Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

SPOILER! The Ending Was a Disappointing Cop-Out
New books dissected over email.
July 23 2007 6:54 PM

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

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Illustration by Charlie Powell. Click image to expand.

Warning: This Book Club conversation contains spoilers about the final Harry Potter book.

Ha! She did it—she brought in plenty of gray. She gave Dumbledore a complex past and mixed motives, made Snape a wild romantic, turned Kreacher cuddly, partly redeemed the Malfoys, and even taught Dudley to say thank you! The new complexity doesn't stretch to Harry, but otherwise she delivered.

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Dan, you totally called the Snape-loves-Lily thing. And I called the death of Tonks and Lupin—they're dead as Dumbledorenails. And we were both wrong about Harry as a Horcrux.

But only half wrong, as you say, just as Harry only half died. Harry may not go through death exactly—Dumbledore's spirit claims not, anyway ("I think we can agree that you're not dead," he tells Harry)—but he does spend a dramatic scene in its waiting room while his body lies lifeless in the Forbidden Forest. I agree, she copped out there. Forgive me for sounding like a Grawp-sized sourpuss, but I disliked like the ending, especially what happened between Harry and Voldemort. The whole business about how Harry and Voldemort's entanglement affects their ability to die felt as slippery as Nagini.

Take that famous prophecy: "Either must die at the hand of the other, for neither can live while the other survives." In fact, both of them live for more than 16 years after Harry survives Voldemort's initial attack, so what could that second clause possibly mean? That they can't both live forever? Well, duh. I assumed there would be some trick answer, but no: It seems to mean that eventually one of them will die and the other will survive—though that's not at all what it says, and anyway it seems pretty obvious, unless you expect them to die simultaneously. Oh, but wait—maybe they do die simultaneously, Dumbledore's assertion to the contrary notwithstanding, when their bodies fall lifeless and their spirits appear in King's Cross Station with Dumbledore's. Or, if Dumbledore is right and they're both alive in that scene, then once again, they both live after Harry survives Voldemort's attack.

So much for the second clause. What about the first? Does it mean that one of them will kill the other (since nothing but Voldemort can kill Harry, and vice versa)? Perhaps, but their fateful encounter—especially as Dumbledore's spirit explains it in the heavenly train station—implies the opposite. Voldemort "took your blood and rebuilt his living body with it! Your blood is in his veins, Harry, Lily's protection inside both of you! He tethered you to live while he lives!" says the dead Dumbledore. "He took into his body a tiny part of the enchantment your mother laid upon you when she died for you. His body keeps her sacrifice alive, and while that enchantment survives, so do you and so does Voldemort's one last hope for himself."

So Lily's enchantment, the magic of her sacrifice, is keeping them both alive. Then why is Harry eventually able to kill Voldemort irrefutably? In the death scene that Dan found confusing, Harry and Voldemort shoot spells at each other while the sun rises. Harry's is the spell to disarm a wizard of his wand; Voldemort's is the killing curse. Harry's spell disarms Voldemort and sends Voldemort's curse back to kill its maker. You might argue that Harry doesn't actually kill Voldemort, since the Dark Guy falls by his own spell (though that seems to contradict the darn prophecy all over again). Still, if Voldemort has Lily's blessing strengthening him through Harry's blood, how is he able to die? Perhaps you'll say that Lily's enchantment doesn't work on Voldemort, only on Harry. But Dumbledore doesn't make that claim, and this seems to imply otherwise: "While that enchantment survives, so do you and so does Voldemort's one last hope for himself" (italics mine). It feels like cheating to me. As does the explanation of why Voldemort has spent the last umpteen thousand pages trying to kill Harry, who's one of his own Horcruxes: Voldemort was so muddled from all that soul-splitting that he didn't notice he'd hidden a seventh fragment of his soul in Harry. You'd think he'd pay attention to the whereabouts of his own soul. But if he didn't notice, then why would Harry's survival preserve his "hope for himself"?

Unsatisfying as I found the mechanics of who could or couldn't kill whom and why, it wasn't half as unsatisfying as the underlying psychology. Here's where the gray didn't go far enough. I continue to feel that if Harry is a Horcrux, a creature containing a piece of the Dark Lord's soul, he should show a little moral ugliness or at least temptation. Yes, he gets grouchy and preoccupied for a few pages while he considers hunting for the Deathly Hallows—three magical objects that together can defeat death—before winding up his Horcrux quest, but that's pretty much it for his dark side.

I don't mean to suggest that Rowling needed to give Harry a dark side. It would have made him more interesting to me, but I'm sure lots of readers prefer him this way, and it's her choice, not mine. Since she chose not to, though, the Horcrux Harry thing felt like a mechanical fudge rather than a deep solution to the mystery of how good struggles with evil. 

Not for the first time, I missed the dramatic pacing of the shorter, tighter, early books. I was glad, though not in the least surprised, that Snape redeems himself, but yeah—what was with that peculiar break in the climactic Last Battle? Hold your wands, everybody: We now pause while Harry wanders off to watch Pensieve for half an hour.

Still, on the whole I liked this book more than I expected, more than any of the previous three. Unlike Dan, I found Tonks' and Lupin's off-screen deaths quite moving. I thought it was very effective to let us experience Harry's shock at seeing their bodies and then to rush us off like him without leisure to mourn. I, too, shed a tear for Dobby and enjoyed professor McGonagall's stampeding school desks. I was impressed by how many guffaws Rowling got into such a dark story, in fact—I used up a pack of stick-its flagging funny lines. (When the Weasley twins take on Harry's appearance to act as decoys and confuse the Death Eaters, they drink the potion, look at each other, and say together, "Wow—we're identical!"; when Harry turns 17 and is finally allowed to do magic, he uses his wand to tie his shoelaces—"the resultant knot took several minutes to untie by hand.") And although, like Dan, I missed the scenes at Hogwarts, I thought tearing Harry and his friends from their beloved school gave the story a sense of danger and urgency. And I loved meeting the next generation in the epilogue.

How does the Sword of Gryffindor get into the Sorting Hat? Easy: magic. Actually, that sword stunt was one of my favorite of Rowling's jokes when she first used it in the Chamber of Secrets, a riff on what grouches like me might say about her endings: She pulls them out of a hat.

Am I just mad that it's over? Somebody please convince me that it really was the magical tour de force I longed for.

Best,
Polly

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

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