Friday, April 22, 2011

Death, Resurrection, Fairy Stories and Harry Potter (Yes, all of them together!)

It is either the fault of all the Harry Potter movies I've been watching or of the liturgy I've been experiencing as part of Holy Week, but I can't seem to stop thinking about Death these past few days: Its inescapable role in life. Its essential role in literature. Its mystery, its hollowness, its joy. Because one thing both the Passion story and Harry Potter remind us of is that Death will never be separated from the Resurrection.

A little-known "Pieta" by Michelangelo
I should be careful about distinguishing the Passion story from literature, because in reality it is only different from other literature in that it is a primary literature—the quintessence of great literature, and great art. It's pretty simple to think of a story where you find the essentially* good hero beset upon by the evil villains whose way of life he disrupted, who sacrifices himself for others, who loses everything—and who, through this very act of sacrifice, triumphs over the evil, shatters it, and, well, pretty much makes it look stupid for trying. Okay, I made it super-easy for you by already mentioning Harry Potter. But fantasy is full of such stories. There's the obvious example of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. There's the sublime example of The Lord of the Rings. Watership Down. You can even find the thread in something as recent and popular as Ella Enchanted.

Two days ago I watched a fascinating interview with J. K. Rowling—a “special feature” of our sparkly new “Half-Blood Prince” blue-ray. When asked about the ending of the series, her response surprised me a bit. Forgive my paraphrasing here, but what she said amounted to, “Death would have been a much cleaner, neater ending to the story. But I needed my hero, Harry, to live, to go on and make the world a better place.”

I do understand what she meant. Certainly from the Aristotelian, pre-Resurrection point of view, the tragedy is the highest form of drama.** There is a certain poetic appropriateness to the tragic ending that is hard to create with a happy one. Our minds will easily recognize the truth in tragedy, and our emotions will be moved to pathos.

That said, I think Rowling did in fact choose the best ending for her story. Because it had never started out to be a tragedy—it was a fairy story. Here's what Tolkien would have to say to her (okay, he did say it already in his brilliant essay “On Fairy Stories”):

“...Far more important is the Consolation of the Happy Ending. Almost I would venture to assert that all complete fairy-stories must have it. At least I would say that Tragedy is the true form of Drama, its highest function; but the opposite is true of Fairy-story. Since we do not appear to possess a word that expresses this opposite—I will call it Eucatastrophe... The consolation of fairy-stories, the joy of the happy ending: or more correctly of the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous “turn” (for there is no true end to any fairy-tale): this joy, which is one of the things which fairy-stories can produce supremely well, is not essentially “escapist,” nor “fugitive.” In its fairy-tale—or otherworld—setting, it is a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur. It does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.”***

Why the difference? I believe the answer is that two thousand years ago, Death was hallowed by a Resurrection. For centuries, humankind had experienced the deep hollowness of Death; suddenly we were given a chance to see beyond life on earth to a joy deeper than any joy or any sorrow this world had ever known. As an event, the Resurrection was world-changing. As a story, it changed all the literature that would come after. A story that good is a lot to live up to—and tragedy won't do the trick anymore.

Of course Tolkien, whose relationship with God so influenced his writing, has something more to say about the matter:

“The Gospels contain a fairy-story, or a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy-stories...among the marvels is the greatest and most complete eucatastrophe. But this story has entered History and the primary world; the desire and aspiration of sub-creation has been raised to the fulfillment of Creation. The Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of Man's history. The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of the Incarnation. This story begins and ends in joy... But this story is supreme; and it is true. Art has been verified. God is the Lord, of angels, and of men—and of elves. Legend and history have met and fused... But in God's kingdom the presence of the greatest does not depress the small. Story, fantasy, still go on, and should go on. The Evangelium has not abrogated legends; it has hallowed them...”****

What could I add after that? Only my wishes for all of you to have a very blessed Holy Week and Easter! I hope that this season fills your lives and your writings with an abundance of grace. (And, hey, read some Harry Potter next week if you have Easter vacation!)

*I do mean “essentially,” and not “basically,” as the word has come to be used.
**See “Poetics.” (One of the best books on writing you'll find to this day, incidentally.)
***The quote continues beautifully—you can find it in the penultimate section of the essay, if you want to read on.
****I had to cut whole, wonderful chunks here—but you can read it in its entirety in the Epilogue of “On Fairy Stories.”

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Library Memories (or: An Old Fashioned Girl)

When I was eleven years old, I was just like every other girl: I lived for that weekly trip to the mall. I hated the parking lots...but it was worth it for the crunch of that double-decker food court taco...and then walking through my favorite set of doors in the massive building, and enjoying that wonderful mall peace and quiet for the entire rest of the afternoon.

Okay, I suppose I was one of about 10 girls in the entire city who went to the mall for no other purpose than to visit the library.

This was Erie, PA in the 90's—and at least at the time the huge Millcreek Mall was home to a teency, tiny little library in one out-of-the-way corner. I wonder sometimes if it's still there...or how it's changed...

When the eleven-year-old me walked in, I was greeted by that unmistakable smell of old, loved books. Most books in their juvenile section were covered in the old-fashioned canvasy library binding...I learned to love books in those strange dark/bold greens and blues and maroons. I trusted books with dog-eared, yellow pages. I knew a lot of people had enjoyed them before me, and that I returned them to be enjoyed my others.

I had a rather rosy view of that library's and my favorite books' popularity... this was back when a book's card was stamped with the due date; I was shocked when I took out Louisa May Alcott's Jack and Jill for the fourth time in two years and realized, from the dates, that no one had checked it out in between the times I did. This was a clue that change was coming...this and the two—two!--brand new computers that squeezed their way into the library's center offering free internet use and the promise of a soon-to-come searchable if the old ones weren't searchable enough.

I haven't revisited that library since we moved away in the late 90's... but sometimes I wish I could travel back in time and see it... I wish I could show my daughters how a real card catalog worked... Just as that library was an oasis in the wonderfully crazy world of commerce, I wish I could find an oasis from technology sometimes.

I do appreciate and bear a fond affection for my library now, but... There are dozens of computers on every floor—and more children to be found using them than searching for a new story to read. There is a television in the lobby with news constantly running. The DVD section is bigger than the poetry section.

Ah....I guess I'm just getting old.

Do you have any favorite library memories to share? (Ones with card catalogs preferable. ;)