It is hard to believe all of the ink spilled over the release of the final installment of Harry Potter. Allow me to spill a few pixels too. While I was reading the penultimate book and watching the British Open millions of fans were lining up to get the book, furiously reading it to find out what happened, and then discussing it with family and friends. I, however, was studiously avoiding anything that might give away the ending or key events.
Monday night I was able to complete the final chapter in the saga and yesterday and today I read quite a bit of commentary online. Yesterday, I jotted down some thoughts on the series as a whole. Today, I offer my thoughts on Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.
The big question has to be: was it worth the wait? I have to say yes. It was a thrilling and moving conclusion to a wonderful series. Was it perfect? Not surprisingly, no. I am sure almost every fan had something they wish was different or some aspect of the book they didn’t understand. Critics can go on at some length about nits they would like to pick, etc. See the Slate book club or Ross Douthat for an example. As with all of the last four books I think it could have been edited in such a way that the writing was tighter and the plot smoother, but obviously the publisher was not interested in this strategy. I found it suspenseful and enjoyable. A few complaints, however, along with what I liked are listed below.
As I noted yesterday, I find the Potter series more enjoyable if you don’t try to pull it all apart and put it back together again. Alan Jacobs, someone who has written wisely about Harry Potter in the past and whose review I look forward to, noted something important. Jacobs uses Chesterton’s approach to the â€œpenny dreadfulsâ€ – popular adventure stories for boys – to shed light on what is in his view the proper approach to Rowling and Harry Potter. Jacobs notes that Chesterton argued:
[T]he critics were making a grave mistake in applying certain â€œliteraryâ€ standards of judgment to the â€œpenny dreadfuls.â€ â€œThis class of composition has presumably always existed, and must exist. It has no more claim to be good literature than the daily conversation of its readers to be fine oratory, or the lodging-houses and tenements they inhabit to be sublime architecture. But people must have conversation, they must have houses, and they must have stories. The simple need for some kind of ideal world in which fictitious persons play an unhampered part is infinitely deeper and older than the rules of good art, and much more important. Every one of us in childhood has constructed such an invisible dramatis personae, but it never occurred to our nurses to correct the composition by careful comparison with Balzac.â€
I think Jacobs is wise to apply this to Rowling and the Harry Potter series.
Putting aside the likes of Harold Bloom and others who look down their noses at Rowling, however, even fans of the series might have grown to expect too much. It seems that as the story grew more complex and the content more mature some of the adult readers began to look for more than just entertaining stories. They wanted epic mythology and perhaps even a literary classic. They wanted something that would solidify in an adult way the greatness of the series; that would say this was more than children’s entertainment. Russell Arben Fox explicitly admits as much but still concludes that he is a fan. Much of the fan criticism of the final book seems to come from this perspective; a tendency to treat it like literature of a higher level.
I largely avoided this problem because I am neither as die-hard a fan as Fox nor as astute a critic as Douthat. The key to enjoying Rowling is getting lost in the story. In this way I think Deathly Hollows succeeded. The last book provided both an exiting adventure with new characters and plot lines as well as a conclusion to the series. Harry becomes a man and a leader and we witness the final destruction of Voldermort. Fittingly, everyone returns to Hogwarts in the end. Rowling ties up most of the loose ends and gives us a glimpse of all the main characters even if not to the liking of everyone.
As critics have noted, the final book differs significantly as it no longer has the familiar structure of the Hogwarts school year. Instead we have two quests that interact and in some way compete. The search for, and destruction of, the horcruxes and the newly introduced legend of the three hallows.
I thought the introduction of the hallows was interesting as it added another wrinkle to the story line and provided a way to give further depth to Dumbledore’s character and to link to the history of magic. Did these to quests get a little messy and overly complex at times? Sure. And as noted, Rowling indulged a little bit in the middle of the book as she has for the last three. Did we really need that much of Harry, Ron, and Hermione jumping from camp site to camp site arguing about what to do next? Did Harry have to contemplate his isolation and impossible burden quite so much? No, but it didn’t bother me that much. It was nothing like my annoyance with The Order of the Phoenix.
There were a number of exciting set pieces: the seven Potter’s decoy and resulting battle; the break in at the Ministry of Magic; the escape from the Malfoy Manor; the break out of Gringotts bank; and of course the final battle at Hogwarts. I thought these action sections made up for the slower parts. And I kind of enjoyed the way Rowling slowly filled in the history of magic as she tied up the story lines.
If there was one aspect I didn’t like about Deathly Hallows it was the epilogue. It just felt a little too cheesy to me. Perhaps this is the adult view, but it seemed to paint too rosy a picture or end on too mundane a note. It seemed to indicate that this cataclysmic event happened but after awhile everything went back to normal and everybody lived happily ever after. It didn’t ruin it for me, but I guess I prefer the mix of happiness and sadness at the end of LOTR.
So to wrap up this long winded post with some semblance of a point, I enjoyed the books and think Rowling should be commended for creating such a creative and enjoyable alternate world for readers to experience. But let’s not get to carried away and slip into a debate about literature or enduring works of art. Rowling provided untold hours of reading pleasure for millions of people. That is something worth celebrating. It can, and should be, as simple as that.