- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 29, 2007


By J.K. Rowling

Scholastic, $34.99, 784 pages


“Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows,” the final installment of J.K. Rowling’s celebrated children’s series, opens — unlike its predecessors — with an epigraph. The convention itself, more common in adult novels than children’s, promises a darker, more difficult book.

And true to this formal promise, the substance of the quotation, taken from Aeschylus’ “The Libation Bearers,” invokes the cruel and remorseless world of Greek tragedy: “Oh, the torment bred in the race, the grinding scream of death and the stroke that hits the vein … the curse no man can bear.” Childhood, Ms. Rowling intimates, is over for Harry, Ron, Hermione and their fellows.

Certainly, this final volume is the darkest book in the series: Voldemort’s Death Eaters overthrow The Ministry of Magic, and the English magical community confronts the rise of a regime with a Nazi-esque preference for citizens of “pure-blood” (magical, as opposed to non-magical “muggle,” ancestors), strict policies for the registration of muggle-born witches and wizards, and vigilant surveillance of the rest of the magical population. Many from the Order of the Phoenix and Dumbledore’s Army die. Many more suffer torture or are forced into hiding, Harry, Ron and Hermione among them.

The structure of this Potter book has grown up too. The familiar school-year calendar that structured the other six books disappears in this, the seventh: No Hogwarts Express ride, no classes, no Quidditch matches, no Christmas holidays, no exams. The “Harry Potter” series leaves behind the comfortable, familiar school story genre. The small world of Hogwarts, with its adolescent pleasures and pains (chocolate frogs, hijinks after hours, detentions, dung bombs, crushes and flirtations) is gone, replaced by a more somber (though not joyless) narrative of quest and war.

Harry, along with Ron and Hermione, sets out to find and destroy Voldemort’s remaining horcruxes (objects Voldemort enchanted to contain pieces of his soul as a means of making himself immortal). The Death Eater ministry has put a price on Harry’s head, and bands of “snatchers” roam the countryside in search of him, muggle-borns and other enemies of the state.

The three friends are forced into hiding, camping in remote forests and moors, scavenging for food and frustrated in their attempts to locate the horcruxes. Dumbledore’s instructions for their quest seem cryptic and insufficient, and Dumbledore himself becomes an object of suspicion when several disturbing stories about his past surface.

Isolated (and somewhat alienated) from parental mentor figures, Harry and friends are forced to determine their path alone. This crucial step in the bildungsroman tradition makes for some satisfyingly harrowing scenes, but the first half of the book also has moments at which it feels disconnectedly episodic, and some of the episodes push even the fantasy genre’s generous limits of plausibility (the dragon-back escape from Gringott’s, for example, as well as Ron’s all-too-conveniently timed reappearance in the chapter “The Silver Doe”).

This is a relatively minor flaw, however. As she has already proven in the first six “Potter” books, Ms. Rowling is a master of plot architecture, and there is ultimately a symphonic quality to the plotting of “The Deathly Hallows” that surpasses all of the previous volumes. Each volume of the series has made it more evident that the seemingly self-contained plots of the individual installments were actually building, one upon the other.

On a grander scale than any of the previous books, the final “Harry Potter” draws upon all of its predecessors as rich storehouses of clues and pre-history that allow it an astonishing complexity: So many characters, living and dead, with a role to play; so many stories, old and new, gracefully intertwining to draw Harry and his allies toward the final clash with Voldemort.

The epigraph taken from Greek tragedy, one of the most violent and punishing genres in the Western literary canon, is somewhat deceptive. For all of the portentousness of the Aeschylus epigraph, “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows,” as much as its predecessors — perhaps more so — is decidedly a children’s book, in the best sense.

Children’s literature offers much that is rarely found in common life: Confrontations with stark and indisputable evil, tremendous losses and suffering, fantastic adventure and intrigue, magic. But most important, and perhaps most gratifying, is the unequivocal triumph of right and goodness. This triumph justifies and then eclipses the losses that made it possible. The world is made right again and the survivors are not psychically broken by their efforts — they enjoy life again, they thrive.

For grown readers, the pleasure offered by the “Harry Potter” series and similar works is their allowing us to experience — to believe in, however fleetingly or wistfully — the kind of idealism and heroism that most of us lose faith in, willingly or not, in adulthood.

This is not to say, however, that children’s literature does not have ancient roots. One of the most fascinating aspects of the children’s fantasy genre as Ms. Rowling practices it is its striking correspondence to the ancient epic tradition, in all of its hero- and nation-making high seriousness. (Much might be said about how epic, a genre that emerged and defined early human civilization, is now relegated to literature for humans in the early stages of life: From infancy to infancy, one might say.)

“Harry Potter” takes much from Homer and Virgil — visits to and from the dead, prophecies, fantastic beasts to be slain, enchantresses to be escaped, magical objects, tragic flaws, heroic friends lost in combat, battles and choices of world-determining import. But heroism and glory in war are not ends in and of themselves in “Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows,” as they are in the “Iliad,” “Odyssey” and “Aeneid.”

All of the sublime feats of daring and self-sacrifice that this last, best volume offers are done to keep the mundane yet magical manifestations of human love going: Friendship, family, marriage, children, education. As the epilogue demonstrates unquestionably, the purpose of heroism is not to become a hero, but to preserve the people, places, traditions and values that gave you the strength to confront death and pain in the first place.

Emily Wilkinson is a Ph.D. candidate in English literature at Stanford University.

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