Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Harry Potter and the Week of Recovery

I have five puncture wounds in my abdomen and chest. I had a sixth in my hand where the IV drip was connected, but that doesn't really count. When I woke up Friday afternoon after the surgery, I was in a lot of pain, but not from the puncture wounds where the robot-guided microsurgical instruments had penetrated my body.

My right shoulder was killing me. I was in a lot of agony, and for the first time in my life I couldn't wait to ask for pain medicine repeatedly. I stay as far away from narcotics as I possibly can. I have watched them and other drugs ruin people I have cared deeply about, destroy lives, and end what should have been (in my opinion) careers and lifetimes filled with hope and accomplishment.

But I couldn't get comfortable for the life of me. It was only after friends had brought me back to their home, where I am recovering under their care, that I learned many people experience pain in their neck and shoulders after surgery. Apparently they flop your head back and shove stuff down your throat. Makes sense. But someone could have warned me.

I remember asking for the Demetrol shots maybe 3-4 times while in the hospital. I have ignored the Vicodin prescription they gave me. I am just using over-the-counter pain relief (acetaminephin) for my gradually declining soreness.

To while the hours away, when I'm not exchanging furious text messages with interested parties, I've been re-reading Harry Potter and the Half-blood Prince. Technically, I was supposed to read it while I was in the hospital, but hospital beds and chairs are so uncomfortable I never even tried to open the book.

I've also watched some DvDs. Star Wars III: Revenge of the Sith (should have picked The Phantom Menace, which remains the best of the six movies); How To Lose A Guy In 10 Days; and maybe one or two others. But I've watched all the DvDs before. I'm kind of bored. Even The Incredibles failed to keep my complete attention, although I noticed some new details I haven't picked up on before.

I reread my latest essay at MERP, "Politics: Just Politics", and have cringed at the obvious typos which need fixing.

I called my boss and left him a voice mail saying I'm alive.

But for the past couple of days, when I haven't been sneaking cake frosting into my otherwise bland diet (which today expanded to include a scrambled egg and potato soup), I've mostly walked and read Harry Potter.

Harry is interesting because he ages in the books. I don't know why other people are interested in Harry, but that is why I'm stuck in the Harry Potter zone. I can read about Frodo Baggins and his itty-bitty trinket a few hundred times because people keep asking questions I don't know the answers to, but frankly there are parts of The Lord of the Rings that bore me to tears. Haven't found many passages in the Potter books that slow down as much for me.

In fact, as I reread the Potter books (and rewatch the movies), I find myself wondering more and more where J.K. Rowling is going with this series. Now, I don't mean I want to know in advance if Harry lives or dies. That really doesn't matter much to me (although I'd rather have him live than die, since too many authors end up killing off their heroes in my opinion). What I mean is that there has to be a point to the whole thing, and the more I revisit these stories, the more I feel they are about Tom Riddle and the less I feel they are about Harry Potter.

That's a very subtle message, but we actually see farther into Tom's psyche and motivations than we do into Harry's. In fact, Dumbledore just sort of sums up Harry Potter in one sentence: "You want to kill Lord Voldemort, don't you Harry?" (I'm paraphrasing).

Harry is a means to an end. Voldemort has to die. But the question remains: does Tom Riddle have to die? And if Tom Marvolo Riddle must die, who kills him? I don't think it will be Harry. I think the answer has already been laid in the earlier books, possibly in material only revealed in Harry Potter and the Half-blood Prince.

We learn a great deal about ourselves if we study what other people think of us. Depending on which characters in the stories speak about him, Voldemort is either the greatest wizard who ever lived or he is the biggest monster to emerge from the Wizarding world. The difference lies chiefly in how one defines greatness.

Remember what Ollivander told Harry? "The wand chooses the wizard, Mr. Potter. It's not always clear why." But on the basis of the wand that chose Harry, Mr. Ollivander concluded that the Wizarding world could expect great things from Harry. Does that mean Harry is great because of his wand? I think that in Ollivander's eyes, the wand seeks out greatness rather than makes it. A great wand is matched with a great wizard.

But greatness is measured by different standards. Voldemort had a choice and when it came time to make that choice (somewhat prematurely in his life experience, I think), he chose the Dark Path. In Tom Riddle, we see the birth of the Dark Lords of the Sith. We saw Melkor become Morgoth. We see good become evil. And yet Tom was not wholly good in his beginning.

He was born innocent of the sins of his father (who abandoned his mother) and his mother (who magically ensnared his father) but he was never wholly free of sin. And yet Tom was set on a hard path because he had everything stacked against him. As his powers emerged and he learned to use them for his own benefit, there was no one around to temper his judgement and show him the difference between right and wrong.

Dumbledore came along too late to have that kind of influence over Riddle. Or did he? We see in Harry Potter and the Half-blood Prince that at some point in their teacher-student relationship, Dumbledore had invested time in discussing the power of love with Tom Riddle. But Tom never accepted the truth of Dumbledore's wisdom.

So here he is, 50 years later, spiritually shattered and conspiring (it seems) to take over the world. He has become thoroughly evil by committing evil act after evil act. And yet, how many people are really like that? I can think of a few historical leaders (such as Adolf Hitler) who, by the end of their lives, had become so consumed with their evil values they felt no remorse for what they had done.

The leaders of Al Qaeda are clearly so steeped in evil they feel no remorse for the thousands of murders they inspire others to commit. Innocent blood to them is only the pavement on the road to their personal sense of glory. They honestly believe they will achieve greatness by committing horrendous acts of gratuitous evil.

Is Tom Riddle any different from the monsters who murder the innocent? Not by the time Harry Potter is old enough to learn about Tom's early life and choices. But just as Osama Bin Laden was once born a human being with hope of redemption, Tom Riddle was once a character who could have made a choice to walk down a righteous path rather than stand in the shadows.

Just as Osama Bin Laden has now thoroughly immersed his soul in evil and sin, Tom Riddle (in his persona of "Lord Voldemort") has soaked himself in the blood of so many innocent victims there seems no hope of redemption for him.

It would, I think, be perceived as an enormous cheat if Rowling had Riddle turn back to the "Light Side" at the very end. Only George Lucas can get away with that because Luke Skywalker, the most unlikely of heroes in any epic adventure, felt the good in his father. No one is feeling any good in Voldemort. No one is feeling any good in Osama Bin Laden.

So Riddle has to complete his journey of self-destruction and it won't matter if Harry kills him or if Severus Snape turns out to be truly faithful to Dumbledore's ideals and kills Riddle or if a really ticked-off Ginny Weasley comes out of the shadows to slam a knife in Riddle's back after he does off Harry.

Riddle is doomed because he has destroyed himself. He cannot win because he has already lost. Who was it who said, "What does it profit a main to gain the world but lose his soul?"

I think Rowling is showing us that Tom Riddle made bad choices, but someone else keeps making bad choices in these stories. That someone is Harry Potter. In the end, can Harry Potter afford to kill off Voldemort without becoming the next Lord Voldemort? For, you see, Harry's only motivation is revenge. It was revenge which spurred Tom to eliminate his last living relatives (on both sides of the family) and, in a way, it was revenge (against an uncaring Wizarding world) that spurred Tom to commit horrific crimes that transformed him into Lord Voldemort.

Harry has come close to crossing the line but he hasn't crossed it yet. Dumbledore has attempted to impress upon Harry the appreciation for the power of love that he failed to impress upon Tom. I think that, if Harry doesn't become the next Dark Lord, it will be because of his love for those around him -- perhaps Ginny Weasley will be the obvious focus of his love, but I don't think Rowling will make it that obvious.

Both Harry and Tom spent their early years living as social outcasts. Both Harry and Tom were introduced to the Wizarding world after they had discovered their powers. Both Harry and Tom had used their powers to extract petty vengeances against those who had done them wrong.

Harry Potter is, for all intents and purposes, Tom Riddle. Tom Riddle is for all intents and purposes, Harry Potter. Each is the other as he could have chosen to be. Each is what he has made himself into. But Harry has not yet come to the final moment where he has to confront the real demon inside himself. He hasn't yet been faced with the temptation of wielding dreadful power that could seduce him into walking that dark path.

I think maybe where Rowling is going with this story is that, if we choose to fight monsters who threaten our world, we have to be very, very careful not to replace those monsters with our own ambitions.

And I've got a few more days to dwell on these happy topics while I recover from the five puncture wounds.


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