Harry Potter and moral choice

One of the things I've wanted to do for some time was read the Harry Potter books all in one go. I started reading the series when it was about half out, and I just wasn't going to go stand in line at the bookstore at midnight or anything like that (I did actually buy two of the books--both in paperback at airport bookstores--but other than that I used the library), so I wound up waiting a year or two between books, at which point I'd forgotten who half the characters were. So I thought it would be worthwhile to re-read them all at once.

It's interesting how different an experience that can be. One of the things about reading Harry Potter the first time around was that I didn't know whether it was just a bunch of cute kid's stories or if it would turn out to be the plotting wonder it actually was. It's clear re-reading it that it is really just one HUGE book, and knowing that, the ups and downs are far less pronounced. I got a lot more enjoyment out of the first couple of books in the series this time around because I knew what they were setting up. Order of the Phoenix annoyed me much less this time, because although that book doesn't really have much of a plot payoff by itself, it does set up the later books. On the other hand, Goblet of Fire, while enjoyable, wasn't the absolute kick in the pants it was the first time I read it and realized that, as the character of Harry aged, the books were going to get waaaaaay more sophisticated.

I do kind of feel more ambivalent about the ending. (This is going to get VERY spoilery, so if you haven't read the books yet--hey, my sister hasn't--go do that first. Really.)

A number of people argue that Neville Longbottom is the most important character in the Harry Potter books, and I can totally see that--Neville has a great character arc, and as a writer, I think there's a lot to be said for having tertiary characters that have discrete arcs, even if we only see those arcs in glimpses. It's really intriguing to realize that something's going on elsewhere, plus it gives the reader the sense that this is a real world, not one in which all the other characters exist for the sole purpose of serving the main plot and main character. (The fact that Ron and not Harry winds up with Hermione is another example of J.K. Rowling making her world more robust and realistic, and less of a fantasy-fulfillment thing. In lesser hands, Hermione would have been the prize that Harry wins, and Ron would have accepted it because, you know, Harry's the main character.)

But I think Rowling kind of slipped up in the end, because in his final confrontation with Voldemort's snake, Neville is simply more heroic: He withstands torture, breaks a curse, summons a magical object, and without hesitation slays a powerful semi-magical creature.

Harry has also been extremely heroic, of course--he's been tortured and has actually died, on purpose, in order to defeat Voldemort. In addition, he has delved deeply into the world of wand lore and has uncovered vital knowledge that will allow him to overpower Voldemort.

But at the very end, what does he do? Harry uses a disarming charm, and Voldemort's own curse bounces back on him, killing him.

At least it's not explicitly an accident, but that's pretty weak, isn't it? If had been made explicit that this was an effect Harry could expect from a really solid disarming, I'd be OK with it, but it just seems like a bit of a cop-out, especially compared to all the other stuff Harry has both suffered and done. (And he's done quite a bit--Rowling is not shy about having Harry & Co cross lines and do things they once though shockingly immoral, which is something I really like about the book.)

The Harry Potter books are actually better than most: The whole thing where heroes have to kill the evil villain, but of course they can't just murder someone, because they're the good guys!!! is rarely handled well--more often than not, the death of the villain is explicitly accidental. That's supposed to make you think that the good guys are still good (I guess because they are unsullied by sin), but I hate it--it smacks of Pontius Pilate washing his hands to me. Heroic people--hell, just plain old decent people--do not go through life abdicating responsibility and trusting on chance to set everything straight. When the choice is between doing something unpleasant or allowing something genuinely horrible to happen, the person who preserves their precious purity by doing nothing is NOT a hero.

The one time where I saw this handled really well was in another story that is supposedly for kids but actually quite gratifying for adults: The television series (NOT the movie) Avatar: The Last Airbender. In that series the main character, Aang, is so opposed to killing that he is a vegetarian, and yet he's put in a position where he is expected to kill the main villain (who is very, very bad). What I like about it is that Aang's opposition to killing is a real choice with real consequences--the writers don't just have a rock fall out of the sky and solve Aang's problem for him--and Aang has to stand up for his choice and find an alternate solution in an environment where that is very difficult. What makes it heroic is the moral courage--Aang must take action, and he must do what's right, not just for him, but for everyone else, too. And it's a much more realistic take on what being a decent person is actually like: The stars don't magically align for you because you try to do the right thing; you have to do the right thing even when it's difficult.