Elric: The Stealer of Souls and Stormbringer by Michael Moorcock

Art by Jack Gaughan

I’d been meaning to re-read some Elric for a little while, but a sort of readerly paralysis set in whenever I contemplated actually doing it. Not only were there the standard long-running-series-with-a-messy-publication-history questions of where to start and what order to read the stories in (I went for publication order, as I like to see how the writer develops, rather than the character), but there was the equally important question of where I could pause for breath, because I didn’t want to be reading back-to-back Elric for however long it took me to get through the saga. I don’t think my sanity could stand it.

In the end, I found I could divide the stories up, roughly, into three phases. First, there was the initial run in Science Fantasy magazine, from “The Dreaming City” in June 1961 to “Dead Lord’s Passing” in April 1964. That made for nine stories, collected in The Stealer of Souls (1963) and Stormbringer (1965), that took Elric from his definitive first adventure, where he leads a bunch of sea-reavers in the sacking of his home city of Imrryr, to his (chronologically) last adventure, with the destruction of himself and his entire world. Phase two was made up of the later 60s and 70s stories and novels that went back and filled in gaps in the saga, from the ones anthologised in US sword & sorcery paperbacks such as The Fantastic Swordsmen (1967), and the Flashing Swords (1973) series, through to Elric at the End of Time (1981). Then, in what is increasingly looking like an arbitrary division based around the ones I read early on versus the ones I still haven’t, phase three consists of what I still think of as the “new Elric novels”, beginning with The Fortress of the Pearl (1989), and on till whenever Moorcock finally, definitely, stops writing new Elric stories.

Amra, May 1961, cover by Roy Krenkel

The series began when Ted Carnell asked the then-early-twenties Moorcock to write something in the vein of Conan for his UK Science Fantasy magazine. Moorcock was already interested in what he’d suggested calling “Epic fantasy” (a name he put forward in the Conan fanzine Amra, in May 1961) — to which Fritz Leiber countered with the winning formula, “sword-and-sorcery”.

Elric was conceived as a sort of antithesis to Conan. (In his introduction to the 2008 Del Rey collection, Elric: The Stealer of Souls, Moorcock said of these stories that they were “probably the first ‘interventions’ into the fantasy canon”, i.e., the first conscious attempts to deliberately play against genre conventions.) Where Conan was strong, Elric was weak. Where Conan lopped the heads off sorcerers, Elric was a sorcerer. Most of all, where Conan was a noble savage, and the embodiment of Robert E Howard’s beliefs in the vitality of the barbarian over the decadence of civilisation, Elric was a savage noble, decadent to the core. In my Mewsings on Conan, I put forward the idea that heroes like Howard’s are created to solve a problem: how to thrive in the worlds their creators made for them (and to answer the problems of the era the creator was living in). I thought of Conan as a sort of barbaric hit-back at Freud’s idea that, to live in modern times, people had to repress their savage id-born impulses and live in a state of constant, socialised repression. Conan (and Howard) had different ideas. The question, then, is what sort of a hero is Elric? What sort of a problem was he designed to solve, if any?

Art by Michael Whelan

The first thing to say, though, is that it’s not really a case of Conan being strong, Elric being weak. Elric is physically weak, yes, but he has sorcery — and he has Stormbringer. Stormbringer is the essence of what makes Elric who he is. In his early writing on the character, Moorcock several times says that Stormbringer is a symbol of the physical and mental crutches we rely on, but that seems an inadequate explanation for something so rich in dark meaning. At times, Stormbringer seems like a drug metaphor (Elric’s dependence on it), at others a metaphor for the atom bomb (at one point it’s called “one of the mightiest weapons”). But basically, what it comes down to is pure, naked power. (As I keep saying on this blog, fantasy so often comes down to the theme of power.) Without Stormbringer, Elric is weak, but we’re all weak, really, so in this Elric is just a slightly exaggerated everyman. With Stormbringer, Elric becomes a crazed demon, suddenly able to give in freely to feelings of pitiless vengeance, inhuman cruelty, and the utter selfishness of not just profiting from others’ deaths, but feeding off their souls. Whatever his ideals when he’s not wielding the runeblade, Elric is a monster when he takes it up — to the point of, all too often, becoming so battle-drunk he only stops when he finds he’s skewered one of his allies, if not his closest friend or the woman he loves. Is this a picture of all human beings when they get too much power?

Between-times, Elric is a troubled soul, “a doom-driven adventurer who bore a crooning runeblade that he loathed.” As he confesses to Shaarilla of the Dancing Mist, one of many hapless characters who come asking for his help:

“I should admit that I scream in my sleep sometimes and am often tortured by incommunicable self-loathing.”

Elric, a Melnibonéan, is heir to “ten thousand years of a cruel, brilliant and malicious culture”, and though Moorcock tells us that Melnibonéans aren’t strictly human, Elric is still an everyman. Melniboné’s history of slavery, cruelty, and exotic perversity is just a fantasy exaggeration of our own. (We just didn’t have the dragons, sorcery, and demon-gods to take it that far, but if we had…)

Elric’s melancholic, bitter brooding could be taken, then, as only a slight exaggeration of what (to the young Moorcock, anyway) is the human condition:

“To him, life was chaotic, chance-dominated, unpredictable. It was a trick, an illusion of the mind, to be able to see a pattern to it.”

“I am the eternal skeptic—never sure that my actions are my own, never certain that an ultimate entity is not guiding me.”

“Look at me, Zarozinia—it is Elric, poor white chosen plaything of the Gods of Time—Elric of Melniboné who causes his own gradual and terrible destruction.”

(Despite Moorcock being quite vocal in his dislike of both Tolkien and Lovecraft, I was constantly reminded, throughout this re-read, of both. Pointy-eared, ultra-refined and ancient-cultured Elric, in being the last representative of a fading people, is just like Tolkien’s elves who are departing Middle Earth now their time is over. And something about Elric’s finicky, occasionally self-righteous, occasionally self-humbling, gloomy character is a little like Lovecraft’s — aside from Elric’s love of women, of course.)

Elric as he first appeared on the cover of Science Fantasy, June 1961. Art by Brian Lewis. (From Andrew Darlington’s blog.)

The Elric stories (in this first phase, anyway), are pretty formulaic. Someone comes to Elric asking for help. He warns them not to get involved with him. They insist, and Elric finds something in it for himself, anyway. Then, the adventure underway, the air of creeping doom begins. Usually, at some point, Elric finds himself without his sword, reduced to a helpless weakling. Then he gets his sword back and the rebound launches him into ultra-violence mode, where he shears through metal, flesh, bone and brains, quite often invoking Arioch or some other demon-lord of Chaos for even greater depths of mayhem. Then, when the dust settles, the irony sets in. Whatever it was that was wanted turns out to be worthless, and the price paid for it in human lives too heavy for such a mocking return. Elric bemoans his condition, and the story ends.

Another thing to say about the stories is they have almost no narrative logic. They certainly have very little suspense or dramatic tension. Even when Elric is swordless and helpless in his enemy’s hands, those enemies can always be relied on to fail to deal with him properly — in one case (“The Stealer of Souls”) just letting him go after making him promise not to kill them. When Moorcock introduces a major series character — Moonglum, say, or Zarozinia — Elric just bumps into them, helps them out of a small scrape, then they join him for the rest of the series. There’s no attempt to merge their introduction into the main thrust of the story they’re in, or give them the sort of motive they’d really need to join forces with such a locus of doom. As the series progresses, Moorcock seems to get impatient with the need to move his characters around the world he’s created for them, and brings on magical horses who can just gallop anywhere — over sea, land, chaos, anything. (And, as I said about J K Rowling when opening my Harry Potter re-read, there’s no sense that Moorcock has worked out his “rules” for magic. The only rule for magic in the Elric stories is: the bigger, the weirder, the darker, the nastier, the stranger, the better.) Once the battle with chaos is really underway, Elric’s world increasingly turns into this roiling mass of chaotic stuff spewing out weird enemies for Elric to fight — which, in a sense, is what his world was all along.

James Cawthorn’s cover to the first HB of Stormbringer

What the stories do have, though, is an incredible capacity to deliver startling images, characters, creatures, entities, scenes, even entire worlds. The lack of narrative logic just doesn’t matter, because there’s always another weird, darkly poetic, or doom-ishly symbolic scene to witness. I was surprised to find out, first of all, how many characters, scenes, monsters and demons I remembered vividly (Meerclar of the Cats, Count Smiorgan Baldhead) who, on this re-read, proved to be there only briefly, or, in the case of what I thought were series characters, only for one story (as with Theleb K’aarna and Queen Yishana, though she has a brief return appearance).

Moorcock has this incredibly archetypal imagination — something underlined by how his characters prove to be, in the long run, avatars of archetypal forms such as the Eternal Champion, or the City of Tanelorn, which (if I remember rightly) has some sort of presence in every one of Moorcock’s multiversal worlds.

And this may be part of what made the Elric stories so successful. They make no sense, but they’re full of weird wonders. They’re so psychedelic, and arrived just in time for the countercultural 60s to kick off.

Art by Jack Gaughan

So what is the hero, Elric, doing, what problem is he solving? I don’t think, in the end, he’s like Conan in that sense. Elric doesn’t solve any problems, not by offering a viable counter-idea, anyway. He’s there to represent a state of mind, to bemoan his existential condition, to question the gods — to question if there are gods — to question fate — to question if there is a fate — and then to unleash insane levels of chaotic violence to wipe everything clean, as some ultimate expression of dissatisfaction with the whole setup. Only, with no sense that this is the end, merely a pause before it all starts again.

In a 1963 article, Moorcock called the Elric stories “sword-and-philosophy” tales, rather than sword-and-sorcery, but is this true? Yes, Moorcock presents us with what seems like an advance on the traditional good-versus-evil idea, with his eternal conflict between Law and Chaos — though he adds other forces, like the Balance, Fate, and Nature, too, which seem to be able to override Law and Chaos, or at least meet them with equal power. But in a sense the terms used don’t matter. What there is is conflict, raging above our human heads, and of its true nature, we cannot know:

“Who can know why the Cosmic Balance exists, why Fate exists and the Lords of the Higher Worlds? Why there must always be a champion to fight such battles? There seems to be an infinity of space and time and possibilities. There may be an infinite number of beings, one above the other, who see the final purpose, though, in infinity, there can be no final purpose. Perhaps all is cyclic and this same event will occur again and again until the universe is run down and fades away as the world we knew has faded. Meaning, Elric? Do not seek that, for madness lies in such a course.”

Moorcock, happy as Elric… NOT! (Image from The Stormbringer Fandom Page.)

Is Elric, then, a sort of Sisyphus, wiping out the whole confusing, doom-laden, mocking malarky — ending the conflict through the overriding power of his Black Blade — only to find it coming back, time and time again? Moorcock says he’d been reading the French existentialists around the time of writing the Elric stories, and to Camus’s idea that we must imagine Sisyphus to be happy, Moorcock might be saying, “Yeah, but just wait till you put a demonic runeblade in his hands, you’ll find out how happy he is.”

Elric, I think, isn’t (like Conan) the embodiment of a solution to the world’s problems. He’s more a protest against them. He’s an existential Everyman, and his lack of a viable worldview, his eternal search for ever-elusive peace (in Tanelorn, in the arms of Zarozinia, or in a sardonic acceptance of his doomed-laden fate) in a roiling world of turmoil, conflict, and uncertainty, is part of the picture. His only “solution” is to lash out at it all and silence the turmoil (only ever temporarily) with one screeching slash of a soul-sucking demon sword:

“The gods experiment, the Cosmic Balance guides the destiny of the Earth, men struggle and credit the gods with knowing why they struggle—but do the gods know?”

No, Elric, they don’t. But keep on slashing, all the same.

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child by J K Rowling, Jack Thorne & Jack Tiffany

Is Harry Potter and the Cursed Child an essential part of the series? A long (two-part) play that premiered on 30th July 2016, it’s written by Jack Thorne, but based on a story by J K Rowling, Jack Thorne and director John Tiffany. I think they were trying to fulfil a number of expectations. First of all, it had to be a night out for Harry Potter fans, a sort of theatrical Harry Potter experience, offering up all your favourite characters, places, and even key scenes from the novels. Secondly, it would have to let us know a little of what happened next with the main characters. Thirdly, it would have to give us a new story that felt, somehow, equal in weight to the seven book series that spawned it, yet could be contained within a pair of plays watchable in a single day.

And I think if you view it this way, they did a pretty good job considering the heavy constraints. By a combination of dreams, talking portraits, time-travel (the plot revolves around the misuse of a time-turner, though one that’s far more powerful than the one Hermione used to attend so many lessons in The Prisoner of Azkaban) leading to alternate timelines, the play gives us scenes from the life of both the grown-up Harry Potter (its first scene is a restaging of the last chapter in Deathly Hallows) and the child Harry Potter, plus appearances from Dumbledore, Voldemort, Hagrid, Harry’s parents, Harry’s children, Severus Snape, Ron and Hermione and their children.

Music (by Imogen Heap) CD release

The main story is centred on Harry’s youngest son, Albus. As we meet him he’s weighed under by the pressure of having such a famous father — who defeated Voldemort and saved the wizarding world, no less — which results in his own attempts at magic being rather feeble. In addition, the first and only friend he makes on the train to Hogwarts is Scorpius Malfoy, son of his father’s schoolboy enemy Draco, and Scorpius is under his own sort of cloud, as rumours have begun to circulate he isn’t Draco’s, but Voldemort’s son. Albus finds himself sorted into Slytherin, and feels both the burden of letting his father down, and the rebelliousness of breaking free from his father’s past. Then, overhearing Amos Diggory’s plea to Harry one night to use a time-turner the Ministry has recently recovered (all the others were destroyed in Order of the Phoenix) to save the life of his son Cedric, Albus (encouraged by Amos’s niece Delphine) decides to steal it and, with Scorpius’s help, do what his father is refusing to do: go back in time to the Triwizard Tournament and save Amos’s boy. Things, of course, go wrong, and the pair find themselves caught in a number of alternate timelines, in one of which Voldemort has won.

There’s a thematic link with the novels. In the books, there was a lot about how memories and stories of the past can be changed or misrepresented, and the effect that can have on enabling evil on its way to power. Here, we get the past being actually changed, with often disastrous consequences (including the full-on victory of evil). But also we get the way children can struggle to be perceived as individuals thanks to their parents’ overshadowing reputations. And that’s the main thing this play is about, the relationship between children and parents, which is something the books (that so much focused on orphans like Harry and Tom Riddle, people who disowned their families like Sirius Black, or people like Hermione whose parents we never got to see) couldn’t deal with in the same way. Harry’s difficulties with his son he puts down to the fact of his having had no father present in his life, so he doesn’t know how to deal with his son on an emotional level.

Reading the play (I haven’t seen it), I did find some of the dialogue a lot more emotionally self-analytical than the books, as the characters diagnosed their relationship difficulties with one another in a way that smacked a little bit too much of self-help speak.

Theatrical poster

But, the main thing the play is designed for is to be fun. And another thing that reading it rather than seeing it did is to make me wonder how they managed it on stage. The scenes are often very short — more filmic than theatrical, I thought — and jump between locations and times in a way that must be pretty challenging for a theatre’s technical crew. And there’s a lot of magic: transformations, levitations, disarming and binding spells, and so on, which I can only guess must be a large part of the fun of going to see this play, to find out how they put these things on live.

Inevitably, fans have argued about whether Cursed Child is “canon” or not. The way it threatens to fiddle with major events in the book-series’ past (which the possibility of time-travel of course raises) does, perhaps, make it feel as though it’s treading on the series’ past a little too much. (Leading to the inevitable scene where some characters have an opportunity to prevent the terrible events that sparked it all off, and the writers have to give them a reason not to do it.) And the grown-up versions of the main characters can only, really, act as jokey versions of the children we got to know thanks to the books. (This may be true of adults generally, though.)

Overall, I think it’s best to see Cursed Child as a bit of fun added to the series, a sort of theatrical “Harry Potter’s Greatest Hits”, with some what-happened-next thrown in, rather than an essential continuation. Personally, I’d be happy to see a more comedic take on the day-to-day lives of adult Harry, Ron, and Hermione, without their having to save the world from ultimate evil, but I can’t imagine that happening — not for a while, anyway.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J K Rowling

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was published in 2007, ten years after the first book in the series. By this point, Rowling’s saga had become a global phenomenon, with midnight book launches, publication dates shifted so kids wouldn’t bunk off school, a film series well under way (it was Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix in 2007), and a very public haranguing by literary heavyweights such as Harold Bloom (“In an arbitrarily chosen single page — page 4 — of the first Harry Potter book, I count seven clichés”) and A S Byatt (“Ms. Rowling’s magic world has no place for the numinous. It is written for people whose imaginative lives are confined to TV cartoons, … soaps, reality TV and celebrity gossip”) laying in on Rowling in a way that now seems incredibly petty, like academics berating a child for neglecting to quote Eratosthenes in his “What I did on my holidays” essay. But all this is, frankly, irrelevant (as it should be) now it’s just me reading the series for pleasure.

So, what are the pleasures of The Deathly Hallows?

For the seventh book in a seven-book series, where everything has surely by now (thanks to Harry Potter and… Any Other Business?, a.k.a. The Half-Blood Prince) been set up for the final confrontation between our hero and the evil Lord Voldemort, The Deathly Hallows opens in bravura style by kicking off some entirely new plot-lines, and emptying a whole new set of questions-in-need-of-answering into our hapless truth-seeker’s lap. Whose blue and Dumbledorean eye is looking out from the broken fragment of Sirius’ communication mirror? Why had Dumbledore been in possession of James Potter’s invisibility cloak on the night Harry’s parents were murdered? How do the Death Eaters track Harry & co. so quickly to Tottenham Court Road? Whose is the silver-white doe patronus? Why is Harry suddenly less able to produce a patronus of his own?

Jonny Duddle cover

It struck me on my first reading of the series how incredibly satisfyingly it was in the way it mixed the uncovering of past events (the first rise of Voldemort, the school days of Harry’s parents, and so on) with each book’s present-day action. And that’s still going strong even in this final book, if not stronger. Having had Voldemort’s origin-of-evil story told in The Half-Blood Prince, we now get what might be called the tarnishing of Albus Dumbledore, as tabloid reporter Rita Skeeter reveals the “disturbed childhood, the lawless youth, the lifelong feuds and the guilty secrets” of what has been the warmest and most comforting character in the series so far.

Why does Rowling do this? Right from the start, Dumbledore seemed a gleefully archetypal character, the grandfatherly wizard who mixes aspects of Gandalf, Father Christmas, and, frankly, God (or at least Aslan) in his calm, patient, white-bearded wisdom, his acceptance and encouragement (and, also, his distance). At the end of the last book he was — quite rightly, and as tradition demands — taken out of the action, ready for our hero Harry to face things on his own.

But no, it seems he has lingered. And not lingered in the way Obi-Wan Kenobi lingers in the original Star Wars trilogy, to pop up as a ghostly presence and offer a little prompting and guidance (“Use the Force, Luke”, “Go to the Dagobah system, Luke”, “Don’t forget to brush your teeth, Luke”), but lingered to go sour. Dumbledore, we learn, was not always that Santa-like saintly wizard. In his early days, great as he already was, he became preoccupied with the same thing that drives the evil Lord Voldemort:

“I had learned that I was not to be trusted with power… I had proven, as a very young man, that power was my weakness and my temptation…”

Death has become one of the most important themes in the Harry Potter series, one that is, intriguingly, profoundly connected with Harry’s role as a truth-seeker. Increasingly, Harry’s seeking after the truth has been driven by a need to make contact with what death has taken from him (his parents, Sirius, Dumbledore), and to learn why it had to happen, why they had to die.

Brian Selznick cover

And death has twined its bony fingers into another theme, too, one that runs not only throughout this series but (as I said in my mewsings on the first book) through fantasy literature as a whole: power, its temptations, and its misuse. Voldemort defines himself entirely in terms of power, and sees its ultimate use as being to hold off his own death, while doling it out to others on a whim. But, as the case of Dumbledore in this book reveals, death in the Harry Potter series humanises those who die (which is perhaps why Voldemort flees it). Even as great a figure as Dumbledore, when he passes through the veil, is revealed to be what he always was: a human being, with faults, with mistakes, with regrets, with secrets — with a story. The crucial thing is, in Rowling’s world, this humanisation doesn’t compromise her characters. Dumbledore isn’t a lesser presence because of his revealed faults, once we have the full story. (After all, it’s “his early losses [that] endowed him with great humanity and sympathy”, in other words, which made him who he is.)

This humanisation-in-the-face-of-death is something Rowling does to other characters, too. Most notably in this book — and most poignantly — Severus Snape, who finally gets his story told (when you’d think it ought to have been in The Half-Blood Prince, which was, after all, named for him). Snape’s story is the last to be revealed, but is told alongside that of another character who has, surprisingly, not had hers told yet either: Lily Potter. (And the influence of Lily, Harry’s mother, over Harry’s development, is much more prevalent in this book, where up till now he was mostly defined in terms of how he measured up to his father. In this book, we’re told Harry is now exactly the same height as James Potter — so he’s as much like his father as he’s going to be — and this is no surprise. But it is a pleasant surprise when Harry sees his mother’s handwriting and realises that she “made her g’s the same way he did”. We’ve long been told his eyes are his mother’s — and this is what makes Snape’s “Look … at … me …” so poignant — but more and more we learn it’s Harry’s inner nature that derives from her, in a book where protective mothers — including Mrs Weasley, Narcissa Malfoy, and even Neville Longbottom’s grandmother — come to the fore. Just as Lily sacrificed herself for Harry, so Harry, here, sacrifices himself for others.)

Snape is revealed to be the most divided character in the series, caught between the love of power (his being the head of Slytherin, and his being a Death Eater) and the power of love (when his need to protect Lily brings him back to Dumbledore, and enables Dumbledore to enlist him in protecting Harry). Snape is, I’d say, the one character whose take on the events of the Harry Potter series would be worth reading.

But before all these backstories, The Deathly Hallows enters a surprising stretch (for a final and should-be-action-packed book), where nothing happens for a long time, a period of frustration, isolation, and endurance, in which the main trio do little more than bicker and get on each others’ nerves. It starts to feel like Frodo and Sam’s section of The Return of the King, that despondent slog through the wastes of Mordor, where they keep going not because they must finish their task, but because it would be even more of an effort to turn back.

Kazu Kibuishi cover

Then — things kick off, and the second half of The Deathly Hallows is perhaps the best, in terms of sheer storytelling, in the series as a whole. And that, after all, is what it’s about (and this is the big point Bloom and Byatt so blatantly missed). It’s not about the literary qualities of the language (though Rowling has moments of good writing, my favourites being a baby dragon described as looking “like a crumpled, black umbrella”, the barman of the Leaky Cauldron looking “like a gummy walnut”, or Harry, alone with a bickering Ron and Hermione, feeling “like the only non-mourner at a poorly attended funeral”). But mostly the language is only there to tell the story — and tell it not to jaded academics but story-hungry what-happens-nexting kids. Nor is it about the originality of imagination. Rowling freely makes use of every fantasy archetype she can lay her hands on. But, she makes original use of them. And it may be she does so simply for a quick joke, but it may also be that she does so (as with Dumbledore) to say something deeper, that goes to the heart of her theme.

Using such fantasy archetypes is part of how she creates such an immersive world. It’s not (as I said in my mewsings on the first book) immersive in the traditional How to Write Fantasy & SF way of presenting a logically consistent reality with carefully-worked-out rules for magic. It’s immersive because it’s so rich and alive. There’s no time to stop and think about logical inconsistencies, it’s already throwing another Dahlish joke, or Dickensian character, or Rowlingish list at you. (She loves her lists: of wares in a magical joke shop, titles of magical school-books, varieties of owls, sweets on a snack trolley, or the contents of a Hogwarts storage room.) Most of all, it’s alive with story: with little sub-plots and details, with little connections (as you realise, for instance, that some fellow-pupil of Harry’s who was initially just a name is in fact the descendent of some famous witch or wizard), as well as wider, deeper (sometimes subterranean) arcs.

Olly Moss

The theme of fame I puzzled about before this re-read of the series has proved to be just part of a much more varied and interesting theme of truth, memory, and history, how these can be distorted, and how such distortions can pave the way for the rise of an evil such as Voldemort. In other words, this is a story about the power of story, both for good and for evil.

The series’s own politics aren’t, perhaps, all to be read as a straightforward allegory, tempting though it seems. Hermione’s efforts to emancipate the house elves at first feels like it’s drawing a parallel with human slavery, but the series doesn’t resolve it at all in that way. I suspect it might just be a joke about the sort of elves you find in a fairy tale like “The Elves and the Shoemaker”, and how Hermione overthinks the whole thing, or misinterprets it in entirely human terms. House elves aren’t oppressed humans, they’re house elves. And Harry’s deal with the goblin Griphook in The Deathly Hallows makes it clear that goblins aren’t supposed to be read as oppressed humans, either, but as non-humans who have their own values, ideas, and agendas. This aspect of the books, perhaps, needs more material to play out.

And it’s with The Deathly Hallows that Rowling can best refute A S Byatt’s criticism that her fantasy is not “numinous”. Byatt was mistaking Rowling’s first-book groundwork — her laying out of a cornucopia of fantasy elements — for her end theme. It’s with The Deathly Hallows that things come as close as they get to a religious statement, and if they’re to be read in that way, it seems to me Rowling is doing something slightly different. The way the previously God-like Dumbledore is revealed to have had a weakness for power in his youth before learning to be more human reminds me of Jung’s psychological reading of the Old and New Testaments in Answer to Job. God, Jung says, gave His son to mankind in the New Testament as a propitiatory sign that He’d changed from His highly judgemental, punitive, and patriarchal Old Testament ways. It wasn’t to redeem humankind from original sin, but to redeem God from His old self. If so, then Harry is Dumbledore’s “son” in this book, and it’s surely significant his self-sacrifice comes to have a magically protective power over everyone opposing Voldemort: he “dies” to redeem them all from evil. (And Harry finding himself in an ethereal King’s Cross is perhaps the most explicitly religious reference.) But whatever her own beliefs, Rowling never gets as dogmatic as C S Lewis. Rather, as with Dumbledore and Snape, she humanises it all, and perhaps de-patriarchalises it a bit while she’s at it.

In the end, the Harry Potter series is about “the triumph of good, the power of innocence, the need to keep resisting.” But it’s also about a good story well told, one that’s even more rewarding on a re-read. Rowling can be, amongst all the whizzes and bangs of her magical world, a subtle storyteller, taking more from the likes of Jane Austen than Roald Dahl. Fantasy-wise, her imagination runs the gamut, and seems to have furnished a generation (if not more) with all the weird beasts and magic lore the likes of Dungeons & Dragons, Fighting Fantasy, and a generous helping of Ray Harryhausen films did to a previous generation. (By which I mean mine.)