Wednesday, July 25, 2007

The Bookshelf #3: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

This is gonna be my last post for a bit, as I’m moving and am not sure how quickly I’ll get the internet set up at my new place. Plus, packing boxes and gathering trash makes me tired. But not too tired to read the final installment of the Harry Potter saga all in one day, it seems. J.K. Rowling’s ability to write a great page-turner was obviously a factor, but I can’t discount the fact that I was sick and tired of skipping over the spoiler heavy threads that dominated discussion fora. Either way I’m glad I took the time out for it, though it did put me behind packing-wise (and this thing ain’t exactly small in itself.)

HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS marks the end of a series of kid’s adventure books which very gradually and subtly morphed into a heroic saga without us noticing that the transition had taken place. As such, it is burdened with tying up all the mysteries and subplots Rowling kept developing and teasing us with over seven volumes. It mostly succeeds; I suspect there’s a loose end or two still lying about (Rowling at some point plans to write an encyclopedia of sorts detailing the world of the books), but emotionally everything is about spot-on, and the payoff for the characters is incredibly satisfying. I won’t be spoiling the ending as such, but there will be plot details similar to what I normally dole out, so if you want to go into this with a completely blank slate, read the book and come back later. This’ll be on the front page for a while.

Harry Potter’s seventeenth birthday is coming up, which is a bit of a mixed blessing for him. On the one hand it means that the ward of protection placed on him by his parents, which prevents Lord Voldemort from killing him outright, will expire. On the other, it means he’ll be able to cast spells outside of Hogwarts without attracting attention, and with the Ministry of Magic heavily infiltrated by Voldemort’s loyal Death Eaters, he’d really rather lay low. The Order of the Phoenix attempts to hide Harry away while he prepares to go hunting for Horcruxes, objects containing pieces of Voldemort’s soul which keep the reptilian dark lord immortal. His friends Ron and Hermione insist on tagging along, and when word gets out that the Ministry of Magic has been completely taken over by the Death Eaters, all three begin a long flight trying to both evade the clutches of Voldemort’s minions and snatch the Horcruxes from wherever they’re hidden. Secrets about the late Albus Dumbledore’s past are revealed, the Deathly Hallows of the title come into play, heroes die, villains also die, buildings explode, babies are born- the word “Potterdammerung” has sprung up frequently, and it’s appropriate.

The appeal of the Potter series has always been just a little bit tricky to pin down. The books are not hugely original, Rowling’s prose is nothing extraordinary, and the plotting is sometimes too convoluted for its own good. But after seven books I think I’ve got it. Rowling is very good indeed with handling the mechanics of the epic fantasy saga: the building of a world, and the setting up of conflicts within that world, and the fleshing out of everything with very specific groups and places and things. There is always some new toy to be discovered- Quidditch, Floo Dust, the Patronus, Occlumency, the Horcruxes, the Hallows- and they always contribute something to the whole, while at the same time Rowling always adds an element of the mundane to remind us that people live in this world day to day. The complexity of Potter’s magical universe, one that seems to exist off to one side of the normal Muggle realm, gives it a life and a lure; we always want to know more because there is always more to be known.

And I can’t fault her for characterization either. We don’t meet many new people here, but that’s okay because the stage is already crowded with the accumulated supporting cast of six entire books. Even the fact that Albus Dumbledore is dead doesn’t keep him off-page entirely. However, the emphasis is squarely kept on Harry, Ron, and Hermione, the partnership that existed ever since the first book and forms the emotional core of the series. Their friendships (and in Ron and Hermione’s case, relationship) are tested to their limit, and we want them to pull through. Other relationships are also in jeopardy, as are, let’s face it, nearly all the characters in the entire series. This being a bit of a farewell tour of the Potterverse, just about everyone still extant shows up to do their part for good or evil. Rowling has a knack for creating memorable people, with characters who are strong enough to be distinct and easily kept track of but also possessed of a certain nuance in their personalities.

Another reason why the series has worked, and why the book does, is that the villains are just so good. Heavily drawing on World War II parallels, Rowling portrays Voldemort and the Death Eaters as the ultimate jackbooted fascists, dedicated to wiping out Muggle-born wizards, ruling over Muggle kind, and preserving pureblood lines in a particularly incestuous form of racial supremacy. They even have their own Brown Shirts, the Snatchers, hooligans who get paid to snatch suspected “Mudbloods” wherever they can be found. We get a tour of the newly revamped Ministry of Magic in a chapter strongly reminiscient of Terry Gilliam’s BRAZIL, and a return appearance by what may be the best evil character in the series, Dolores Umbridge, a kind of magical Margaret Thatcher who puts a transparent veneer of pleasantness on top of pure petty sadism. Of course, Severus Snape also re-emerges one last time, and the question of what he’s been up to is finally resolved.

The book does have a slightly crude, unfinished feel at times- though the books have grown increasingly mammoth throughout the life of the series, this is the first (and thus only) one that really feels like it’s unusually long, and it seems a bit overstuffed and slow. Part of the pacing is deliberate, meant to evoke the difficulty of a truly epic quest, much like the space devoted to the journey in LORD OF THE RINGS, but a repetitiveness does set in. The story also gets a bit messy, and there’s quite a bit of infodumping. That said, the same is true for a lot of epic saga finales, from LORD OF THE RINGS to STAR WARS to BUFFY- only when you have no time left to wrap everything up do you realize how much there is lying around. Much like changing apartments.

It is difficult to talk about the thematic payoff to the series without spoiling everything- suffice it to say, it boils down to basic questions of morality and mortality, and especially how we deal with the latter. The question of just what lies beyond is dealt with, as is the nature of faith and trust. The climactic scenes are thrilling, but also deeply moving, as characters learn to put their trust in each other despite their flaws, and true loyalties are proven. There is tragedy and nobility and spirituality, all woven within a gripping final battle. Getting vague again. Sorry. Some have accused the book’s epilogue of being just a little trite, but I think the story earns it.

HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS is exactly what I could have hoped for from the finale to this series. It is neither too dark or too light, it does not ignore what has gone before or fail to introduce anything new, it is predictable in some ways but surprising in others. One of the nice things about the “cultural phenomenon” of Harry Potter is the way it calls attention to the inherent discovery of the act of reading, and the treasure-like nature of those little bundles of high-grade wood pulp that manage to bring us so much joy. These aren’t the best books I’ve read, but damn if they aren’t page turners. Rowling writes a good stick, and I wish her luck in finding something else to do with her talent, or just rolling around in piles of money. Either way, Harry Potter’s journey has been one worth taking, and his world is one I hope we see again. There are always more secrets to be discovered.

Grade: A

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