Ever a wiz
SO this is how a world ends; not with a whimper but a grand and glorious bang.
In “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows,” the seventh and, we have been told, final book of the wildly popular series, author J.K. Rowling gives her readers, and her characters, precisely what they crave -- excitement, insight, closure and catharsis galore. Weddings, births, dragons, bank robberies, stolen kisses, stolen swords, broken tombs, exploding horns, long-lost siblings and, of course, all the magic, loyalty, treachery and wizard battles 759 pages can hold.
The only thing Rowling didn’t include is Quidditch; there is not one single match of Quidditch played in “Deathly Hallows” but only because there is much more important business afoot. As in any good fantasy epic, the line between good and evil is drawn, the armies assembled, the various magic tokens discovered and the final battle launched. But unlike the predecessors to whom she is invariably compared, Rowling is neither illuminating Christian myth (C.S. Lewis) nor confronting a post-trench-warfare world of industrial corruption (J.R.R. Tolkien). Instead she is sharing a more populist message: The real quest in life is that of personal transformation, and not even the Chosen One can go it alone.
No one comes out of “Deathly Hallows” precisely the way they go in (except, perhaps, Luna Lovegood, one of Rowling’s most gorgeously fey creations). Throughout the series, the three main child characters -- Harry, Hermione Granger and Ron Weasley -- have changed before our very eyes as Rowling deftly captured both the natural maturation process of each and the effect shared experiences have on friendships. In this final book, they, and most of their friends and enemies, learn precisely what they are each capable of.
At the start of “Deathly Hallows,” Harry may think that the task given to him by Dumbledore before the headmaster’s death -- to destroy the Horcruxes that hold bits of Voldemort’s soul and make him mortal once again -- is a solitary one, but he has never been so wrong. The orphan boy who has struggled so long to find a home, is in fact, surrounded by friends and allies willing to risk their lives for him, whether he likes it or not. Even with his parents, godfather Sirius and mentor Dumbledore dead, Harry’s trouble is not that he will never have a family but accepting the fact that he does have one. Which can bring its own set of problems.
The search for the Horcruxes takes Harry, Ron and Hermione away from the safety of home, Hogwarts and even the wizarding world; by the book’s midpoint, both the school and the Ministry of Magic seem firmly under Voldemort’s thumb. Along the way, the trio encounters vicious Death Eaters, bounty hunters and friends turned informants, but the more dangerous obstacles are psychological. A look into Dumbledore’s past reveals that he was not always the wise and just leader Harry and company knew him to be, and, confidence shaken, Harry begins to question the journey itself just as he has long questioned his ability to battle Voldemort.
Our heroes encounter setbacks and triumphs, mistakes are made by everyone (including, gasp, Hermione), characters we love are hurt, some are killed, and slowly the beast slouches toward Hogwarts where the final battle, in all its nape-prickling splendor, occurs. There are digressions into wizard lore that bog the narrative down a bit, more magic tokens than most epics require (someone could give a seminar on wand logic alone), and at times, especially toward the end, explanations come in full paragraph discourse, of the sort referred to in “The Incredibles” as “monologuing.”
But not even Dumbledore is perfect, and, quibbles aside, what Rowling has achieved in this book and the series can be described only as astonishing.
Just as her characters have matured, the language and tone of the books have grown in sophistication and lyricism. But she has never lost the sense of wonder that has propelled her into literary legend. What drew readers to “Harry Potter” in the first place was Rowling’s loving attention to the magical mundane, her ability to create a believable, consistent world that could, quite possibly, exist parallel to this one, a world of humor and danger and endless whimsy. Who doesn’t want to have dinner in the Great Hall of Hogwarts? Who doesn’t want to go to a school with moving staircases and learn how to literally stun enemies?
Throughout the books, Rowling’s devotion to magical props, back story and fantastic detail -- moving portraits and Hippogriffs, the Marauder’s Map and the pensieve -- never flagged, and it does not fail her now. Everything but the vomit-flavored jelly beans seems to have a part to play in the final showdown.
Likewise none of her characters is abandoned. In the climactic face-off between the Death Eaters and the forces of good, even Professor Trelawney has the chance to heave a deadly crystal ball. Characters like Neville Longbottom and Professor Flitwick show their mettle, and Mrs. Weasley channels, for one brief instant, Sigourney Weaver.
But it is war, after all, and there are casualties. Harry is a hero in the classic sense of the term, Voldemort is truly evil as only a mass murderer can be, both Snape and Dumbledore are more complicated than they seem, you can’t believe everything you read on the Internet and Kleenex will be required.
Still, the final page leaves nothing so much as a sense of exhilaration. Proof of human achievement, whether from solitary author or teen wizard and friends, is the point of all art, after all. To create such an extraordinary world, fill it with complicated characters and convergent back stories is beyond the reach of most writers. To sustain that world and grow those characters over seven books filled with plot twists, folklore and even a magical curriculum and then bring it all to an articulate, emotionally wrenching conclusion -- that is a truly epic quest.
How she did it without an Invisibility Cloak or a Quick-Quotes Quill remains the one bit of magic that defies belief.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
Illustrations by Mary Grandpre
Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic: 759 pp., $34.99