Back to the past

So I’ve almost finished Deathly Hallows; started it on Sunday and should have it finished later tonight. I’m enjoying it so far; the beginning is one of the best in the series and the pace is good throughout. I’m not going to give away spoilers, but there was something which caught my interest halfway through the book I’ve been thinking about.

There’s a scene where we finally learn the date that Harry’s parents, James and Lily, died. It’s not a plot point, but if you don’t want to know, stop reading now… still with us? The Date is 31 October 1981. The reason I found that interesting is because Harry is 17 – which means Deathly Hallows is set in 1996/97. It’s been a while since I’ve read the other books so I could be wrong, but I don’t remember Rowling alluding to Harry Potter being set in the past much before; there have been references, but nothing as definitive as this.

I’ve been thinking about that and I think it’s a good move; it’s subtle, but it makes it clearer for people like myself who aren’t diehard fans. And the date explains a few things. I’ve wondered why little from the modern world seems to appear in Harry Potter; I can understand it being shunned in the magical world, but even amongst Muggles there never seems to be mention of the Internet or cell phones. If Harry Potter is meant to be set in the 90s, before the net exploded and cell phones were quite as prevalent, that makes more sense. It also shows the growing differences between the magical and Muggle worlds, science and magic divulging.

But there’s something else it does – it allows Rowling to make the story as dark as she wants. Even without finishing it yet, Deathly Hallows is by far the darkest in the series; it needed to be to create the sense of fear that permeates the book. The danger in making something that’s read by millions of children so dark is that it could be too much for them. But by setting it slightly in the past (and making that more obvious), it gives the story some hope. No matter what happens to the characters, we know the world didn’t end in 97; even in its darkest and most tragic moments, the reader knows there is still light. And perhaps that’s part of the success of Harry Potter, that its readers, fans, have always sensed hope.

As a writer, there’s a lot of power in setting something in the past. I wish it was something people would pay more attention to when they think about a book; they think of it as the setting, but it’s more than that. The past offers a chance to explore themes through the prism of a particular time, accentuating feelings of nostalgia and familiarity, and often the amount of work and detail that goes into making that world feel real goes unrecognised. It’s also a tool to make a work stand out from the crowd. With CSI being so popular with its forensic tools, it’s no wonder there’s such a plethora of crime writers writing in the same vein – and so it’s interesting that Sue Grafton is so popular. She sets all of her Kinsey Milhone books in the 80s so she doesn’t have to deal with technological advances, and it also makes them different to what’s around.

I don’t think many writers consider setting works in the contemporary or recent past, though, the way Rowling has. I’m not sure why. Perhaps they think it’s a risk; they’re not certain how it will impact the story’s relevance, but sometimes it can help. Distance from current events can make themes more subtle; something like Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, set in the contemporary past but a changed world, is a perfect example of a work that would not have been as powerful if set in today’s world – if anything, it feels more relevant.

So I thought it was an interesting aside, something worth mentioning; so much is being made of the sales of Deathly Hallows and whether Potter will live or die that this surprised me, made me wonder why it’s not used more often by other writers. It’s definitely helped Rowling to venture into darker areas, and while I’m sure it’ll be overlooked in the praise Rowling gets, I thought it should be mentioned – it shows how meticulously she planned the series, and how cleverly.

One thought on “Back to the past

  1. I believe the timeline is in keeping with when Rowling started outlining the story for herself.

    CJ: That would make sense; she wrote Philosopher’s Stone in 1995, but developed the idea in 1990, so that would match the timeframe. It’s still interesting; unlike Narnia or Bridge to Terabithia, which are upfront about the time they’re set (WWII and 1977), HP is more ambiguous… I liked that. 😉

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