WARNING! This post contains SPOILERS for the Harry Potter series of books and movies, so if you are one of the cloistered few who hasn’t read/seen oh, say, the last three or four, and don’t want to be spoiled for them or by hints about the seventh book, by all that’s holy, turn back now!
In a weekend interview with which you may already be familiar, J.K. Rowling says two presumably-sympathetic characters will die in her seventh, and final, Harry Potter book. According to this Wikipedia article, the book should be published sometime between 2007 and 2009. Indeed, in the interview from which the “death” news comes, Rowling says she’s “well into” writing Book Seven.
Honestly, I was crafting a slightly snide essay about “Why does J.K. Rowling even need to hype Book Seven?”, and then I read the transcript linked above. Here’s the relevant portion:
Judy [host]: I know what I want to happen at the end of the whole Harry Potter thing, I want Harry to marry Ginny Weasley and I want Ron to marry Hermione – no I don’t – yes I do, I want Ron to marry Hermione and I will be so upset if it doesn’t happen. But of course the last one at the moment is residing in your safe?
Jo [Rowling]: The final chapter is hidden away, although it has now changed very slightly. One character got a reprieve, but I have to say two die that I didn’t intend to die …
Judy: Two much loved ones?
Jo: Well, you know. A price has to be paid. We are dealing with pure evil. They don’t target the extras do they? They go for the main characters, or I do.
Maybe I’m just impressed by the subtlety, but that doesn’t sound like the kind of softball question designed to facilitate pimping. It reminds me more of fannish chatter, especially with the interviewer revealing her inner ‘shipper.
What’s funny, of course, is that Judy wants to know who’s pairing off, but Rowling responds by dropping the Death bomb. Now Potter fans must try to deduce three fates. It’s almost the same math as in the final rounds of “American Idol,” except that two of the bottom three “Idol” candidates stay alive (figuratively speaking) for another week.
Still, why death? When the interviewer declares her fidelity to Harry/Ginny and Ron/Hermione, why not just smile and dissemble? Well, Judy, what if I said you’re half right? Wouldn’t that have been good for some excited giggles?
For one thing, Rowling and the Potter franchise have played this card before. A prominent death has been part of the advance word on every book since Goblet of Fire and poor Cedric Diggory. Back then, though, it was an unwelcome intruder into Harry’s relatively innocent saga. (For me, finding out it was Cedric was even a slight letdown, since it was hyped as “one of Harry’s school friends,” or something similar, and Cedric was more of an acquaintance.) The deaths in Order of the Phoenix and Half-Blood Prince were meant to wound Harry more deeply, robbing him of adult allies and forcing him to stand alone. As I remember, OOP‘s death was a well-kept secret, but HBP‘s was not. To be sure, Harry’s romantic entanglements were also publicized ahead of time, and perhaps death just got the first crack at the press for Book Seven.
Death does seem to lure the faithful to those midnight crate-opening parties at the local bookstore. You can spoil a romance somewhat and still enjoy its development; but death is sudden and irrevocable, and no one wants to go through hundreds of pages with a doomed character, waiting for the inevitable. Better to jump in quickly, before anyone else can ruin the macabre surprise.
In this respect Star Trek II did death right. It took advantage of leaks about Spock’s demise by fake-killing everyone from him on down in the opening sequence, and then having him and Kirk share a chuckle (well, Kirk chuckled). I doubt Book Seven will have quite that same playful attitude, but you never know.
Here, Rowling suggests that the deaths are more than just mileposts in Harry’s maturation — they’re “the price that must be paid” in the fight against “pure evil.” That sounds dire enough that it could almost have come out of DC’s or Marvel’s PR departments. Nightwing/Superboy/the New Warriors must die (or Spider-Man has to unmask) so that this story means something; so that you know we’re serious.
Maybe that’s too facetious. Rowling has a different set of priorities than Dan DiDio or Joe Quesada, because she’s wrapping up her finite story and they’re shepherding characters they (probably) hope will outlast them. Still, after all the carnage the big superhero publishers have doled out in the past few years, we might be forgiven for thinking “Mary Jane and Aunt May?” when we hear two stalwarts might buy the farm. We might also be forgiven for letting our cynical impulses view this as more marketing.
Really, it shouldn’t sound so odd for the final installment of a series to dispatch one or more main characters. Rowling has obviously given some thought to these three fates, and they are probably in keeping with the overall theme of Harry taking charge of his own destiny.
However, to me it’s telling that Judy’s concerned about who gets a happy ending, whereas Rowling has been focused on the drama. On some level Rowling may feel the need to justify her fantasy with a dollop of reality, just as DC and Marvel do. Ironically, though, if Judy is typical of adult Potter fans, they might not need or want that kind of justification. Harry’s been through a lot in six years, with every victory balanced seemingly against another round of abuse from his aunt’s family or from the Death Eaters. I could be reading too much into this exchange, but Judy apparently wants assurance and comfort, while Rowling wants respect for her work.
Both viewpoints are understandable, and certainly there is a common ground between them, but I’m just a shade more sympathetic to Judy. The attachment Potter fans feel to their favorite characters makes teasing them with the prospect of death that much more cruel, especially while they’re still so far away from learning the truth. After all, this isn’t comics, where every big event contains the seeds of its own reversal. Once the last page of Book Seven is printed, there’s no going back. In the eyes of J.K. Rowling and her fans, that makes this serious, permanent business. Why else would Judy want to make sure H/G and R/Hr come to pass?