“No longer the fresh-faced teenagers they were in their heyday, but nevertheless recognizable.”
Probably not a bad description of many of us who grew up reading the Harry Potter books as they came out during our early teens and into our twenties. And it’s the description the ever-detestable Rita Skeeter gives of the all-grown-up Harry Potter and friends in the short story J.K. Rowling published this week on her website Pottermore.
It’s not really a story, but more of an epilogue to the epilogue Rowling gave us in The Deathly Hallows. Recounting a sighting of the famous wizards at the Quidditch World Cup, Rita gives us an update on Harry, Ron, Hermione, Neville, Luna, and others through a series of short and scathing observations. Hermione, for example, is now deputy head of the Department of Magical Law Enforcement and “is now tipped to go even higher within the Ministry, and is also mother to son, Hugo, and daughter, Rose. Does Hermione Granger prove that a witch really can have it all? (No—look at her hair.)”
All in all it reads like a piece of clever fan fiction; there are no big surprises and no big developments (other than a hint that more columns featuring the original crew may be forthcoming).
And, I’ll admit, I breathed a sigh of relief when I finished it.
I was dismayed and a bit annoyed when I read that Rowling had revisited Harry and co. I felt like a teenager all over again waiting for the next Harry Potter book to be released. Rowling would make an ominous pronouncement to the press weeks before a book’s release warning of impending death for some unnamed character. “Dear God!” I would beg, “Please don’t let it be that lovable oaf Hagrid!” (Am I the only one who felt like the big, friendly half-giant had a blazing target on his back the entire series?)
But if there is a fate worse than death in fiction, it’s bad character development. So I created a Pottermore account (a charming experience) and began to read the new short story with trepidation. What if Ron and Hermione were divorced? What if Luna wasn’t completely nuts any more?
Rowling wouldn’t dare! What right had she to cavalierly dispatch characters with whom I grew up and to bring back at whim characters I said goodbye to years ago? Well, what right other than having created them.
The relationship between author, character, and reader is an odd one. On the one hand, the character is entirely a creation of the author, and the connection between them can be almost physical. When writing the death of little Nell in The Old Curiosity Shop, for example, Dickens wrote to his friend Forester of the somatic strain it put him under: “All night I have been pursued by the child; and this morning I am unrefreshed and miserable.” To his illustrator, after describing the death as it should be drawn, he confessed “I am breaking my heart over this story and I cannot bear to finish it.”
On the other hand, the author, in a way, gives us her characters when she puts them on the page and sends them off into the world. Once we’ve met Harry under the stairs and Ron and Hermione on the Hogwarts Express they’re part of our imagination too. After we’ve come to know a character, laughed with them, cheered for them, cried over them, and dearly loved them, I think they do belong, at least in part, to us.
As much as Dickens suffered with the killing of Nell, the readers of his serial novel begged him not to do it. They loved her too much; they felt she belonged to them. And I know that there are some developments of a character I simply could not accept. If, for example, L.M. Montgomery returned from the dead and penned a ninth book in theAnne of Green Gables series in which Anne leaves Gilbert and moves to Montreal to find herself, I’d insist it was apocryphal; Anne just wouldn’t do that, I know her. (And then I’d worry about the un-dead Montgomery.)
But at the end of the day Dickens did off little Nell and Rowling did kill plenty of characters I loved, like Fred and Sirius and Lupin and . . . goodness, the bodies do pile up! And Rowling is free to bring back characters I thought I had said goodbye to for good.
That complicated relationship between author, character, and reader is, after all, what makes it a pleasure to share in someone else’s story—fictional or real. It’s the sense that a person belongs to us in some way—my friend, my sister, my brother—that makes their story of interest to us. But it’s the fact that we don’t determine a character or another person’s story that makes it exciting. The lack of control can be infuriating; I for one lived in a state of simmering rage while Dolores Umbridge was high inquisitor of Hogwarts in The Order of the Phoenix. And sometimes characters disappoint us—no matter how many times I read Little Women, I’m still disappointed with Jo when she turns down Teddy.
But the lack of control also makes it possible for characters—and real people—to surprise us in wonderful ways. I would never have guessed while reading The Sorcerer’s Stone that Neville Longbottom would eventually lead Dumbledore’s Army or that the delightfully crazy Luna even existed. The same is true in our own lives. Most of us, I think, could never have anticipated the people who have come in and gone out of our lives or what those people would mean to us—or when they might pop up again, maybe not “the fresh-faced teenagers they were in their heyday, but nevertheless recognizable.”