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harry potter and the deathly hallows

22 july 2007

There will be spoilers in this review, so here's fair warning: if you have not finished Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, or indeed all of J.K. Rowling's Potter novels, stop reading right now. In fact, if you don't want to know the ending of the Potter saga, why are you on the Internet reading what some birdbrain thinks of the final book? But if you have finished them, or don't mind having more information before you begin them, welcome.

J.K. Rowling, in the run-up to the release of Deathly Hallows, was sometimes compared to Charles Dickens, as her readers waited breathlessly to see if Little Nell Harry Potter would die in the latest installment. In terms of sales and sensation, the comparison is apt. But in terms of storytelling, Rowling is utterly unlike Dickens. In Dickens's novels, from Pickwick to Drood, everything is subjugated to plot. It's both his glory and his tragic flaw.

In Rowling, despite her current status as the world's storyteller, plot is an afterthought. Let me give an example. Both Deathly Hallows and its immediate predecessor Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince revolve around a set of magical objects called the Horcruxes. These Horcruxes are vital to the continued success of the evil Lord Voldemort. So Harry Potter must go around securing and disposing of them before Voldemort collects them all and wins valuable prizes.

Fair enough; sounds like fun to me too. OK, how many Horcruxes are there, what are they, and where are they located? I swear, I have read these books carefully, and I don't know. I suppose that Harry and some of his attentive 11-year-old readers know how many, but even Harry has literally no clue what or where they are. I mean, none; and he isn't even given any paper-chase-like hints. So the plot of vast stretches of Deathly Hallows consists of Harry, Hermione, and Ron wandering around Britain, or often just sitting somewhere for ages wondering where they should go next. Let's pop round to that village and have a gander. Let's stay right here and see what turns up. "Wait, wait!," says Hermione to Harry at one point. "We can't just go, we haven't got a plan." That's on page 552. You think they'd have developed some sort of plan by this point, but nada. They go anyway, of course.

At an earlier stage in their desultory quest, Harry reflects:

Hopelessness threatened to engulf him. He was staggered now to think of his own presumption in accepting his friends' offers to accompany him on this meandering, pointless journey. He knew nothing, he had no ideas . . . (313)
I'm sorry to sound snitty about a children's book, but really. This is Adventure Plot 101 stuff here. If you are on a quest to collect a series of valuable objects, you should identify them all, number them, lay them out in an order that leads the questers from easier to harder, and tick them off as you go. I think that Rowling certainly did this for herself, but she neglects to clue her readers or even her own characters into what her heroes are questing for. This does not create suspense for the reader. It creates irritation and ultimately indifference.

To make matters worse, about 400 pages into Deathly Hallows, Rowling introduces another set of three collectibles, the title knick-knacks themselves. These at least are identified: they are a wand, a stone, and a cloak. Harry has had the cloak all along; the recently buried Dumbledore appears to have the wand in his grave with him; and the stone . . . help me here, children . . . I think the stone ultimately turns out to be a ring, and also to be a Horcrux, but is no more, having been smashed up by Dumbledore at some point.

Anyway, this brings the number of missing objects to six, or seven, or nine, or ten depending on who's keeping score at home, and Harry needs another hundred pages or so to decide whether he's going to collect Horcruxes or Hallows.

Meanwhile, the body count is building. Fans of Potter were on tenterhooks for two years to see who was going to die in the final volume. Curiously, for a fantasy series so wrapt up in magic, love, and adventure, the only thing that seemed to matter to many readers is the identity of the corpses that would strew Book Seven. But the readers are just mirroring Rowling's preoccupations. She figures a serious series needs some serious deceasing. Obviously the big threat is that Harry will pack it in, and the smaller pendant threats are that Ron, Hermione, or someone completely lovable like Hagrid will go with him.

The rhythm of events in Deathly Hallows then becomes a litany of small deaths and near-deaths. You can't really suppose that the author is going to kill off Harry Potter, but just to keep you on your toes, she kills off a minor hero or villain every fifty pages or so, as if to let you know that she could kill any of the crew if she wanted to. Bwa-hah-ha.

Of course, in a dynamic I had greatly feared, many of these minor farm-buyers are footnotes to earlier books, brought in for one last appearance before checking out for good. The principle of The Road to Oz starts to take over: a series that accumulates favorite characters by the dozen is forced to reintroduce them by the dozen. This, now, is a weakness that Dickens was notoriously prey to: the coincidental reappearance of quirky endearing minor folk. But Dickens always kept his reunions intranovel. And even Bleak House doesn't approach the mammoth proportions of all seven Potter novels combined. Deathly Hallows is choked by its own heaps of cast members. No wonder the Reaper has to be invoked to thin out the crowds.

The actual ending, which takes its slow time getting there, is not bad, but not worth two years' worth of hype. OK, I will reveal the ending: on page 739, Hermione tries to double-park her broomstick while Ron and Harry are eating Dragon Rings at a diner on Diagon Alley. The next ten pages of the book are completely black.

No wait, I got confused . . . no, in the real ending to Deathly Hallows, and I swear I am not making this up, so it's a real spoiler: in the real ending, Harry duels with Voldemort, and Voldemort is killed. Everyone lives happily ever after.

I don't know quite how to critique that ending. You will notice that it is the same ending as several previous books in the series, especially Sorcerer's Stone, and has a comfortable middle-of-the-roadness to it, not to say a certain cozy banality. It's the ending I was expecting, yet I suppose part of me was perversely hoping for something original. In the end, Harry Potter succeeds by being relentlessly unoriginal. It is a pastiche of every familiar bit of fantasy lore from the whole English-language children's-book tradition.

And that tradition includes not only Oz, and Alice, Narnia, and Peter Pan, but also Roald Dahl, Philippa Pearce, William Stieg, the Mennyms, the Indian in the Cupboard, the Borrowers, A Wrinkle in Time, NIMH, Earthsea, Holes, Tuck Everlasting, the brilliant world of His Dark Materials, and many many other books and series that, kids, are infinitely more interesting than Harry Potter. Many in the press are asking now: what comes after Harry Potter? What will kids read? (Or rather, what will be the next publishing blockbuster?) But to me, the interesting thing is not what comes next but what came before. The most original books have been there all along. Harry's over, kids; start reading the literature he was pieced together from.

Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. New York: Scholastic, 2007.