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17 Mar 12 | Re: A minor character

I had a letter in the TES last week. One Jane Bower had written a fairly objectionable piece finding fault with some unnamed children’s books (one had even won an award, she sniffs), so naturally I dashed off a rant against her fusty prescriptivism. And it got printed, so you can read it rightchere. I must say, it seems less clever to me now than when I wrote it, but maybe that’s a bit like hearing your own voice on tape.

Anyway, one of the things Bower said that got my goat was that some prepositional laxity or other of JK Rowling’s had infuriated her. Ridiculous, thought I, that anyone could read the excellent Potter books and focus more on a few silly quibbles than their obvious, blazing brilliance. But then I remembered that, weirdly, I had sort of done the same thing. A while back I posted my own few objections to the series (there are three). I meant to follow up with a balancing piece pointing out something I liked about the books, but I never did. Well, I am no hypocrite; so I need to set this right.

What I meant to talk about was minor characters in Harry Potter. One review I read of the last film alleged that in eight films, the series had only managed to create one character of any depth: Snape. OK, maybe you don’t get as much from the films as you do from the books, but that seemed to me an outrageous criticism, because one of the joys of the Harry Potter series is the rich cast of characters, dozens of whom do have their own complexities and layers and conflicts at the edge of the spotlight. There’s Neville Longbottom, and the Malfoys, and Sirius, and MacGonagall, and Firenze, and Krumm... I could go on, but I’m going to stop the Wheel of Blog on the main subject of this post, Xenophilius Lovegood.

Xeno seems like a character as worth examining as any, partly because of his emblematic name. Both forename and surname refer to one of the main themes of the series, love. (In a parallel universe, perhaps he could be called Euphilius Strangelove.) Now Xeno plays an important role moving on the action of the last book —when Harry and co go to see him things start to kick off— but he’s also a good example of why people who dismiss HP as being no more than whimsical thrillers are wrong. In a mediocre thriller, Xeno would just be a carboard signpost pointing the way down Plot Street; but Rowling is much more artful. Yes, he sells Potter out and progresses events, but let’s look deeper into why.

The reason he does what he does, of course, (SPOILERS) is that his daughter has been kidnapped. But the fact that that ploy works adds a lot to the drama. A lot of children’s fiction suffers from having villains who are constantly undercut: they are meant to be scary and evil, but they are always being defied, bungling their schemes, and tasting defeat; so why should they frighten anybody? Voldemort might have been at risk of suffering from this, since Harry and Ron and Hermione, and many other children as well as adults, are very ready to stand up to him. Rowling needs a counterweight to this, so she spends quite some time building up Xeno as a notably brave and independent man —remember that he keeps publishing the Quibbler and speaking out against the Death Eaters in the face of significant pressure from the Ministry— and then shows us how his will can be broken by Voldemort’s ruthlessness.

There’s also something particularly moving about the tragedy Xeno experiences, set as it is against earlier scenes where he’s acted as light relief. He’s something of a figure of fun in the wizarding world, wearing bright yellow robes, drinking foul tea, and going off looking for absurd animals (incidentally, Rowling is very deft at coming up with absurd beasts that are still obviously absurd to characters living in a world where, say, blast-ended skrewts are real). Then we see him at home and the laughs start to stick in our throat slightly, as the pictures of his late wife and other clues hint at how his and Luna’s first tragedy, along with a sense that neither quite fits in, might have pushed them deeper into their own world. Just as this private sadness dawns on us, we’re then hit with the revelation of Luna’s kidnapping, and the extra pain and shame Xeno must feel as he’s brutally confronted with the limits of his own courage, and the laughter seems a long way off. Here’s one man’s situation that to him, and to Harry and his friends (though I believe they leave it unspoken) must be almost unbearable; but to the Death Eaters it’s all in a day’s war-waging. Thus Rowling hits us deep down, making the difference between knockabout cartoon evil and real, almost tangible villainy.

Finally I will note that Xeno is one good example among many of Rowling’s knack for drawing family relationships. All through the series, Harry as a boy with no real family makes an unusually distanced observer of others’ family setups, and Rowling provides him with quite a selection. As well as the Weasleys’ archetypal happy home, there’s Neville and his grandmother, and Dean Thomas dealing with an inheritance from a dad he never knew, and the Lovegoods’ father–daughter bubble, and Sirius the black sheep, and the young Dumbledore with the family headship thrust upon him, and the meanly dysfunctional Gaunts, and the Malfoys regretting their patrician tough love, and even hints at Hermione’s slightly distant if well-meaning mum and dad, to name but a few. Independently of the story, these are all a delight to discover; but seen through Harry’s eyes they take on a poignancy, since it becomes clear that despite any flaws they may have, he’d happily have settled for any of them. And then of course there’s Voldemort, also an orphan, who’s gone the other way and decided to hate families and ties of every kind and declare war on everything except himself.

So, that’s just one minor character. He is by turns funny and moving and desperately sad; he has his key plot moment; and he ties in with the wider themes of the book and the major characters in complex and powerful ways. I could have chosen dozens of characters and written a similar piece. There really is a lot in these books — a lot more than a few maddening prepositions, Jane Bower.

Posted by TEMPLE at 19:34

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