Thursday, December 13, 2012

The Ending that Would Have Made Harry Potter

I've spent a lot of time criticizing Harry Potter.  Just before the last book was movie-fied, I watched all of the movies on some HBO marathon special with my family, and spent the next several months abusing the series to anyone who would let me talk about it, for about as long as they'd let me talk about it.

I have recently finished reading all of the books (thereby eliminating that excuse for fans to ignore me), and my opinion of the books was elevated slightly.  It was.  The people who pestered me in to reading them have convinced me that Rowling put a good story together with good characters.

The books will obviously be around for a while, essentially owning their own table at Barnes and Noble, and may get inducted in to the Fantasy Hall of Fame with Tolkien and Lewis, and so no matter what I say the books are already a classic.  And no matter what I say, Rowling is the millionaire author with seven books and eight blockbuster movies, while I just have an internet connection.

But I think she really dropped the ball in the last book.

The ending we got was, basically, the ending that everyone would have expected from the very first chapter of the first book; it's the ending we would have expected from only the knowledge that it was about a prophesied chosen one and a powerful Evil Wizard set on destroying the world - no further details needed.  Spoiler alert: the prophesied chosen one wins.

Which obviously isn't bad.  I like the archetypes in fantasy fiction, otherwise I wouldn't read it.  I like "orphan farmboy runs away on adventure, becomes knight, kills dragon, rescues princess, rinse, repeat."  I would not get tired of it, and that's precisely the point of these archetypal stories.

But I think Rowling had the opportunity to do something completely, stunningly mind-blowing with the ending to her seven-book series that would have made even me swear by the series.
When Dumbledore finally gets around to explaining to Harry Potter about the prophecy and his destiny, it is near the end of Order of the Phoenix.  The prophecy is as follows:
"The one with the power to vanquish the Dark Lord approaches ... born to those who have thrice defied him, born as the seventh month dies ... and the Dark Lord will mark him as his equal, but he will have power the Dark Lord knows not ... and either must die at the hand of the other for neither can live while the other survives ... the one with the power to vanquish the Dark Lord will be born as the seventh month dies ..."
Dumbledore then goes on to explain how all of this applies to Harry Potter: his parents defied him, born in July, gets the scar, has the power of love,  etc.  It makes sense, and Harry we've been following Harry for five books now, so we're willing to believe that he in in fact this chosen one because the entire series bears his name in the title.

But, weirdly, Dumbledore throws out the random tidbit of information that apparently the prophecy could have potentially applied to one other wizard.  But Dumbledore dismisses this as quickly as he brings it up, because Harry has the mark, Harry defeated Voldemort once, and Harry still has the drive and the purity of heart to struggle and strive to rid the world of the dark wizard.  And the irony of it according to Dumbledore, is that of the two wizards the prophecy would have applied to, it was Voldemort's decision to fear Harry and seek out Harry that caused him to pick up the mantle, whereas inaction from Voldemort would have caused the prophecy to die out.  Dumbledore tells us, that Voldemort made the prophecy true and true only of Harry by trying to kill Harry as a baby.

The other wizard the prophecy could have applied to is of course Neville Longbottom.

Neville is constantly described as clumsy, bumbling, and forgetful.  He flounders around school, barely passes any subject but herbology, gets in to all kinds of embarrassing situations, and for the first couple of books exists basically as comic relief.  We find out through the series that his parents were famous and powerful Aurors who were tortured to insanity by Death Eaters.  Neville has since been raised by his grandmother, who is a fiery witch constantly ashamed of her son's apparent lack of achievement.  Mrs. Longbottom wants her grandson to be the courageous soldier against the dark arts that her son was, sometimes implying a desire to disown him.  When the audience learns this in Order of the Phoenix, is also when Neville's character-arc begins, leading him to eventually become the leader of the Hogwarts' resistance group.

Neville's character arc shows him becoming more and more adept and powerful, and climaxes in the final battle scene where, brought before Voldemort to be made a public mockery, Neville defies the charms, pulls the enchanted sword of Godric Gryffindor out of the Sorting Hat, and in a single deft maneuver slays the last vessel of Voldemort's soul, rendering the dark lord once more mortal.

And it is in that very scene that I think Rowling dropped the ball.

Here is how I think it should have ended:

Harry gets carried by Hagrid to Hogwarts, everyone comes out, Neville refuses to submit, etc., pretty much what is written.  We're following Harry, who has just willingly gone to be killed by Voldemort to complete his role as Chosen One, alive and feigning death, waiting until Voldemort's snake is in range before killing it and him.

Harry is watching the torture of Neville, waiting for his moment but unable to bear it any more...

Voldemort, to make a point, calls down the Sorting Hat and declares that there will only be on house at Hogwarts any longer.  Everyone will henceforth be Slytherin.  To prove his point (and really, why else call down the Sorting Hat at all?), he takes the Sorting Hat, shoves it in Neville's head, and [here's where I start to differ] somehow commands the Hat, as the heir of Salazar Slytherin (the Hat's creator) , to proclaim the Gryffindor Neville to the a Slytherin.  Or something along those lines.  The Hat does so, begrudgingly as possible.  Then Voldemort lights the Hat on fire.   Neville fights off his body-binding curse, draws the Sword from the Hat, slices off Nagini's head in rage, then before Voldemort can even understand what is happening, Neville Longbottom runs it straight through Voldemort's chest.

Voldemort dies.  Right there, just as surely as would any Muggle impaled upon a sword.

We are seeing this through Harry's eyes, and suddenly are overwhelmed with the shock of it.  Neville has just vanquished the dark lord.  Neville, the clumsy and bumbling fool, noted even by professors for his incompetence, and a failure at everything but shrubberies.  Neville, born to those who had thrice defied Voldemort, as the seventh month died.

The prophecy was about Neville after all.  He was the real Chosen One; Harry was a red herring.

Then suddenly the entire series is turned around.  We've been reading about the Boy Who Lived, fully anticipating his show-down with Voldemort, where he would slay the evil wizard and save all of Wizard England.  We've been reading about him for years, through some 5,000 pages of books, and we never noticed the quiet herbologist with a poor memory and bad hand-eye coordination.

We were misled.

Now Voldemort is defeated and everyone rallies around Neville, cheering him on, the one who destroyed You-Know-Who without even a single spell.

And as the people hoist Neville in to the air and cheer, we with Harry are screaming internally, thrown completely out of our chairs, trying to figure out how this could happen.  Yeah, Neville could have been the Chosen One of the prophecy, but this is Harry Potter's story.  He's the Chosen One.  We already knew how the series ended - with Harry and Voldemort locked in a wizard duel - from the very first book, and it turns out we didn't know how it ended after all.  Our minds are blown, our preconceptions shattered.

The marking as an equal?  Voldemort declared him a Slytherin.  Even if you don't change anything about the scene of Voldemort calling the Hat, that's still what he did in that scene; the whole point of pulling the Hat was to demonstrate an end to the Sorting process and everyone becoming mandatory Slytherins, Neville first.  My re-write makes it more explicit, but the idea is already in the original; all you really need to do is have the return-swing of Neville's sword strike Voldemort, too.

And the power Voldemort didn't know?  The freakin' sword.  No one bothers to think of actual physical weapons in this universe (which makes you wonder why Godric Gryffindor even had a sword...).  Voldemort certainly would never put any stock by getting run-through by a stick of metal.  He's the most powerful wizard in the world, owner of the Elder Wand, whose extraordinary feats of magic both bore him with their simplicity and frustrate him for not excelling even higher.  Mundane dangers like pointy objects are completely beneath his notice.

Dumbledore really believed the prophecy applied to Harry, but he just misunderstood it, as did everyone else in the world, Voldemort and Harry themselves not least of them.  Still, Harry obviously played a huge role by hunting down three of the other Horcruxes, and offering himself to be killed, so he's a worthy hero of the series, but just isn't the one in the prophecy.

Harry is baffled for a long time, but once his mind is wrapped around it, happily and heartily accepts Neville as the Chosen One, only too-glad to relinquish his throne and attention to his old friend.  Being free of all the pressure and staring and fame is a huge relief to Potter, who has constantly complained of the burden of destiny he bore.  Now Harry can settle down with Ginny and lead a much more quiet, simple life -- not as a prophesied hero, but as a normal boy who has done incredible feats with the help of friends.

I think it could have been brilliant.  More-so than the reveal on Snape, even.  People would have been talking about it for a long time.

Of course, as I said, Rowling gets to write her own series, and her books are more popular than any 100 books put together, so I shouldn't presume too much in giving her writing advice.

But dang, that would have been an awesome ending.


Anonymous said...

You know that, Voldemort didn't actually declare Neville a Slytherin. He just offered him a post as a Death Eater (who were considered beneath Voldemort) and when Neville refused, He decided to kill Neville and destroy the hat because there would be no houses, all in one blow.

Reece said...

"he takes the Sorting Hat, shoves it in Neville's head, and [here's where I start to differ] somehow commands the Hat, as the heir of Salazar Slytherin (the Hat's creator) , to proclaim the Gryffindor Neville to the a Slytherin."

From OP.

Reece said...

"You would make a very valuable Death Eater. We need your kind, Neville Longbottom."

"I'll join your army when hell freezes over," said Neville. "Dumbledore's Army!" he shouted, and there was an answering cheer from the crowd, whom Voldemort's Silencing Charm seemed unable to hold.

"Very well," said Voldemort, and Harry heard more danger in the silkiness of his voice than in the most powerful curse. "If that is your choice, Longbottom, we revert to the original plan. On your head, " he said quietly, "be it."

Still watching through his lashes, Harry saw Voldemort wave his wand. Seconds later, out of one o the castle's shattered windows, something that looked like a misshapen bird flew through the half light and landed in Voldemort's hand. He shook the mildewed object by its pointed end and it dangled, empty and ragged: the Sorting Hat.

"There will be no more Sorting at Hogwarts School," said Voldemort. "There will be no more Houses. The emblem, shield, and colors of my nobel ancestor, Salazar Slytherin, will suffice for everyone. Won't they, Neville Longbottom?"

He pointed his wand at Neville, who grew rigid and still, then forced the hat onto Neville's head, so that it slipped down below his eyes. There were movements from the watching crowd in front of the castle, and as one, the Death Eaters raised their wands, holding the fighters of Hogwarts at bay.

"Neville here is no going to demonstrate what happens to anyone foolish enough to continue to oppose me, said Voldemort, and with a flick of his wand, the Sorting Hat burst into flames.

- From HP 7, Voldemort ends the sorting process and declares everyone to now be mandatory Slytherins