Monday, January 08, 2007

The Curse of the Blue Pencil

Spend a lot of time editing, either one's own writing or others' (in my case, student papers), and the impulse to tweak becomes hard to stifle.

Exhibit A. Scholastic has released the title of the final tome in the Harry Potter series: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.


Scratch, scratch.

My inner ear wants to hear "Harry Potter and the Hallows of Death."

Prosodically, I find the latter more pleasing: Har-ry Pot-ter and the Hal-lows of Death. J.K. Rowling is shooting for trochaic pentameter; where iambic pentameter places the stress on the second syllable, in the trochee the accent falls on the first. Thus Har-ry Pot-ter and the Death-ly Hal-lows.

The trochee is often considered a "childlike" meter, one frequently heard in children's verse -- or, say, in William Blake's "Ty-ger, ty-ger, burn-ing bright." But what makes Blake's line scan is the broken foot at the end of the line, the way our eyes and ears are forced to pause on the final word: "bright."

In this sense, and semantically as well, I think "Death" would punctuate the title -- and thus the series -- in more arresting fashion.

But grammatically . . . what's with the gruesome choice in "Deathly"? Technically speaking, the word functions as an adjective describing the "hallows." To all appearances, though, it looks like an adverb -- the OED has entries for both parts of speech -- and therefore (or once again) seems out of place.

In his book On Writing, goresmith Stephen King updates Samuel Johnson's epigrammatic "The road to hell is paved with good intentions" by noting, "The road to hell is paved with adverbs." In my first year of graduate school, in fact -- filled with good intentions -- I had a professor who observed that I had a "adverb fetish."

He was right; and King is right, too, that a well-placed adverb effectively [sic!] modifies. Used to excess, adverbs say you're trying too hard. Better to Strunk and White and come up with a more precise verb.

Might we nonetheless divine precious narrative clues from J. Ro's awkward wording? After all, I know she and Steve share a mutual appreciation (as reported by King in Entertainment Weekly. Yeah, I get around).

The third book (the one with Lupin) being my favorite in the early Potter series, I stopped reading after the fourth, though I enjoyed Mike Newell's film version of that entry. Known for his comedies of British manners (e.g., Four Deathly Weddings and a Funeral), Newell wittily captured the indignities of English boarding-school life.

Nevertheless: might we surmise from the title that someone (who shall not be named) will be taking the adverbial path to hell?

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