Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

SPOILER! How the Book Ends—and What I Thought Of It
New books dissected over email.
July 24 2007 6:19 PM

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

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Illustration by Charlie Powell. Click image to expand.

Dear Polly,

Dan Kois Dan Kois

Dan Kois is Slate's culture editor, co-host of Mom and Dad Are Fighting, and a contributing writer to the New York Times Magazine.

Let the spoilers begin!

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Well, the Battle of Hogwarts is over and it's time to tally the casualties. No, not just which characters got snuffed, though we'll discuss that as well. It's time to count up the embarrassing number of my predictions that I got dead wrong.

I thought Harry would be revealed as the Heir of Gryffindor. He wasn't, though he is the Heir of Ignotus Peverell, for what it's worth. I tabbed Hagrid and Neville for untimely death; they survived. I predicted Percy Weasley would finally explore his evil side; instead, he showed up with a heartfelt apology and fought for the good guys. And most glaringly, I predicted that Harry wouldn't be a Horcrux, because, I wrote last week, there was no way Rowling could write herself out of that corner without killing Harry or coming up with some kind of cop-out.

Well, I was wrong: She did both! Kind of. Harry does willingly walk into the Forbidden Forest to face his own death, unarmed and unprotected, in a truly moving scene in which he is supported by the shades of his loved ones. But because of some craziness involving the Horcrux, Harry's selflessness, and the legal chain of ownership of a superwand, once again Voldemort's Avada Kedavra does not kill Harry, sending him instead into a long and only slightly ridiculous chapter set (maybe?) in the afterlife—which looks exactly like King's Cross railway station, except that the only bearded transient Harry meets is Dumbledore, and unlike the bums in King's Cross Dumbledore only exposes himself to Harry emotionally.

You may be able to tell that my response to Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was quite mixed. I found it thrilling—far more thrilling than any of the previous books, with nearly a dozen fabulous set pieces and a constant sense of real danger to our hero and his friends. But I also found it far less enjoyable a reading experience than any of the previous books, with little of the invention and delight those books delivered. And the short shrift it gives so many of the supporting characters I'd grown to love over the course of the previous six novels was deeply frustrating to me. I think this is related to an issue we'd brought up previously: the abandonment of the previous novels' school-year structure in favor of a hero's quest.

In practice, this meant that long stretches of Deathly Hallows—almost 400 of the book's 759 pages—are spent with no one but Harry, Ron, Hermione and whomever they meet while on the run from Voldemort and in search of the Horcruxes. And when more than half your book is spent in tents with three heroic but desperate teens, you're left little time for the thorough resolution of a score of other characters' stories.

Why, for example, would Rowling—knowing how compelling and divisive a character she'd created in Snape—give us only a fleeting moment in which the doomed spy encounters Harry himself? Why would she tell the rich story of Snape's love of Lily—one of the few things I guessed right, incidentally—through a flood of Pensieve memories, the book equivalent of the Keyser Söze montage at the end of The Usual Suspects? And is my sense of story old-fashioned because I wish that she'd allowed Snape the chance to actively redeem himself, not through an early death, but through some dramatic action at the moment of highest crisis?

The novel does feature some wonderful storytelling. Don't discount the power of mortal peril to Imperius us readers into frantically turning the pages. Voldemort's death—as fuzzy as I still am on the particulars of how exactly it worked—is quite well-handled, with the villain enraged when a newly wise Harry offers him a chance to feel remorse. And several heroes' death scenes, especially those of Dobby and Fred, give the kind of bittersweet pleasure that's the hallmark of great adventure writing. (Though I do wish Tonks' and Lupin's deaths hadn't been so offhand.) I'm thankful Rowling was wise enough to set the novel's final battle at beloved Hogwarts, where Harry fights not just for his friends, or his life, but for the place that for six books has offered him a true home, "the first and best home he had known." For an entire generation of readers, Hogwarts was their first and best literary home, forever, and it was a joy to see the suits of armor clattering to life, Peeves the ghost dropping Snargaluff pods on Death Eaters, and professor McGonagall herding a stampede of galloping school desks down the hall into battle.

Whew! There's so much more to discuss, but let's open the floor to you, Polly, and to our new correspondent Will Leitch, editor of Deadspin. Did you love it? Did you hate it? And how exactly did the Sword of Gryffindor get in the Sorting Hat?

Yours in tired eyeballs,

Dan

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