Jul 5 2011 11:31am

“They Are Coming”: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows had two great challenges to overcome for those of us who read it on the back of the rest of the series.

The first, obviously, was the weight of expectation riding on it as the ultimate Harry Potter volume. Harry Potter was the Boy Who Lived, wizarding Britain’s chosen one. Book seven was always destined to end with a last great confrontation between Harry and Voldemort, a final battle between the Forces of Good and the Legions of Evil, and carrying the finale to a successful conclusion—living up to expectations—was always going to be a tricky balancing act.

The second challenge was Rowling’s decision to move the scene of the action away from Hogwarts. In a sense it’s a natural development: from Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, locations away from the school had become of significant importance. The preceding volumes widened the stage on which the events were set, and by Deathly Hallows, Harry’s growth as a character and Person of Import has advanced to the point where he can no longer act within the confines of Hogwarts, particularly not after Dumbledore’s death. Without his mentor, Harry has to act on his own, from his own resources.

The change of scene robs the narrative of the school year structure, with its predictable rhythms. Stretches of Deathly Hallows suffer from lack of tension and decline in pace, and Harry himself doesn’t seem to do a lot of active protagonising until the final battle. (Drinking game for fast readers: every time someone other than Harry makes a decision, finds a clue, or saves someone’s bacon, drink. Drink twice for someone other than Hermione or Ron.)

When I first read it, I was prepared to mark down Deathly Hallows as quite probably the worst installment of the series. I’ve changed my opinion in the last four years. I still don’t think it’s the best installment in the series—I’m in the Goblet of Fire camp on that one—but it’s definitely not the waste of paper my 2007 self was prepared to shelve it as. For one thing, this is a book with some serious Moments of Awesome™.

Let’s start with the one that sticks out first in my mind. It’s less a moment than a single line, actually, the line that kicks off Harry’s hero’s journey as a geographical, rather than an emotional, voyage. Up to now, while Harry Potter was definitely doing the bildungsroman thing, there were always adults present. Perhaps not to be trusted, and certainly not to be relied upon, but always there, at least to clean up the mess afterwards.

From the moment of Kingsley Shacklebolt’s message at Fleur and Charlie’s wedding, that’s no longer true.

“The Ministry has fallen. Scrimgeour is dead. They are coming.”

Our three heroes are—from the moment of Hermione’s quick-thinking escape—cast off on their own resources. This, combined with the growing claustrophobic tension within the wizarding world, the persecution of ’mudbloods,’ the fascist parallels obvious within the new regime at the Ministry, and Harry’s growing concern about Dumbledore’s biography (and his realisation that his mentor may not always have been such a shining example of the Good Wizard) lends this final book a somewhat more adult cast.

Somewhat. This is still very much a book about growing up, as the quest for the Horcruxes makes clear. Harry and co. are still following the hints and instructions of Professor Dumbledore—though with Dumbledore’s death, Harry is starting to grow out from underneath his shadow and make his own choices.

Oh, those Horcruxes. The search for them gives us some of the best Moments of Awesome in the series as a whole. I’m thinking particularly of the infiltration of the Ministry of Magic, in which Harry, Hermione and Ron go undercover to recover Regulus Arcturus Black’s locket from Dolores Umbridge. During the course of this episode, there’s the wee matter of rescuing a few Muggle-born witches and wizards from the Muggle-born Registration Committee, battling Dementors, and fleeing the Ministry while being pursued—a pursuit which results in Ron’s injury, and weeks spent camping in the woods.

Ron departs from the party due to a very adolescent misunderstanding over Hermione’s affections. His eventual return and reconciliation with both Harry and Hermione is not entirely made of win. But I’ll be honest here: I feel that the middle section of this book really lets down both its beginning and its end, and every time I’ve reread it, I’ve had a hard time not skipping from the Ministry to Xenophilius Lovegood, his story of the Hallows*, and our heroes’ narrow escape from Death Eaters. Now that’s a Moment of Awesome.

*We all know what the Hallows are, and why they’re important, right? Mastery of Death, and all that jazz. Definitely important to your hard-done-by Dark Lord whose ambition is to live (and, naturally, rule) forever. Book seven seems a little late to introduce this as a long-term Dark Lord goal, but I’m not going to argue with the result.

As is the trio’s capture, interrogation at the Malfoy residence, and escape. (I have to say, though, I rather admire Bellatrix Lestrange. That woman might well be Voldemort’s sole halfway competent minion. But I digress.)

The escape from the Malfoys’ results in the first major character death of the novel. While the deaths of Sirius Black and Albus Dumbledore in previous volumes demonstrated that Rowling isn’t shy about killing at need, Dobby’s death—heroic, and definitely moving—is a foretaste of the sacrifices that are to take place during the final battle.

From this moment the pace ramps up, heading down a straight shot towards that conclusion. Our heroes garner another Horcrux from a dashing caper—a raid on Gringotts’ Goblin Bank with Hermione disguised as Bellatrix Lestrange, from which they escape on dragon-back. From there it’s off to Hogsmeade, to find a way into Hogwarts to acquire the last-but-one Horcrux.

In Hogsmeade, rescued from Death Eaters by Dumbledore’s little-known brother Aberforth, Harry finally learns that, in fact, his mentor was far from perfect. It’s a moment of revelation, but also a moment in which Harry steps up. He’s going to keep fighting. To the end.

And about that end—

The battle for Hogwarts is suitably epic, with loss and heartache and triumph and despair. And the life and death of Severus Snape probably deserves a post of its own. But Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows as a whole, I think, stands or falls for a reader on their reaction to the final showdown between Harry and Voldemort. As the conclusion to a seven-book series, it has a lot to live up to, and I’m not entirely sure it does.

Having learned that Dumbledore believed that Harry is one of Voldemort’s Horcruxes, Harry is resigned to dying. So he uses to Resurrection Stone—one of the three Hallows, which Harry has uncovered at the last moment—to talk to his dead parents, as well as Sirius Black and Remus Lupin, before he hands himself over to Voldemort and lets himself be struck with a killing curse.

“Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” John 15:13, NIVB.

It’s Harry’s Jesus moment. He dies and rises again, after a conversation with the deceased Albus Dumbledore in a cosmic train station.  On one hand, it’s certainly one way to conclude a hero’s journey. On the other, Harry’s survival robs his act of bravery—his act of sacrifice—of much of its meaning.

From this moment, Voldemort is defeated. He just doesn’t know it yet, and his final attempt to take Harry down rebounds upon himself. Ultimately, he’s responsible for his own doom. That seems to me to be the moral of the story, in the end: the good triumph, while the bad ruin themselves.

The epilogue reinforces this conclusion.  Life went back to normal, it seems. Nineteen years down the line, all the survivors have their happy endings, and the new generation is all set for their Hogwarts experience. Although it seems to me unfortunate and clichéd that Draco Malfoy, in his corner, never seems to have grown past being an antagonist. Or perhaps that’s Ron, happily passing schoolday antagonisms down to the next generation. Almost everything is neatly wrapped up and tied with a bow.

Though I do wonder whatever happened to Looney Luna.

Deathly Hallows marks the end of Harry Potter’s journey, and the end of the line for the readers who joined him along the way. I never caught the bug in the same way many people my age did, for while I, too, may have been eleven years old in 1997, at the time I was busy devouring Robert Jordan and Terry Goodkind. I didn’t meet Harry until years later, when I came around at last to the realisation that a skinny book can be as much value for money as a fat one. Too late to love uncritically: in time to understand why other people did.

In the decade between 1997 and 2007, Rowling created a story—a world and its characters—that spoke to a generation. Bravery, daring, friendship: a story that combined the fundamentally comforting setting of the boarding-school novel with the excitement and danger of the fantasy epic, a story that mixed the familiar and the strange and produced something entirely new. In a way, the conclusion of that story marked the end of an era.

And the beginning of a new one. For Harry Potter’s success inaugurated a new generation: of teenagers finding it normal to read and talk about reading for pleasure, of adults willing to read YA novels, and of writers and publishers who might just take a chance on YA books with epic scope. That’s not a bad legacy for any series to leave behind.

In fact, it’s a pretty excellent one.

Liz Bourke is a lifelong reader of SFF who also reviews for Ideomancer.com. And yes, she’s looking forward to seeing Deathly Hallows Part II in cinemas. She’s always entertained by explosions.

Eli Bishop
1. EliBishop
"it seems to me unfortunate and clichéd that Draco Malfoy, in his corner, never seems to have grown past being an antagonist"

Really? I thought Draco's appearance at the end was very nicely handled and not clichéd at all. I like that he hasn't inexplicably become cool and lovable. He's made his peace, in the sense that he's got his own life now and he's not doing anything evil; he just doesn't feel personally comfortable with the people who witnessed and were the victims of his pathetically terrible behavior as a kid. That would be asking a bit much of the guy. So he's grown up to be kind of a stiff, square, Slytherin, who can just barely manage to give our heroes a polite nod in public... but at least he made the effort to do that.
John R. Ellis
2. John R. Ellis
"On the other, Harry’s survival robs his act of bravery—his act of sacrifice—of much of its meaning."

So if someone puts there life at risk to save somebody they love, then ultimately survives said risk, it means the sacrifice is rendered less meaningful?

I really can't agree with that. I can't help but think of two times in my own real, non-fictional life when someone who put their lives at very real risk to save me from harm happily didn't lose anything in the process. And trust me, that didn't make what they did mean anything less to me.
3. Shard
You forgot to mention Silver Doe as an awesome Chapter all in it's self.

Ron destroying the Locketcrux was a great moment of growth for Ron. Since the Locket was responsible for driving him away in the first place.
John R. Ellis
4. sofrina
fleur married bill, not charlie.

and i think it was far braver that harry chose to live - and face the grueling aftermath of the war - then die and leave it all behind. also, voldemort's desire for eternal life was in the earliest books. it was pointed at all along that he should have died when the original curse rebounded but had somehow managed to hold on. the question of how voldemort survived his initial confrontation with harry has always been there.

the beauty of this book taking place away from hogwarts is that it gave us a first hand look at life on the run for many in the wizarding world. mr. tonks, dean, and various others. that is not something that harry could have known about nor appreciated from inside the school. so the muggleborns, harry and hermione, are stripped of their homes and the three are allowed one last good time at ron's before being forced out into the cruel world.
John R. Ellis
5. hawkwing_lb
@sofrina: I have a hard time keeping track of all the Weasleys, I must admit.

@John R. Ellis: In terms of the narrative, is what I meant - but, then, I'm truly and deeply suspicious of fictional happy endings, particularly when they involve surviving Certain Death.

If Harry hadn't died and got his second chance, I'd feel a lot less conflicted about it.

@EliBishop: That's one way of looking at it I hadn't considered. Thank you.
Noneo Yourbusiness
6. Longtimefan
"And the life and death of Severus Snape probably deserves a post of its own. "

Yes, please, and thank you.

An excellent overview of the last book.
John R. Ellis
7. ejp1082

Most awesome moment of awesome in the entire series.

Oh and a huge yes on the life and death of Severus Snape, who was easily the most interesting character in the whole series. On a similar note, there needs to be a parallel novel that follows Neville through that final year at Hogwarts.
John R. Ellis
8. AgingComputer
No love for Wormtail or Moody? I cocked my head at Dobby as the first major character death of the book.

I think one of the most disappointing things about the book was how it resolved secondary plot lines. The deaths of Wormtail and Snape both were horribly anticlimactic. Loved Snape's backstory, but it just felt like she couldn't figure out how to deal with his presence in the novel.

Wormtail was the same way -- something that was hinted at being of climactic importance since book 3, only to be left by the wayside, for the most part with his casual death. Could have been more.

Of course I'm just griping. This isn't my favorite book in the series by a long shot -- after a re-read or two I still rank it close to the bottom of the barrel.
Arthur Harrow
9. Dr_Thanatos
Regarding the question of Harry's "death:"

1) I think that it was his intent that mattered

2) While "dead" he has to make the choice between moving on presumably to wizard paradise pass the butterbeer!] and a life of toil and pain---this choice is at least as important, thematically, as the choice to offer his life up

3) I've heard repeatedly that "Harry didn't die" or that "the Hallows weren't as important as we were led to believe." Consider: He who masters the Hallows is the Master of Death. Our friend Harold J. Potter is, as far as we know, the first person to do this. He is the owner of the Robe, the master of the Wand, and the holder of the Stone. Perhaps this is why he is given the choice whether to live or die .

Freshly served food for thought, courtesy of those snog-inducing house-elves...
John R. Ellis
10. John R. Ellis
Wormtail wasn't treated like a major character since book 3, and even then, it was only during the climax that we even realized he had been a major character.

Since then, he was used as an extremely minor bit player, only around to occasionally remind us that he still existed.

In contrast, Snape got increasing focus in 4, 5, and 6, only to be used rarely in 7. My own guess is that Rowling didn't want to lay all her cards out on the table until the very end, but couldn't quite manage satisyfing endings for all the character arcs.

(I'm still disappointed that the most of an explanation we ever got for James Potte's transformation from entitled jerk to kind and caring guy worthy of Lily's love was "It totally happened in his seventh year, okay?")
John R. Ellis
11. hawkwing_lb
@ejp1082: Hard to argue with you. :)

@AgingComputer: I find it hard to see Moody or Wormtail as major characters after HP &TOTOP. Especially since the Moody we met in Goblet isn't actually the real Mad-Eye.
John R. Ellis
12. Jeff R.
The first major character death isn't Dobby, Wormtail, or Moody.

It's Hedwig.
Arthur Harrow
13. Dr_Thanatos
What about Harry's teacup? Wasn't that his spiritual guardian from the time he entered the Dursley house?
Birgit F
14. birgit
The Deathly Hallows couldn't be a long-time goal for Voldemort because he never knew about them, only the Elder Wand. He never read wizard children's books.
James Whitehead
15. KatoCrossesTheCourtyard
@13Dr_Thantos, only if that was the teacup with The Grim in it.

@12Jeff R., Hedwig's death was the signal from Rowling, in my mind, that all bets were off. That no character was safe.

@14birgit, then it was a good thing Voldemort never found out about Babbity Rabbity, no? ;-)

Also, I don't believe that Harry's resurrection robbed his sacrifice of any meaning or import. Harry didn't know he was coming back and yet he willingly sacrificed himself up. His true bravery shows through when he makes the decision to go back & not stay in that happy place chatting with Dumbledore for ever.

He has responsibilities & obligations to uphold. He can't leave his friends and loved ones in the lurch that way.

I thought Rowling did a perfect job with Snape and how he came to be who, and what, he was. I had an inkling in The Half Blood Prince that Snape's history would shake out that way, but loved how she put it together; very satisfying in my mind.


PS - I also liked that exchange at the end between Harry & Draco. Things have changed, but not completely, and that's not a bad thing.
John R. Ellis
16. Jaquandor
I loved a lot of the book -- the final third made up for some of the weaknesses of the middle third. Snape's death is wonderfully handled, for me; so much is made of how Harry has his mother's eyes, that how else could Snape die but by, through Harry, looking into Lily's eyes one last time? I also loved how the final battle between Harry and Voldemort doesn't take place in some secret cavern, or on some parapet, or mountaintop. Everyone's there, watching.

The one thing that continues to bug me about the final book is something that I turned out to be very wrong about, when I was making my predictions before the book came out. Throughout the series Rowling so often hid very important plot secrets right in plain sight, so I was convinced that the Dursleys were somehow going to turn out crucially important in some way -- maybe a Horcrux was sitting on their mantelpiece the whole time, maybe they had some vital bit of information, something. Instead, they disappear completely. That bugged me. (It would have even been cool to have Dudley turn up on that train platform at the end, too, to send his own kid off to Hogwarts.)
John R. Ellis
18. Redred
@ejp1082 I completely agree re: Neville Longbottom. I am willing to forgive the movies some sins, but if they screw up Neville Longbottom's role in the final fight (seriously, I cry when he pulls the sword of Gryffindor out of the sorting hat), I will be FURIOUS.
Jean Lamb
19. excessivelyperky
Still pouting over some of the choices--Harry died for people who loved him, but Snape died for people who had just tried to murder him.
There's a difference. And Lucius Malfoy, who was a _real_ Death Eater, managed to walk away scot free.

I can read that sort of thing in the Wall Street Journal. Personally, I judge fiction by a higher standard.
John R. Ellis
20. driceman
I know I seem to be in the minority here, but I loved this book. Possibly my favorite in the series. A lot of complaints tend to generate from the slow middle of the book or that people had different expectations of the ending.

About the middle: I thought it was necessary. Harry has to figure things out for himself, has to stop relying on father figures and Hermione. That's what a hero does, and this is the book where he's really put to the test. I thought that was fantastic. Also, I wasn't so bugged by the middle as everyone else. We were still getting bits of information about the plot (the goblins switching out the sword, Voldemort searching for the Elder Wand, Dumbledore's past, etc), even if they weren't the most thrilling parts of the book.

I don't know. I guess it just annoys me that these constitute as boring to some, even though we get massive info dumps all the time in the earlier books. Besides, I thought one of the highlights of this book (and the series as a whole) was Dumbledore's backstory.

As for the ending not being right- well, Rowling can write it how she wants to. If she wanted Harry to be a hero in a Jesus-esque way, so be it. If readers envisioned a different ending, it doesn't really matter- this is how Rowling chose to end it. I think people get angry about things like Wormtail's death because their speculations said that it would be a big event- not that Rowling ever actually said it in the text. Yes, Dumbledore said Wormtail owed Harry, but that didn't mean he would jump in front of a killing curse or something.

And in any case, I thought Snape's death was handled excellently.

Sorry, couldn't help but sharing my opinion. Everyone's entitled to theirs, I just thought I'd let y'all know there are those who loved this book.

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