31 August 2007

Harry Potter and the war on terror

Since reading Harry Potter and the deathly hallows[1] last month ("Well met at midnight..."), I have gone back to reread the whole series again in sequence. A number of thoughts flow from the exercise.

Perhaps the least of those thoughts is to be deeply impressed at the degree to which Rowling planted, even in the first book, material, characters and events which would be called upon later - right up to the final chapter. Equally impressive is the way she has managed to evolve her language and style across the seven years spanned by the novels so that the first (Harry Potter and the philosopher's stone[2] or, in the US, sorcerer's stone) has an eleven year old voice, the last an eighteen year old one. The issues involved have also become more complex in both content and implication - and this, too, I can now see has been planned and prepared carefully in advance.

I have always been inclined to differ with those who suggest that Rowling "could do with a good editor" (see, for example, Ciaran McGrath, 27th July) but now I am certain that they are wrong: she has done just fine, no doubt with the assistance of the editors at Bloomsbury. (But, of course, since I find the planning and preparation of a single paper challenging perhaps I am too easily impressed by the ability to plan seven novels at all!). At one time I shared the general alarm at escalating size of the books but this, too, can now be seen as part of the deliberately growing complexity as Harry's worldview expands along intellectual, emotional and axes. It's an impressive achievement.

Having mentioned Ciaran McGrath, perhaps I should say that while I agree with him that the fifth film, Order of the Phoenix, wasn't great (in my opinion, it tried to do too much in a small space and so ended up falling down on everything) Rowling's seventh book was a triumph. Yes, I would use the word "great" for her achievement.

I said in my midnight post that the books "deal with important issues", and one of the most important amongst those is moral conscience. Harry is continually steering a fine line between action and consequence - accompanied by Ron, who favours the former, and Hermione who considers the latter. Along the way we are presented on many occasions with questions (and sometimes answers, though we have often have to wrestle them out for ourselves) about moral grey areas - for example, the balance between protecting the innocent and the human rights of the offender. The dementors, for instance, who suck all joy and hope from prisoners - some of whom, like Sirius Black may have been mistakenly convicted. In some cases, the magical world's equivalent of capital punishment sees the dementors suck out life as well. And, nicely illustrating the questions raised about balance between obedience and free thought in our military (see, for example, this post by Jim Putnam, or this one from Doctor C), the dementors are as willing to serve Voldemort as Fudge - a chilling equivalent of Mr Flowers in Alexander Cordell's If you believe the soldiers[3].

Then there is the question of if and when we are ever justified in using the methods of those we oppose. In an interview[4] with The Independent on Sunday last week, Shami Chakrabarti declared herself a Potter fan but, in the same breath, expressed her distress at the lack of serious examination when Harry uses the 'unforgivable' crucio curse against Amycus. The purpose of the crucio curse is, purely and simply, to cause physical torment: torture, in other words. This is always a live issue, but with current debates over use by western democracies in the so called "War on Terror", with it is particularly pertinent.

In fact, Harry tries the crucio curse twice, both times in hot blood: once (unsuccessfully) in the heat of combat, against Bellatrix Lestrange (in the battle at the Ministry of Magic, at the end of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix[5]), and once from ambush in anger against Amycus (a Voldemort enforcer) late in The deathly hallows. In neither case is the use of torture appropriate even on purely utilitarian grounds: in the first, when fighting for his life and the lives of his companions, a killing curse would be more efective while a stunning or disabling spell would serve for the second. On the face of it, this is strange since Harry has elsewhere consistently used a disarming spell even against those who are seeking to kill him - notably against Voldemort himself (at the end of The goblet of fire[6]) and in the massed assault which opens Deathly hallows, when he is criticised for his restraint by those protecting him. I don't, personally, find it unconvincing; as I said in my Hiroshima Day post last year, most of us will do the unthinkable in some set of circumstances if the pressure is great enough - and it's emotion, not intellect, that is most likely to push us over the line. Chakrabarti recognises this: "they're not Bible stories; Harry has all sorts of flaws", she says. Harry is human and we forgive him for it but, like Chakrabarti, I would have liked to see some sign, afterwards, of wrestling to reconcile actions with conscience.

Nonetheless, the difference is clearly drawn between our hero, whose use of torture is a fleeting departure in extremis from what he knows to be (and has been taught to see as) right, and those supporting Voldemort who use it either as a calculated strategic instrument of policy or for sadistic pleasure.

Few of Rowling's readers, I think, would have any difficulty deciding which of these models best fits the practice of "extraordinary rendition" (kidnapping and torture, as Chakrabarti more bluntly calls it), or the US Justice Department view[7] that only pain "equivalent in intensity to ... organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death" can be described as torture, and that the president is exempt from laws prohibiting torture so long as he is seeking "to gain intelligence information concerning the military plans of the enemy".

[1] Rowling, J K. Harry Potter and the deathly hallows. London, 2007, Bloomsbury. 0747591075

[2] Rowling, J K. Harry Potter and the philosopher's stone. London, 1997, Bloomsbury. 0747574472

[3] Cordell, Alexander. If you believe the soldiers. London, 1973, Hodder & Stoughton. 0340166118

[4] Rodgers, Paul. "Harry Potter is a war criminal", in The Independent on Sunday. 2007: London. Front section, p50.

[5] Rowling, J K. Harry Potter and Order of the Phoenix. London, 2004, Bloomsbury. 0747569401

[6] Rowling, J K. Harry Potter and goblet of fire. London, 2001, Bloomsbury. 0747549710

[7] US Justice Department Office of Legal Counsel memo to White House Counsel Alberto R. Gonzales, 1 August 2002.

No comments: