Sunday, July 22, 2007

Thoughts on "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows" (**Spoilers abound**)

Two things struck me as I finished the Deathly Hallows:

(1) That, after all that furore, I (and probably a good many other adults) had forgotten that the Harry Potter books are children's books (and I mean that in the most non-pejorative way possible). That Harry's story is a coming-of-age tale, a boy's trial by fire into adulthood; in other words, a bildungsroman. To her great credit, and as Deathly Hallows shows clearly, Rowling kept her head, refused to be a carried away by all the frenzy and wrote a conventional happy ending, an ending that is clearly going to disappoint many (present company included) but which is still true in spirit to the spirit of the series.

(2) And what perhaps distinguishes Harry Potter from other children's books (and here I may be mistaken since my knowledge of children's literature is admittedly sketchy) is that while, like other young protagonists, Harry is always in mortal danger, unlike them, he also grapples constantly with the idea of death and mortality. Rowling's very skillful incorporation of death as a theme into the books is, I think, its best aspect, and responsible for creating the series' most memorable scenes.

Let's take these points in that order.

"Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows" is a fitting conventional (and again, in a completely non-pejorative sense) climax to a very enjoyable tale. A tale, that perhaps, because of its success, we all had started reading into much more than we should have. Will Harry die or won't he? Is Snape good or bad? All of these questions are answered -- Harry lives, Voldemort dies, and Snape turns out to be a good guy after all (which, for the record, I always wanted him to be), and the final battle against Voldmort takes place at Hogwarts, and all the characters, including, improbably, the pompous Percy Weasley, are reunited -- but these answers were preordained from the start. Why we all went into such a frenzy about them, why we thought they would resolve any differently, is a mystery, now that the saga is finally over.

Perhaps the turning point, the point in the story where Rowling could have taken it any way she wanted, occurs somewhere in the middle of the book. When the news that the Ministry of Magic has been taken over by Death Eaters reaches them, Harry, Ron and Hermione are forced to flee. Over the course of the next 150 pages or so, they tramp from one place to another, bickering, fighting, eating, arguing about where the horcruxes can be, trying to dispose of the one they have. There is a hint of a homage being paid to "The Lord of the Rings" here, since the the friends take turns hanging the horcrux-locket around their necks and it affects their disposition, particularly Ron's. After a furious dispute with Harry and Hermione -- the evil horcrux clearly has a hand in this -- Ron leaves them and Harry and Hermione are alone, and truly afraid. Ron has gone, there is very little possibility of his coming back; even if he wants to, he will not be able to find them.

This is where I experienced my first quickening of the senses. Rowling had already hinted that she was going to have to kill off a couple of major characters. With Ron gone, and the chances of their meeting again looking bleak, I thought it would be Ron. And perhaps, Ron's loss (and even death) would bring Harry and Hermione closer, with them probably even ending up together, since Ginny is pretty much out of the picture. (I thought Harry and Hermione would end up together from the first book, when Ron seemed more like a comic foil to Hermione's Miss know-it-all . Then when Ginny got this crush on Harry in Chamber of Secrets, I knew she was going to have a bigger role to play. I have to say I shouted out aloud when Harry kisses her in Half-Blood Prince. Perhaps I watch too many romantic potboilers.)

Whatever my thoughts at this juncture, Rowling punctured them abruptly. In an unconvincing deus ex machina, Ron returns, saving Harry, getting rid of the horcrux-locket (perhaps the one scene, where Ron's true insecurities come forth) and in the process, also revealing to the three friends that Dumbledore's gifts had a purpose. And Harry admits to Ron that he's missed him and that he thinks of Hermione as his sister (I have to admit I cringed at this). The friends are together again, and at that point I knew that the ending would be conventional -- that it would be Ron and Hermione, Harry and Ginny, with Voldemort dead and all being well (The last words of the books are indeed: "All was well."). What is the point of this interlude? I think Rowling wanted to spend some time (and wanted us to spend some time) with her three main protagonists, perhaps trying to illuminate their friendship, wanting, perhaps, to give us some time with them before the war against Voldemort consumed every theme in the book.

Which brings me to my only quibble with the book. Much has been written about Rowling's descriptions, about her ability to conjure up magical fantasias but I think Stephen King got it right in this review of Goblet of Fire. J. K. Rowling's greatest asset, the best feature of the Harry Potter books is, finally, plot. All the Harry Potter books are at heart, old-fashioned mystery stories, their skeletons similar to those polished whodunits that Agatha Christie or Dorothy L. Sayers wrote. In the beginning of the books, something happens, something very confusing. Harry and his friends investigate, and that something turns out to have been something else, which in turn, was caused by someone else. And so on and on and on. Perhaps because there is so much else in the Harry Potter books -- let's not forget that everyone here is a wizard or a witch -- this aspect of the books tends to be overlooked, sometimes even not noticed. The first four books were explicit whodunits, with the Prisioner of Azkaban having the most elegant ending, and Goblet of Fire the most spectacular one.

But Rowling has something else going for her -- her long-term attention to details. Clearly she has thought about the plot long and hard. Which is why sometimes throwaway details from earlier books turn out to be significant plot developments. This was particularly evident in Half-Blood Prince, where Rowling gradually revealed facets of Lord Voldemort -- I, for one, was delighted when Tom Riddle's diary from Chamber of Secrets -- a book whose plot always seemed out-of-sync with the rest of the books -- turned out to be a horcrux. Tom Riddle, who appeared out of the blue in the second book, became a much more grounded character in Half-Blood Prince and his transformation into Lord Voldemort was the most fascinating part of the sixth book.

I am of the opinion that this attention to details is overdone in the final installment. Far too much depends on recalling minute parts of the sixth book: the location of the final horcrux (although this part is hardly important in the scheme of things; and even its destruction happens off the pages), the revelations of Harry's ancestry, the importance of Godric's Hollow, the machinations about the ownership of Dumbledore's wand. But perhaps the weakest point of the seventh book are its battle scenes. I've always found the wizarding duels way too unconvincing with everyone going around shouting "Expelliramus" or "Crucio" or "Accio". The final Battle of Hogwarts that concludes the series is meant to be epic -- think of Tolkien's Helm's Deep or the Siege of Gondor -- but the descriptions are painfully inadequate: everyone seems to be running around throwing spells, or duelling, although why the wizards should duel mano a mano is beyond me.

But these are quibbles, drops in bucket as big as the ocean (David Edelstein's line). Like all the previous Harry Potter books, "The Deathly Hallows" is tremendously enjoyable. Dumbledore and Snape become more human, and Harry has a touching scene with the wraiths of the people he loves the most, as he is going to his death. In Goblet of Fire, the death of Cedric Diggory was a stunner. A few more people have died since then and while Harry Potter has ended conventionally, with a happy ending, the theme of mortality has always cast its long shadow over the books themselves. This, perhaps, has been Rowling's greatest success: she has written a wonderfully enjoyable series of books about death, magic and friendship.

ASIDE: Incidentally, what's up with Michiko Kakutani's review? The review appeared three days before the book released; Kakutani apparently procured it from a bookshop, read it overnight and contributed a review at 700 words a minute, recyling most of the lines from her reviews of the previous Harry Potter books (understandable, but still ... someone ought to take the judgemental Ms Kakutani to task for that, no?). Don't believe me? Read this. And then read this and this -- what do you think?

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