The final chapter of what arguably is the biggest literary event since the Bible is upon us, in the form of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. With a legion of die-hard fans ready to snap up millions of copies on the day (hour, moment) of release, there was a stronger than normal risk of let down. But while shaky at some of the seams and an ending that feels just a little bit forced, altogether Rowling has put together a quite satisfying and pleasurable finale to her seven part extravaganza.
Hallows continues right where Book Six left off with the death of Albus Dumbledore. While much has been spoken about the growing darkness of the series, the fact remains that Rowling has generally shied away from killing off any characters that are too close to the reader’s heart—in this, Dumbledore and Sirius Black are the lone exceptions. This poses a problem—the purpose in eliminating Harry’s mentor figures is to reinforce the sentiment that he is completely alone, and must face the threat of Voldemort himself, yet unless the series was to take a serious change in tone, Ron and Hermione will be at Harry’s side throughout his quest. Rowling is left in a bit of a bind, forced to isolate Harry without harming those closest to him. However, her solution to this dilemma is masterful. As any boxing fan knows, the most severe injuries are not done with the highlight reel headshots, but rather are suffered from an accumulation of solid but unspectacular punches. This is a lesson Rowling has learned well, and brought into being with the elimination of Harry’s owl, wand, and his house-elf friend Dobby. Three of Harry’s oldest links to the wizarding world, their absence has much the same effect as if she had gone for the big name slaughter, while also being far more subtle work (indeed, Ron’s brief departure, intended to be an emotional swing for the fences, ended up affecting me far less). The flip side of this is the early resolution of some of Harry’s more minor feuds—winning Kreacher’s loyalty, reconciling with Dudley, and even coming to terms with Malfoy sharpened the focus of the book to where it belonged—the ultimate confrontation between Harry and Voldemort.
On the other hand, the action sequences seem just barely under Rowling’s control, as if she is holding the book together with both hands. This created an unfortunate whiplash effect—pages upon pages of relatively slow reading, punctuated by occasional outbreaks of pure anarchy. In many of the most intense sequences, it was difficult to follow exactly what was happening, and I had to reread passages two or three times to ascertain what exactly had happened. This led to one of my more peculiar reactions—aversion to the book for fear of the film. I noted in my review of the Order of the Phoenix movie that, at its climatic moments, it was closer to a Final Fantasy boss fight than actual cinema, and Book Seven has many, many moments that seem ripe for CGI hell. There were too many moments where too much was happening, and Rowling’s skills were not up to the task of keeping it all straight and clear. This was an unfortunate distraction, and one that will, undoubtedly, be magnified on the big screen.
But in a large part, Hallows benefits by standing on the shoulders of its gigantic predecessors. The book sags a bit in the middle, but Harry Potter is a large enough object to exert its own gravitational pull, dragging the reader along simply because she must know how it ends. Indeed, the entire book is in some sense window dressing for the conclusion. That’s the part we care about, and that’s the part on which the book will be judged. In this, I say that Rowling gets an A on the picture and a C+ on the details. Snape had surprisingly little face time, but his abiding love for Lily Potter was extremely well-presented, emotionally moving, and did an excellent job tying together a great many of the loose ends in Snape (and Dumbledore’s) behavior (admittedly, I could be clouded by pride here—I predicted this ending nearly as soon as I’d finished Half-Blood Prince). For an ending that focused so much on Lily’s childhood, however, far too little attention was paid to Petunia’s character. Voldemort, too, was—if I dare use the term—humanized in the end, which was an excellent addition that I was not expecting. And finally, the arcs of the Malfoy family were masterfully completed. While many foresaw Draco’s turn—if not to good, than away from evil—few would have predicted the behavior and starring role of his parents. This set the stage for a truly first-rate conclusion.
But in the particulars, Rowling’s magic fades just a bit. In part, this is due to the aforementioned problem with action sequences—the final battle was nearly Lord of the Rings-esque in its scope and fury, and it perpetually felt ready to burst through its seams and devolve into utter chaos. But more importantly, the ultimate resolution simply doesn’t feel natural or proper—as if the author lost her nerve at the very end. Rowling says that a character that was meant to die got a reprieve, and it shows. I would say that the lucky boy is Harry (the circumstances that led to his survival felt distinctly coerced into being), but for the fact that Hagrid is left alive for entirely inexplicable reasons—literally, the impression is that she changed her mind after the fact and hastily changed a few sentences in Microsoft Word. Ultimately, the entire scene could have used a bit more daring on Rowling’s part—whether to kill her main character, or murder a wider array of the familiar faces from the book (50 deaths in the Hogwarts battle, and only a half-dozen are worth mentioning?), or show a bit more panic in Harry’s steely resolve (look to Frodo for advice on how to pull this off), or something that would dissipate the persistent sense that she played down the ending she really wanted so as to not frighten the children.
Finally, I object to the fact that the close doesn’t really provide closure. Perhaps this is unavoidable—fans such as I do not want such a magical series to finish. But if this is the end, than Rowling should provide us with a little bit more wrap-up than the tiny meager epilogue. Geek that I am, I would have enjoyed a “where are they now” for the whole cast of characters, but I don’t feel out of line in asking for more than what I received. For example, Dolores Umbridge, incredibly, manages to become even more evil and loathsome in this book than she was in Book Five, yet there is no indication as to her ultimate fate (I was hoping that this would be where Harry snapped—torturing and/or killing the little toad. Nobody would blame him, and it would provide a nice break from his grim, heroic, and incredibly monotonous determination). The deaths of Lupin and Peter Pettigrew were surprisingly anti-climatic—especially given that they represented the last surviving members of James Potters’ old crew. Meanwhile, the orphaning of Ted Tonks felt like a cheap effort to replicate Harry’s experience all over again. I only pray that this isn’t the opening to the worst sequel/spin-off idea ever.
So the final verdict? Hallows is definitely better than the two low points in the series: Chamber of Secrets and Order of the Phoenix. After that, however, it becomes murky. A significant amount of its appeal, tension, and suspense were built by the efforts of its predecessors. Where Hallows is forced to stand on its own two feet, it tends to stumble. However, it does a stellar job tying up and reconciling the myriad loose threads Rowling had created along the way. The final book in the series, I feel, was never meant to be read stand-alone—it was intended to be and should be judged solely as a crystallization of that which came before it. In this, Rowling did a fine job, and certainly, nobody will finish the Harry Potter series feeling cheated.