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Curse of the Recurring Character

Will J.K. Rowling be able to resist bringing Harry, Hermione and Ron together again?

MARK STEYN August 6 2007
THE BACK PAGES

Curse of the Recurring Character

Will J.K. Rowling be able to resist bringing Harry, Hermione and Ron together again?

MARK STEYN August 6 2007

Curse of the Recurring Character

books

Will J.K. Rowling be able to resist bringing Harry, Hermione and Ron together again?

MARK STEYN

And then I woke up and it was all a dream.

Whoops, sorry, I’ve given away my killer ending. It’s the stuff in front of it I always have trouble with. But, like the song says, It’s Not How You Start (It’s How You Finish). And, like a lot of songwriters say, it helps to know how you’re going to finish before you get working on the beginning and the middle: Cole Porter always liked to have an ending in mind and then write up to it. A lot of playwrights do the same. Filmmakers? Well, the movie that defines the spirit of Hollywood in its heyday, Casablanca, wasn’t exactly made up on the fly, but it’s well-known that, virtually until they shot the final scene, nobody knew whether lisa would wind up with Rick or Victor. Had they given it a “happy” ending, I doubt we’d pay it much heed today. But, likewise, even The Graduate manages to conclude in a more or less serious way: Benjamin and Elaine have just barricaded her family in the church and escaped and, off-camera, the director Mike Nichols was barking at his actors to keep laughing uproariously at what they’d gotten away with—and they did, until, through sheer exhaustion, their fake yuks died and their faces collapsed. And, after seeing the footage, Nichols decided to end not on the big laugh but on the anxious sag: it turned a happy ending into a nervous one.

And what of the novelist? J.K. Rowling has just pulled off a remarkable feat: she has finished a seven-part series more or less on schedule and exactly as conceived way back in 1990 in that greasy spoon in Scotland when she was unemployed and writing it on napkins or whatever (for some reason, I always doze off during J.K. Rowling profiles). I won’t

give the ending away—Harry has a sex change and elopes with Snape—but I was struck by the final sentence of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. It’s three words, three very ordinary monosyllables, yet it expresses the contentment and satisfaction of a journey completed.

Do you know how rare it is for an author to take a smash hit character to the end of the ride exactly as conceived? Ms. Rowling begins The Deathly Hallows with some lines of Aeschylus:

“Oh, the torment bred in the race, the grinding scream of death and the stroke that hits the vein, the hemorrhage none can staunch, the grief,

the curse no man can bear”

—which is pretty much how novelists feel about their long-running characters by this stage of the game. Most “series” are accidental: L. Frank Baum wrote the original Wizard Of Oz and it was such a hit he was prevailed upon to write more—and more. In the first half-dozen sequels, Baum came up with many lively characters: Tiktok the Machine Man, the literary world’s first robot; the Highly Magnified Woggle-Bug, who endlessly irritates his companions with his laboured puns; the Gump, half beast, half flying sofa; and the Princess Langwidere, who

has 14 detachable heads she likes to appear in and wants to make Dorothy’s the 15th. And every once in a while he hit on a magnificent set piece worthy of his eccentric cast: there’s a wonderful scene in the third book, Ozma OfOz, in which Princess Ozma, the Scarecrow, the Tin Woodman, the Cowardly Lion, the Hungry Tiger, the Saw-Horse and the entire officer-heavy Royal Army, cross the poisonous desert from the Land of Oz to the Land of Ev by means of a magic green carpet which unrolls under their feet as they advance and then rolls up again behind them—a very literal example of how Baum’s work is one continuous rolling parade of fantastic episodes. But the great parts rarely add up to a satisfying whole, and the series settles down to a sluggish chug on formulaic autopilot— Dorothy or a friend of Dorothy or a Dorothy wannabe goes on a journey, acquires wacky companions and eventually winds up in the Emerald City. C.S. Lewis had a more fully conceived arc for the Narnia series, but big deal: if it weren’t for The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, who’d care about the rest?

Yet the Harry Potter series managed to stay within the straitjacket of its format—seven books, each set during the school year—and still breathe. Only in the final volume and their final year do Harry and chums break free of the constraints of Hogwarts for any length of time, and you kind of feel they’ve earned it by then. I’ve written previously about how the school calendar is a natural

story shape for young readers. But rereading Anne of Green Gables a while back with my little girl, I vaguely felt L.M. Montgomery missed a trick: the seasons fly by too fast. All her school years in the first volume, she’s at college in the second, and then on to marriage and kids, and, for all I know, grandkids. Anne’s life is not chronicled in child time, and suffers because of it. Obviously, at a certain level, I’m talking rubbish: it’s an all-time blockbuster. But the sequels? Not so much so. And, if Miss Montgomery had followed the Rowling format, I think they might be.

Drearier fates await other continuing characters. One assumes that, when Sue Grafton began her alphabetical series about gal detective Kinsey Millhone with A is for Alibi and followed it with B is for Burglar and C is for Corpse, she did so because she had a big finish in mind by the time she gets to Z is for Zeppelin, or Zabaglione, or Zoot Suit. But most of the great iconic heroes of fiction either die prematurely and temporarily or not at all. “I must save my mind for better things,” wrote Arthur Conan Doyle to his mum, preparing to rid himself of the burthen of the world’s greatest detective. “It is with a heavy heart,” began Dr. Watson in The Final Problem, “that I take up my pen to write these the last words in which I shall ever record the singular gifts by which my friend Mr. Sherlock Holmes was distinguished.” And what a tale it was, as Holmes plunged over the Reichenbach Falls locked in mortal combat with his nemesis, Moriarty. Truly the Holmes adventure to end them all, for what subsequent villain could match the threat to the world Moriarty represented?

Oh, well. A few years later, The Hound of the Baskervilles was officially a “prequel,” but by the second paragraph of The Empty House, Holmes’s death had become merely a “disappearance,” and one soon to end. By contrast, I like the way Agatha Christie took out her exasperation with Hercule Poirot as she and he progressed through the 20th century

together. His dyed hair gave way to a wig, younger supporting players did all the legwork, and ingrate hostesses no longer acknowledged the Belgian detective’s celebrity:

“I should, perhaps, Madame, tell you a little more about myself. I am Hercule Poirotl”

The revelation left Mrs. Summerhayes unmoved.

“What a lovely name,” she said kindly. “Greek, isn’t it?”

But, with superb timing, Dame Agatha, a year before her own death, brought Poirot’s career to an end, and in the same country house-Styles—where he and Captain Hastings had enjoyed their first adventure together 60 years earlier:

“Good-bye, cher ami. I have moved the amyl nitrite ampoules away from beside my bed. I prefer to leave myself in the hands of the bon Dieu. May his punishment, or his mercy, be swift!

“We shall not hunt together again, my friend. Our first hunt was here-and our last...”

Will Harry, Hermione and Ron hunt together again? Ms. Rowling will be under severe pressure in the years ahead, and she’ll be a better man than Conan Doyle or Alexandre Dumas if she manages to resist. Meanwhile, if you’re one of those authors stuck with a recurring character your agent won’t let you kill off, you might try the approach of Beatm Potter, creator of Peter Rabbit, Benjamin Bunny, Jeremy Fisher et al. Miss Potter liked to collect rabbits, frogs and other small creatures, pin them down and then dissect them— to make sure, she said, that she got the anatomy right for her illustrations. Still, it’s easy to see how it might work as a form of therapy for writers in long soured marriages to literary heroes from which even death won’t them part. Why should it only be critics who get to dissect your characters?

At that moment, Peter Rabbit woke up and realized Miss Potter had strapped him to the table and was standing over him with a scalpel and Huber probe... M