Oh dear, the leak. I've become as paranoid as Mad-Eye Moody, fearing spoilers in every dark corner of the Internet, refusing to visit unfamiliar Web sites. I won't even read the "Fray" for fear that some joker has mischievously posted the ending there, mooting all our speculation. Though I must admit that I've played a small part in spreading the spoilers, linking to them (clearly marked) from the culture blog I edit—a decision that earned us hate mail from my Rowling-worshipping wife. (While as an editor my decision allows me to sleep at night, my sleep will be uneasy and, evidently, on the couch.) Thankfully, I myself have remained unspoiled thus far, but who knows how long that will last? Starting today, I'm not reading my e-mail, and I'm only drinking from my personal flask. Constant vigilance!
You're likely right that millions will be unsatisfied by Rowling's ending, though I hope that Deathly Hallows won't leave everything written in stone. I don't want it to end with a sudden blackout or anything, but I'd be pleased if her ending leaves the magical world (if not Harry's story), a tiny bit open-ended. Not only because that would allow me to imagine her characters going about their lives, but because it also leaves open the possibility that somewhere down the line she might become the first person ever to be swayed by an online petition and write about her magical world once again. (Maybe she'll write Hogwarts, A History, so someone besides Hermione can finally read it!) Rather than a magical photograph, constrained by its tiny borders, Deathly Hallows could feel like a magical portrait—an object that may be dead but isn't quite done moving yet. (Speaking of which, don't you wonder how that new portrait of Dumbledore in the Headmaster's office, seen briefly at the end of Half Blood Prince, might factor into Rowling's final story?)
Your contrasting of Rowling and Tolkien is fascinating, but I don't think it's quite fair to judge Harry's determination to destroy Voldemort in light of Frodo's sparing of Gollum. Harry and Frodo are analogous characters, but Voldemort and Gollum aren't. Attempting a one-to-one comparison of Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter risks oversimplification (not to mention the revelation that all my Tolkien knowledge comes from the movies—I totally meant to read the books, but there was so much Elvish!), but I never got the sense that Frodo balks at destroying the Voldemort of his tale, Sauron. And I hope that Book 7 will bring us a moment when Harry has the opportunity to kill the conflicted, devious, opaque Severus Snape but—as Frodo did—stays his hand.
I agree with you that Voldemort epitomizes the ways in which Rowling's ideas of good and evil sometimes aren't particularly nuanced. But the richness of Snape suggests she has a healthy respect for shades of gray. What a delicious character! It's no accident that he's the guy around whom the vast majority of pre-Deathly Hallows debate has circled, with fans passionately arguing that he's still good, or that he's a greasy git. In many ways, what you think of Snape defines what you think will happen in Book 7, and I happen to agree with you that Snape, like Gollum, will—for all his hatred of Harry, for all his cruel deeds—be the mechanism by which evil is defeated. I just hope that he, unlike Gollum, will die a hero rather than a fortuitously greedy fool.
So many other mysteries to address before Harry sets off in search of the remaining Horcruxes, the objects in which Voldemort has safeguarded fragments of his soul, ensuring his immortality. At the end of Half Blood Prince, Harry discovered that his quest for a Horcrux in an oceanfront cave was for naught, as a mysterious R.A.B. had gotten there before him. I (like many) think R.A.B. is Regulus Black, Sirius' brother. I also think, though, that this won't be a defining mystery of Book 7: Harry (or more likely Hermione) will figure it out in the first 100 pages and move right along. I think Harry will find out in Godric's Hollow, the village where he was born, that he's a descendant of Hogwarts founder Godric Gryffindor. However, despite Voldemort's affection for turning mementoes of the Hogwarts founders into Horcruxes, I (unlike many others) don't think Harry himself was somehow made into a Horcrux—mostly because I can't figure out a way for Rowling to write herself out of that corner without embarrassing herself (with something lame) or enraging the rest of us (by killing Harry).
Who else will cross to the other side of the veil? Boy, it's hard to imagine someone as recklessly devoted to his friends as Hagrid surviving a war. And I can't believe that the entire Weasley family will make it through unscathed; I've been waiting three volumes for J.K. Rowling to fully explore your extremely intriguing notion that ambitious, stubborn Percy Weasley might wind up on the side of evil. Ron, Hermione, and Harry are untouchable, I think, but I fear for poor, sweet Neville Longbottom, who surely will face off against Bellatrix Lestrange, the crazy rhymes-with-bitch who tortured his parents into insanity, toward the end of Book 7.
I have so many hopes for this book! I hope for a book that doesn't dive so deeply into a good-vs.-evil battle that it skimps on Rowling's wonderful jokes. A book that gives all the characters we love moments to shine, from Ron and Hermione to Lupin, Tonks, Fred, and George. A book that pays off the long-ago promise of characters like Victor Krum, Wormtail, and Aunt Petunia. A book that doesn't hesitate to reveal new vistas of the wizarding world: How about those American witches we saw at the Quidditch World Cup? How about a Slytherin fighting on the side of good for a change? Basically, I hope for a book that's perfect. Uh, why do you say that J.K. Rowling will inevitably disappoint so many fans, again?
Do you think that with Dumbledore gone, and Harry pledging not to return to Hogwarts, Rowling has finally wrenched herself free of the school-year structure that's ruled each of the first six books? Do you hope so, at any rate? I'm torn; it's hard to imagine a Deathly Hallows that forces its battle-to-end-all-battles action back into the familiar rhythms of Hogwarts Express-classes-Quidditch-Christmas and so on. At the same time, I would be desolate to learn that we'll never again get to read about Neville's incompetence in Transfiguration, about Hermione's panic at the onset of exams, about Peeves and the Bloody Baron, or Gryffindor's fat lady, or the magnificence of the Great Hall at Christmastime. I'll even miss Quidditch! Except no, I won't.
For now, all I can do is impatiently wait for tomorrow, pack my daughter's bags, and stock up on Diet Coke for the long weekend read. Oh, and not look at the damned Internet, at all. I'll see you on the other side, when we'll assemble our crack team of Harry Potter fans for a spoiler-packed dissection of every one of Deathly Hallows' 784 pages.