I was writing a guest post for another blog about fantasy tropes, and this started getting me thinking about Harry Potter.
Spoilers ahead for the books, and also for No Country for Old Men because I ball hard that way.
Anyway, specifically, I was thinking about the old-fashioned “undistinguished protagonist thrust into the fantasy world” trope. The usual example is the stable boy who suddenly finds himself on an adventure to the Big Magic City, or whatever. Harry Potter is an unusual case in that Rowling gets to have her cake and eat it too: he’s super normal and not at all remarkable, and he’s the Chosen One, the Boy Who Lived.
(She actually goes out of her way to explain that this is all because of a self-fulfilling prophecy, and it had nothing to do with Harry at all – he’s chosen, but he’s not actually chosen. That explanatory scene was really super satisfying to read. More on that later.)
Anyway, I was thinking about the usual “undistinguished protagonist” trope, and how they often succeed with the help of friends or mentors, or just dumb fucking luck. They remember the right thing at the right time, and this causes a chain of events that ends with them being the victor. Or, the villain oversteps his or her bounds, gets too self-confident, and a chandelier falls on them or something.
Harry Potter’s final, central climax – the fight with Voldemort – is an example of winning by dumb luck. But it is the most arbitrary and underwhelming example of dumb luck possibly in the history of fantasy fiction.
Let’s review how this happens:
1. Late in the series – VERY late – Rowling trots in this idea that wands have allegiance, and that allegiance can change. You beat a wizard in a duel, their wand changes allegiance to you, and it will no longer attack you.
Nevermind that the kids and, hell, tons of other adult wizards have been fucking up each other’s shit with wands for like five or six years now, and this whole allegiance thing never popped up. Nevermind that, theoretically, one could get the drop on another wizard, beating them, getting their wand’s allegiance, and do this over and over again, eventually becoming immune to All The Wands.
Nevermind all that. That’s the rule that she brings in.
2. If I remember this right, Voldemort’s wand doesn’t work against Harry, because Harry “beat” Voldemort as a baby, so it considers Harry – even though Harry was shitting his pants at the time and had minimal fine motor skills – to be its master. (This will be a recurring theme: the low standards of “beating” a wizard necessary to change allegiance.) As such, Voldemort’s wand will not work on Harry. Voldemort then goes after Dumbledore’s wand, which was this Super Power Wand.
Not super powerful enough to get out of Rowling’s allegiance rule, though. I guess wands are sticklers for that?
3. BUT, the person who “beat” Dumbledore was Draco Malfoy, who disarmed him like a book or two before the big final fight scene. (It’s worth saying that Dumbledore basically let this happen, but I guess wands – even the Super Power Wand – have really shitty standards for beating. You could basically spit on another wizard and their wand would change allegiance, is what I’m saying. They’re fickler than a goddamn hormonal teen.) Harry “beat” Malfoy during one of the final big fight scenes, so now Harry is, yet again, the master of Voldemort’s wand, even though it’s Dumbledore’s Super Power Wand.
4. Voldemort tries to kill Harry anyway. Because Harry is the master of the wand, the wand’s spell rebounds, and essentially fucking blows Voldemort’s head clean off his shoulders. Everyone cheers.
On rereading this, not only is it a densely tortured thread of logic, the battle equivalent of compiling a chunk of computer code, but it’s also extremely arbitrary and – in all honesty – nihilistic.
Here’s why: Harry wins because he shot the right guy at the right time, totally by accident. Not even the MAIN guy. It has nothing to do with his own inherent qualities, nor does it have anything to do with any of the book’s saggy themes about the Power of Love. There is no moral value to the nature by which Harry wins. It’s like if Voldemort just sat on his gun and it went off, killing him! If anything, Harry’s victory feels like Anton Chigurh getting hit by a car at the end of No Country for Old Men: it’s totally arbitrary, comes out of nowhere – and, as if to highlight the arbitrariness of the world, Chigurh even gets to walk away.
Yes, that’s right. Harry’s victory is as nihilistic and cruelly mercurial as something out of Cormac McCarthy.
Why is it cruel? Well, don’t forget that Voldemort thought Snape was the true master of Dumbledore’s wand, since Snape killed Dumbledore, so he made his poison snake bite Snape in the goddamn face over and over again until he fucking died. And it didn’t even accomplish anything! Snape died – much like Voldemort himself – due to an accident, a misunderstanding! And unlike Voldemort, who basically drops like he’s been hit with a stack of bricks, Snape dies in horrific agony.
That’s pretty fucked up, right?
But it gets worse.
So, Harry’s the Chosen One because he survived Voldemort as a kid. BUT, Voldemort only attacked Harry’s family because a prophecy said one of the kids born on such and such a night would be his downfall. Attacking Harry made this a self-fulfilling prophecy.
But Dumbledore – and Rowling, by proxy – goes waaaaay out of his way to make it plain that this was all arbitrary. Voldemort could have attacked the one other kid born that night, and maybe that other kid’s mom wouldn’t have been there at the right time and the right place to sacrifice herself for him, so he wouldn’t get the magic love protection thing (which is like something out of Captain Planet), and yadda yadda yadda, Hitler rises from the dead or whatever.
So not only is Voldemort’s death totally arbitrary and bereft of meaning, so is the entire conflict of the series. None of this has to do with Harry! It’s all just because he was in the wrong place at the wrong time! And it all resolves because he was at the right place at the right time! He’s like the fucking Forrest Gump of the magical world!
Anyway, here are a few other ways Voldemort could have died that would have had just as much meaning as the way he did in the books:
1. Voldemort is walking down the street the day before the battle and plummets down an open manhole. He bounces off all the ladder rungs on the way down and dies instantly on contact at the bottom.
2. Voldemort is eating a pie before he goes to hear The Prophecy when a pumpkin truck outside takes a hard right turn, flinging a pumpkin through the glass window, and it hits Voldemort right in the back of the head causing him to accidentally stab himself in the neck with his pie knife.
3. Voldemort is an unscrupulous parent but fervent gun rights activist, and is accidentally shot and killed in his garage by his toddler who has found one of his many, many freely accessible firearms.
4. Voldemort, wondering what it’s like to be a dog, sticks his head out a car window as he drives. He catches a tree branch right in the face and he plows into a propane store, which explodes.
5. A mouse has been living in Voldemort’s closet, and Nagini smells it on his clothes and just suddenly goes fucking nuts on him, biting him all to shit.
6. Voldemort chokes on a pretzel while watching football alone at hime. He dies with 9-1 dialed into his phone.
7. Voldemort has been screwing another man’s wife on the side, and while swimming in his pool is shot and killed by the cuckolded husband, who shortly thereafter commits suicide.
8. Voldemort reads about autoerotic asphyxiation, but greatly overestimates his knot tying abilities. He dies dangling in his closet, his cold hand clutched over his painfully erect, discolored penis.
9. Voldemort, unaware he is deathly allergic to bees, goes into anaphylactic shock after spraying a nest with bug killer on his back porch the day of his big barbecue. He stumbles into his grill, sets himself on fire, runs into his house to jump in the shower, but winds up setting the whole goddamn place alight. Voldemort dies in his kitchen and the fire spreads to the neighboring houses, killing six, one of whom was a war veteran. And it was the veteran’s birthday! Sad.
10. Voldemort, overconfident in his horcruxes, has been paying poor attention to his diet, and dies of a mild heart attack on the toilet. No one finds him for weeks. His supporters, who are plenty powerful in their own right, go about doing their thing anyway, and one of them uses a spell that accidentally makes Harry swell like a balloon and explode, painting his friends and families with his intestines. Hitler immediately rises from the dead. It’s messed up.