Monday, August 27, 2007

Addendum to
Deathly Hallows

I know it's possibly bad form to return to a review that's already been written, but in this instance, there are far too many questions and issues that have come up at a later stage for them to not be discussed. While I don't want to change any of what I said in my previous review, the lot more thinking that I've done on Deathly Hallows, the discussions I've had with friends and on various forums, and, most importantly, my second reading of DH - which allowed to me to notice sundry details and mull over missing links and gnash my teeth over irritating parts way more satisfactorily than the first, frenzied reading had - have all left me feeling very disappointed, frustrated, and badly in need of answers. So this post will not be anywhere near as positive as my first review was.

What was most inexplicable and disappointing was the treatment meted out to Voldemort. In previous books, the Dark Lord had been an ominous, menacing, chilling figure - powerful, evil, completely devoid of a conscience or any human frailty - apart from megalomania, I suppose. He was evil, but also supremely intelligent, 'terrible, but great', as Ollivander had once remarked. Despite not having any choice but to dislike him, one couldn't help admitting that the man - wizard, rather - had style. Not any more, though. In DH, he was little more than a pompous, screeching, petulant tyrant, constantly missing his target, constantly goofing up, content to leave everything in the hands of his bumbling followers while he chased fairly tales that he had not even taken the trouble to get to know well. Tyrants seldom trust, or have confidants, and Voldemort was no exception - so why was he content to leave the matter of hunting Harry down in the hands of his Death Eaters? Voldemort was privy to the darkest magical secrets, and was in the habit of planning ahead - so why, then, did he allow the connection between his mind and Harry's to open up all over again, when he knew full well that doing so would allow Harry to glimpse his every move? He had been practising Occlumency all this while, so why would the greatest Occlumens of all times grow careless at this, the most dangerous period? Voldemort never left anything to chance, so it seems a bit absurd that he would actually believe that no one but he knew the secret of the Room of Requirements at Hogwarts. The very fact that that particular room in question was crammed full of things that desperate students over the years had hidden and then forgotten should have told him that he was not the first to use it - and that he wouldn't be the last, either.

I believe Rowling resorted to the cheap trick of reducing Voldemort to little more than a 'glorified snake charmer', as one of my friends put it eloquently, to highlight the contrast between the stoic, fairy-tale hero, Harry, and the ignorant, pitiful, bullying big bad, Voldemort. Which is why Voldemort was constantly depicted as screaming in rage, in frustration, while Harry, even in moments of intense grief and tension, kept his head, and his gravity. By juxtaposing Voldemort's high screams with Harry's very masculine silences, and his desire for physical labour to work out his anger and grief, Rowling seems to be almost emasculating Voldemort while elevating Harry to the level of the fierce warriors of yore. But by doing so, she took away from a lot of the series' mystique, and appeared to be catering to popular tastes, especially those of pre-pubertal children. It is quite incomprehensible how the greatest dark wizard of all times could be thwarted at every step by three teenagers - it took a wizard like Dumbledore to defeat Grindelwald, but the wizard far darker than even Grindelwald was ultimately felled by - wait for it - 'Expelliarmus!' And correct me if I'm wrong, but weren't the Death Eaters supposed to be powerful dark wizards themselves? Not all of them were bloodthirsty savages like Fenrir Greyback or McNair, or moronic bullies like Crabbe and Goyle Seniors. Lucius Malfoy had been a Prefect at Hogwarts, and we all know just how skillful a witch Bellatrix was. So the idea that in a battle, they would all go down under a barrage of body-bind and stupefying spells (which is all that Dumbledore's Army seemed to have learnt under Harry's tutelage) when they had dark arts at their disposal seems patently absurd. One would have expected more displays like Crabbe Jr's Fiendfyre, but unfortunately the Death Eaters were reduced to a group as pathetic as the 'Chief Death Eater' himself.

About as infuriating is Rowling's blatant sexism, and the way she sidelined the only strong female character in the books, Hermione. Hermione, the most intelligent, perspicacious and talented of the trio, continued to think and plan ahead, and save Harry and Ron's hides the way she had since 'Philosopher's Stone'. Yet, notwithstanding the fact that without her Harry would have been a sitting duck from the very moment the MOM fell, right after Bill and Fleur's wedding, it is Ron who continues to be the 'best friend', Ron whose transgressions Harry forgives far more easily than he forgives Hermione for accidentally breaking his wand. Quick to criticise Hermione's words of caution as yet evidence of her narrow, closed-in, unimaginative mind, Harry seems to almost welcome Ron's self-centred, moronic suggestions during every discussion. Hermione's steadfast loyalty and unwavering courage is taken for granted, while much is made of Ron's decision to return after having deserted his friends when the going got tough - 'He saved my life, Hermione,' Harry tells her reproachfully when confronted by her anger at Ron's betrayal, quite forgetting that that was exactly what she had been doing when his wand got broken.

And come to think of it, what of the other women in the books? Fleur Delacour, Triwazrd champion, is reduced to a simpering maiden who graduates into a harassed housewife; Tonks' only role in DH was to get pregnant, give birth, and then, inexplicably, die; and even Mrs Weasley's defeat of Bellatrix was in the guise of a mother protecting her children. It's rather strange that a twice-married, independent, creative woman like J.K. Rowling should be so conventional at heart - the only non-conventional, strong woman unfettered by the normative ties of marriage or motherhood in the books was Bellatrix Lestrange - and who in their right minds would want her as a role model? The only road left open to every character, man or woman, was the one that led to the altar and subsequently, to parenthood - and every generation seemed to excel in falling in love at school, and then marrying their childhood sweethearts by the time they turned 20. And here I thought that the chances of teenage romances working out were fairly remote - or perhaps knowing how to do magic does give you a toehold in the land of happily-ever-afters.

While I still think that the concept of the Deathly Hallows was brilliant, and I loved the way she humanised Dumbledore - and the episode in Godric's Hollow was easily the best part of the book, in turn moving and chilling - I have to say that DH, for me, is the weakest book of all seven. And I do wish Rowling would stop answering questions and giving out tidbits of information in every interview that she's giving - does she really expect every Harry Potter fan to be doing little other than avidly trawling the net every other day in the hope that they'd stumble upon some loose end being tied up? These are issues that should have been dealt with in the book, not post-publication interviews! But I daresay it's Rowling's not-so veiled approval of the blatant commercialisation of the Harry Potter franchise (she's given over the rights to the name to Warner Bros, and is enthusiastically participating in planning hugely expensive Harry Potter theme parks that will be inaccessible to most fans, for example) that's led to the dilution of the books' content - most people would agree that her later books were nowhere near as good as the earlier ones. In fact, I doubt the later books would have been as huge a success had it not been for the hysterical marketing hype - much as I still love Harry Potter, I have to admit he faces stiff competition - Rowling does not have Philip Pullman's radical desire for subversion, to push the boundaries of fantasy fiction; nor does she come close to Jonathan Stroud's delightful, imaginative, quirky trilogy. These are books I find myself recommending heavily these days - and where satisfactory endings are concerned, few have come close to Stroud's The Bartimaeus Trilogy. What a glorious, ambitious, heart-warming, rousing finale that was. Would that I could say the same about my beloved Harry Potter!

Saturday, August 04, 2007

Political (In)correctness?

This is going to be yet another complaint about one of my pet peeves – if people, even those view other, overweight, people with disdain, can refrain from commenting on their appearance (either because it’s not politically correct to hurt a fat person’s feelings by calling her/him ‘fat’, or for some other reason known best to themselves), why can they not extend the same courtesy to those others who happen to be (un)fortunate enough to be slender? As a slender person, I’m often the target of remarks that are at times downright rude; most of these come from people who don’t even know me, yet have absolutely no qualms in making presumptuous statements that they would otherwise cringe from making in polite society. So what is it about slenderness that makes rudeness acceptable? Are our feelings supposed to be as non-existent as the amount of excess fat we (don’t) carry?

I first heard this sentiment being voiced aloud by a young woman in her early twenties some seven years back – I was volunteering with a help-line in those days, along with a bunch of other people of all ages and from all professions. This poor woman, being stick-thin and rather fragile looking, found herself bombarded with remarks from people she had just met, statements ranging from the relatively innocuous ‘Oh boy, are you thin!’ to the pathetic ‘joke’ – ‘I bet you don’t try venturing out in a storm – a gust of wind would carry you away’ – accompanied with sniggers; to others who kindly took it upon themselves to apprise her of the dangers of being underweight. She lost patience after a couple of days and her furious ‘You know, thin people have feelings too’ finally put an end to the audible remarks. This is exactly what happens to me – I’m constantly told at dinners, lunches, etc., that I surely won’t be eating as obviously I’m on a diet; at the gym I’m asked why I even bother to come, since I obviously don’t need to exercise – and by the way, do I eat at all?; an ex-boss made a derogatory comment on the way I dress and later, at an official dinner, passed snide remarks concerning my refusal to order dessert (and that was only because I had stuffed myself with a pasta with cheese sauce, and everyone knows that cheese – see what these constant remarks have done to me? I can’t stop being on the defensive even in my own blog!)

Not that all people are kind to all their overweight fellow humans – as a plump teenager, my cousins made me the butt of ridicule and cruel jokes that added considerably to my pre-pubertal and teenage angst; and an outraged plump friend told us recently how tired she was of her colleagues’ remarks about her weight and their advice to hit the gym at the earliest, because how could she survive in the ‘marriage market’ unless she was thin? And I know full well all the dangers associated with the pressure to lose weight and conform to the stereotypical norm of female beauty – but this post is not about that. I’m genuinely perplexed as to why people, who know full well how ill-mannered it is to make personal remarks, relax that rule when talking about a slim person’s appearance. Why would they do that? What makes them think they immediately know what my eating habits and personal obsessions are – and why do they presume I’d welcome a conversation on the same? My husband says it’s because most of these busybodies, being overweight themselves, are jealous, and that may well be the case – but what of the slim ones who do the same? Why are most people unable to feel good about themselves unless they’re running someone else down?

I don’t go around commenting on people’s appearances – if I’ve ever asked a plump friend to visit the gym, it’s been out of concern – being overweight is not a good idea not because it’s not cool, but because it can lead to various health-related issues. So if I can behave myself, I don’t see why others can’t. And I’ve decided to stop being polite and make equally rude remarks in return – and I would really love some suggestions, so please, everyone, pitch in with your ideas!