By J.K. Rowling. Published in 2007.
I enjoyed the first Harry Potter book when I first read it years ago, back in college. The characters were charming, the details were immersive, and the chapter in which Harry first encountered the Mirror of Erised, which revealed his deepest wish—to be part of a loving family—moved me to tears. Just one thing bothered me: the starkly black-and-white nature of Harry’s world. Harry’s dead parents were saintly, and his living guardians were horrible. Gryffindor was good, and Slytherin was evil. Professor Dumbledore was infallible and invariably benevolent, and Professor Snape was treacherous and invariably malicious. As much as I enjoyed Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, I never forgot that I was reading a children’s book.
So one of the real delights of the series has been the way J.K. Rowling has further complicated the first book’s easy morality with each successive book. At first I thought she was just becoming a better writer, but it seems clear to me now that the progression was deliberate. The morality of the first book is simple and childish because we are seeing the world through 11-year-old Harry’s eyes. As Harry grows older and more mature, the books—and the readers—mature along with him. Idolized heroes fall from their pedestals, and demonized villains reveal hidden virtues. The world grows murkier, and Harry and his friends face greater challenges as they struggle to find the right path amid the fog.
Often unsettling and tragic, the seventh and final book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, is a fitting conclusion to the series. The saga revisits such adult themes as duty and identity and such disturbingly contemporary themes as censorship and corruption, torture and terror. It reveals the full extent of Dumbledore’s weakness and Snape’s integrity, and, pivotally and more unexpectedly, it requires Harry to make a fateful decision about which grail to pursue: the Horcruxes, which might fatally weaken Voldemort but require a great personal sacrifice, or the Deathly Hallows, which might allow Harry to master death, overpower Voldemort, and become an omnipotent wizard—all for the greater good, to be sure.
Of course Harry is a mythic hero—we know which quest he will follow in the end, though the other does hold its temptations—but Dumbledore, we learn, might not always have been so strong, and Snape may always have had Harry’s best interests at heart in a way that Dumbledore never did.
I do wish that Deathly Hallows could have granted us more time with Snape, perhaps the most intriguing character in the series. The one big Snape-centric chapter was tantalizing, rich with the kind of detail that makes you reconsider scenes from the earlier books—chief among these his “worst memory” as described in the fifth book, Order of the Phoenix. That worst memory, which he tried to hide from Harry, was an ugly episode from his schooldays, when Harry’s father, James, and godfather, Sirius, tormented Snape mercilessly. The memory was disturbing for Harry, who was shocked to realize he identified and sympathized more with his despised professor than his idolized father, but it left me confused. Was this really Snape’s worst memory? It seemed upsetting, yes, but hardly so traumatic as to qualify as his worst.
Deathly Hallows reveals that the bullying was not the point. That day was the worst of Snape’s life because, in his humiliation, he deeply insulted the girl he had adored since they were both children. He called his dearest friend a Mudblood and thus forever lost the affection and respect of Lily Evans, Harry’s mother.
Snape’s enduring love for Lily is unrequited and perhaps twisted, but it inspires the best in him, just as love inspires the best in Harry and his compatriots. Ultimately, love—and Voldemort’s inability to understand it—is what allows Harry to defeat the dark wizard. That confrontation is predictable, in a narrow sense, but beautiful, too. I’ve always had a weakness for the eloquent wisdom of Rowling’s denouements—Dumbledore’s lesson on self-determination in Chamber of Secrets or Nearly Headless Nick’s heartbreaking explanation of the finality of death in Order of the Phoenix—and Deathly Hallows lives up to that with a final poetic image: Harry choosing to use the all-powerful Elder Wand not to conquer but to repair his own wand, his own humanity, so that he can set aside the corruptive influence of omnipotence.
It could have ended there, and I sort of wish it had. Rowling’s epilogue—“Nineteen Years Later”—is uncharacteristically cloying and, as Sean put it, rather like fanfiction in its insistence on marrying everyone off and giving them children named after the dearly departed. What’s more, the epilogue is unnecessary, underlining themes and relationships that have been handled better and with greater delicacy earlier in the book.
But even if those final few pages are disappointing, the rest of the book is a delight, by turns amusing, disturbing, nerve-wracking, and touching. Without the familiar framework of the school year, it rambles some, but Rowling’s sumptuously textured universe—bolstered by admirable attention to continuity—makes those digressions worthwhile. I still marvel at how she calls back to seemingly superfluous details as far back as the first book, rewarding obsessive readers who remember and mentally catalog such minutiae.
Better still, virtually every character in the series makes at least a cameo appearance, from the terrifyingly sadistic Dolores Umbridge to the endearingly idiosyncratic Luna Lovegood to the hapless, good-hearted Dobby, whose sudden death and simple epitaph (“Here lies Dobby, a free elf”) left me reaching for Kleenex.
Dobby isn’t the only one to die, of course. Numerous characters meet violent ends—often shockingly sudden and seemingly pointless, which makes those deaths, I think, poignantly true to life. (I have always admired Rowling’s decision to sidestep dulce et decorum est–style melodrama.) No doubt some people are cleaning up in Harry Potter death-pools as some characters met their expected ends (Lupin, for example, and one of the Weasley twins) and some anticipated victims survived (Hagrid, for one, and Harry himself—sort of).
But I think the incessant speculation about How It Will End and Who Will Die obscured much of the real value of the books. The Harry Potter books are special not because they’re suspenseful (though they can be) but because they take us to such a beautifully imagined world and introduce us to such winning characters, whose relationships and struggles and triumphs are recognizable and relatable, even in a fantasy setting.
At this point, we know Harry and Hermione and Ron and the rest. We’ve grown up with them and seen them at their worst and at their very best, so watching Neville come into his own, and Ron save Harry, and Hermoine explain her efforts to protect her parents—that is the real attraction of the novel. Deathly Hallows is as much a farewell to old friends as it as mythic climax, and for that reason, maybe I can forgive the epilogue. It might be silly, but at least it gave me one last chance to say good-bye.