Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was published in 2007, ten years after the first book in the series. By this point, Rowling’s saga had become a global phenomenon, with midnight book launches, publication dates shifted so kids wouldn’t bunk off school, a film series well under way (it was Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix in 2007), and a very public haranguing by literary heavyweights such as Harold Bloom (“In an arbitrarily chosen single page — page 4 — of the first Harry Potter book, I count seven clichés”) and A S Byatt (“Ms. Rowling’s magic world has no place for the numinous. It is written for people whose imaginative lives are confined to TV cartoons, … soaps, reality TV and celebrity gossip”) laying in on Rowling in a way that now seems incredibly petty, like academics berating a child for neglecting to quote Eratosthenes in his “What I did on my holidays” essay. But all this is, frankly, irrelevant (as it should be) now it’s just me reading the series for pleasure.
So, what are the pleasures of The Deathly Hallows?
For the seventh book in a seven-book series, where everything has surely by now (thanks to Harry Potter and… Any Other Business?, a.k.a. The Half-Blood Prince) been set up for the final confrontation between our hero and the evil Lord Voldemort, The Deathly Hallows opens in bravura style by kicking off some entirely new plot-lines, and emptying a whole new set of questions-in-need-of-answering into our hapless truth-seeker’s lap. Whose blue and Dumbledorean eye is looking out from the broken fragment of Sirius’ communication mirror? Why had Dumbledore been in possession of James Potter’s invisibility cloak on the night Harry’s parents were murdered? How do the Death Eaters track Harry & co. so quickly to Tottenham Court Road? Whose is the silver-white doe patronus? Why is Harry suddenly less able to produce a patronus of his own?
It struck me on my first reading of the series how incredibly satisfyingly it was in the way it mixed the uncovering of past events (the first rise of Voldemort, the school days of Harry’s parents, and so on) with each book’s present-day action. And that’s still going strong even in this final book, if not stronger. Having had Voldemort’s origin-of-evil story told in The Half-Blood Prince, we now get what might be called the tarnishing of Albus Dumbledore, as tabloid reporter Rita Skeeter reveals the “disturbed childhood, the lawless youth, the lifelong feuds and the guilty secrets” of what has been the warmest and most comforting character in the series so far.
Why does Rowling do this? Right from the start, Dumbledore seemed a gleefully archetypal character, the grandfatherly wizard who mixes aspects of Gandalf, Father Christmas, and, frankly, God (or at least Aslan) in his calm, patient, white-bearded wisdom, his acceptance and encouragement (and, also, his distance). At the end of the last book he was — quite rightly, and as tradition demands — taken out of the action, ready for our hero Harry to face things on his own.
But no, it seems he has lingered. And not lingered in the way Obi-Wan Kenobi lingers in the original Star Wars trilogy, to pop up as a ghostly presence and offer a little prompting and guidance (“Use the Force, Luke”, “Go to the Dagobah system, Luke”, “Don’t forget to brush your teeth, Luke”), but lingered to go sour. Dumbledore, we learn, was not always that Santa-like saintly wizard. In his early days, great as he already was, he became preoccupied with the same thing that drives the evil Lord Voldemort:
“I had learned that I was not to be trusted with power… I had proven, as a very young man, that power was my weakness and my temptation…”
Death has become one of the most important themes in the Harry Potter series, one that is, intriguingly, profoundly connected with Harry’s role as a truth-seeker. Increasingly, Harry’s seeking after the truth has been driven by a need to make contact with what death has taken from him (his parents, Sirius, Dumbledore), and to learn why it had to happen, why they had to die.
And death has twined its bony fingers into another theme, too, one that runs not only throughout this series but (as I said in my mewsings on the first book) through fantasy literature as a whole: power, its temptations, and its misuse. Voldemort defines himself entirely in terms of power, and sees its ultimate use as being to hold off his own death, while doling it out to others on a whim. But, as the case of Dumbledore in this book reveals, death in the Harry Potter series humanises those who die (which is perhaps why Voldemort flees it). Even as great a figure as Dumbledore, when he passes through the veil, is revealed to be what he always was: a human being, with faults, with mistakes, with regrets, with secrets — with a story. The crucial thing is, in Rowling’s world, this humanisation doesn’t compromise her characters. Dumbledore isn’t a lesser presence because of his revealed faults, once we have the full story. (After all, it’s “his early losses [that] endowed him with great humanity and sympathy”, in other words, which made him who he is.)
This humanisation-in-the-face-of-death is something Rowling does to other characters, too. Most notably in this book — and most poignantly — Severus Snape, who finally gets his story told (when you’d think it ought to have been in The Half-Blood Prince, which was, after all, named for him). Snape’s story is the last to be revealed, but is told alongside that of another character who has, surprisingly, not had hers told yet either: Lily Potter. (And the influence of Lily, Harry’s mother, over Harry’s development, is much more prevalent in this book, where up till now he was mostly defined in terms of how he measured up to his father. In this book, we’re told Harry is now exactly the same height as James Potter — so he’s as much like his father as he’s going to be — and this is no surprise. But it is a pleasant surprise when Harry sees his mother’s handwriting and realises that she “made her g’s the same way he did”. We’ve long been told his eyes are his mother’s — and this is what makes Snape’s “Look … at … me …” so poignant — but more and more we learn it’s Harry’s inner nature that derives from her, in a book where protective mothers — including Mrs Weasley, Narcissa Malfoy, and even Neville Longbottom’s grandmother — come to the fore. Just as Lily sacrificed herself for Harry, so Harry, here, sacrifices himself for others.)
Snape is revealed to be the most divided character in the series, caught between the love of power (his being the head of Slytherin, and his being a Death Eater) and the power of love (when his need to protect Lily brings him back to Dumbledore, and enables Dumbledore to enlist him in protecting Harry). Snape is, I’d say, the one character whose take on the events of the Harry Potter series would be worth reading.
But before all these backstories, The Deathly Hallows enters a surprising stretch (for a final and should-be-action-packed book), where nothing happens for a long time, a period of frustration, isolation, and endurance, in which the main trio do little more than bicker and get on each others’ nerves. It starts to feel like Frodo and Sam’s section of The Return of the King, that despondent slog through the wastes of Mordor, where they keep going not because they must finish their task, but because it would be even more of an effort to turn back.
Then — things kick off, and the second half of The Deathly Hallows is perhaps the best, in terms of sheer storytelling, in the series as a whole. And that, after all, is what it’s about (and this is the big point Bloom and Byatt so blatantly missed). It’s not about the literary qualities of the language (though Rowling has moments of good writing, my favourites being a baby dragon described as looking “like a crumpled, black umbrella”, the barman of the Leaky Cauldron looking “like a gummy walnut”, or Harry, alone with a bickering Ron and Hermione, feeling “like the only non-mourner at a poorly attended funeral”). But mostly the language is only there to tell the story — and tell it not to jaded academics but story-hungry what-happens-nexting kids. Nor is it about the originality of imagination. Rowling freely makes use of every fantasy archetype she can lay her hands on. But, she makes original use of them. And it may be she does so simply for a quick joke, but it may also be that she does so (as with Dumbledore) to say something deeper, that goes to the heart of her theme.
Using such fantasy archetypes is part of how she creates such an immersive world. It’s not (as I said in my mewsings on the first book) immersive in the traditional How to Write Fantasy & SF way of presenting a logically consistent reality with carefully-worked-out rules for magic. It’s immersive because it’s so rich and alive. There’s no time to stop and think about logical inconsistencies, it’s already throwing another Dahlish joke, or Dickensian character, or Rowlingish list at you. (She loves her lists: of wares in a magical joke shop, titles of magical school-books, varieties of owls, sweets on a snack trolley, or the contents of a Hogwarts storage room.) Most of all, it’s alive with story: with little sub-plots and details, with little connections (as you realise, for instance, that some fellow-pupil of Harry’s who was initially just a name is in fact the descendent of some famous witch or wizard), as well as wider, deeper (sometimes subterranean) arcs.
The theme of fame I puzzled about before this re-read of the series has proved to be just part of a much more varied and interesting theme of truth, memory, and history, how these can be distorted, and how such distortions can pave the way for the rise of an evil such as Voldemort. In other words, this is a story about the power of story, both for good and for evil.
The series’s own politics aren’t, perhaps, all to be read as a straightforward allegory, tempting though it seems. Hermione’s efforts to emancipate the house elves at first feels like it’s drawing a parallel with human slavery, but the series doesn’t resolve it at all in that way. I suspect it might just be a joke about the sort of elves you find in a fairy tale like “The Elves and the Shoemaker”, and how Hermione overthinks the whole thing, or misinterprets it in entirely human terms. House elves aren’t oppressed humans, they’re house elves. And Harry’s deal with the goblin Griphook in The Deathly Hallows makes it clear that goblins aren’t supposed to be read as oppressed humans, either, but as non-humans who have their own values, ideas, and agendas. This aspect of the books, perhaps, needs more material to play out.
And it’s with The Deathly Hallows that Rowling can best refute A S Byatt’s criticism that her fantasy is not “numinous”. Byatt was mistaking Rowling’s first-book groundwork — her laying out of a cornucopia of fantasy elements — for her end theme. It’s with The Deathly Hallows that things come as close as they get to a religious statement, and if they’re to be read in that way, it seems to me Rowling is doing something slightly different. The way the previously God-like Dumbledore is revealed to have had a weakness for power in his youth before learning to be more human reminds me of Jung’s psychological reading of the Old and New Testaments in Answer to Job. God, Jung says, gave His son to mankind in the New Testament as a propitiatory sign that He’d changed from His highly judgemental, punitive, and patriarchal Old Testament ways. It wasn’t to redeem humankind from original sin, but to redeem God from His old self. If so, then Harry is Dumbledore’s “son” in this book, and it’s surely significant his self-sacrifice comes to have a magically protective power over everyone opposing Voldemort: he “dies” to redeem them all from evil. (And Harry finding himself in an ethereal King’s Cross is perhaps the most explicitly religious reference.) But whatever her own beliefs, Rowling never gets as dogmatic as C S Lewis. Rather, as with Dumbledore and Snape, she humanises it all, and perhaps de-patriarchalises it a bit while she’s at it.
In the end, the Harry Potter series is about “the triumph of good, the power of innocence, the need to keep resisting.” But it’s also about a good story well told, one that’s even more rewarding on a re-read. Rowling can be, amongst all the whizzes and bangs of her magical world, a subtle storyteller, taking more from the likes of Jane Austen than Roald Dahl. Fantasy-wise, her imagination runs the gamut, and seems to have furnished a generation (if not more) with all the weird beasts and magic lore the likes of Dungeons & Dragons, Fighting Fantasy, and a generous helping of Ray Harryhausen films did to a previous generation. (By which I mean mine.)