Harry Potter has a lot on his to-do list. There's all those Horcruxes to find, a bunch of Deathly Hallows to pick up (you'll find out), and he's supposed to become a man, and get the girl, and, yeah, he should probably slay Voldemort at some point too. But in a lot of ways Harry's story ended with the second-to-last book of the series, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.
At least, that's when he stopped experiencing his story the way we, his readers, do: as a wonderful adventure. Toward the end of Half-Blood Prince, when Hermione turns up yet another clue, Harry thinks: "He did not feel the way he had so often felt before, excited, curious, burning to get to the bottom of a mystery." That sparkly wonderment is gone. As the curtain rises on Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Scholastic; 759 pages), all Harry's parents and parent-figures Sirius and Dumbledore are dead. He's quit school, and he's got a job to do, picking up the shards of Voldemort's shattered soul. Any soft adult buffer between him and the world has been stripped away. He's riding the rims. Harry isn't having a good time anymore.
Which doesn't mean that we aren't, just that it's different now. Unlike every other book in the series, Deathly Hallows isn't governed by the stately rhythms and rituals of the school year. It's structured and paced like a war novel: Rowling marches us through a series of military sallies and counter-sallies, brief respites and sudden departures and long-range patrols. At times in the book Harry will whip out the Marauder's Map and look longingly at the little labeled dots as they move around Hogwarts. We know how he feels. Normality has been lost Deathly Hallows is as much about what isn't happening as what is.
So what is happening? Unbeknownst to its mundane Muggle inhabitants, England has become a war zone: it's Death Eaters vs. the Order of the Phoenix, no holds barred, with civilians both magical and non- up for grabs in the middle. The novel's first set piece comes when Harry departs Privet Drive forever (its utility as a sanctuary for Harry expires when he turns 17) under the protection of the Order of the Phoenix. It's a straight-up military operation, staged like an up-armored convoy leaving the Green Zone. Death Eaters are waiting, and a dogfight ensues. In interviews Rowling has put readers on notice that "more deaths are coming," and couple of early casualties confirm that she's willing to draw blood, and not just from the extras and the red-shirts. Being good won't be enough to get you to the end of the series alive. You'll have to be good and lucky too. There are some distinguished English thespians who'll be calling their agents this week.
By the time the survivors have gone to ground at a safe house, the tone for much of the rest of the book has been set. Ron, Harry and Hermione are on the run together, as we always knew they would be, both hunting and being hunted, fighting, sprinting for cover, holing up for precious panting downtime, "three teenagers in a tent whose only achievement was not, yet, to be dead." The transformation from schoolboys and girls to resistance fighters is complete: they are a three-person magical special-ops squad, bent on finding and destroying Horcruxes using what little high-school magic they have, the clues Dumbledore left behind, their wits (mostly Hermione's) and their inherent Gryffindorian bravery and good-heartedness. (They're looking for the Deathly Hallows, too, but I'm not going to deny you the pleasure of finding out on your own what those are.) It's pure pleasure to watch Rowling showing off her chops, managing the tension and throttling the pace up and down, and it's also a precious gift to the reader: we have plenty of time to bask in, and say goodbye to, the principals' three-sided chemistry, which sparkles in the deepening martial gloom. This is the saddest of the Harry Potter books, but it's also the funniest.
As Voldemort gets a political grip on the wider wizarding society, Ron, Harry and Hermione spend more and more time in hiding, at Grimmauld Place and elsewhere, and their story takes on some of the claustrophobia of Anne Frank's diary. In fact, the parallels to World War II are near-explicit: the Death Eaters agitate for the rounding up of Muggle-born wizards and "race traitors" the same way Jews and their sympathizers were rounded up under the Third Reich. The Ministry of Magic comes to resemble The Ministry of Truth from 1984, complete with a pseudo-Fascist bureaucracy and a Muggle-Born Registration Commission headed by no less a personage than Dolores Umbridge (now permanently merged with Imelda Staunton, thanks to Staunton's indelible performance in the movie version of Order of the Phoenix). Rowling has never been a risk-taker, politically speaking, and this is hardly a subtle or controversial tack to take, but it's one we can all be relied on to get together and be outraged by.
Meanwhile she keeps half a dozen plots simmering on the back burners. It's book 7, so it's time for the remaining couples to pair off. Tonks and Lupin get married, as do Bill Weasley and Fleur Delacour. Harry's romance with Ginny is still smoldering, and if their liaisons have a sanitized, G-rated quality to them, they also have a wartime urgency that's kind of hot. With an eye for the unexpected, Rowling hands out a parting gift of redemption to a dodgy minor character or two. Most importantly, as Harry's own story is playing out, Harry is himself uncovering a story, one we've been waiting to hear for quite some time, the backstory of Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore: the secrets of the brother with whom he quarreled, and of Dumbledore's mysterious, damaged younger sister, who died young, and of Dumbledore's own remarkable power as a sorcerer.
That's a lot of plot, and there's more besides. This isn't the most elegant of the Potter volumes: the sheer number of Macguffins in play gives the story a lumpy shape, and Rowling's prodigious narrative imagination constantly tempts her to overstuff the story. That kind of thing can be frustrating on a first reading, when you're hellbent on getting to the denouement, but it's exactly the kind of thing you appreciate on later re-readings, when you can stop and let chance details catch the light, and groove on the richness and sheer high-resolution of Rowling's fictional world. As writer Rowling doesn't have anything like the technical firepower to ravish a reader with her prose, but she is a peerless charmer, and she doesn't hold back.
After all, this isn't just our last shot at the Potterverse, this is Rowling's, too, her last opportunity to hammer on additions that extra wing, that upstairs bathroom and fill in a few blank areas on the map. We get a breakneck tour of the bowels of Gringotts and the interior of Malfoy Manor. (Her portrait of the Malfoys, the evil family who nevertheless love each other with a strange, sinister tenderness, is one of the unexpected pleasures of the late Potter books.) The goblins get a more extended cameo appearance. At one point Harry casts a spell with three wands in one hand, resulting in a triple-charged sorcerous assault, which expands my understanding of the laws of magical physics. Harry also takes a road trip to Godric's Hollow, which is in many ways the book's Ground Zero: Dumbledore's family lived there, and Harry's parents died there. (That's Godric as in Godric Gryffindor, a connection that Harry is rather slower than his readers to arrive at. Who knows, maybe he knows a lot of guys named Godric.)
(Speaking of last shots, it's time for the critics to take theirs, too. I have my share of pet Potter peeves including Peeves the poltergeist, who spends his afterlife being eternally unfunny and I'll never get a better chance to air them. I've always found the Accio charm to be ridiculously useful, to the point where it's implausible even by magical standards "Accio Hagrid" indeed! The house-elves are strangely overpowered too: they can, for example, apparate in and out of Hogwarts, a fact that Rowling notes but doesn't really explain. With Dobby freed from his servitude to wizardkind, one wonders why he isn't running the planet by now.
And not to go on, but Rowling is addicted to the narrative device of Harry passing out and then being shaken awake, which must happen at least 10 times in Deathly Hallows, to the point where the poor guy comes off as practically narcoleptic. And one more: Must Rowling insist on making evil people short, fat or ugly, or all three? Must, for example, Sirius's death-eating brother Regulus be "smaller, slighter and rather less handsome than Sirius had been"? I know there are exceptions Tom Riddle was once slitheringly handsome, before he lost his nose but it's not an appealing trend. Short, fat, ugly people have enough problems without being evil, too.)
As a farewell to the series, Deathly Hallows is everything fans of Harry Potter could hope for. It does not reach the lyrical high-watermarks of the series everyone has their favorites, mine being the final watercolor mourning scenes in Order of the Phoenix, with the mirror, the ghosts and, of course, Luna Lovegood. ("She's great, isn't she?" Ron says of Luna in Deathly Hallows. "Always good value.") But then again, this isn't a lyrical interlude, this is the grand finale. It calls for big battles and high body counts, force majeure and not legerdemain, and Rowling leaves no stops unpulled. It gives nothing away to say that a final showdown occurs, and if the final plot twist is eminently satisfying but not all that surprising, it's only because fans have already worked through all the possible endings on the Internet with such massive rigor. If we'd spent all that energy on particle physics instead, we would have found the Higgs boson by now.
Deathly Hallows is of course not merely the tying up of plot-threads, it's the final iteration of Rowling's abiding thematic concern: the overwhelming importance of continuing to love in the face of death. On this point, at least, we're not waiting for a new wrinkle. Dumbledore has been schooling us on this subject since Goblet of Fire, if not longer when in doubt Rowling tends to err on the side of quashing ambiguity, both telling and showing when one would probably do. So we have known for a while that Voldemort cannot love, that he has been spiritually ruined by his parents' deaths, and he will kill anyone to stave off his own death. Harry, though also an orphan, has found the courage to love. "Do not pity the dead, Harry," a wise man tells Harry in Deathly Hallows. "Pity the living, and, above all, those who live without love." Characterologically speaking, the greatest question that remains in Hallows might be whether Harry can do this that is, whether Harry can find it in himself to pity the man who killed his parents.
If Rowling makes a more subtle point, it's this. Throughout the series Harry has had to confront and forgive an apparently endless series of fathers and father-figures. It's a wise child that truly knows his father, and Harry has had to gain that wisdom again and again. Learning about and accepting James's and Sirius's flaws their arrogance, their cruelty towards Snape was a crucial part of growing up for Harry, and in Deathly Hallows he must go through the process again, with a father-figure more important than his actual father, namely Dumbledore himself. It is of critical importance that Harry understand and accept Dumbledore's fallibility, and by extension his own. It is yet another thing that separates Harry from Voldemort, who understood his father's imperfections but could not forgive them. (He solved this little problem in Half-Blood Prince, through patricide.)
Though thematically speaking it's a sidelight, it's one of the key differences between Rowling and her great literary forebears. Rowling has been careful to build Harry up from boy to man, student to leader, but she has been equally attentive to the task of breaking Dumbledore down, from a divine father-figure to a mere human. Her insistence on this point is a reflection of the cosmology of the Potterverse: there are no higher powers in residence there. The attic and the basement are empty. There may be an afterlife, and ghosts, but there is certainly no God, and no devil. There are also no immortal, all-wise elves, as in Tolkien, nor are there any mystical Maiar, which is what Gandalf was (what, you thought he was human? Genealogically speaking, he's closer to a balrog than he is to a man.) There is certainly no benevolent, paternal Aslan to turn up late in the book and fight the Big Bad. The essential problem in Rowling's books is how to love in the face of death, and her characters must arrive at the solution all on their own, hand-to-hand, at street level, with bleeding knuckles and gritted teeth, and then sweep up the rubble afterwards.
It's impossible to finish Deathly Hallows without mixed emotions: satisfaction, but also sadness. Not really because the series is finally over if anything, turning the last page of Deathly Hallows made me look forward to rereading the first book. Maybe Sorcerer's Stone will never be surprising again, the way it was the first time, but now that I know how the series ends, that knowledge propagates its way back through the series, casting everything that came before it in a different light and giving it a fresh new meaning.
The sadness is more an instant nostalgia for the unironic, whole-hearted unanimity with which readers embraced the story of Harry. We did something very rare for Harry Potter: we lost our cool. There is nothing particularly hip about loving Harry. He's not sexy or dangerous the way, say, Tony Soprano was. He's not an anti-hero, he's just a hero, but we fell for him anyway. It's a small sacrifice to the one that Harry makes, of course, but it's what we, as self-conscious, status-conscious modern readers, have to give, and we gave it. We did and do love Harry. We couldn't help ourselves.
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