In which I return to Dresden Files #15, Skin Game to look more closely at a couple of scenes.
The usual disclaimers apply. I do nothing to avoid spoilers in my close readings of these novels and if you will be bothered at the revelation of major plot points of Skin Game and possibly previous novels as well, then do not read this post. You have been warned.
There are two scenes in Skin Game where Harry sits down with a god and has a drink. Both scenes happen in the middle of the most dramatic part of the novel, first one and then the other interrupts the climbing tension of the bank heist at a critical moment. Each of these scenes shows Harry in a new light: thinking in terms not of individual battle tactics, but longer-term strategies; anticipating his opponent’s moves, trying to understand how other people think, and learning to ask better questions. We see Harry beginning to pause to think before speaking (and regretting it when he doesn’t) and implementing the new insights he gained in Ghost Story where he was forced to learned the importance of stopping to think before leaping into action. These scenes also show him interacting with these powerful supernatural figures on a much more equal footing than he ever has in the past. Both Odin/Kringle and Hades seem to be acting almost like mentors (and Mab does, too, for all her harsh tactics). Each expresses some admiration and approval of a move Harry has made. Are they grooming him for something more? There seems to be in their actions a hint at the next stages of Harry’s journey.
“All I did was ask you a few questions”
Hades appears after Harry and company have finally broken into the vault, just before Harry’s dramatic showdown with Nicodemus. Surprisingly, rather than attacking Harry or raging at him, he whisks Harry off to a cozy tete a tete in his private study, complete with a warm fire, a sleeping dog, and a glass of wine. Moreover, he formally greets Harry as a guest—extending hospitality to him in the supernatural world guarantees that Harry will leave the meeting unmolested. It’s not at all the greeting a burglar would expect.
In this short interview Hades drops a number of bombshells that leave Harry—and the reader— reeling. First, he compliments Harry on his successful navigation of the ice gate challenge. Then, his gentle questioning leads Harry to realize that there is a connection between Hades and Mab (and the other queens of Faerie), that they heist was engineered by them, they are playing Nicodemus. And this suggests to Harry that Mab wants the weapons in Hades armory that Nicodemus is after for herself to use in her war with the Outsider and that Harry is somehow being tried and judged as to whether he is worthy to take them (and to wield them?) Finally, Hades shakes Harry’s hand and points out to him the ways the two of them are alike. This seems… portentous.
Although Harry starts out on the wrong foot, surprised that Hades knows what he’s doing and why he is there, he immediately takes Hades’ unspoken reproof to heart and answers his own question himself:
“You, uh. You know?
He gave me a very mildly long-suffering look.
Right, I said quietly, “It’s your realm. Of course you know.”
That exchange sets the tone for the rest of their encounter. Harry asks questions, Hades doesn’t answer them directly, or he responds with another question. Hades doesn’t so much give Harry answers as much as make Harry work things out for himself: “Words are not my strong suit,” he says, “Did you ask the best questions?” He practices the Socratic method (and hints as much when he mentions Socrates). “Ah. You have a certain amount of perception then.” Hades remarks after Harry deduces from his actions that he means him no harm. In fact, Hades counts on Harry’s perception to fill in the blanks from a very few hints. He doesn’t really help Harry to solve any of his problems nor abet him in his struggle with Nicodemus, after all that is part of the test that Harry must navigate, but he does nudge him along in several significant ways to see the bigger picture and to think strategically and to anticipate Mab, and these do make a difference in how he continues with the remainder of the mission after their encounter.
Over the course of their interaction you see Harry learning to ask better questions, to think more clearly. Hades leads him to reason out that Hades and Mab were working together to run a long con on Nicodemus. And then he realizes that’s not the only game Mab is playing:
“Wait. Are you telling me I’m *supposed* to take these things out of here?”
“A much better question.”
“Then this hasn’t been a heist at all, “ I said, “This whole mess… it was an audition?” “Another good question but not the most relevant.”
Hades has to feed Harry that final, most relevant, question, but once he prompts him to ask it, he at first seems to dodge the question, instead he answering with yet another question and then another that seem completely irrelevant. “Do you know my dog’s name?” and “Do you know what it means?” Hades gets Harry to ask the big why: ‘Why are we having this conversation at all?’ but then immediately starts talking about his dog. Why? Is it just a smooth segue into highlighting one way in which he and Harry are alike? They both have powerful dogs with names that belie their power? Or is there something else we are supposed to deduce from that pair of questions?
One thing is certain, when Hades finally stops the game of questions and gives his lengthiest and most direct response in the whole exchange he hints that there is another level of reality that Harry still doesn’t fully understand. By binding himself to the island and its genius loci, Harry has inadvertently made a leap into acting and working on a totally new plane of existence. He’s now the kind of man who regularly consults with gods, perhaps he’s even on his way to becoming a sort of god?
“Why would I, Hades, take such a personal interest in you, Harry Dresden?”
“I am a guardian of an underground realm filled with terrible power, the warden of a nation-prison of shades. I am charged with protecting it, maintaining it, and seeing to it that it is used properly. I am misunderstood by most, feared by most, hated by many. I do my duty as I think best, regardless of anyone’s opinion but my own, and though my peers have neglected their charges or focused upon inconsequential trivialities in the face of larger problems, it does not change that duty—even when it causes me great pain. And I have a very large, and very good dog . . .” Spot’s tail thumped the side of Hades’ chair like some enormous padded baseball bat. “. . . whom other people sometimes consider fearsome.” He turned to me, put his wineglass down and regarded me frankly. “I believe,” he said, “that we have a great many things in common.”
Hades describes himself in such general terms as to pick out the characteristics that he has in common with Harry: you aren’t that much different from me, he’s saying. It gives us a new and interesting sketch of Harry’s character. And perhaps it’s a subtle way of indicating to Harry that his guardianship of Demonreach, which he’s just sort of been taking for granted, might just put him on some kind of par with a god or demigod. Which then perhaps puts Harry’s relationship with Mab in a new light. Maybe Mab is really acting much like Ebenezer did for Harry when he was a young wizard, taking him under her wing and teaching him the skills he needs to survive with his newfound powers and responsibilities? Initially Hades offered Harry a convenient label, perhaps he’s a villain who just wants to thwart and punish Harry, but Harry rejects that explanation, focusing instead on how Hades is traditionally known for justice. As we shall see, one attribute of Mab’s that is highlighted several times in the novel is her justice, her balancing of the scales. Maybe Mab, too, has a previously unguessed motive and maybe she and Hades share a common concern about Harry’s future. But I’ll come back to Mab a little more after we first look more closely at Harry’s exchange with Odin.
* * *
Two final observations: First, when Hades protests that he cannot help Harry— not only because times have changed and Hades is no longer of such a power as to be able to control the course of destiny, but also because interfering and taking sides is not what the Lord of Death does, it is not in his nature— Harry protests that in fact Hades already has helped him, suggesting that Hades’ is something of an unreliable narrator. Hades retorts that all he did was ask Harry some questions. But he does it with a smile in his eyes. Hades is subtle Perhaps he cannot intervene directly or give Harry obvious help, but information is a powerful tool. It certainly suggest that Hades does very much care about who wins control over the weapons in his care.
Secondly, Harry’s final question about Deirdre’s fate suggest that he, too, is very concerned with justice. Harry is troubled by the idea that Deirdre might not face suitable punishment for her crimes. This concern for justice and the final disposition of souls is a final way in which he is like Hades.