Like with most enthusiastic Harry Potter fans, I read the entire book over the weekend. Amazon didn’t bother to deliver my copy until 6PM, and extenuating circumstances had left me exhausted, so most of my reading was done on Sunday. I wanted to give myself a few days to digest the book. My personal history suggests that when my excitement and anticipation are high, I cannot help but overlook a lot of errors and general badness on the first run-through. (To wit: I adored The Phantom Menace after the first time I saw it).
It’s been three days, though. Enough for various Biblical characters to arise from the dead, and therefore, enough for me to analyze Harry Potter. The next couple of paragraphs are going to be general statements about the book, the series, and the author. After the break I will have my more detailed thoughts, which will include spoilers. If you haven’t read the book yet, do not proceed past the break.
I really do feel like this is, in many ways, the best book in the series. It’s greatest (and, depending on perspective, only) weakness is a roughly 150 page section in the middle of the book in which there is not much happening. The narrative follows Harry throughout its entirety, and so when he and Ron and Hermione are stuck and frustrated on their mission, the reader must suffer through a seemingly interminable series of chapters devoted to very little action or plot development. This may have been easier to swallow if Rowling spent time with some of the rest of the wizarding world (the students at Hogwarts, the Order of the Phoenix members, Voldemort and his crew). She does not, however, and the book suffers, only slightly, for it.
There have been criticisms regarding Rowling’s prose in this book. Actually, there have been criticisms regarding her prose since the beginning of the series. The main criticism of her prose is that it’s “clunky”. I am uncertain what this means, exactly, except to say that, perhaps, Rowling’s prose is not naturally rhythmic. Personally, I don’t think her prose is any different, in terms of quality, than the other books, and I thought her prose was very good back then, too. It’s an unadorned style of prose, not given to long, fanciful metaphors or asides. It relies, instead, on clarity of thought. Rowling’s biggest gift, as a sentence writer, is to convey very clearly what she means at all times, and to evoke the images and feelings in her writer that the story demands. In some ways, I thought her writing had improved significantly in this book in one respect: regarding action. In Goblet of Fire and especially in The Order of the Phoenix, her actions sequences were confusing and unclear. This final book features more, and grander action scenes than any book previous, and Rowling delivers outstandingly.
Rowling’s greatest strength, overall, is that nature of her imagination. Her creativity is so boundless, and her storytelling so intriguing, that the so-called flaws of her prose are irrelevant. She has created a series for all time–to be treasured alongside The Chronicles of Narnia and The Lord of the Rings. I was asked a number of years ago to describe the Harry Potter series, and the best I could offer was this: Imagine Lord of the Rings, with its vastness, its detail, its magic and wonder; with the wretched might of its villains and grace and courage of its heroes. Now imagine that the story had been written by Roald Dahl, with his own sort of magic, and wit and wonderment; with his touch gentler than JRR Tolkien’s, and more universal. I do not feel like I’m crossing a sacred line or being too generous by comparing Rowling’s work here to Dahl and CS Lewis and Tolkien. She has earned her place within their pantheon.
Harry’s nickname, The Boy Who Lived, is a stunning phrase, and a perfect term to sum up the series. A boy who lives is unremarkable. There are several billion boys on this planet right now. But it is the nature of the series, that something so simple, so ordinary and natural, should hold such magic and charm and allure. The Harry Potter series is not about a lost king or any sort of mythical beast of magic. It’s about an ordinary boy, and that’s what makes everything so extraordinary.
The series is complete, and its completion is as near to perfect as I, for one, could possibly ask.
Final Reminder: There be spoilers below.
A number of writers have pointed out that most of the book’s character development occurs within Albus Dumbledore. This is, largely true, as Dumbledore changes from a benevolent, eccentric old man whose only flaw, perhaps, was a surplus of trust in those around him, to a human, warts and all. We learn that Dumbledore was vain and arrogant and corruptible in his youth, and that as an adult he battled to suppress all these traits, though his failure to do so ultimately led to his death. It’s a fascinating development, and it separates Dumbledore from Merlin (who was either the benevolent wizard or the insane soothsayer, depending on what you’re reading) and Gandalf, whose acts were sometimes flawed, but whose heart and mind were always in the right place.
Another character who develops, out of necessity, is Severus Snape. As with Dumbledore, most of what we learn about we learn through flashbacks after the character is deceased. The question the previous book, The Half-Blood Prince left us with was: was Snape good, or evil? Snape as it turns out, was good, but the extent of that good was unforseeable, and the reasoning behind it–his love for Harry’s mother–a natural fit.
Of course, a number of people have pointed out that this character development is all well and good, but the big three–Harry, Hermione, and Ron–remain static throughout the book. I disagree with this assessment for two reasons. First, I think it’s somewhat unfair to consider the book on its own. It’s the final chapter in a much larger story, so to speak. We know most of what we can know about all of these characters, and Deathly Hallows was always meant to answer questions of story, not those of character. Secondly, I think that Ron and Hermione both undergo slight, subtle changes, and Harry himself undergoes a significant change.
In the first 6 books, Harry was reluctantly thrust into action. He performed bravely, certainly, but his success was often dependent upon Ron and Hermione, as well as his lack of choice: his existence as Harry Potter necessitated his involvement in adventures. Harry didn’t chose to be famous or special, he didn’t put his own name in the Goblet of Fire, and he didn’t chose to recieve the special attentions of Lord Voldemort. He just did, and did the best he could in the circumstances, and with a considerable amount of help from those around him, he usually succeeded.
In this final book, for the first time, really, Harry knows exactly what he must do, and that he and he alone can do it, and he chooses to do what must be done. He walks into the Forbidden Forest, knowing it will cost him his life, in order to defeat Voldemort. After surviving Voldemort once again (thanks to his mother’s love, yet again, says Dumbledore) Harry proceeds to battle Voldemort telling everyone to keep their distance, that this fight is between he and the villain. Throughout his entire life, Harry had been protected–by his parents, by Sirius, by Dumbledore, by Ron and Hermione, by the Order of the Phoenix. For the first time, Harry turns and protects all others around the way he was once protected. Harry comes of age, so to speak. The entire series was remarkable for its ability to transcend children and adult literature, but for the first time, Harry assumes the mantle of an adult. He becomes truly and directly responsible for not only himself, but for everyone around him, and the moment is as powerful and touching as any in the series.
As a final note, my favorite secondary character in the series has long been Neville Longbottom. Ever since he stood up to Ron and Harry in The Chamber of Secrets, and was awarded 10 feel-good House points from Dumbledore for standing up to his friends (thus winning the House cup for Gryffindor) I have been a big fan. Will Leitch, I believe, wrote that he was disappointed that Neville didn’t have the chance to avenge his parents torturing. Personally, I appreciate that he did not. Neville would be tarnished by such an act of hatred and vengeance. Instead, I think, it’s appropriate that, with Harry presumed dead, in the face of total defeat, it is Neville Longbottom who steps forward first, and detroys the final Horcrux–the snake Nagini–with a swift stroke of Godric Gryffindor’s sword. It is a penultimate glory–naturally, the show would shortly thereafter be stolen by Harry–but it is a glory nonetheless for Neville, and one he certainly earned.
I’m still in a bit of post-Potter depression. The series was outstanding, and I’m sad to see it end, even while I’m thrilled in the way it did. It’s a beautifully told story, and I’m glad to have experienced it.