HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS
By J.K. Rowling
Arthur A. Levine Books, 759 pages, $34.99
Nowadays, the story of the boy and his author is as familiar as the Nativity. Harry Potter, the unloved orphan with the weird-ass scar, turns out to be not just a wizard but—for reasons he can barely recall—one of the most famous wizards in the whole wide wizarding world. And thanks to hundreds of millions of books bought, read and loved, J.K. Rowling, once dowdy and grouchy and broke, is now as prettily patrician as a Redgrave sister, and richer than the royals.
Another chapter of gospel, before we anti-climax into the series’ seventh and final volume, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, which is busy selling out of every store: None of the adjectives that spring immediately to mind—bold, ballsy, plain nuts—quite do justice to the single mum with the £1,500 advance who declared from the outset that she would write seven volumes, no more, no less. Especially considering that the first two books—despite introducing us to all sorts of little miracles and various soon-to-be old friends—were really just Roald Dahl for dumb kids.
But for her next couple of tricks, she produced The Prisoner of Azkaban, which is nearly perfect, and then The Goblet of Fire, logging in at 733 self-indulgent, delightful, distressing pages. Fans lamented that 79 of those were wasted at the Quidditch World Cup, dozens on a elf rewrite of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and another 30 or so on who-snogged-who gossip from the Yule Ball, but there were throughout many things to cry or laugh about, not least of all Macbeth’s Weird Sisters, who show up here as a band.
Nobody, for the record, really believes that mountaineering accidents are due, more often than not, to the malice of giants; that a more accurate weather report would take into account wizarding politics; that the right brick pressed on a pub’s back wall will yield the magic equivalent of an outdoor mall and that the right address properly memorized will cause an entire brownstone to bloom up in the crevice between two others. Not one of us is under the illusion that Newton’s laws or Einstein’s relativities can be subverted by 11-year-olds wielding shitty Latin and wooden sticks.
Nonetheless, we need an explanation more convincing than “entertainment value” for the many drinking-age-to-midlife-crisis readers cradling their copies of Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows against the lurch of the subway. Their numbers prove that we never outgrow our desire to believe, or at least to have our disbeliefs suspended. Of course we don’t. Otherwise, adolescent artisans would have carved the stones at Angkor Wat, and the papacy would pass from preteen to preteen, like membership in Menudo. The Crusades would have all been Children’s. Which, in the Potter books, they always are.
But whether Jesus or any bodhisattvas were magician enough to merit their very own Chocolate Frog Witch and Wizard trading cards, Ms. Rowling has never thought to mention. Don’t let the absence here of a sorcerer’s theology or C.S. Lewis-style allegory throw you off. Even the most secular-seeming fantasy is religious in its methods if not its message—every rabbit hole a conversion experience, every golden ticket a kind of Rapture, every Yellow Brick Road a Pilgrim’s Progress. This is why fantasy can be administered to children at night like sedatives: Readers are flattered and assured that they alone will be saved, carried away to the world they were meant for and into a life as special as they feel. Promises are made that we will grow up magical instead of regular, boring old Muggles.
Good vs. evil, even accompanied by supernatural adventure and thrills, holds our attention less well than you might think. We were really in it for the embarrassment of funny, superior, domestic details—of which any list of mine would be a small start, but to begin with: the possibility of getting mail via owl post rather than the USPS, of commuting via fireplace rather than the MTA, of de-gnoming Mom’s garden instead of raking the leaves, of taking potions classes instead of precalculus. Harry and his gang will take meetings with ghosts and giant talking spiders and cold ethical centaurs, and count among their best friends wizards and witches who are revealed to be heroes or lycanthropes, instead of just liberal-arts layabouts who turn out one day to be law-school students. The Potter books offer a better banality.
But not this final installment. The Deathly Hallows fails, when it does, because it deviates from the Rowling formula. Whereas the previous six novels were structured like syllabi—their grace notes were class assignment, exams questions, semester breaks—the seventh has Harry dropping out of Hogwarts to wander aimlessly among exposition scenes and action sequences. It’s the conventional Grail quest and Hollywood through-line Ms. Rowling always spared us from—and I, for one, felt as nostalgic for their school days as I sometimes am for my own. Of course, it’s not quite so simple as all that.
Or rather: The Deathly Hallows is not great, but it’s not great in wild complicated ways. It’s a sort of archaeology, with throwaway bits from previous books, like ceramic shards from some Cretan dig, shown to have more intricate and important meanings than we at home had the care and expertise to appreciate. It’s the fantasy novel Faulkner might have dashed off when drunk and hard up for cash, with pivotal, familiar events revisited from new and semi-surprising points of view. It’s also a victory-lap, and a greatest hits compilation. So many already-used back-drops are used again that it sometimes seems as though there wasn’t the budget to build any new sets. Shout-outs are given out to almost everyone including the, say, one or two Professor Trelwaney fans in the audience. She shows up near the close, serving crystal balls like tennis balls at Death Eaters’ heads.