Thursday, January 05, 2006


In our family, when a new Harry Potter book comes out, we clear the weekend of all other appointments and read it out loud. This can be a challenge: HP and the Order of the Phoenix took us about thirty hours to complete, from 7 am to 10 pm on both Saturday and Sunday. (The latest volume was a bit shorter, and we polished it off by early Sunday afternoon.) This has become a tradition around our house for the simple reason that, if we didn't all read the book together at the same time, one of us would get to read it first. Can't have that, naturally.

I guess it is fair to say that we are fans. And why not? Rowling's books are some of the best stories around -- intelligent, exciting, hilarious, thought-provoking, and sometimes quite touching. The universe of wizards and muggles is a fascinating place, filled with delightful detail and peopled with dozens of superb characters.

Still, I must confess that, each time a new volume has appeared, I have felt a sense of dread. Not because the books are bad -- we each have our favorites but they have all been good -- but because this time, J. K. Rowling might screw it up.

She might! After all, who could possibly keep it up? All the invention, the wit, the wordplay, the complex storylines, the shocks and surprises, the sly erudition? (I will never forget the wonderful moment when I learned from an old book in a house in Cambridge that the 14th Century alchemist Nicholas Flammel really existed.) It would only be human for Rowling to lay an egg from time to time. The next book could well be a clunker. It is only to be expected. Things go bad, they do, and you shouldn't set your hopes too high. Yet you do, don't you? Even though you know that it will just make it worse when she finally blows it.

But she hasn't done that. Not yet. Not quite! Somehow, each book still breathes new life into the old enchantment, still makes you laugh and gasp at all the right places. Each book manages to find a way to astonish you, in spite of absurdly high expectations. But with each new book, I have worried a little more, because each book in a way puts all of the previous ones at risk. A bad book now would spoil the whole series. And what a catastrophe that would be!

And yet . . . by now, despite myself, I have begun to trust J. K. Rowling. My anxiety about the next (and last) book in the series is tempered by a strange confidence. She has given us the story so far; perhaps she has proven that she can be trusted with its ending.

We all know that writers and movie-makers can disappoint. Tom Clancy was great for about five or six books -- a damn long run, actually -- from The Hunt for Red October on. But by the time of Rainbow Six, if not well before, he was just boiling another pot, alas. The third book in Philip Pullman's trilogy, in my view, diminishes the first two. (Oh, is that all he was up to?) And movie sequels, despite their general profitability and popularity with Hollywood, are seldom worth seeing, even when the original was good. Was anybody out there excited and impressed by the Matrix sequels? Show of hands? Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?

Don't get me started on George Lucas and Star Wars. Look, I'm a forgiving man. The original trilogy was magnificent, even admitting its few false notes, like the over-cute Ewoks. I also quite enjoyed The Phantom Menace, despite its more significant shortcomings. The next one, Send in the Clones or whatever it was, still had a few good things about it. Really it did. But then.

If we have living heroes who are still doing important work, we all know that they may screw it up. Somewhere inside us, I think we are all waiting for it to happen. We wonder whether the next episode will turn it all to rubbish. Trust not in the living, says an inner voice. Only the dead are sure not to disappoint. And the better our heroes have been, the worse it will be when they stumble.

So it was for me with Peter Jackson's film version of The Lord of the Rings. The Fellowship of the Ring was so good, even with all the changes. The realization of place and mood was so fantastic, so overwhelming. The casting and the performances were brilliant. The script did so much to use and preserve Tolkien's language, and even his languages. And so I began to feel a real apprehension about The Two Towers. They just wouldn't be able to keep it up -- how could they? But that movie was excellent too. And I thought: How horrible it would be to get the first two so right and then screw up on The Return of the King!

Yet by that time, I had also begun to trust Jackson and his band of wizards, a little. And The Return of the King film did not disappoint me. They managed to do keep it up, imperfectly to be sure, but very very well, and all the way to the very end. In spite of all doubts and pressures and what must have been years of wearying toil; in spite of the compromises and deletions they were forced to make; in spite of flirting with horrible bad ideas (like having Aragorn face off with Sauron before the Black Gate); in spite of all, they kept the faith.

Imagine for a moment what it must have been like to read The Lord of the Rings as it was first published, volume by volume, between July, 1954 and October, 1955. Imagine the year-long wait for the third installment. You'd be thinking, This is too good. This can't last. The ending cannot be wonderful enough. And yet there would be a hope -- impossible, yes, but also impossible to refuse, like our hopeless hope for Heaven. And hope would whisper, Maybe it can.


Blogger Martin LaBar said...

Good post, and I tend to agree. But, of course, only God can really be trusted . . .

10:22 AM  
Anonymous Zeroth order wife said...

I think the example of Tom Clancy doesn't quite work here. After all, when Tom Clancy started "just boiling another pot" he didn't ruin The Hunt for Red October. Even though his books have continuing characters, they do stand alone; later books may disappoint, but they don't retroactively reduce our enjoyment of his previous novels.

I see a connection, of course. (How many of his "bad" books have we bought in hardback based on previous information?) We had begun to trust him, and he disappointed us. This is annoying, but doesn't leave us with the same deep feeling of loss that we would have had if, say, The Return of the King had been a "bust."

8:43 PM  

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