Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

Rowling Is Bound To Disappoint Us
New books dissected over email.
July 19 2007 2:09 PM

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

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Illustration by Charlie Powell. Click image to expand.

Dear Dan,

I agree with Stephen King: However Rowling ends the series, she's bound to disappoint. Once we read the last word the story will petrify, stiffening from a growing organism into something unchangeable. Or perhaps it will become like a photograph in the Wizarding  world. The people in the magical pictures may wink and wave, but they can't ever do anything new.

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In the penultimate tome, Dumbledore tells Harry, "Voldemort was, I believe, more attached to this school than he has ever been to a person. Hogwarts was where he had been happiest; the first and only place he had felt at home." Harry, Rowling writes, "felt slightly uncomfortable at these words, for this was exactly how he felt about Hogwarts too." The star-crossed enemies aren't alone. When I read C.S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia as an unhappy 11-year-old, I convinced myself that if I wished hard enough, I would step out of my dull and anxious life into a world of heroic adventures. I opened closet doors hoping to find Narnia the other side. For years I found it not just unfair, but a little surprising that I never did. I bet millions of Rowling's readers feel that way about Hogwarts.

Since so many fans take the books so personally and will likely be furious at Rowling for bringing their dreams up short, even the most magical ending is in for a mixed reception. And I don't expect her to come up with a great ending. For one thing, endings are hard; almost nobody gets them right. (I remember how mad I was at Lewis after I read the bland and unconvincing seventh Narnia book, The Last Battle.) Rowling's strengths—wit, atmosphere, endless delightful detail—are better suited to the earlier parts of a story arc. She's wonderful at manipulating complicated plots without letting the threads snarl; I'm always impressed to find what looked like a minor character or throwaway detail re-emerging thousands of pages later as vital part of the plot (Moaning Myrtle; Scabbers). But she has set us up to expect a conclusion with profound moral implications, and she doesn't do deep nearly as well. Other fantasists—J.R.R. Tolkien, Ursula K. Le Guin, Philip Pullman, George MacDonald, Susanna Clarke, to name a few of my favorites, and it sounds like you would add Alexander to that list—reach through our world to something symbolic and universal, often borrowing strength from myth and religion. Rowling does a wonderful job exploring moods like anxiety and euphoria; I loved the Dementors as an embodiment of depression. But her moral vision seems to me less nuanced. Her battles between good and evil strike me as plot-driven and mechanical.  Do you agree?

Take Harry himself. You refer to "The progressive darkening of the Harry Potter books, and Harry's quest for knowledge both of himself and of his world" and ask whether I expect "A tragic tale of Christlike martyrdom." Definitely not. If we do get a martyrdom—even Harry's—it won't be Christlike. In that ability-to-love passage you refer to, Dumbledore tells Harry, "[Y]ou have never been seduced by the Dark Arts, never, even for a second, shown the slightest desire to become one of Voldemort's followers! … In spite of all the temptation you have endured, all the suffering, you remain pure of heart, just as pure as you were at the age of eleven, when you stared into a mirror that reflected your heart's desire, and it showed you only the way to thwart Lord Voldemort, and not immortality or riches."

Does that sound like a progression toward self-knowledge to you? Not to me. No growth for Harry; unlike Jesus, who spent 40 days flirting with Satan, the permanent innocent has never even been tempted by power. What drives Harry is "love," but not the all-forgiving love of Christianity; in fact, it's hard to distinguish the love in question from revenge. On the next page, "Harry watched Dumbledore striding up and down in front of him and thought. … He thought of all the terrible deeds he knew Lord Voldemort had done. A flame seemed to leap inside his chest, searing his throat. 'I'd want him finished,' said Harry quietly. 'And I'd want to do it.'" That's as far from Jesus telling his disciples that those without sin on their own consciences should throw the first stone as it is from the famous passage in The Lord of the Rings when Frodo, the Harrylike hobbit hero, complains to Gandalf, the Dumbledore figure, that his cousin should have killed the traitor Gollum when he had a chance. It was a pity he didn't, Frodo says. Gandalf disagrees: "Pity? It was Pity that stayed his hand. Pity, and Mercy: not to strike without need." And Pity pays off. Through his greed and by his death, Gollum saves the world. Now, that was a satisfying ending.

So, how will TheDeathly Hallows end? Here are my guesses: Voldemort will be vanquished; Rowling is far too good a sport to throw the game to Evil. Harry may take brave risks for the people he loves, but the conclusion won't involve him, or anyone else, turning the other cheek. And he won't die, either. The one who will make the supreme sacrifice to save the world is Snape. Of course Snape is good! Dumbledore trusted him to the end, didn't he? Snape will play a key role in helping Harry kill Voldemort and lose his life as a result.

That's two dead characters—Voldemort and Snape—but maybe Voldemort doesn't count. If not, who do you think corpse No. 2 (or, for that matter, No. 1) will be?

The quickest way to find out, of course, is to peek. PDFs of what people say looks like the real thing are available on file-sharing services, complete with pictures of the leaker's knuckles. I'm staying away from the file, myself—I thought I saw the Dark Mark on the guy's forearm, and who knows where the document keeps its brain?

Best,
Polly

Polly Shulman is the author of Enthusiasm, a novel for young adults.

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