Schrödinger's wizards

J.K. Rowling has been systematically picking off one major character -- of growing importance -- per book for the last three volumes of the Harry Potter series. (Well, it's arguable whether the character who died in book four qualified as "major" -- her pre-release warnings to parents of readers that someone was going to die made me expect to lose someone we'd already come to care about in the first three books, so I was caught off guard by the actual death. But I digress.) For the soon-too-be-released seventh and final volume, her statements make clear that we can expect at least two deaths. Nothing I've read, however, suggests that the carnage will be limited to two -- quite the contrary, I expect that the fans (e.g.) who are expecting a body count closer to that of a Shakespearean tragedy are on the right track.

I'm not especially interested in speculating, as Scholastic has encouraged eager readers, over who will live and who will die. My previous predictions have gone so far awry that I don't trust myself to read Rowling's mind. I was at least right in guessing that the character who died in book six wouldn't make it to the end of the series, although I was expecting that death to happen in the final installment.

Besides, I'm too emotionally involved. I desperately hope that our three central characters, at least, will make it through to a happy ending. (And some things Rowling has let slip suggests that they will, although of course she's been guarded about giving a straight answer.) At the same time, I have to admit that those who point out that a self-sacrificial death of the hero would fit very well with the moral logic of the HP universe have a point. I'm with John Irving: "My fingers are crossed for Harry, that's all. I'm just hoping."

(Really, I haven't spent hundreds of hours this summer trolling all of the HP news and speculation online. But I do read the Books & Culture newsletter, and Dallas Morning News Religion blog -- what this particular entry has to do with religion totally escapes me, but I find it highly amusing, so I'm not complaining -- and follow some of the links, and, well, it can get engrossing...)

So I wonder what the final outcome will be, who survives to the epilogue, and I will wait until I read it and be more or less surprised.

I remember being struck back in February, when the news was announced that she was FINISHED WITH THE BOOK, with the thought that whoever gets it in book seven is already dead -- but we won't know for months. Now it's only a matter of weeks, but there's still a strangeness of knowing that there is a fictional reality out there that we don't know yet. The embargo on the HP books is so tight that only a handful of people in the world know what happens.

I've even felt a bit sorry for all future fans of the Harry Potter series, since they will miss the exquisite agony of waiting -- sometimes for YEARS -- for the next installment. It's a peculiar kind of delayed gratification that only comes with falling in love with a series of books still being written.

At what point can a fictional character be said to be dead? (Yes, this is a metaphysically nonsensical question. I still find it intriguing.) At the moment the author decides/realizes that the character dies? (Jo wrote the first draft of the last chapter around 1990, but the fates of at least three characters have changed since then.) Or when s/he actually commits the death scene to paper/computer? At the historical moment corresponding to the setting of the work of fiction, if it can be pinpointed? (Based on calculations from the deathday of Sir Nicholas De Mimsy-Porpington, book 7 would take place in 1997-98.) Or not until the individual reader encounters the death? Or when the death becomes part of general cultural knowledge, if the book is that significant? Are the unfortunate members of the HP cast dead now? Have they been dead for seven months? Ten years? Seventeen? Or will they die sometime in the middle of the night on July 21?

Chances are, I'm going to get engrossed enough in the story that I will forget to pay attention to the body count, much less muse on metaphysical impossibilities. But while I'm restlessly waiting, I wonder...


Sarah said...

Oh, the philosophizing that this series has prompted!!

Frankly, news that HP dies at the end is probably the only thing that could compel me actually to pick up the series and read it.

But I seriously doubt that Mme Rowling could survive the collective wrath of the world should she actually off him. So, I think he'll survive.

Rachel said...

I'll let you know if Harry gets wacked.

JKR refused to tell an interviewer whether Harry would survive to the end of the series, saying she didn't want to get hate mail. That might suggest that he does die, because who's going to send her hate mail over the hero surviving?

Then again, she once said that she was going to take her entire family into hiding to escape the outrage after she inadvertently gave a completely insignificant character the same surname as Harry's dead maternal grandparents, prompting a whirlwind of speculation in the fandom. If that level of fan frustration scares her so, surely she wouldn't risk the wrath of the world by killing Harry.

Then again again, she was obviously kidding. And she's already risked the rage of the maniacal hardcore "H/Hm shippers" -- those who want to see Harry and Hermione pair off romantically -- by shutting down that possibility in book six. If she can withstand that anger, she's ready for anything.

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