumbledore before Snape, whom Voldemort 'beat' to get the SmartWand. So when he and Harry slug it out at the end......... whoops, he should have taken Harry's climactic 5 minute wand exposition seriously. And that is what saves Harry's tush. Not love or character strength or Glucon-D.

MacGuffin next. Finding the three and putting them together does not give Harry the super-duper ray gun to beat Voldy or vice-versa. In fact, the only significant Hallow turns out to be the wand,which at the end is returned to Dumbledore's grave. The second is lost, and Harry keeps it that way. And the third is his Invisibility Cloak, which he continues to use exactly as he did before. The net point of "the Deathly Hallows" - Deathly boring.

Finally, the expositions. The Deus Exes are believable, but having them explained by Dumbledore in a pre-finale exposition (How the fuck did he do that? He's dead) takes a good deal out of the story. Furthermore, the final explanation of Snape's allegiance, the hardest hitting part of this whole sordid tale, takes place over a solid 45 seconds, five minutes before the pre-finale finale (the false finale, so to speak). Lot of info crammed into very little time. I wouldn't be surprised if Harry's "scar pain" were really his head exploding from all the info overload.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Harry Potter and the Deadly Denouements

Well, it's finally here. After a lot of Leaky Cauldron sessions, spoiler guesses, pre-ordering and fake version downloading, I got Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows on Saturday. Those who know yours truly will know of his phenomenal reading speed, and it is with a mixture of orgasmic satisfaction and nostalgic melancholy that I put down the book. What's following is a review of sorts, and yes, there are spoilers, so those who haven't read the book and want to, now's a good time to hit Alt+D.

The Good:
"Good" doesn't quite describe what's positive in this book. Super-duper-awesome or mega-fucking -great, they're better fits. This is the finale to the Harry Potter series and it shows. As we all know, this is when Harry's :

(a) figured out the how and why of bumping off Voldemort
(b) run out of father figures/friendly mentors worth a damn in a fight against him

Also, with Dumbledore dead and the Ministry alternating between (fake?) encounter killing & pretending everything's happy-happy-joy-joy, we know the time's right for Voldemort to show his stuff.

So how does he do it? By doing one of those "Acknowledge me ruler or die" threats from James Bond/Doctor Who/G.I. Joe? By rigging a global Crucio curse to will everyone into submission? By blowing up Parliament and putting the Dark Mark over it, a la V for Vendetta? Nope. The guy's smart enough not to incite open conflict. He simply kills half the wizards in the Ministry, Imperiuses (brainwashes/mindwipes for Muggles) the rest and establishes a puppet ruler, who announces the accidental demise of the previous Minister and openly establishes Voldemort's Nazi-type order. Muggle-borns are to be registered and investigated for "stealing powers from legitimate wizards". Hogwarts now teaches Dark Arts, as well as hatred of Muggles in place of Muggle Studies and gangs of beta-level followers thug up people for no reason. There is no resistance, because, as explained in the book, everyone knows who's behind the change. But this way, it's only whispers and talk within houses. People daren't confide in each other, for fear that their suspicions are false, and more fear that they are true. The fear of chaos, reprisal and targeting keeps them silent, and him in power.

This scenario is interesting, mirroring both past (Hitler Youth, SA/SS gangs and the Holocaust) and present (Dick Cheney, anyone?)
history, and fictional events (think of the Party with Big Brother and the Thought Police). When you consider that throughout the series, save the Order of the Phoenix, the state and the wizarding community at large have been content to be hapless victims who flinch at the memory of a dead foe, fawn over heroes without emulating them, discredit those who disagree with the State (Order of the Phoenix had a point there) and be openly, if mildly, racist (the House elves' servitude, the marginalization of Centaurs and werewolves and giants and a house that admits only pure-bloods), you have to realize - they've had this coming a long time. J. K. Rowling has done an exceptional job in showing how a 100 itty-bitty mistakes result in one giant reprisal.

Second, Harry's battle - starting with going about finding Voldemort's Horcruxes and avoiding his traps, to destroying them all and facing him in the finale - is a battle. It is Pelennor Fields and the Battle of the Black Gates (Incidentally in the climax, centaurs suddenly turn up as last minute reinforcements. Coincidence? I think not). There's difficulty - Harry, Ron and Hermione have to live off the land for weeks, and Hermione actually brainwashes her parents into foretting her and fleeing the country, to safeguard them. There's dissension - Harry stubbornly refuses to tell anyone else about the plan, which pisses em all off, Ron is fed up of chasing aimlessly for relics, and actually walks out on Harry in between. And there's the body count. This is some body count. The book has the largest body count in the series, with characters (the cutest, most innocent, most dragged-to-the-edge-but-saved-by-the-hero-at-the-last-minute type, most everything) dying left, right and centre, and in possibly the most horrifically painful ways. Rowling's depiction of this scenario is tragic, scary and most importantly, realistic.
At the end of the book, the War's over and Voldemort's defeated, but it cost lives. VERY IMPORTANT LIVES (I'm giving a hint here).

Harry's feelings are touched upon pretty well too, in terms of what he's going through and putting his friends through. He's uncertain and scared for the future, but no less determined to go ahead with what has to be done. Batman he ain't and at one point, you can feel the waves of exhaustion come off him when he says "I've had enough enough trouble to last me a lifetime"
and longs just for his dormitory bed, for everything it signifies - certainty, peace and contentment. There's a touch of Peter Parker in his desire for normality.

And lastly, what's great is the sprinkling of wit that characterizes J.K. Rowling - the little details. At one point, in response to Ron's description of childhood fairy tales, Harry mentions Cinderella, to which Ron enquires "Is that a Muggle disease??" Also, the Death Eaters show brains. When the coup is complete, they jinx Voldemort's name, so speaking it aloud summons them, armed and dangerous. Their logic - only the people likely to pose a threat to Voldemort ever use his name out loud. When you think about it, it's genius.

That's what's good. The bad and the ugly will follow......

Monday, July 02, 2007

St. Stephen's Fired

Up, that is. St. Stephen's college has finally contracted Reservationia pestis, after miraculously avoiding it through the whole of last year (Which, in retrospect, should have struck one as odd). Anyway, the brouhaha has started all over again, with two major differences.

One, this is St. Stephen's issue alone, so it's unlikely there's going to be the same level of action. Last year's announcement raised a storm (which was eventually contained in a teacup) - this is probably going to be a light shower. Two, last year's reservation plague was brought about by the Human Resource Desecration/Devastation/Depredation/Denudation/Deprivation/ Depreciation Ministry - this was done by the college's ruling board. The reservation moreover isn't for people of the Backward Castes/Classes but for Christians. (Though there's a major plus if you're additionally from some sort of Backward Caste)

So what's to rant and rave about?

The thing that differentiates the debate in this case from the usual Tooheyian vs. Galtian/Roarkian fights is the point the college board makes (led by some dude named Thampu. Anybody from Gitanjali here?) - the college started as a missionary-backed institute with the aim of educating Christians (and possibly producing more) and uplifting them; them as in 'Ctrl+I' them or simply, them alone. It's the Most Holy Trinity and its believers who back the institute, not the Almighty state or the students. So why shouldn't they decide who they let in or uplift or whatever?

Strange as it may sound, this point seems valid. Given that a college was started with a purpose by a specific group of people, why shouldn't it function for them alone? Sure, you'd wish these chaps would bring their arguments completely out of the closet (Thampu says “Academic excellence in St Stephen’s in recent decades has almost become a smokescreen for masking the privileges of the socio-economic elite” thus smokescreening his own view) but that's to do with the people making the point rather than the point itself. And this isn't restricted to "durrty paalitics"-plagued India. Purdue for instance, is affiliated somehow to the State of Indiana, and has to attract students from Indiana. They offer incentives for Indianans to come here and people are pissed if there're too many people from any place else (India or Illinois, Oregon or Ouagadougou) Same founding logic.

The bizarre dichotomy this reveals is this: Opening up any sort of institution dependent on individual and creative minds to the population at large is important for it to flourish. But at what point do you hold a restriction? I mean, imagine if tomorrow all world class institutes opened up completely, so anyone from anyplace could apply with an equal probability/passage of entry (JEE type stuff). Imagine IIT with a population of 40-60% smart Russians, Chinese, Brazilians, Americans whatever. There'd be an enquiry as to the "Indian" in it. Or what if Harvard were so filled with smart people from all over the place that Alex Worthington, whose dad built the Worthington Drama Hall, just couldn't make it in? The WASPs would unsheath their stings. And be justified in doing so too. So firstly, to what extent do you open up?

Conversely, to what extent is it OK for an institute to close up? To keep St. Stephens for those who frame John 3:16 on their walls or Purdue for people with the "Hoosier" gene or something? Those who started such institutions for their respective communities, do they have the right to render it unviable through such extreme measures?

Quite a conundrum - that's point 1. And two, Barkha Dutt was all bleeding hearts afire for the OBCs and denouncing the protesters's apathy towards OBC conditions and what not (she was justified in denouncing their abusive language though). Now that St. Stephen's going to have seats reserved in it she's gone and written this.

Tells you a lot, don't it?