Sunday, July 22, 2007

It Is Finished: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J. K. Rowling - A Review

[Note: If you have not read the book yet and don't want to know what happens in it, read the first and last paragraphs of this review only.]

I have it on good authority that internet traffic was unusually low yesterday, presumably as millions and millions of people worked their way through the 750 pages of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. And it is work. I started the book at 1:00 a.m. on July 21, and, admittedly taking time out to sleep a bit and eat and converse a bit, I finished it at 11:20 p.m. As expected, it is a long and complex book in a long and complex series, a book which will doubtless be read by many children, but which nevertheless is a book which, although cast in a metaphor common to children's fiction, is a piece of literature for the mature mind as well.

As the novel begins with Lily's protective spell on Privet Drive about to expire on Harry's seventeen birthday, Severus Snape enters Voldemort's war room in Lucius Malfoy's home, confirming that he has indeed been the Death Eater's mole within Hogwarts, to reveal the secret plans of the Order of the Phoenix to take Harry from the Dursley house and into one of the Order's safe houses. As Harry survives their attack and is reunited with Hermione, Ron and the other Weasleys, and the Order of the Phoenix, he learns that Voldemort's Death Eaters are in control of the Ministry of Magic and of Hogwarts, with Snape as headmaster, and their attack upon the magical and muggle world has brutally begun.

After the flurry of tension around Harry's arrival at the Weasley's Burrow, the narrative proceeds slowly, rather like a penny in one of those coin vortexes, in which the penny rotates slowly and vertically at first, picking up velocity as it slants into the narrow opening and makes its inevitable drop. Harry understands that to overcome Voldemort, he must destroy the final four known Horcruxes which encapsule parts of Voldemort's soul and thereby prevent his final death. Two of these, the ring of Gaunt and the Slytherin locket, have already been taken from their secret hiding places, and Harry, Hermione, and Ron choose not to return to Hogwarts so that they may find and destroy the remaining four.

The middle portion of the novel finds the three friends wandering in their own Wasteland as they seek clues to the meaning and location of the remaining Horcruxes. Harry particularly is torn between singlemindedly hunting down the Horcruxes or pursuing the legendary deathly hallows, the unconquerable Elder Wand, the Resurrection Stone, and the Cloak of Invisibility, the last of which he already possesses, the three which, if united, can conquer Death. Death for Harry is a real possibility with the Prophecy revealed near the end of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Gradually, as Harry comes into possession of the Sword of Gryffindor, he comes to understand that it is only through the destruction of the Horcruxes that Voldemort's reign can ever be brought to an end.

With those tasks near completion, Harry secretly witnesses Voldemort murder Snape to gain the ultimate power of the Elder Wand. With Hermione's help, he gathers Snape's dying memories and in Dumbledore's Pensieve those thoughts reveal the story of Snape's complex relationship with Harry's parents, with Dumbledore, and with Harry. Harry fearfully understands at last that he himself is the seventh Horcrux, that his strange connection with Voldemort's mind is real, the evidence that a piece of Voldemort's soul indeed has been part of Harry since Lily's death. This revelation means that in order for Voldemort and the evil within him to end, Harry must die. In an ironic extension of the Prophecy, it is only when Harry is obliterated by Voldemort's hand that the final Horcrux can cease to exist, allowing Voldemort to die as well.

How to judge this huge work as a piece of literature? My first reaction was that the book should have ended on page 704. In a way it did, emotionally and thematically. The following two chapters and Rowling's final "Nineteen Years Later" are essentially epilogue to the grand theme of the series, that of the power of loving sacrifice in the ongoing struggle of good and evil. Here in Harry's first ironic take on his fate lies the heart of Harry's decision:

[Harry] had never questioned his own assumption that Dumbledore wanted him alive. Now he saw that his life span had always been determined by how long it took to eliminate all the Horcruxes. Dumbledore had passed the job of destroying them to him, and obediently he had continued to chip away at the bonds tying not only Voldemort, but himself, to life. How neat, how elegant, not to waste any more lives, but to give the dangerous task to the boy who had already been marked for slaughter, and whose death would not be a calamity, but another blow against Voldemort.

And Dumbledore had known that Harry would not duck out, that he would keep going to the end, even though it was his end, because he had taken trouble to get to know him, hadn't he? Dumbledore knew, as Voldemort knew, that Harry would not let anyone else die for him now that he had discovered it was in his power to stop it.

The question of the last chapters will no doubt be debated by literary scholars for some time to come. In the chapter "King's Cross" Rowling gives Dumbledore a chance to redeem himself in the eyes of the reader and in the final "Flaw in the Plan" an opportunity for a "reborn" Harry to offer a chance at remorse to Voldemort and allow the evil one to die ironically by his own hand. Some will say that the matter of these two chapters should have been written earlier in the narrative line, and perhaps they should.

With all the quibbles--about exposition and selectivity and character development-- which inevitably will come, what will be the place of Harry Potter in literature? I can't know, but I can say that no series has managed to bring together so many threads and influences from earlier literature into one comprehensive popular work the way J. K. Rowling has done. Rowling's books are almost primers for English children's literature in the widest sense, combining as they do allusions to folklore, the quest novel, religious allegory and miracle plays, the British fantasy tradition, mythology, the bildungsroman, touches of the humor of boarding school stories, Twain and Dickens, and all that steady stream that flows from Tolkien and Lewis through Cooper and LeGuin. And with that contribution Rowling has earned her place.



  • Thanks for this. It must have been a lot of work.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 3:24 PM  

  • I was lucky enough to buy a copy early FRIDAY morning, at a newstand in a train station from a seller who hadn't a clue about waiting to midnight, and I wasn't about to tell him. I felt like I'd won the lottery! I read throughout the day (when I didn't have to work) and finished at 3 a.m. completely satisfied.

    I disagree about not needing the last three chapters, and especially the epilogue. It absolutely fits with the style of the six previous books, and her ideas of what is best about life and love.

    I'm grateful to have had the Harry Potter experience as it happened, and will never forget it. I don't think there will ever be anything like it again.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 5:27 PM  

  • Not to piss on anyone's parade, but the excerpt posted above is a reminder of why I could never get into the Potter series: the flat, turgid prose. Compare it to any page of Baum's "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz" -- it is to weep.
    800-plus pages of that, and another fantasy coming-of-age tale to boot? Shew!

    By Anonymous solidstate, at 7:54 PM  

  • As a story the Harry Potter series has been above average, but I'd have to say that The Half-Blood Prince and the Deathly Hallows volumes are not anywhere close to the quality of the first 3 books. This was most noticable in Deathly Hallows which dragged in the middle for nearly 400 pages, as we alternated between a short and usually bloodly encounter between Harry and some death eaters, and then a long interlude with Harry and his friends agonizing over their next move.
    And this covers months of time in the story as well. For someone who needs to get a job done Harry spends far to many chapters pondering his next move, while time passes and friends of his are hurt, or murdered.

    It felt like J.K. was forced to write this far to quickly and she didn't get a chance to really look at it and realize just how overdone the prose was and how tired the story becomes.

    I like the series, but was not impressed with the last bood. It was definitely more of a disappointment.

    By Anonymous mvargus, at 8:14 PM  

  • If people are willing to pay for prose that fails to challenge them, then why should an author knock herself out? A really good book represents the blood and struggle of an author. It is hard to write really good prose.

    If you know whatever you write will be lapped up like cream, and you're already wealthier than sin, what's the point of struggle?

    By Anonymous Reddy, at 8:31 PM  

  • Dear mvargus and reddy,

    Many other readers, including this one, were disappointed with the overlong midsection of this book. There were evidently P.R. pressures to turn the books out on their own publication schedules, but since the books will be out there for a long time into the future, I wish Rowling had taken more time to tighten up some of the writing.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 8:46 PM  

  • I enjoyed the book, but agreed that it dragged somewhat in the middle.

    My comment has to do with some word choices by the author. Why did she need to use the b*tch word near the end? While I know it added impact to the event, I thought it was unnecessary. In addition, hell was used a few times. Having read all the books multiple times, I don't remember their use earlier in the series, and don't know why they needed to be used in the final book.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 9:37 PM  

  • I just finished it too.

    I'm glad I am not the only one to notice that the midsection was paunchy. In truth, that bit was so bad it nearly had me turning to the Internet for spoilers.

    What made it worse was how Rowling tortured me by relating all the hijinx that Longbottom and others were getting up to at Hogwarts while Potter & Co were sitting in the woods moping. Crucio!

    It did get a lot better, though. And I have no problem with the end. Seriously. Good luck finding another author who can write such gripping magical battle scenes.

    By Blogger Zimri, at 10:16 PM  

  • Rowling's mid-section bloat seems to be the primary criticism of this book. That's why I called it a "Wasteland." (English majors will get the joke.)

    Still, not many authors even try to sustain such a vast world through such a long series. (Shakespeare only did ONE Hamlet story.) I imagine fantasy is both easier and harder than realistic fiction to sustain over such a long haul: there are fewer limits on what happens, of course, but you can't rely on the usual hooks (steamy scenes, "real" death, etc.) to keep the readers glued to the page because they know the magic can't really intrude on their world.

    Time alone will tell what place these books will have, but for having given us all these years with an absorbing series filled with fun, a big theme (THE theme of human life, after all) and a all-too-human hero to deal with it, I say give the author our respectful thanks.

    By Blogger GTC, at 8:08 AM  

  • Regarding Molly's description of Bellatrix: Molly is about to kill Bellatrix, who deserves it more than anyone but Voldemort and Umbridge. You want her to speak with Umbridge's honeyed tongue?

    As far as the middle of the book: I have no problem with the length; it's an interesting yarn. I do have a problem with unanswered questions ("REMEMBER MY LAST, PETUNIA").

    But I have a bigger problem with people who prefer their complete thoughts diced small into a bad imitation of Hemingway. Rowling uses plenty of short sentences, especially in spontaneous dialog. But when someone is reflective, don't long sentences better express the character? I build compound sentences when I reflect; don't you?

    Reading educated prose in a story is a pleasure; when it sparkles as Rowling's does it's even better. And when the ideas outstrip the prose, it's a joy. The entry guard for the Ravenclaw dormitory is a perfect example: the other dorms use passwords, but to be a Ravenclaw you must know how to use your brain. You must answer a question put to you.

    Go back and read the very first sentence of Book 1. Consider the polite, perfect sneer it carries and the large bundle of social and cultural attitudes it expresses. This may be for children, but it is not a children's book.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 10:29 PM  

  • I disagree. I liked the bits where they hadn't a clue what they were doing. It was realistic for once. and I enjoyed the way we knew what was going on in Hogwarts and the "outside world". I actually loved the whole book, and while I agree that half Blood prince and bits of The order of the phoenix were boring, this never was.

    By Blogger valentina, at 4:46 PM  

  • Re the critic who described Neville's and Luna's desperate battle against the Death Eaters' control over Hogwarts as "hijinx" [sic]. These were deadly serious fights to the death against Voldemort, as courageous as what The Three were doing during this period! Sorry he/she missed the fun and games, but dealing with evil can't be made into fun!

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 12:27 PM  

  • Who decides which books get press (Harry Potter) and which get censored? After all, censorship is becoming America's favorite past-time. The US gov't (and their corporate friends), already detain protesters, ban books like "America Deceived" from Amazon and Wikipedia, shut down Imus and fire 21-year tenured, BYU physics professor Steven Jones because he proved explosives, thermite in particular, took down the WTC buildings. Free Speech forever (especially for books).
    Last link (before Google Books caves to pressure and drops the title):
    America Deceived (Book)

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 12:00 PM  

  • I found the midsection pretty boring too. I enjoyed the school scene, with classes etc.

    I really do like the twist on Severus though.

    "I trust him" when Harry asked Dumbledore.

    Then hes killed, which turns out to be COMPLETELY planned.

    Plus, the Doe patronus was his.

    But yes, the middle of the book, was really dragged out.

    it was 150 pages of really good plotlines, 200 pages of boredom with a couple interesting parts, then a good ending.

    and they killed off all my favourite characters (Remus, Sirius,(yes that was in book 5, I meant the series as a whole) Tonks, Mad-Eye Moody, and even one of the Weasley twins (they were great in book 5.) but thats minus the point.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 8:15 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home