Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
By J.K. Rowling
Reviewed by Alice Fordham
Death and vengeance hang over this book from the outset.
Readers know that this is the last episode and that resolution will come only with heavy losses, besides which Rowling has hinted strongly at a bloodbath. As a consequence, the first hundred pages will be turned with whitened knuckles, and Rowling ruthlessly exploits this belly-gripping anxiety.
The opening chapter introduces us not to our beloved heroes, but to Voldemort, massing his forces, humiliating and murderous as ever. The first scene of action and danger is a spectacular stunt, involving no fewer than 15 of the good guys in mortal peril. It is testament to Rowling’s gifts that her readers know, love and will be able to recite the family history of all 15 – and would be sorry to see them go.
Every casualty – fretted about by millions for the last two years – has great impact and bad news, of which there is plenty, comes at moments of high drama. Strong nerves will be required for this first section, when every edifice seems to fall to the Dark forces.
Of course, there are always healthy doses of Dark magic in Potter books, but gradually, even in times of brittle peace, we realise this one is going to be rather different. Harry and his pals, in case you haven’t been frantically re-reading the first six books for clues, must set out on an expedition to find pieces of their arch-enemy’s soul. As Hermione reveals the arrangements she has made to give her parents new identities, and even Ron contemplates the sacrifices to be made, it becomes clear that this is to be no boarding-school book in disguise. They are dropping out of Hogwarts in earnest, and there will be no Quidditch, no pumpkin juice and no Blast-Ended Skrewts.
With this, Rowling sets herself a difficult task. Her convoluted fantasy plots have in the past been leavened with wit that revels in the imagined detail of the wizarding world. From Bertie Bott’s Every-Flavoured Beans to Romilda Vane and her love potions, school life had endless charm to offset its increasingly gruesome goings-on. In this book, Harry, Ron and Hermione spend a lot of time on their own, camping in damp and cold bits of Britain. Unable to communicate with their sweet and scatty friends, and cut off from what remains of their families, they have some dark times.
And yet, I do not think that any fan will be disappointed. Much as everyone loves the Pensieves and the Polyjuice potion, the real appeal of the Potter books has always lain in the characters. The queueing, the excitement, are not just because we must know what happens, but because we love Harry and the rest, and are touched over and over again by the strength of their friendship. We have watched them grow up, felt their flaws and admired their bravery, and will willingly read about them through their times of trouble, even without the distractions of Hogwarts. Rowling’s genius is not just her total realisation of a fantasy world, but the quieter skill of creating characters that bounce off the page, real and flawed and brave and lovable.
The book, then, is as much a journey into the mysteries of the characters as a linear narrative. We learn much more of Dumbledore, and his murky past. We had not heard the last of Snape. Ron’s mettle is severely tested and Hermione’s courage stretched to its limits by the dismal frustrations of their mission. Although some may find the lengthy explanations required tedious, I think that more will be grateful for the satisfaction of seeing every piece of the puzzle fit together.
There is some gentle politics. As the Ministry becomes ever Darker, Rowling includes a description straight out of a totalitarian fantasy. Giant black statues of wizards seated on thrones made from the bodies of Muggles adorn the entrance to the Ministry of Magic, along with the slogan MAGIC IS MIGHT. Muggles and half-breeds are persecuted and Hermione is vindicated in her long-ignored campaign for the well-being of downtrodden members of the wizarding world. The message of tolerance and consideration is not especially subtle, but it is neither surprising nor jarring to find it in a series of books with so pointed an ethical dimension to the narrative.
There will also be, for those who are looking for it, a religious undertone. In the climax of a storyline that began when Harry’s mother produced strong magic by sacrificing her life for him, acceptance of death leads, in one case, to a new form of life. People will interpret this as they choose.
On the flyleaf Rowling quotes from Aeschylus’s final play in the great Orestes trilogy. The finality of death, in that tragedy, closes a horrible cycle of revenge and allows a final peace. Although readers may be distraught at all the slaughter, Rowling knows the importance of peace after the cataclysm. We have been a long way together, and neither she nor Harry let us down in the end