Harry to Homer -- going from reading for fun to reading like you really could learn something.
Yes, the Harry Potter books are loads of fun. But if I told you that with a little extra effort you could be working your way towards the great literature of western civilization and STILL HAVE FUN, would you believe me?
Most school English classes try to suck the life out of anything you read. To make things worse, almost all college classes succeed in this endeavor.
As a life-long lover of literature and someone who remembers 1960's vintage Sunrise Semester lectures on Dante and Camus (and also as someone with a web site enjoying a readership with intelligence and curiosity) I thought I'd write a series about this.
We're going to start with Harry and wind up with Homer. If you play your cards right you can ace your English AP exam, write WAY better essays in English class, or just have a great time reading some of the most awe-inspiring and mind-blowing books put to paper by the greatest thinkers and reformers in the Western Literary tradition.
Got any other web sites promising you that? And you thought we were just about some make-believe game.
What's Anton Chekov got to do with JK Rowling?
It's a question of what we might call "organic unity" or how all the elements of a story fit together.
Chekov's (look him up) great quote about this was "one must not put a loaded rifle on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it." (Letter to A.S. Lazarev-Gruzinsky dated November 1, 1889).
Basically what this means is that when a spell is cast, or an action happens, or someone gets mentioned in one of the books, they're going to show up again (and usually in a bigger way than you'd believe at the time of your first reading).
Examples in the corpus of Harry abound: In Chamber (I try to use obvious abbreviations here) the Weasleys and Harry are on their way to King's Cross Station when Ginny forgets her diary and they have to go back. The first time you read this it slips by unobtrusively. The second time you read this in the book you see some incredible drama and tension that you don't even know is there the first time: What if Ginny didn't remember until she got on the train and then didn't have her diary? (Short answer: there wouldn't be a second book). The third and subsequent time you read this you start to marvel at ot just the sheer verve of the story, but at the architecture that holds it all together, making it fun every time you read it.
Every spell that is used in crucial situations has been cast before. While the universe of the books is magic, nothing appears out of thin air.
Now consider the following: this is true in the books in general. That is, Hagrid rides Sirius Black's motorcycle to deliver Harry in the very first chapter of the first book. Harry later has dreams remembering this. Then even later this motorcycle and Sirius Black become central to Book 3. The individual stories have what is referred to as an "arc" (basically a path they follow). But what is much more interesting is that these arcs all add up to a larger arc across the books.
So given what we've been talking about -- let's look at something that's appeared exactly once in the books so far, but which, given its context might be making an appearance later in the series.
Note: this is called "going out on a limb." I have no internal knowledge of books yet-to-be published, but given what Mr. Chekov has stated so simply and so well (and his rule holds whether you read William Shakespeare or Tennessee Williams or Leo Tolstoy or Jane Austen), we'd be remiss if we didn't think it through.
Harken back to the Chocolate Frog card for Albus Dumbledore that appeared in Book 1, Chapter 6. That provided the key to solving the mystery of what Fluffy was guarding, since it was where we (the reader) first heard of the connection between Dumbledore and Nicholas Flamel. Now let's look at who else appears there. "Dumbledore is particularly famous for his defeat of the dark wizard Grindelwald in 1945."
As of Goblet, we have not yet seen another mention of Grindelwald.
We have seen most of the other students mentioned by name at Harry's Sorting. They've gone on to become full characters in later books (Millicent Bulstrode comes to mind). Dedalus Diggle has made his appearance in Book 1, Chapter 1 and then Book 1, Chapter 5. Grindelwald hasn't come up yet. The fact he's mentioned so close to Flamel just cried out for a connection later in the series.
My money is riding on Grindelwald playing a role somehow in the development of a dark wizard who was not defeated in 1945, Lord Voldemort.
This is pure speculation (albeit informed by one of the more common principles of literature which Rowling ascribes to at every step of the way). But consider, we know in Book 2 that Nearly-Headless Nick is approaching his 500th deathday, making the year that book takes place 1992 (note to self: Harry has already graduated Hogwarts as of 2001, wonder what he's up to?). We know that events seen by Harry in the diary of Tom Riddle happened "fifty years ago." This would put Riddle as student at Hogwarts in 1942. This to me looks like a loaded gun.
Given the proximity of time, and the dark proclivity of both Riddle (soon-to-be Voldemort) and Grindelwald (soon to be defeated), it is reasonable to start guessing (and that's what it is right now) that there's a connection between the two.
And in a bit of foreshadowing of where we're going with this -- through the four books published so far we know Dumbledore is widely viewed as the greatest wizard of his age. Yet we also know that even in the wizarding world nobody lives forever (Dumbledore himself in fact destroys the one magical object that can deliver life eternal), and we also know that Dumbledore is showing his age. Who is the logical successor? Obviously the boy who lived.
One more bit of Chekovian speculation which I cannot resist mentioning. Every book published so far has mentioned Hogwarts: A History. I just cannot believe that this cycle of seven books is going to conclude without some major puzzle being solved by Hermione's or Harry's reading of that book.
Stay tuned for our next essay.
Copyright © 2001 Zyg Furmaniuk. All rights reserved.
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