Summer of Fantasy: Some Notes On the Virtues of Tragedy
The following was originally posted to my Livejournal on August 4, 2007.
Note: The following contains spoilers for The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows and the first three seasons of the revived Doctor Who - yes, for all of them. Read on at
It is a truth unfortunately not universally acknowledged that Drama possessed of an exciting Plot must be in want of a tragedy.
I recently posted some admittedly lacklustre commentary concerning my disappointment with the final volume of the Harry Potter series. I also recently had returned to me, after many years in foreign hands, my copy of J.R.R. Tolkien's minor classic, The Hobbit.
Last night, after a largely unproductive day, I took said volume in hands and began to re-read it; this evening, following a slight-more productive day, I finished it and, though it did not leave me in tears, it nevertheless moved me and in so doing provided some further insight into why Rowling's seven-volume epic left me not only cold, but frankly disappointed.
Re-visiting the adventures of Bilbo Baggins also saw me pondering once again why it is that Russell T. Davies' revival of the venerable Doctor Who franchise works so well - particularly in the first two series, featuring the companion, Rose, as compared to the third series.
Simply put, where Tolkien and Davies get it right and Rowling gets it very wrong, is that to truly move the reader (or viewer), Drama must include some form of tragedy. Without that, the audience is left without any sense that the foregoing action - no matter how gripping it might have been during the journey from here to there - had any real meaning.
In Tolkien's The Hobbit, the hero, Bilbo Baggins, reluctantly sets forth on a Quest (now a staple of the genre the book arguably spawned) that leads from one danger to another. In Baggins' case, he does so in the company of 14 companions and is greatly changed by the end of the book. Further, three of his companions do not survive the story at all - though, this being a a children's fairy story, those characters are but sketches and move the reader only a little.
In his classic follow-up, the vastly more ambitious The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien eschews death as Tragedy in favour of that book's nominal hero's inability to return home and to stay there. By novel's end, Frodo Baggins has been so altered by his adventures that he is in the end forced into a permanent exile that one can easily read as a metaphor for death, among others. Personally, I take it is a metaphor for the tragedy that is the end of childhood's innocence, while others spin it in religious and, no doubt, stills others do in other ways. Regardless, I know of no reader who loves the book who is not in some ways moved by Frodo's departure from the Shire over the sea.
Meanwhile, over on the boob-tube, Russell T. Davies has proven that he too understands that no Drama - even one leavened with a healthy dose of humour and action and one aimed primarily at kids - is satisfying if the at least one of the heroes does not suffer some loss along with the requisite victories.
For those of you unfamiliar with the program, it is an ancient franchise that first aired in 1963. It concerns the ongoing adventures of a 900 year-old Time-Lord, an alien who, though he looks human, has two hearts and can change his body whenever whenever he is sufficiently injured (or whenever an actor wearies of the role). Between the time the program was taken off the air in 1989 and its revival in 2005, The Doctor's back-story has been significantly changed - his home planet and all of his species but him were destroyed - which in itself leads to a sense of tragic depth in the character.
The first two seasons of the revival are a minor masterpiece of television story-telling. Featuring a very slow-to-develop (or at least, to be acknowledged) love-affair between The Doctor ("Just, 'The Doctor'.") and the young woman named Rose, the 27 episodes are, first, a classic coming-of-age story, as Rose evolves from a naively adventurous girl into a young woman able to take command in the most harrowing situations imaginable.
It is also a love-story, rendered tragic not by death but by permanent and (apparently - this is a fantasy series, perhaps unfortunately) permanent separation. Both characters survive, but both are heart-broken and I dare any of you to watch the final episode without getting at least a little misty-eyed.
The third series also features loss, though it did not work well for this viewer. The Doctor's latest companion, the medical student Martha Jones, saves The Doctor's life during their initial encounter and soon (far too soon, to my mind) falls in love with him. But The Doctor never shows the slightest interest in being "more than friends" and, at the end of the series, Martha's self-respect gets the better of her desire and she refuses to continue traveling with him.
I believe Davies meant that moment to be moving, but it didn't work for me. In part because of the speed at which the (non) relationship developed (unlike the Rose series, the viewer does not get the sense that much at all happens between episodes) and in part because this viewer simply found Martha kind of annoying. But your mileage may vary and Davies clearly still understands that Loss is as important, if not more, to a good story than the necessary Happy Ending to an ongoing adventure story.
Which brings us to J.K. Rowling and why Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is worse than a disappointment, but in fact is a cheat.
As those of you who have been following the series will recall, the sixth book ended with the death of Dumbledore (the books' father-figure and Gandalf-surrogate) at the hands of the nasty (but always well-trusted by Dumbledore) teacher, Snape.
As things turned out, book seven revealed (no surprise to this reader) that Snape was not a traitor after-all, but was operating on Dumbledore's instructions. Worse, Dumbledore's death - though not quite negated - was diminished by his ongoing existence as some kind of a ghost, with whom Harry himself has a long conversation towards the novel's awfully un-climactic climax. This device, which permitted Dumbledore to Explain All, of course also had the effect of negating the emotional resonance of his death in the first place.
To cap things off, Rowling has the god-awful taste to include a final, post-climax, chapter, oh! so prosaically titled, "Nineteen Years Later". Here we learn that Harry marries Ginny, with whom he sires two wizard-children of his own. The novel closes with Harry and Ginny seeing the youngest off to his first year at Hogwarts, then returning to the wizardly equivalent of of a bourgeois home in Richmond Hill.
In the world according to J.K. Rowling, tremendous adventures and saving that world from a Monstrous Evil as a mere child are not life-changing at all, but only some kind of unchaperoned excursion on the way to marriage, a couple of kids and the proverbial house with its white picket fence.
Where Tolkien and even Davies (dealing as he is with a franchise) understand that nothing is ever gained without some kind of price attached to it, Rowling would have us believe that even the most horrific experiences can be survived with no cost at all.