Harry Dresden’s Purgatorial Changes

Harry Dresden’s Purgatorial Changes

Caveat Lector: Warning the following blog post contains lots of spoilers for the Dresden Files series. If you don’t want any of the books spoiled, then don’t read any further.

After I finished reading Changes I needed someone to talk about it with. Or barring good conversation, I’d take reading some good essays and reviews. I headed to Google and ended up on Goodreads where I saw my friend Julie D’s review (also posted on her Happy Catholic blog):

“So much action and yet I didn’t care about it. I got the idea that author Jim Butcher didn’t care either and was forcing the action to have to avoid actually thinking about character development or plot.

I have occasionally wondered if I was getting tired of the series and then something would happen that would reignite my interest such as Molly becoming Harry’s apprentice or the rise of the Gray Council. This was just one damned thing after another (literally) with Harry calling in one favor after another.

And yet I didn’t care.

As for the ending … what the Sam Hill was that supposed to be?”

Julie D did not like Changes and subsequently didn’t finish the next book in the series, Ghost Story.

Much as I respect Julie’s literary opinions, I think she missed something here. I don’t think that just because I liked the book and she didn’t—- hey, that happens, sometimes we disagree with people whose taste is otherwise quite similar to ours—- but because of her estimation of the author’s attitude toward the character: “I got the idea that author Jim Butcher didn’t care either and was forcing the action to have to avoid actually thinking about character development or plot.” My take away from the book was exactly the opposite.

Now I have the advantage over Julie, who was reading the series as each book came out, of having read all of the books in one gulp and so the previous books were much fresher in my head and I think I was in a better position to follow the metaplot that has been building over the course of the series, which can kind of get lost in the details of the plot of each individual novel. I’ve been eagerly following the ongoing question of Harry’s choice between light and darkness, between good and evil and wondering if Butcher was ever going to resolve the question definitively one way or another. And if I’d been reading with a year or more between each book, I think that thread would have been easy to lose.

As it was one scene had leaped out at me in the novel Turn Coat, which is the eleventh book in the series and the volume that immediately precedes Changes. In this scene Karin Murphy tells Harry:

“The problem is that your bastion of order is sort of tough to coexist with.”

“I have no bastions. I am bastionless.”

“Hah,”Murphy said. “You like the same car, the same apartment, the same restaurant. You like not needing to answer to anyone, and doing the jobs your conscience dictates you should do, without worrying about the broader issues they involve. You hang out, fairly happy without much in the way of material wealth and follow your instincts, and be damned to anyone who tells you otherwise. That’s your order.”

“You’ve never really compromised your order for someone else’s, which is why you drive the Wardens nuts…

I suspected when I read that scene then that Butcher was setting Harry up to have that order challenged. And— as the name indeed suggests— that is precisely what Changes does. In Changes Harry’s bastion of order is stripped away from him, not because Butcher no longer cares for the character development or plot but precisely because he cares so very much. In taking on the Red Court head on, in charging to the rescue without counting the cost, Harry is committing his greatest act of hubris yet, only the latest in a long line of acts of hubris— remember him riding the zombie Sue into the middle of a black magic cyclone? Or calling up the spirit of the dark island? Or storming the heart of Winter? This great act of hubris is his team’s frontal assault that challenges the entire Red Court and then, by the horrific sacrifice of his beloved Susan, destroys it to the very last vampire.

What we learn in Ghost Story is that actions have consequences. After the assault on Chichén Itzá, we learn, everything —predictably— falls apart. Butcher has created a supernatural world with very complicated, highly balanced geopolitics, even more delicate than the Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union of the Twentieth Century. If Harry had destroyed that balance and nothing had happened as a result, then certainly one could claim that Butcher had given up caring about the world he had built and the character he had crafted. But instead what we see is that Butcher’s world has a very high degree of moral realism and that Harry’s friends must pay terribly the heavy price for Harry’s hubris.

The question from here on out is whether Harry is a tragic hero or whether Butcher can pull a eucatastrophe from this seeming catastrophe. Is this the moment of Harry’s fall from grace or is it the break through which grace will finally enter in? Will this stripping away of Harry’s Bastion of Order be purgatorial, will he emerge from the purgatorial fires as a new man. . . or will he continue to be the same old Harry, never learning from his mistakes, never making a firm choice?

In Ghost Story Harry’s Purgatorio continues. Changes whisked away all of Harry’s certainties, the entire bastion of order, and now he’s left to contemplate the ruins of his life. As a ghost haunting the ruins that his destruction of the Red Court wreaked in his city of Chicago, he is now in a unique position, forced by circumstances to reflect and contemplate instead of just reacting (although, being Harry, even incorporeal he still manages somehow to do his share of reacting and charging in without a plan or a hope). On the whole it seems like this time spent in spiritual limbo is good for Harry. He revisits his past, he reconsiders his past actions. He takes stock of his life and he does indeed find it wanting and begins to acknowledge his mistakes as mistakes and to take responsibility for them.

One of my favorite scenes in Ghost Story is when Harry, hiding in his grave, trades his memories of his early life to the Leanansidhe for information to help him in the present. But what he doesn’t realize at the time is that the memories themselves are a sort of a present from Lea to him. In reliving his memories he unlocks a part of the puzzle of his present. “Death should be a learning experience, says Leanansidhe, “or what’s the point?”

Harry’s death certainly is a learning experience. Far from being a character who is going through the motions, he’s a character on the cusp of a major breakthrough in self-awareness. And Harry’s encounter with Leanansidhe also leads him to re-examine the choices he made in Changes:

“I thought about Molly and how screwed up she was.
That was my fault, in a lot of ways.
First thing to jump out at me: I never should have let Molly go to Chichén Itzá.”

He begins to see the connection between his unthinking charging ahead and the fallout of his rash behavior.

Then in his following discussion with Bob Harry continues the work of unraveling the mysteries of his past, rethinking his encounters with He Who Walks Behind, Uriel, and Captain Murphy. In re-examining his first act of using magic to do violence, Harry realizes that he was goaded into that action. It was all a set-up.

Either Butcher is a master of ret-conning his own work, or the foundations for these plotlines have been in the works for quite a few books. Uriel first appeared in Small Favor. and in that encounter you can see more of the groundwork for Harry’s purgatorio. Uriel, in the guise of a janitor, is speaking obscurely about the gift of Soul Fire that Harry has already been given:

“Maybe another was quieter about it. Thinking long-term. Maybe he already gave you a hand.”

There are powers at work, quietly in the universe, Uriel hints, balancing forces, good working in a quiet, non-flashy way to keep evil from prevailing.

But I wonder… is Butcher, like Uriel, playing a long game here? There have been hints from early on, since Michael’s first appearance in the series in fact, that Harry must at some point make a choice, that he is going to have to ultimately side with the powers of Good or the powers of Evil. And I think that what we are seeing in Changes and Ghost Story is the next stage in Harry’s story. The cards have been dealt and now we get to see Harry playing out the hand he’s been dealt. I for one am looking forward to seeing where the series goes next. I’m really hoping that all of Butcher’s hints pay off and that we see the final working of the grace that has long been present in Harry’s saga.

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