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HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS
2007

Book cover art by Mary GrandPré (left).
Review © 2007 by Thomas M. Wagner.
AUTHOR'S SITE

So does he die? What are you asking me for? What does this look like — one of those lamer fanboy spoiler sites, where idiots can't wait to ruin everybody's reading experience? Never you fear, folks. This will be a spoiler-free review. After all, none of us has followed this series for a solid decade unless we've enthusiastically looked forward to savoring the climax to the fullest. But does the book deliver on the almost inconceivably high expectations of the fans? After all, we're talking a legion of fans. There are probably several small countries peppered across the globe whose populations are dwarfed by the sum total of worldwide Harry Potter fandom. Can J. K. Rowling possibly please every last one of them?

Well, I can't speak to that. But I think she will please damn near all of them. With so many loose threads to tie together, so many secrets to reveal and prophecies to fulfill, so many destinies and fates to mete out, Rowling (and this may be the Understatement of 2007) has her work cut out for her. Deathly Hallows is, I will be the first to admit, hardly the smoothest entry in the series. Its narrative is not nearly as cleanly structured as those of the series' two best books, Goblet of Fire and Order of the Phoenix. For its first half, it's surprisingly talky and propelled mostly by exposition, leaving the action and suspense to kick in — and boy, does it kick in — in the second half. It also has dry stretches and an epilogue that I found utterly superfluous in the same way I found the modern-day framing story in the film Saving Private Ryan superfluous.

But what the roughly five zillion fans of these books want to see is the whole thing end in an explosive spectacle. And to this duty Rowling rises to the occasion. The final 150 pages of Deathly Hallows virtually obliterated the nitpicks I had with one thing or another in the chapters leading up to them. When I closed the book, all I could think was, "Now that's how you end a fantasy series."

It's not as if Rowling is alone among fantasy writers who have written satisfying series climaxes. But it is hard to do when the stakes are so high, and with this book she joins the rarified ranks of those who've succeeded. Much of her success here has to do with those very stakes. People don't pack bookstores by the millions for just anything, and while a lot of that can be attributed to aggressive industry promotion — bookstores have to be willing to stay open till midnight to have midnight sales, after all — most of it is directly due to what Rowling has brought to the table as a storyteller. Harry Potter has connected with so many fans because Rowling, in undertaking every writer's goal of universal accessibility and appeal, managed to hit the sweet spot.

Harry speaks to readers because his story, for all its fantasy trappings, is, in the final analysis, simply about growing up. It's about that rite of passage from childhood to adulthood that we all must undertake. And while few of us make that passage with evil magical dark lords trying to kill us, what we all have to do is come to terms with the evils of the world. Childhood is idealized, however inaccurately, as a time of blissful innocence in which we are given a buffer between us and the harsh realities of the adult world, with its war, violence, crime, terrorism, political duplicity, and never-ending hard-scrabble to keep your head above water. During adolescence that buffer doesn't merely break down, it is expected to break down. Adults who attempt to hang on to whatever romanticized notion of childhood innocence they may idealize aren't just not admired, they're mocked as no-hopers. Whereas there's nothing more pleasing to most people than to see a happy child in doe-eyed ignorance of the harshness of adult life, to those same people, an adult who lived his life that way would be ridiculed, and rightly so, as a manchild who refuses to grow up.

When readers see themselves in Harry, or Ron or Hermoine, it isn't just fannish Mary Sue wish fulfillment. What they see, I think, are characters who are bravely taking the reins of adulthood and its horrible but unavoidable responsibilities, something we have all had to do whether we've done it well or not. In their journey, Rowling's heroic trio have the requisite parental figures who both guide them and shield them, the latter often mistakenly but out of genuine love all the same. The cruelest lesson they (and we) must face is that summed up before his death by Warren Zevon: Life'll kill ya. But you keep going all the same. Because there's nothing we have to cherish more. As Harry himself is advised here, when faced with the reality of death in ways he cannot turn a blind eye to, "Do not pity the dead, Harry. Pity the living, and, above all, those who live without love.... There are far, far worse things in the living world than dying." And when Harry asks, quite understandably, "Why did you have to make it so difficult?"...well, because it is.

Rowling faced a daunting challenge with this story, but I admired how she steps up to the plate. The book's narrative structure is not, as I mentioned, always entirely even. But I think she drew an excellent balance between meeting fan expectations and conveying a carefully mounted narrative allowing her to pace her reveals and deliver the necessary shocks and surprises in satisfying fashion. Yes, it does feel like it takes the whole thing a while to get going. An early wedding scene is a nice "calm before the storm" touch, but goes on longer than it needs to.

The story really kicks in when Ron, Hermoine and Harry find themselves on the run, after Voldemort and his Death Eaters wholly take over the wizarding world, installing a compliant puppet as Minister of Magic and putting a bounty on the head of the Boy Who Lived as "Undesirable #1". But our heroes do not remain passive simply because they're fugitives. They continue to seek the Horcruxes, the magical items in which Voldemort has hidden fragments of his soul. They mount a bravura raid upon the Ministry of Magic itself to free wizards and witches of "mixed blood." A brilliant sequence, it also draws a direct parallel between Voldemort's rule and that of a certain failed Austrian painter. Also, their weeks on the lam add a very palpable and believable strain to their relationships. Harry must also face some possibly discomfiting truths about his mentor Dumbledore, and whether or not the headmaster was the paragon of goodness and right Harry thought he knew. Fans have loved these three kids for six books, but here Rowling lets us get closer to them than she's ever done.

Without spoiling anything, I'll just say that the resolution is something of a tour de force. Rowling knew full well going into this story that readers would have a monstrous list of questions. Here she brings her talents for surprise and confounding preconceptions to the fore. Some twists at the very end that, in the hands of a lesser writer, would have easily been bungled and come off as pitiful cheats, are handled by Rowling with impressive dexterity. I was put in mind of another series climax, C. S. Lewis's The Last Battle, a book that attempts to do much the same thing that Rowling does in Deathly Hallows: immerse its characters in pure evil but provide a means of redemption. Lewis's book, however, is a confused jumble — with a story that is simply ugly, violent, and racist — whose ending is a perfect cheat because it's a mere deus ex machina that's unearned by the efforts of the characters. As a result, The Last Battle (and the whole Narnia series, come to that) is worth reading less for its actual story than as a psychologically compelling window into the conflicted mind of its author. Rowling gives Deathly Hallows the kind of ending that the Narnia series should have had. (Except, it must be said, for that damn epilogue. It reads like HP fan fiction!)

And that's because the main theme here has to do with duty and sacrifice, what one is willing to do for (and this is a phrase that pops up quite a lot) the "greater good". It's a question that decides the difference between Harry and Voldemort, and the ultimate resolution of their battle. True, there may seem something Aslan-like in Harry when you think about it. But Harry makes choices, and does the things he does because he's learning, struggling, and very human, rather than being just a convenient metaphor for some unattainable divine ideal.

I'll leave it at that, and say no more. A literary event that has secured its immortality in the genre to stand alongside Tolkien, Lewis, Susan Cooper, and a small handful of other giants, has come to a close worthy of its legacy. Fans may find the experience of this book shocking, exhausting, often too full of sadness to want to go on, but also uplifting, hopeful, and deeply missed once it's over. But that's just like a process we all go through in our lives, isn't it? There's even a term for it.

Click here for the Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Forum thread, where you can put in your two pennies regarding the saga's finale, and which, I caution you, is a spoiler-permitted venue.