GUEST POST: Harry is a Tool, Aang is a Hero

Hey, Readers!  Today I have a treat for you lucky folk in the form of a wonderful guest post by my friend Rob.  Some months ago, Rob and I found ourselves in a debate about stories that include a “chosen one” (read about it here).  Rob has some interesting ideas — including a theory as to why Harry Potter isn’t really a hero.  I’ll let him explain …

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Hi.  I’m Rob.  Jonathan and I were good friends back when I was handsomer and less hairy.  I live in South Korea (not the scary one), and write a blog about South Korea.  I’m no expert in fantasy or young adult books, but I am a breathless lover of awesome things and a frustrated thinker-abouter (some editors prefer ‘think-abouterer’) for things that try to be awesome but fail: for example, stories, songs and raspberry sorbets.

We once discussed what Jonathan called “prophecy stories,” stories featuring “Chosen Ones” like Harry Potter, Ender Wiggin and King Arthur, here, here, here and here.  “Chosen Ones” have some great destiny expected (sometimes prophesied) of them.  Now, I thrill to a great hero story, but not any old hero thrills me: I’m not easy.  So let’s talk about some “Chosen Ones” I adore:

 **Spoiler Alerts** for The Harry Potter Series, Ender’s Game, and Avatar: The Last Airbender (TV series)

Harry Potter started off as my favorite hero ever.  The first three books were fun and gripping, the characters were lively and hilarious.  Courage, cleverness, and awesome friends helped Harry, and the author threw him a rope when he got in too deep.

Then, in book four, Harry’s preparations for the Triwizard Tournament were as last-minute and half-hearted as his quest for a date to the Yule Ball.  When Harry learns he won the tournament because somebody wanted him to, a hero would think, “That should have been my hide. I’d better not bank on luck again.”  The time had come to start kicking butt through resourcefulness and preparedness, not courage and luck.

Cue training montage: 

Harry forms Dumbledore’s Army.  He also lies about his connection with Voldemort, quits Occlumency, walks into more traps, and fails to get the information Dumbledore needs without JK Rowlicis… oops I mean felix felicis.1  Instead of watching a kid learn from mistakes and improve, we watch Harry beat himself up for his mistakes and resent a lot of stuff.  Holden Caulfield, yes.  Heroic, no.

But the undoing of Harry the hero is this: long ahead of time, Dumbledore and Snape knew Harry had to die to destroy Voldemort2  Except they didn’t tell Harry!  In Chamber of Secrets, Dumbledore says,  “It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are,” but by hiding vital information until it was far too late for Harry to do anything but sacrifice himself, Snape and Dumbledore (mostly J.K. Rowling) robbed Harry of real choice.

And that means I read seven books to learn Harry’s a weapon aimed by Dumbledore and Snape, or a cog in Rowling’s plot mechanism: less heroic either way.  It means the first three books telling me he was the crucial choice-maker in the series, were misleading me.

Yet I give Ender Wiggin a pass, though he had no choice in Ender’s Game, either.  Why?  Because once he learned the consequences of his choices, he took ownership of them.  Because heroes live with their choices, and learn from them, and change (heroes don’t walk into another trap in book five, and another in Godric’s Hollow, despite what happened to Cedric and Sirius).

Also, nothing in Harry Potter reaches the level of nuance and insight Ender displays here:

          “In the moment when I truly understand my enemy, understand him well enough to defeat him, then in that very moment I also love him. I think it’s impossible to really understand somebody, what they want, what they believe, and not love them the way they love themselves. And then, in that very moment when I love them–

         “You beat them.”

Ender Wiggen was special from birth, but he was also recruited for his talent:  Ender had to pass a test before going to Battle School to fulfill his destiny.  Excalibur didn’t magically come out of the stone for him.  His talents, though, made him especially suited to perform his task.3

Finally, which “Chosen One” checks every box?  My favorite hero right now is a boy named Aang, from the awesome Nikelodeon cartoon series “Avatar: The Last Airbender”.

In Aang’s world, some people can “bend” or control one of the four elements — Earth, Air, Water, and Fire.  The Avatar is a continually reincarnating person with power to control all four, tasked with keeping the four elements in balance.  So … imagine the Dalai Lama was a diplomat with superpowers.  But Aang ran from his Avatar training, and got frozen in ice for a century while the Fire Nation took over.  Now, he must take up the responsibility he once shirked, master all four elements, and then defeat the Fire Nation king to restore balance.

 Traveling with a team of friends, Aang masters the four elements.  He learns, in his training and in his relationships.  Aang deals with the guilt of abandoning the Air Nation (who were wiped out).  He is also a kid, and acts like one.  He plays pranks, cracks people up, and makes faces at babies.  The supporting characters are humans too, with strengths and flaws, journeys, and tough choices.  They suffer loss, and even grieve.  They learn from mistakes.  Or they don’t.  Each earns the fate they receive.

For the final battle, sprits of previous Avatars encourage Aang to kill the Fire King.  Aang’s journey has made him hate killing, so he is unwilling to live with having made that ultimate choice.  Instead, Aang negotiates a new path, true to his values as well as his duty as Avatar.  By balancing his individuality and his destiny, Aang’s “Chosen One” journey is totally satisfying.

These stories show me I like heroes who take control of their situations, earn their victories, and own their choices – including mistakes.  Their authors put them in situations where they are real people with real choices, not just props and placeholders.  Without these elements, even “Chosen Ones” (perhaps especially them) fail to move me.

 Call me picky.

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Thanks for the fantastic insights, Rob!  Bloggers Matt Bird and Tanner Higgin have been after me to watch Avatar for ages now … between your three recommendations, I find myself with no choice but to check it out!  Ooh, look!  It’s on Netflix … (promptly wastes the entire afternoon)

  1. A description of felix felicis can be found here
  2. As revealed in Deathly Hallows, pg 686
  3. Jonathan here: Rob also made a generous comparison between Peter Nimble and Ender Wiggen, which I cut because it made me blush.

12 Comments Leave a Comment

  • Roboseyo says:

    “Ooh, look! It’s on Netflix … (promptly wastes the entire afternoon)”

    Watching episodes of Avatar is not a waste of an afternoon by any stretch, especially for a storyteller… unless you’d promised to watch them with your wife, and will now have to watch them twice in the same day.

    It was a pleasure to write a guest-post for you, Jonathan. Thank you for the invitation to write it, which helped me to finally put my finger on why the ending of Harry Potter didn’t work for me.

    And for other readers: some of the nice things I said about Peter Nimble which Jonathan took out (see footnote 3), are now written at my own page (click on my name).

  • Alina says:

    I agree, agree and ditto. I’ve tried to make this same argument, about HP, but it came out with too many “ums” to make sense.

    I also loved the “Last Airbender”. The characterization was stellar and the final, epic battle was exactly the right ending I highly recommend it to all.

    But Ender will always win the battle of chosen ones where I’m concerned. If I had to choose one favorite book of all time, “Enders Game” would have to be it. Ender was so brilliant, tragic, powerful, and empathetic. Did you read Enders Shadow? It was an amazing book in its own right, but I couldn’t get past the fact that Bean basically gave Ender the “chosen one” status and even paved his way in some respects. In my head I was yelling: “no way, Beany baby, Ender EARNED it!” And I wished I could unread it, but now I’ve come to terms and justifications. ;)

    Great guest post!

  • Roboseyo says:

    Alina:

    Ender would have been an entire (loooong) post of its own. Ender’s Game thrilled me, but his quest for redemption in Speaker For The Dead was the thing that made me love him. They’re two totally different books, but together, they’re a complete, and moving cycle. The thing I like most in the Enders’ Game series is how nobody is evil: they’ve just convinced themselves different things are important, and are willing to act on it, because I believe that’s how life is. Nobody’s evil: just misinformed or lacking perspective.

    I DID like Ender’s Shadow, because it highlights that humanity and compassion are as important to leadership as brilliance.

  • jana says:

    Hey Rob!

    Great guest post! I have not read Ender’s Game, but I’ll have to grab a copy.

    I’ve never been able to put my finger on the Harry Potter problem, though there were a few things that bothered me about the end of the story, but I think you nailed that slight inconsistency, where Rowling was telling us one thing (free choice) but actually the narrative told another.

  • Rebecca says:

    Hey Rob and Jonathan!
    I loved Peter Nimble (everyone, go read it), but I totally disagree about Harry Potter.
    Real life heros beat themselves up over their mistakes, fall into traps over and over, make bad decisions, and are resentful over the cup life has handed them. But they do what has to be done, even if it seems like there is no choice. Harry walked into the forest to let Voldemort kill him — he didn’t stay in the battle to be killed by someone else, or try to run away across the world, and in the end he didn’t go resentfully but courageously. We can’t always choose our options, but we can always face the difficult path we can’t avoid with faith and love. I loved Harry’s heroism, especially in the last four books, because it departed from story-book heroism and reflected my own experience. And I am a hero. I know because my life, and my kids’ lives, are much better now.

  • Roboseyo says:

    It’s true, Rebecca, that Harry went “like a lamb to the slaughter” when he did go (maybe that was the point) but he hardly had a choice when Voldemort had basically said “I’m going to keep attacking the castle if you don’t” and when Dumbledore and Snape hadn’t shared with him information that could have given him real ownership of his choice, rather than just last minute resignation to its inevitability.

    He also never mastered his dangerous hero complex – which led him into a number of traps and dangerous situations – and began to smarten up as a tactician. And that disappointed me, too – that it was always about Harry… yet harry…

    well, all Harry’s victories against Voldemort were due to his specialness, not because of his own wizarding skill, which diminished him — his mother’s sacrifice, the phoenix feather twin core wands, some unknown wand-acting-on-its-own-volition thingy, and then the muss over who owns the elder wand — it was never actually Harry who beat Voldemort, and that left me feeling like Harry had never lived up to his full hero-ness (unlike Neville Longbottom, who far exceeds what anybody would expect from him, when he kills Nagini). I wanted-just once- to see Harry beat Voldemort on his own steam, not because of some phoenix core elder wand allegiance pulled-this-one-out-of-the-air authorial intrusion. The only book where Harry really won the day on his own wizarding power was Azkaban (which also happened to be my favorite).

    But perhaps, Rebecca, looking at your comment, which compares Harry’s situation with real life, we come to this question: do we read fantasy books for escape, or for validation? Because I’d read a non-fantasy book for validation – “Holden Caulfield is just like me.” “Raskolnikov, or George Gibbs and Emily Webb, are just like me.” “This writer understands my situation” “These characters’ lives are like mine” …but I read fantasy books because I DON’T inhabit a world just like min, where everyone makes decisions when painted into corners, just like real life – for example, look at this hero who always holds the initiative! Nobody puts Baby in a corner! Batman’s life is totally not like mine! Boy, I wish I could live in a world like Bella Swan’s world!

    And the other thing is… when a book character is painted into a corner, it’s because an author has put them there… which is different than when life paints ME in a corner —

    All that aside, you wrote, “We can’t always choose our options, but we can always face the difficult path we can’t avoid with faith and love.”
    and I totally agree with you there, and through that lens, perhaps Harry looks a little better than the one I was looking through, and through the entire series, the most touching parts were invariably the parts where Harry and others were led to realize the importance of family, and closeness to the ones we love – Percival’s reunion with the Weasleys, the aching of Harry’s longing for his parents, the goodness shared by the three heroes, the hope of having Sirius as a kind of surrogate father/cool uncle, and the empty hole it left in Harry to lose his parents: these were the emotional core of the series, for sure.

  • Rebecca,
    For what it’s worth, I’m probably more on your side than Rob’s (the earlier post I linked to partially reflects that). I liked the ending of HP because it told the story of a person stepping into a role that is larger than himself. Rob’s desire to see a character win out on sheer skill and wits feels like a desire to see superheroes do super stuff. You know who wins out on skill and wits? James Bond. But in the real world, larger-than-life heroes are much more complicated and much more fallible: they are sacrificial lambs saddled with expectations that no mortal can hope to live up to.

  • james f says:

    Here’s the thing! (for those who are into “things”)

    From my personally imagined experience, even when there’s a prophecy, it always feels like we still have free will- (things like Jonah trying to run away from Nineveh – sure, it didn’t work, but it made the story a lot more interesting), so I also agree with Rebecca that how a person handles being the Chosen One can theoretically provide enough dramatic fodder to validate such a work. It goes a long way in explaining Harry’s resentments, and self-doubt in the later books, as he understood his appointment as the chosen to a degree, without all of the implications, pretty early on. It’s true that in some ways it’s like he was a weapon being aimed by Snape and Dumbledore, but in all these ways it’s not so dissimilar to Frodo’s situation, being chosen by Gandalf as the the only way to destroy the ring. When the arguably wisest being in all Middle-Earth says that making Frodo the ring-bearer is in all likelihood the only tactic that will work, it’s pretty much as good as a prophecy, especially in how it FEELs to the one with the burden- they felt like that both could try to escape their destiny, but that the only real good choice was to proceed, and that they had the faith of either Gandalf or Dumbledore resting on them, despite their self-doubt and not knowing for certain if it will all work out. Reminds me of a certain Mr. Nimble and Professor Ca…

  • james f says:

    Cake. It’s Professor Cake.

  • james f says:

    ok, so i read my comment, and it doesn’t quite make as big a point as I wanted to make, but since I can’t remove it and it would take several hours for an out-of-practice articulator to really articulate everything that I really wanted to articulate, and would love to spend the time trying but don’t have it when there are two kids belonging to me that need to get helped into bedtime mode, I will have to leave it at that.

  • james f says:

    shoot, I can’t remove that one either. Damn you internet!

  • Roboseyo says:

    Spoilers ahead:

    I agree with you, James… maybe the reason I found Frodo’s journey more satisfying than Harry’s, then, is because Harry found out the full extent of what he’d have to do, to succeed, from the start (though he may not have realized how hard it would be), while Harry didn’t find out what he had to do until Voldemort was already midway through his castle assault, (and even then, only thanks to his fortuitously being in the right place to gather up Snape’s memories). Harry seemed to be rising to the occasion of being The Chosen One through book six, but by hiding from him that being The Chosen One would involved the sacrifice it required, I feel… disappointed by Dumbledore and Snape for not trusting Harry with the full weight of his burden, until it was far too late for him to turn aside anyway.

    I think you articulated your point pretty well.





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