Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
July 28, 2007
POP CULTURE: Harry Potter and the Riddle of Death
So, late Thursday night I finished Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the seventh and final installment in the series. My review of the book is below the fold.
WARNING! SPOILERS! WARNING! SPOILERS! WARNING! SPOILERS! WARNING! SPOILERS! WARNING! SPOILERS! WARNING! SPOILERS! WARNING! SPOILERS!
In other words, don't read further unless you have finished the book or don't mind finding out how it goes and ends.
Now, I have greatly enjoyed each of the Harry Potter books, and this was no different. As a piece of storytelling, I thought this was a tremendous book, in many ways the best of the series and at least the best since Book 3. There wasn't a false note up through the death of Snape (more on which below); the action sequences were great and avoided being repetitive, the book's and series' many mysteries unfolded at regular intervals rather than all tumbling out at the end, and there was excellent pacing, alternating between the action sequences, the plot narration, and the occasional quieter character-development vignettes in a way that let the reader catch his or her breath.
Rowling also didn't fall into some of her tics from earlier books. She didn't abuse adverbs as dialogue modifiers (said Harry fiercely). She didn't end too many paragraphs with ellipses..... Other than Dumbledore's large-scale decision to ration the information given to Harry, which at least was a mainly deliberate strategic decision with some thought behind it, she didn't keep the plot going by having characters constantly and inexplicably failing to share crucial pieces of information (my wife and I have been watching old seasons of "24" lately and the same problem is just as rampant there).
She also mostly didn't keep Voldemort at bay. Like a Batman or Bond villian (or, to be fair, like the real-world evildoer Osama bin Laden), Voldemort has constantly screwed up by preferring long-brewing plots of baroque complexity and melodrama to more regular applications of brute force and savagery. Even when considered in light of the difficulty of penetrating the protective charms around Harry and Hogwarts, his own paranoia about the prophecy and his own vulnerabilities, and his limited personnel, Voldemort's insistence in Books 4-6 on waiting all year to rely on a single plot with multple ways of going wrong was just hard to understand. This time, while he remains personally consumed by the hunt for the Elder Wand, Voldemort at least has his servants and allies on the constant attack, giving Harry and friends no peace and killing, torturing and taking hostages at every turn.
Unlike J.R.R. Tolkein, who never could kill a hobbit and let 8 of the 9 members of the Fellowship survive, Rowling certainly wasn't even remotely squeamish about killing off characters we have gotten to know over the years. Voldemort and Bellatrix, of course, had to die - the series as a whole would have made no sense if Voldemort wasn't done in, andBellatrix was the one of his servants furthest beyond redemption. But the list of the others is impressive, and includes a number of the types of characters who don't usually die en masse in stories of this nature: Fred, Snape, Lupin, Dobby, Moody, Tonks, Hedwig, Crabbe, Pettigrew, Scrimgeour, Collin Creavey. Fred Weasley's death in particular was wrenching, though less so because Rowling really never slowed the action again to focus on it (we never saw George again, for example). She blanched, though, at killing Hagrid, despite leaning in that direction on a couple of occasions.
More broadly, Rowling made sure that nearly no character who had made a significant appearance in the series - other than those already rather permanently dispatched - missed an opportunity to contribute to the plot, even highly obscure characters like Griphook, Dedalus Diggle and the Bloody Baron. I noticed from early on that Rowling was working hard to bring us full circle with her references to people and things that we hadn't seen since the start of Book 1 - Diggle, Sirius' flying motorcycle, the Put-Outer (now renamed the Deluminator).
All that said, the book did have flaws. The Epilogue in particular seemed pointless and cheesy, yet uninformative - I had expected more along the lines of a credits-rolling type epilogue with a list of 2-3 sentence descriptions of where each character went next, not just a vignette showing us that yes, Harry married Ginny and named their kids after his parents, Dumbledore and Snape, Ron married Hermione, and Voldemort is really most sincerely dead (maybe Rowling will eventually put something more expansive on her website). The epilogue told us nothing of the later careers of anybody but Neville, nothing really about what kinds of adults the teen characters became, not even precisely who raised Ted Lupin or whether he was a werewolf. If you are going to bother with an epilogue, make it count for something.
I also thought the chapter of Snape's memories felt awfully rushed and not all that revealing, and the chapters that followed, while critical to the story, were a bit unevenly done, in some places (e.g., Mrs. Weasley's dialogue with Bellatrix) too obviously playing to the crowd. Now, I was reading by that point in haste, and it's hard for the ending of anything this long and this good and built around long-running puzzles to live up to all expectations, plus parts of it simply had to be a real downer (Harry resigning himself to death and discovering that Dumbledore had planned him to die all along for the greater good), so maybe I will feel differently on a second read-through. But other parts simply felt like too-good-to-be true twists: Harry waking up alive to talk with Dumbledore, the reinforcements poring over the Hogwarts walls at the right moment, Harry 's duel with Voldemort being resolved in a single spell simply by who had, er, the bigger wand.
The two major themes of the series as a whole, of course, are (1) the power of love, generosity, tolerance and selflessness over hatred, racism, cruelty and the will to power and (2) the need to accept death as a part of life. Unsurprisingly, Book 7 hammers away at these themes, and places them at the very center of the resolution of the Harry-Voldemort feud.
Harry clearly becomes a man in this book. That fact reaches its conclusion when he willingly lays down his life, but it's never more vividly driven home than when he tells Lupin to stay home from the Quest and take care of his pregnant wife (a scene that must have been more poignant to Rowling, as a former single mom).
We see throughout the story the ways in which Voldemort's followers - tortured, manipulated, intimidated - fail him or turn on him (in the case of Narcissa Malfoy when she lets Harry play dead, explicitly out of love for her son), while help comes again and again to Harry un-looked for due to his generosity to house-elves, goblins, etc. (recall that Harry had saved Malfoy's life at great risk to his own barely two hours earlier). Sometimes that generosity brings him no obvious benefit (as when he breaks up the Ministry's concentration camp-style roundup of Muggle-borns while escaping with the locket), but he does it anyway out of a refusal to accept injustice.
More than a few commentators have speculated as to whether Harry's sole self-sacrifice makes Rowling's work, like Tolkein's and CS Lewis', explicitly Christian in orientation. I haven't seen enough in the stories to go that far, and of course those are writers who are high among her influences anyway, but certainly one couldn't miss the significance when Harry, having laid down his life in sacrifice, waits before returning to life in a chapter entitled "King's Cross."
The hunt for the Horcruxes naturally gave the book a structure that took it out of the pattern of the prior six books, built as they were around the Hogwarts school year. We knew that plot would be supplemented by the final unveiling of Snape's loyalties, what happened in Godric's Hollow, and the last showdown with Voldemort. What was added unexpectedly to this was the interlocking stories of Dumbledore's past and the Deathly Hallows.
One of the real entertainments of the final book, for the adult reader, is in trying not only to figure out where the plot is going and how it holds together, but in trying to deduce after the fact which parts of the plot Rowling came up with years ago and which were added more recently. It's clear that she has done a fair amount of planning ahead, and unlike George Lucas she doesn't paint herself into story corners.
In a way, the simplicity of the chapter on Snape and his enduring love for Lily is further evidence that it was part of Rowling's original story, before the advancing complexity of the books led to an escalation in the complexity of her storylines, whereas I have to assume that the Hallows were a relatively late addition.
I had one uncertainty about the Hallows storyline. Harry defeats Voldemort at the end because Voldemort is not the true master of the Elder Wand - Harry is, by virtue of having defeated Draco who defeated Dumbledore. But was Grindelwald a true master of the wand? If so, unlike Draco, he was a powerful enough wizard that he should never have been defeated by Dumbledore. If not- because Grindelwald stole it, after all - then Dumbledore was never the true master either; the true master was the wizard who killed its prior owner, Gregorovitch. In other words, Voldemort.
Of course, if you have read my extensive post after Book 6, you will recall that I made quite a lot of predictions for this book, with enough of a mixed record that I can feel justified in seeing some things coming without feeling like I had no surprises left to enjoy. Let's walk through them.
1. Dumbledore's really dead: I was right, Rowling wouldn't violate the essence of the lesson about the reality of death by bringing him back, although he does return in Harry's sorta-dream after sacrificing himself to Voldemort. The blue eye in Harry's mirror and the phoenix-looking fire from his wand provided early, tantalizing suggestions that Dumbledore wasn't really dead, but it turns out that the only trickery in his death was the recovery of his wand (I only skimmed so far back over the end of 6 but I can't see where it mentions who did that - Snape wasn't around to sneak it back) and its entombing with him.
2. Dumbledore left memories and the Pensieve behind for Harry: He left clues, but no memories, and Snape provided memories only at the last instant. Harry had to track down witnesses and tap into Voldemort's head to get the truth about his parents' death, the Hallows, Dumbledore's background, etc.
3. Regulus could be alive and be Scrimgeour, and in any event somebody we think is dead is really in hiding. Wrong on all counts.
4. Harry, Ron and Hermione all survive. Yup.
5. Harry will have to trust Snape. I was amazed that we didn't see Snape until the very end, and he essentially played no visible role in the story (the delivery of the sword by the silver doe notwithstanding); Harry never spoke another word with the man until he received his memories.
6. Snape was in love with Lily, working to protect Harry and destroy Voldemort. No zig or zag here, Rowling followed the conventional analysis to a T.
7. The Half-Blood Prince's book was written by Lily, who had a crush on Snape. None of that part panned out.
8. Snape took the Unbreakable Vow with Dumbledore. No, he didn't.
9. Snape somehow contributed to Voldemort's failure the first time. No, it went down just as Dumbledore always said - it was his mother's sacrifice, nothing more.
10. The last Horcrux was the Sorting Hat, and if not that the sword or Harry's cloak. Well, Rowling quashed the Sorting Hat notion before the book was published. The sword and the cloak, though, did play pivotal roles and the cloak did turn out to have a powerful magical history. As for Ravenclaw's tiara, I sort of guessed that a chapter or two before their arrival at Hogwarts - I had assumed all along and predicted that one Horcrux would be at Hogwarts, and once my original guesses were eliminated and other ideas stumped, I went back and looked through the chapter on Harry hiding the book in the Room of Requirement and concluded that it was probably the bust or the tiara...by the way, you missed it if you blinked, but Harry lost two beloved magical objects in battle - the Prince's potion book was presumably consumed by the Fiendfire, and Harry dropped his Firebolt from the sidecar of Hagrid's bike during the dogfight.
11. Regulus got the locket out with Kreacher's help. Yup, sort of.
12. Dumbledore's statements while drinking the potion were echoes of things said when the young Riddle tormented those kids in that cave many years before, and Harry may need to track down the now-elderly Muggles involved to find out what happened. Nope, off base there, it was reliving the fight that killed Dumbledore's own sister.
13. We will see more of Zacharias Smith, in the hunt for the Hufflepuff cup. Nope, not a peep.
14. There are at least four characters (Neville, Snape, Draco, and Pettigrew) and possibly others (Ginny, Hagrid, Aunt Petunia, the house-elves) who JKR has set up to potentially step in and play a surprising role at a key plot point to get Harry through the remaining tasks of destroying Horcruxes and killing Voldemort....I can easily see Pettigrew killing the snake.
Well, I got the details wrong, but Snape, Pettigrew and Dobby all either sacrificed themselves for Harry or, in Pettigrew's case, were undone by a debt to him, and Malfoy's hesitance to kill Dumbledore proved crucial to the plot.
15. Harry returns to Hogwarts as the new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher at the end of the story. The Epilogue clearly indicates that Harry is not on the Hogwarts faculty.
I'd have to agree with several people who have said that this book will - or at least can - make a tremendous movie. Yeah, there's a good bit of backstory explication that will need to get cut, but the action scenes are so inherently theatrical, especially the aerial dogfight at the beginning, the robbery of Gringotts and the escape from Malfoy Manor.
I think the Gringotts breakout was my favorite scene in the book. Having seen a proposed cover with the trio flying a dragon, I knew from the moment we saw the dragon that they were going to use it to break out. In fact, at one point after they lost the sword, I thought that they were going to need either Grawp or a dragon to destroy the Horcruxes.
This is obviously a coincidence, but I can't be the only adult American reader who was reminded powerfully of the last scene in the Sopranos when Harry, Ron and Hermione, fresh from escaping the wedding, sit down in a diner, order coffee and then start wondering about the ominous strangers who enter and pass their table. Of course, unlike David Chase, Rowling didn't leave the scene hanging but lunges directly into the Death Eaters' attack on the trio.
Best line of the book? Viktor Krum's "what's the point of being an internationally famous Quidditch player if all the pretty girls are taken?"
The Battle of Hogwarts was inspiring,with every inch of the castle and its inhabitants rallying to defend the school. I also can't re-read Harry's walk to the forest without choking up.
The taboo on the Unforgiveable Curses broke down, as we see Harry use two of them and McGonagall use the Imperius Curse, although only Mrs. Weasley - justifiably so - is shown, among the good wizards, using the Avada Kedavra curse.
End of the day, does the Potter series stack up against Tolkein's epic? Maybe not quite, although we will need the perspective of time to judge. But I do think the finale amply justifies mentioning it in the same breath.