[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.
Labels: Review: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Ages 11-Adult)