Friday, July 27, 2007

A Good Ending: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

Can't believe it's only been a week since the seventh & last Harry Potter book finally made its official public appearance. Maybe it seems much longer because I wasn't able to post an immediate reaction upon finishing it - I read the book in a day, on the first day, but because I was on my way to Honoulu for a short vacation I didn't get a chance to put my thoughts in writing until today.

In sum: it's not the best of the Harry Potter books, as I was secretly hoping it would be. (That honor still belongs to Prisoner of Azkaban, with Goblet of Fire and Half-Blood Prince tied for a close second.) But it's a worthy ending to the saga, and stays true to the spirit that Rowling's nourished all along in the previous six books. I hesitate to call the series an extended morality tale, yet that is basically what it is. Its morals are nothing we haven't seen before, and nothing that the world outside fiction doesn't cause us to doubt on a daily basis, but in our innermost hearts most of us still yearn for them to be true: that love is stronger than hate; that good outlasts and conquers evil, at a hefty price, but one that's never too high to pay; that there are greater things to fear than death (namely, the loss of one's soul); and most importantly, lest you think all of these too simplistic, that every person has the capacity for both good and evil in them, and how one turns out is ultimately an individual choice. It's an essential part of J.K. Rowling's genius that she's able to make these old maxims fresh and compelling by weaving them into a nail-biting, white-knuckled page-turner. She teaches not by preaching what everyone above the age of six knows already, but by showing the narrative consequences of one's moral choices - and making the reader care about those consequences.

There's a cost to this mission that, not surprisingly, makes itself most felt in the last book. Rowling brings so much emphasis to the moral dimension in The Deathly Hallows that it sometimes buckles a little under the weight. Apart from an occasional flash of wry humor, book 7 is almost completely lacking in the element of fun that made its equally dense predecessors so compulsively addictive. TDH is also more than a little overplotted: having found a very good idea and intriguing symbol for the splintering of the Dark Lord's soul in the Horcruxes, Rowling can't leave well enough alone and must introduce another set of death-defying objects called the Hallows.

She also puts in too many almost-gotcha moments with Voldemort and Harry and too many obstacle-course plot threads for the Harry-Ron-Hermione trio that feel more like detours than progressions. (The break-in to the Ministry of Magic, for instance, is a bit dull, and come on, did we really need to see Dolores Umbridge again?) And describing wizarding duels and battles, while perhaps unavoidable in this last book, is emphatically not where Rowling's strengths as a writer lie; I'd much rather read about "Potterwatch" - the funny, lively underground radio broadcast that carries on the good fight when Voldemort's forces have taken over every other form of wizarding media - than about the Order of the Phoenix and the Death Eaters trading jets of red and green for the umpteenth time. Also, apparently the Unforgivable Curses are forgivable when the good guys use them, something I didn't like so much.

What ultimately allows Deathly Hallows to triumph over these flaws is its sheer heart - its recognition that we care so much about what happens to these characters because they care so much about what happens to each other. Not to themselves, but to their loved ones. To Harry. And for Harry: to those who would sacrifice themselves for him, and who did and do sacrifice themselves for him. What book 7 shows is nobility without pride - nobility that seeks no personal recognition, and is therefore all the more worthy of it.

I can't say much more without giving away crucial plot points, so if you haven't finished reading, stop now. If you have, scroll down.




You are now warned.

Ha ha, how spot-on was I about Snape, Dumbledore, and Lily Potter? The text of book 6 laid it out really quite clearly, as I pointed out in my analysis of Half-Blood Prince and my predictions for book 7. But more on Snape in a moment.

It's a curious thing that I did not find myself especially torn up by any of the deaths in the book, except perhaps Dobby's. Moody's happened too soon (and anyway we never really got to know the "real" Moody); Lupin's and Tonks' happened completely offstage, and even poor Fred...well, maybe anything would have seemed anticlimactic after Sirius and Dumbledore. As for Snape, his death was necessary, I would even say fated.

I had a feeling Ron and Hermione would both make it when I saw the book was almost over and they still hadn't gotten together.

The big death of book 7, of course, was - or should have been - Harry's. In a sense, Rowling cheated. I'm not sure I fully buy the reasoning behind why having Harry's blood in him meant Voldemort couldn't kill Harry (though that general idea was pretty heavily foreshadowed at the end of Goblet of Fire). The fact that Harry's willingness to die played a part in his survival reminded me of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and in fact once Harry girded up his resolve to die and I saw there were still a couple of fat chapters to go, I vaguely suspected there would be an "out" of this kind. But I'm so glad I didn't peek at the last page to find out - it made the suspense that much more gripping. And I won't quibble with Rowling having her cake and eating it too, because it means we the readers can, too. Both sides of the "does Harry die?" debate won. Those who predicted he had to die because he was one of Voldemort's Horcruxes were right; and those who predicted he would live were also, as it turns out, right. Drinks all around!

In contrast, the "do we trust Snape?" debate had only one answer, and I'm immensely relieved and happy it was the one I was hoping for. I think "The Prince's Tale" was the strongest chapter in the book, as "Snape's Worst Memory" was in Order of the Phoenix. And I'm not just saying that because it confirmed all of my predictions. Snape, hands down, is the best character in the series. It's no coincidence that the three most poignant moments in book 7, for me anyway, all involved him:

1. (After Snape casts his Patronus for Dumbledore, revealing it's Lily)
"After all this time?"
"Always," said Snape.

2. When Dumbledore praises Snape's courage and tells him "You know, I sometimes think we Sort too soon," leaving Snape looking "stricken." Makes you wonder, just for a moment, "what if"...What if Snape had been in Gryffindor?...

3. In the Epilogue, when Harry tells his son he was "named for two headmasters of Hogwarts. One of them was a Slytherin and he was probably the bravest man I ever knew."

The Epilogue was cute, but it didn't really tie up the loose threads I was wondering about. What careers did Harry, Ron, and Hermione end up pursuing? (Neville becoming a professor was a nice touch.) What happened to the Dursleys? Who became guardian to Lupin's son?

Also, something I never thought about before but suddenly thought to wonder about - how in hell did Pettigrew/Wormtail ever end up being in Gryffindor? That's got to be the Sorting Hat's worst decision in Hogwarts history, as far as I can tell. "Daring, nerve, and chivalry" - yeah, right.

But, in the end, these are all just details. What matters most - as Rowling realized - is who loved whom, and who passed on that legacy of love and friendship. It's kind of interesting that even the Malfoys, without ever really redeeming themselves, survived because in the end they cared more about each other than about power or ambition. Love doesn't necessarily make heroes out of the weak or flawed, but it does make them human...and that makes all the difference.


Blogger Brooke Cloudbuster said...


I agree with you on all counts. I personally thought that "The Prince's Tale" was the best written chapter of the entire series. I can only hope that it translates well to the film version.

I predicted Snape being a good guy, but not the 'Lily' part of that. It was a very pleasant reveal!

However, I learnt about the 'Nineteen Years Later' thing by checking the last page to check how many pages there were. Never doing -that- again.

9:50 PM  
Blogger lylee said...

The Prince's Tale will probably end up being very edited down for the film, alas. I'm actually a little afraid that book 7 generally won't transfer well to film, because of the way it's structured. But maybe it's more because I'm having difficulty picturing Maggie Smith waving a wand around, casting CGI spells and "thundering after" Alan Rickman.

10:28 PM  
Blogger wirelessben2 said...

I read the book a little more slowly. I had only been watching the movies, but after viewing the Half Blood Prince, I was wanting more answers. I read the whole series in the course of a month.
The movies never explain who the Marauder's Map makers really are without paying extremely strict attention. I had to go back and rewatch the movies just to confirm who Padfoot was. I had to guess that Prongs was James Potter, but no one ever mentions it in the films. I also don't understand the scene in the movie of "Prisoner of Azkaban" where Snape finds Harry with the map, but doesn't seem to recognize the names on it, which he would clearly know having been tormented by the group. He hands the map to Lupin, who says it's a Zonko product. I suppose it could have been a Zonko product from Lupin and Snape's time at Hogwarts, but Snape would have known automatically that there was no Dark magic involved. The movies don't explain Harry's patronus of a Stag either. I guess because Harry thought his dad saved him that we were supposed to know it represented his love for his father.

I always believed Snape to be on Dumbledore's side; however, it wasn't until his final words, "Look... at... me," that I realized it was Harry's mom that Snape loved.

As far as your statement on Wormtail, he was brave, but on the wrong side. I thought it was rather daring to be the first death eater to return to Voldemort and to cut off a hand to save a weak and dying master. Remember that Voldemort would not have returned to power if it had not been for Peter Pettigrew. Of course, Voldemort claims his return was out of fear not loyalty. Since Wormtail was saving his own neck, he seems to be more Slytherin. Perhaps Dumbledore's comment of sorting too soon can apply to both Snape and Pettigrew.
I rather wondered if Hermione should have been a Ravenclaw considering how much knowledge she had.

The movie "Half Blood Prince" didn't explain why Snape called himself the Half Blood Prince, so I had to read about that. Anyway, I really enjoyed Chapter 33 , and reread it several times, imagining the movie cast saying the lines. I really hope the movie covers this chapter well. Alan Rickman has been superb, and I'm excited to see his performance.

I too was disappointed about knowing which careers the trio ended up with. Since Harry had been the teacher of the D.A., I thought it would have been nice for him to become the DADA teacher, and maybe even headmaster later; however, I think Rowling is letting us assume Harry became an Auror. It's obvious that none of them work at Hogwarts. Hermione wanted to do something to make the world a better place. Perhaps she runs a charitable, nonprofit organization. Ron had mentioned becoming an Auror as well. Maybe he even works at the Ministry in another department.

Other things left unanswered: We don't know how Lily fell in love with James. We don't know why Peter betrayed his friends and became a death eater.

1:54 PM  

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