Wednesday, July 11, 2007

What Makes Them Tremble: A Look at Two Tiny but Telling Moments

Note: I don't usually post my own essays, or anything else this long. But I'm getting so excited as the release date for Deathly Hallows approaches that I thought I would share this essay (previously only shared with a couple of friends) that I finished a couple of weeks ago. Nothing brilliant or speculative here, just a bit of marvelling over Rowling's thematic and aesthetic coherence and her use of even the tiniest details to show her readers some significant things.

The full title of the essay is below: it was too long for blogger to accept in the title heading!


What Makes Them Tremble: A Look at Two Tiny but Telling Moments in Sorcerer’s Stone and Half-Blood Prince

There’s a very small moment toward the end of Jane Eyre that I always remember. Jane has returned to Thornfield and to the now-blind Mr. Rochester, and is about to reveal her identity to him. The maid has prepared a tray with a water glass and Jane decides to take it into the room instead, thus surprising the complex and tortured man she loves with her presence. She has not yet seen him in his new condition; she is full of deep emotions and is unsure how he will respond to her. The usually calm, decorous Jane picks up the tray and heads into the room. And – here’s the unforgettable moment – her hands shake and the water spills, leaving only half a glass to give to her wondering beloved.

The tiny detail of the shaking hands and the spilled water never ceases to move me. It is indeed a very small moment in a novel packed with emotionally laden moments, large and small. But the very smallness of it, and the unexpectedness of shaking hands from a character whose reserve and calmness we’ve come to take as a bedrock part of her character, makes the entire scene cry out for our attention. The detail reminds us that there is far more to Jane than meets the eye, far more going on inside her heart than our privileged narrator-led glimpses have led us to know and allowed us to understand. In a moment of shaking hands and spilled water, Charlotte Bronte forever captured the depths of our heroine’s heart.

What moves characters? What motivates them and makes them do what they do, long what they long for? It’s often the tiniest of details that reveal to us, or at least hint at, the deepest longings of a character’s heart. It may be important to listen to what a character says, but even more important is looking at what they do – even (or especially) in those “throwaway” moments, seemingly small and tangential to the main action.

J.K. Rowling is a master at providing us such small moments. Two such moments stand out to me in particular and not just because they too happen to center around shaking/trembling movements. They stand out because they tellingly reveal the inner emotions and heart motivations of the two characters around whose opposition the entire series has been built: Harry and Voldemort.

“Harry – Yer a Wizard.”

In Chapter Four, “The Keeper of the Keys” in Sorcerer’s Stone, eleven year old Harry Potter discovers who he is.

Up until the moment when Hagrid bursts into the hut-on-a-rock where Vernon Dudley has fled with Petunia, Dudley and Harry in his futile efforts to outrun magic, Harry has no clue that he is actually a wizard. Dumbledore, the headmaster of Hogwarts, has sent his most trusted employee, Hagrid (the half-giant groundskeeper of the school) to make certain that Harry gets his letter of invitation to the school. It turns out that Hagrid has to do much more than deliver the letter; he ends up delivering Harry the news of his wizarding identity. While Hagrid is appalled that the Dursleys kept this truth from their nephew, Harry is stunned to find out that he’s a wizard (though it certainly makes sense of some things in his life he’s never quite understood).

This is an important early moment in the Harry Potter saga, not only because Harry gets his introduction to the magical world, but because the entire series becomes an epic of continuing revelations. Essentially these are books about a boy coming to understand who he is, who he has been shaped to be from the start, and who he is called to be on behalf of his community.

Of course, even before Hagrid bursts onto the scene, we do have some knowledge of who Harry is. We – and Harry, whose eyes we see most of the story through – know that he is an orphan. That is perhaps the most important fact of his existence up until that eleventh birthday, as far as he knows.

We also know that Harry has suffered ten years, almost his entire lifetime, of neglect and abuse at the hands of his Uncle, Aunt and cousin. He’s never known love, at least not that he can remember. We do come to find out, as our story progresses, that Harry was actually shaped early on by the deep, sacrificial love of his mother, who died to save him and whose blood remains an ancient magical refuge. But although that is a fact, and that love is actually operating in his life in tangible, protective ways, Harry doesn’t yet know about it.

I love that Rowling has Hagrid deliver something else to Harry. Before he delivers the shocking revelation that Harry is a wizard, before he makes sure Harry has his letter from Hogwarts, before he tells Harry the truth about his parents’ death (which had been covered up by the Dursley’s lame attempts to revise and ignore history), Hagrid gives Harry a birthday cake.

When you think about it, this couldn’t be a more touching gift. Rowling has already made it clear to us that the Dursleys could care less about Harry’s birthday, if they even remember it. Because they really don’t want him to be part of their family, they don’t include him in normal family activities: there are no pictures of Harry around the house, for instance, and he’s not allowed to go on excursions to restaurants or parks. The Dursleys spoil their own son rotten, but Harry they pretty much ignore except when they’re forcing him (Cinderella-like) to do chores.

But Hagrid, a member of the community to which Harry really belongs, who knew Harry’s parents and helped rescue Harry from the ruined house the night the Potters died…Hagrid who really does love Harry, remembers his birthday. And he does one of the most natural, ordinary, family things that anyone can do: he gives Harry a cake.

“Anyway – Harry,” said the giant, turning his back on the Dursleys, “a very happy birthday to yeh. Got summat fer yeh here – I mighta sat on it at some point, but it’ll taste all right.”

From an inside pocket of his black overcoat he pulled a slightly squashed box. Harry opened it with trembling fingers. Inside was a large, sticky chocolate cake with Happy Birthday Harry written on it in green icing.

Harry looked up at the giant. He meant to say thank you, but the words got lost on the way to his mouth… (pp. 47-48, SS, emphasis mine)

The trembling fingers give Harry’s heart away here. We don’t even see him shake or tremble (though we do hear his stunned gasp) when he finds out he’s a wizard. But we see him tremble when bumbling, clumsy Hagrid shows him ordinary human kindness and gives him a squashed chocolate birthday cake with his name on it. In that tiny moment, Jo Rowling reveals to us, many pages before the more overt revealing when Harry stands in front of the Mirror of Erised, Harry’s deepest desire and heart hunger: to have a family and to be loved.

“I Knew I Was Different…I Knew I Was Special.”

It’s not until five books (and hundreds of pages) later that we get an oddly parallel though antithetical scene. In Chapter Thirteen, “The Secret Riddle,” in Half-Blood Prince, we’re treated to a flashback scene via Dumbledore’s memory-collecting pensieve. In this memory, which Dumbledore shares with Harry, eleven year old Tom Riddle, who will grow up to become Lord Voldemort, finds out that he is a wizard.

Like Harry, Riddle had grown up an orphan, though unlike Harry he had no relatives, not even mean and nasty ones who would grudgingly take him in. So he grew up in a muggle orphanage, where no one would ever guess that he had wizarding blood or magical powers.

Tom himself wondered about his own ability to do things that “normal” people couldn’t, however. It’s clear early on, both in the way the story is recounted and through the emphasis Dumbledore places upon this fact as he unpacks the memory with Harry later, that Tom Riddle had strong magical powers from the beginning, and some rudimentary ways of controlling those powers, even before he knew what they were.

Contrast this with Harry whose few bouts of childhood magic came about completely unexpectedly, not out of any conscious sense of “making things happen.” Harry’s latent magical abilities usually sprang forth in situations where he found himself in trouble or feeling very strong feelings. His aunt gives him a horrible, embarrassing haircut he doesn’t want his schoolmates to see, and his hair grows back magically overnight. Dudley and his bullying friends chase him on the schoolyard and in his panic and fear, he finds himself suddenly up on a rooftop out of their reach. (And note that magic didn’t always spontaneously happen even in these kinds of situations. In the occlumency lessons he has with Snape in Order of the Phoenix, we see Harry’s humiliating memory of being chased up a tree by his Aunt Marge’s bulldog – and nothing magical seems to happen there, either to save Harry or to inflict punishment on the dog.)

In chapter 2, “The Vanishing Glass” in Sorcerer’s Stone, we even see Harry’s as yet unconscious magical abilities blossom out of his feelings of compassion and empathy for a fellow creature who has been just as locked up and misunderstood in his cage at the zoo as Harry has been in his cupboard under the stairs. Although we’re still so early in the saga at that point that we don’t full know what we’re seeing, with hindsight we realize that Harry’s magical abilities were already, in a sense, revealing who he was at the heart: a wall-melter, a liberator, someone who could empathize with overlooked creatures and those who lived in exile from their native home and identity.

Just as Harry’s burgeoning magical abilities and his reactions or responses to them (usually surprise and wonder) reveal who he is, so do the young Tom Riddle’s first magical experiments. I say “experiments” because Tom, unlike Harry, recognizes that he is somehow involved in making odd things happen. He begins to play around with controlling and manipulating these events, even if he has no real clue how to do so. Within Rowling’s subcreation, what most matters about magical abilities is what one does with them. That is one reason why Dumbledore thinks it important for young wizards, perhaps especially one with Riddle’s powerful potential, to be trained carefully and properly within the context of the Hogwarts community. That may be why Dumbledore himself goes to see Tom at the orphanage to tell him that he is a wizard and to invite him to Hogwarts, a task he willingly gives over to Hagrid in Harry’s case. (If the Ministry of Magic can trace magical activity in muggle areas, my guess is that they were getting rather “high readings” of such activity from the vicinity of Tom’s orphanage.)

The need for care in shaping Riddle’s abilities becomes more clear to Dumbledore as his initial interview with Tom wears on. The excitement of power, the desire to control and manipulate, runs thick in Riddle even at the age of eleven. He has already been using his powers to break rules and to hurt others. Dumbledore’s benign affability gives way to a wary and watchful intensity as they speak together in the privacy of Tom’s room:

“Magic?” he repeated in a whisper.

“That’s right,” said Dumbledore.

“It’s…it’s magic, what I can do?”

“What is it that you can do?”

“All sorts,” breathed Riddle. A flush of excitement was rising up his neck into his hollow cheeks; he looked fevered. “I can make things move without touching them. I can make animals do what I want them to do, without training them. I can make bad things happen to people who annoy me. I can make them hurt if I want to.”

His legs were trembling. He stumbled forward and sat down on the bed again, staring at his hands, his head bowed as though in prayer.

“I knew I was different,” he whispered to his own quivering fingers. “I knew I was special. Always, I knew there was something.”

“Well, you were quite right,” said Dumbledore, who was no longer smiling, but watching Riddle intently. “You are a wizard.” (p. 271, HBP, emphases mine)

What a difference in these two revealing scenes! In these scenes where two very similar but so very different eleven year old boys are given essentially the same information, the same important knowledge about their identities and gifts, we see such contrasting responses. Note what it is that makes Tom Riddle tremble and quiver. Not ordinary kindness and love, as in Harry’s case, but the knowledge of power, power he can wield to control his environment and hurt others.

Rowling won’t let us miss this point. She drives it home like a hammer driving a nail. Notice how many times Tom Riddle uses the word “I” or “me” within this very short conversation: he repeats “I can make” four times and “I knew” three times. I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to say that these phrases intimate that Riddle already has unhealthy, idolatrous leanings (“I can make” even seems to usurp creative powers). Less we miss that point, Rowling actually tells us that he looks like he’s in a prayerful posture, but that he’s only speaking to himself. He’s not even really speaking to Dumbledore here, though the wizard sits just a few feet away from him. He speaks to “his own quivering fingers,” a phrase that should rightfully make our skin crawl, especially as we consider those inhuman looking fingers he will grow up to have and all the terror and havoc his hands will wreak.

In just a few short words and phrases, and in two scenes hundreds of pages apart and yet powerfully parallel, J K Rowling gives us a picture of two very different boys. They may look alike; their destinies are intertwined, and their wands have the same core. But at the core of their own beings, they are radically different. They are radically different even before Tom makes all the tragic choices that will lead him to split his soul and embrace inhumanity in pursuit of an earthly immortality.

We know this because we know what makes them tremble. The young Riddle wants power and knowledge surpassing what a created being should have. And he’s thrilled – not at the prospect of finding a home, family, or community at Hogwarts (all things Harry longs for) – but at the idea of belonging to an elite, secret club. At the age of eleven, Riddle already has the makings of a definite gnostic.

Harry, on the other hand, is moved by incarnated love. He trembles when he is touched by love, by the ordinary, homespun gesture of a kind gift from someone who cares about him. When first told he is magical, he doubts it, not because he hasn’t realized on some level that he’s different, but because he is grounded in humility. He cares more about learning the story of his family than in exploring his newfound “powers,” and more about the possibility of finding a home than in making any sort of name for himself (which is ironic, because most people in the wizarding world already know his name).

What marks the difference in Harry and Tom? Certainly both are free to make choices, but it seems to me that each was shaped, almost from birth, by certain experiences. Rowling loves to emphasize choice; I am not advocating some kind of fatalism here. We do have choices, but we are also shaped by choices made by those who come before us – we enter a story already in progress. Riddle’s unconscious understanding of himself seemed to be “I am alone and have always been alone. I was not worth living for.” Harry’s deepest memory, on the other hand, helped form his core identity of “beloved son, worth dying for.” No wonder the power of love is what makes our hero tremble.

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