Act 1, you put the hero up a tree. Act 2, you set the tree on fire. Act 3, you get him down.
This is the basic storytelling structure that was explained to me a few years ago, and while I’ve had a fair amount of instruction in narrative writing in my life, this is the one that stuck in my mind the most.
Sometimes I think that our generation’s childhood1 was the best childhood because the late 80s and early-to-mid 90s had some of the best stories for us to choose from. The first Disney Renaissance began in 1989 with The Little Mermaid, and in 1992 we had Batman: The Animated Series. 1994 gave us two great seasons of Gargoyles, Toy Story started our Pixar craze in 1995, and Animorphs came around in 1996.
What’s the common denominator here? These were stories and franchises that not only knew how to captivate their target demographic of school-age children but also understood the fact that kids could handle deep storylines, dark situations, and disturbing connotations.
I mean, let’s take a look at Animorphs. Much like Harry Potter, it begins with a homicide. The books are mostly light-hearted romps in which the kids experience the joys of being animals, but they never let us forget that War was happening. People die. They kill people, they watch people die. They see loved ones be enslaved before their very eyes. They even explore how animals aren’t just cute and cuddly. One of the most resonant lines from one of the Cassie books goes something like, “And then I knew that the color of nature wasn’t green. It was red. Blood red.”
I re-read the entire series just a couple years ago, and it holds up surprisingly well. A lot of the references are dated (which the reprints tried to update to varying success) and the descriptions are very 90s and colorful, but the message holds even more true today, as we grew up into a world where war really was real, and just around the corner. The series ended right around 9/11, and the U.S. went into rally-and-response mode, which we’re still feeling the effects of even now.
K.A. Applegate proved that you could tell a realistic story about the effects of war and kids would understand it. She proved that you could tell a realistic story about the effects of war and still make it fantastical and wonderful, with captivating characters and weird-slash-cool aliens and that it would be great. And she said as much in her closing letter to fans, defending her decisions:
Animorphs was always a war story. Wars don’t end happily. Not ever. Often relationships that were central during war, dissolve during peace. Some people who were brave and fearless in war are unable to handle peace, feel disconnected and confused. Other times people in war make the move to peace very easily. Always people die in wars. And always people are left shattered by the loss of loved ones.
War is messy. War is cruel, and people die.
We’ve seen it throughout the book so far. There hasn’t been a minor or major victory for Harry that hasn’t come at some cost. He doesn’t want anyone else to die for him, but he knows that he has to keep going with his quest or even more people will die. Even if that quest continues to put his closest friends and family in danger, he knows he has to keep going, and they know it too.
Sometimes, though, between the death and gloom, you just need some cathartic badassery, and my girl Minnie McG is here to PUNCH WAR IN THE FACE LIKE THE BADASS SHE IS.
CHAPTER THIRTY: THE SACKING OF SEVERUS SNAPE
You know that picture of Will Smith “presenting” his wife on the red carpet2? The one that gets turned into various other fandoms – the most common one I’ve seen was Raleigh doing the pose for Mako, from Pacific Rim. That’s what I’m doing right now, in text form, for Minerva McGonagall.
Many of you probably had teachers that were real hardasses. Always on your case when you messed up, always giving you more and more work to do as the year went on. Much like Gordon Ramsay, their frustration came from the fact that they expected better of you, and disappointment from them brought you real, crushing shame. But you loved those teachers, because they made you want to pull 110%. Because they only got disappointed because they honestly did believe in you, that they knew you could be great. And when push came to shove, they went to bat for you every single time.
Add magic, decades of experience and power, and a frelling quad of steel that would put any krogan to shame, and you’ve got McGonagall.
When Alecto Carrow gets the drop on Harry, and Luna subsequently gets the drop on her, McGonagall comes in and acts as a wall between Amycus and his plans to throw random students under the Knight Bus. McGonagall, naturally, can’t be having with any of that, because if there’s one thing she has learned in forty-one years of teaching, it’s that you Do Not Sacrifice Children To Voldemort3.
Of course, Amycus decides to add insult to his sister’s injury and spits in McGonagall’s face. This is a Very Bad Idea, which makes Harry jump out and unleash a level 9 pain spell. While Amycus is distracted by his every nerve bursting into flames, McGonagall drops an Imperius on his ass and sequesters the Carrows off to the side with some light bondage.
As I mentioned before, we’re in outright war territory, and war is never black and white. My first read of this book left me a little confused and concerned with the almost casual use of the Unforgivables, but a little contemplation pretty much cured me of that. It’s like the rules of war – there are no rules, there are threats. Articles and Declarations and Conventions serve mostly to keep egos in check, to say that if you use nukes, you’ll have the wrath of the rest of the world come down upon you. But if someone thinks that they can handle that, a bunch of words aren’t going to stop him. If someone’s coming after you with the Killing Curse, they already don’t care that it’s illegal to do so; they’ve probably already killed the people sent to stop them.
It’s not without cost that Harry and friends use Unforgivables. But it’s war. Voldemort’s in charge of the government at the moment, so technically any action Harry takes is illegal.
In any case, McGonagall asks Harry why the hell he’s at Hogwarts because it’s a really good question. The very moment she hears that it’s Dumbledore’s plan, she stops asking questions, and we get treated to one of the most amazing sequences I have ever read. I mentioned before on Twitter that the very first time a book made me put it down for a second and really process what I had just read and realize that yes I really did read that was The Andalite Chronicles. Through a fairly long sequence that made absolute perfect sense in context, we’re treated to a description of Elfangor – everyone’s favorite fuzzy blue space elf centaur – driving a yellow convertible across a dusty alien planet4, sipping Dr Pepper through his hooves and listening to the Rolling Stones on an 8-track5.
That was the first time. It was not the last. This chapter was one of those times, and I could tell from the moment McGonagall said this:
“We shall secure the school against He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named while you search for this – this object.”
“Is that possible?”
“I think so,” said Professor McGonagall dryly, “we teachers are rather good at magic, you know. I am sure we will be able to hold him off for a while if we all put our best efforts into it. Of course, something will have to be done about Professor Snape–“
There’s no point in coming up with a Sass-O-Meter for her because they shatter within a 100-meter radius.
I really, really can’t do justice to what happens next. I assume you’ve been reading along, so I’m going to let you all go back to those pages, read them yet again, and just bask with me.
I’ll give you a minute.
No, really. I’ll wait. I’ll just take a picture of my cats while you enjoy the moment.
The difference between the book and the movie is something that we more or less acknowledge and then move on from here at the Medicinal Re-Read project, but I would like to call your attention to something that I read on Tumblr a while back and, once again, cannot find anymore.
Disregarding the fact that Harry reveals himself to Snape in the movie, whereas McGonagall continues to hide his presence and protect him as much as possible, the spirit of this encounter comes across. Snape is his usual slimy self, McGonagall starts casting spells like it’s going out of style, and it all ends with a Severus Snape shaped hole in the castle wall.
In the movie, however, they’ve taken great care to point out that even now, Snape is helping, if only you pay attention. Take a look at where he deflects those attacks:
Notice anything strange? I didn’t until Tumblr pointed it out: the ones who take the full force are the Carrows. Snape not only holds his own against the powerhouse that is Minerva McGonagall long enough to escape, but he also strategically disables the two largest threats inside the school while doing so.
Attention to detail in the Harry Potter movies: They may be hit or miss, but when it’s on, it’s totally on.
Immediately following this event, the teachers form an immediate war council and start preparing the castle. It’s not directly stated in this series, but what was the primary purpose of a castle?
To defend against a siege.
Students are raised from bed6, the teachers begin plans based on their personal strengths, and Harry gets reminded multiple times that the point of all this is to give him time to do what he came here to do so stop standing around gaping and do your damned job. And then McGonagall unleashes the greatest secret weapon Hogwarts has been hiding all this time.
“And now — Piertotum Locomotor!” cried Professor McGonagall.
And all along the corridor the statues and suits of armor jumped down from their plinths, and from the echoing crashes from the floors above and below, Harry knew that their fellows throughout the castle had done the same.
“Hogwarts is threatened!” shouted Professor McGonagall. “Man the boundaries, protect us, do your duty to our school!”
The entirety of this chapter is pure, unadulterated awesome. Every low Harry’s reached, every death he’s witnessed or been tangentially related to, every broken family that’s come from this war… this one chapter pays for all of it.
But wait, there’s more:
- The Order of the Phoenix shows up to kick some ass!
- Percy frelling Weasley shows up and reunites with his family!
- Hermione has disappeared which means that shit is going to get done!
And, probably the most important part of it all…
- Voldemort is stopped outside the gates and HE. IS. PISSED.
We paid for the whole seat, but we ONLY. NEED. THE EDGE.
- 1985 was a good year. Marty McFly learned how to respect his parents and himself, Debbie had not yet hit the wall, Voldemort had been “dead” for five years, and – most importantly – the world got me! But I’m totally not biased at all.
- This one.
- There was a fifteen minute staff meeting and a pamphlet. Nobody really understood what it meant in 1956, but fresh new Headmaster Albus Dumbledore said it might come in handy, and he was her favorite teacher when she was in school so she didn’t really question it.
- No, really.
- Nothing is funnier than trying to explain Andalites to someone who’s never read the series. “So there’s these aliens that are blue centaur people with no mouths and they eat grass by running on it and also they’re giant assholes but they’re still the good guys and their mortal enemies are those slug things from The Wrath Of Khan.”
- Or in the case of the movie, escorted out of the room they were already in.
You’ll be seeing me at least one more time, but this has been my last “real” chapter post. You guys have been amazing and I’m going to miss this project once it’s over.