January 24, 2012
The Sword and the Phoenix
In the first book, Potter is almost universally hailed as a hero of the first order, adored by nearly everyone (with the exception of Professor Snape, and even he finds himself compelled to defend Harry if only not to be in anyone's debt). In the second book, Harry is accused of being the "Heir of Slytherin," guilty of opening the Chamber of Secrets and setting loose a deadly basilisk to kill fledgling wizards of mixed blood. Because the Sorting Hat told Harry that it was a toss up whether he'd do just as well in the slithery house of Slytherin as in the brave and true house of Gryffindor, Harry had a crisis of self worth. Did the Sorting Hat see something in Harry no one else can see? Is Harry really a bad person deep inside? During the final battle of the novel, where Harry is fighting Tom Riddle (aka Voldemort as a 16-year-old angsty ghost), he reaches into the Sorting Hat, pulls out a sword, and wins the fight. When he's expressing his fears about his identity to Professor Dumbledore, and asks if the Sorting Hat put him in the wrong house, and ought to have put him in Slytherin (where all of the characters to date have been sketchy characters with no redeeming values), the wizard kindly points out the name engraved on the magic sword: Godric Gryffindor. He says that if Harry weren't brave and awesome enough to be in House Gryffindor, he never would have pulled that sword out of the Sorting Hat in the first place, and if not for his loyalty to Dumbledore, Fawkes the phoenix would never have come to Harry's aid.
Yes, Harry. You're a good person. Here's proof. This magic bird came to your aid. This magic sword came to your hand. Even though I didn't like this book overall, reading this scene brought a lump to my throat. If only it were that easy in real life. Whenever you had a moment when you doubted your own self worth, if only a magical bird arrived and cried magic tears on your broken heart. Whenever you had a conflict, if only the sword of justice came to your hand to show you that your feelings were valid, and your actions right. No wonder people read these books. No wonder people dress up like wizards from Potter's world at every SF convention I've ever attended (except Readercon, where people are too intellectual for cosplay, apparently). It's a sweet, sweet fantasy for these things to be made so manifestly apparent as your own human goodness. Even though you sometimes break the rules. Even though you sometimes make mistakes. Even though you are sometimes selfish, foolish, cowardly, or bitter.
For a while there, I wasn't reading these kinds of stories. I mostly read existential stories that explain why life is complicated, why there are no right answers, why it's so important to have and live by personal values; because there are no phoenixes, and no magic swords. Reading these stories, I feel a little like Edmund in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and his obsession with the enchanted Turkish Delight. The more I read, the more I want. I want to think that magic is real, that all I need is courage to get through the hard parts, and the phoenix will eventually come and heal me. I suppose I'll read these books, and then return to existential land, and see if I get whiplash, or if something else entirely happens in my heart.