The Deathly Hallows


There have always been two critical camps on the Harry Potter phenomenon – the small band of haters, which includes Harold Bloom, A.S. Byatt, and lesser lights like Ron Charles, and the host of apologists, which includes more or less everybody else. I'm a card-carrying member of the latter group; I’m not a Potter obsessive by any stretch, having read each book only once, but I am a great admirer of Rowling’s work, and I’ve always thought that that her skill as a storyteller and world-builder outweighs her literary weaknesses. Reviewing The Half-Blood Prince for NR, I put the pro-Rowling case this way:

… the Potter saga succeeds as few fictions do, and proves, in the process, that there's more to writing than felicitous prose or perfect psychological realism. As with James Fenimore Cooper, or H. P. Lovecraft, or any of the host of novelists whose stories linger long after their stylistic blunderings are forgotten, it's in that mysterious more that Harry Potter's success resides: not in the telling, but in the tale.

I would still stand by this assessment overall – but Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, I’m sorry to say, is grist for the haters. (Obviously, spoilers follow below.)

Rowling’s novels have been compared to J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis so many times I’ve lost count, and she obviously owes each of them an enormous debt. But she’s less of a pure fantasist than her predecessors, and more of a pastiche artist: Her genius is for crossing genres, mixing the sword-and-sorcery tale with the boarding-school novel, and merging both with the intricate plotting of an Agatha Christie story. And this is the first problem with her saga’s grand finale – it’s more of a straightforward high-fantasy novel than any of its predecessors, and Rowling isn’t quite up to the task. She needs the Stover at Yale structure, it turns out, and the Ten Little Indians plot mechanisms; without the “something fishy at Hogwarts” framework, her story sprawls and meanders through a baggy quest narrative. The more time Harry and Ron and Hermione spend hopscotching around England, the more the reader misses the familiar rhythms of a school year at the wizarding academy – the new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher, the Quidditch matches and intra-house feuds – and the vivid supporting characters, teachers and students alike, who usually crowd the pages of a Potter novel. Rowling tries to compensate by ratcheting up the tension, with break-ins and break-outs and close encounters with Lord Voldemort, but action sequences aren’t precisely her forte, and after the fifth close shave and hair’s-breadth escape the reader pines for the familiar pleasures of the Gryffindor Common Room and the Forbidden Forest.

From here, the difficulties multiply. While old favorites like Hagrid and Snape languish offstage, Rowling layers on the magical objects: The three “hallows” of the title join the seven “horcruxes” in a baffling panoply of talismans (Tolkien, it turns out, was wise to stick to a single ring) that’s further complicated by the extra horcrux that turns out to be lodged in Harry’s scalp, the piece of Voldemort that’s lodged in his wand, the Potter blood that runs magically through the Dark Lord’s veins, and the “who’s on first?” debate over which master Voldemort’s wand will recognize during the final showdown. As the magic become increasingly incomprehensible, Rowling repeatedly finds herself slamming on the narrative brakes at crucial moments to explain exactly why Voldemort can’t die unless Harry does, or maybe why Harry can’t die as long as Voldemort’s alive, or … oh, never mind. (It’s as if Sam, Frodo and Gollum had taken a timeout during the showdown on Mount Doom to get a lecture from Gandalf on the finer points of ring lore.)

Worse than the confusing metaphysics, though, is the predictable plotting. There was a feverish predictions game among the Potterphiles of the blogosphere before the final volume hit the shelves, and it’s a bad sign for Rowling that an awful lot of their guesses and theories seem, in hindsight, more interesting than the finished product. Yes, some predictabilities were built in to the saga: We knew going that good would triumph over evil, that Voldemort would perish and that most of our much-loved cast would live happily ever after. But within that framework, The Deathly Hallows includes a host of roads not taken, complications not considered, tragedies, temptations, and redemptions left unexplored. Rowling repeatedly gestures at complexity: In the horcrux that gives voice to Ron's hidden resentment of Harry; in the hints that Draco Malfoy might actually turn heroic in the end; in the gestures at temptation for Harry himself. But she raises these possibilities only to let them drop again: Ron's Harry-envy is never mentioned after the horcrux is destroyed; the Malfoys never display any trait more morally impressive than loyalty to their kith and kin; and Harry himself never seriously considers doing evil so that good may triumph, and we are treated instead to endless encomiums to his moral purity. (Though as Eve Tushnet points out, for such a Christ-like guy he’s awfully free with the Unforgivable Curses). None of the primary good guys turn out to be bad, or even baddish; and the only murky character who finds redemption is Snape, in a twist that most readers saw coming a long distance off.

The sense of tragedy, too, is carefully contained: A slew of second-tier characters perish, but none of their deaths are half so wrenching as Dumbledore’s in The Half-Blood Prince. (I'm pretty sure that Rowling planned to kill off Hagrid and chickened out.) Harry’s death-that-isn’t, meanwhile, feels like something of a cop-out, an attempt to jerk some tears without dealing in anything so dark as the semi-tragedy of Frodo’s fate in Lord of the Rings, or anything to explicitly theological as Aslan’s magical resurrection in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

The upshot for grown-up Potter fans, I think, is aptly summarized by Russell Arben Fox’s reaction:

… I must admit it - I finished Deathly Hallows at about 9:45am Saturday morning (got home from the bookstore at about 1am, read until 4am, tried to sleep for an hour, then got back up and read until I was done), and the very first coherent judgment I could come to was “Huh. A children's story after all.”

… Please note: I am not saying “children’s story” with anything like a sneering or condescending tone; I am not saying that Deathly Hallows reveals the story of Harry Potter to be simplistic or childish or immature. Far from it! But I am saying that, somehow or another, over the last two years – led along, I suppose, by my own outrageously detailed predictions, which of course proved to be almost entirely wrong - I talked myself into seeing these books...differently than I had any right to. I read too much that was epic into them, too much that was mythological and psychological, too much that was adult.

Fox remains an admirer of the novels, and to a lesser extent so do I, but I think that our shared "a children's story after all" reaction will affect where the Potter saga ultimately fits in the children's literature canon. In Slate’s Deathly Hallows Book Club, Dan Kois admits, after lodging a host of criticisms, that "that 12-year-old me would have thought this was about the greatest book ever written.” But it's fathers and mothers, not 12-year-olds, who determine which children's books get handed down, and the children's books that are most likely to stand the test of time are those novels that parents love to revisit again and again as adults. Much as I liked Harry Potter overall, and much as I would defend its merits against the Blooms and Byatts of the world, I'm not positive, now that I've come to the end, how eager I'll be to start all over and read it to my kids. And where Rowling's legacy is concerned, that's the decision that will make all the difference.