Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

Review of the novel Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J. K. Rowling

The Harry Potter series wraps up at long last: After publishing the first three books in 3 years, it took another 8 years for J.K. Rowling to write the last four. Of course, each of the four is twice as long as any of the three, so there you go.

If you’ve surfed in here and haven’t yet read the book, be advised that there are spoilers after the Read More link below, although I’ve tried to keep the first half of the review free of them.

Deathly Hallows starts, as the other books do, at the end of the summer between school years, but this time the book promptly heads off into new territory: As Harry is enemy number one where the resurrected Lord Voldemort is concerned, and since his mystical protection will evaporate as soon as he turns 17 (which is the age of maturity for wizards), the Order of the Phoenix plans to hide Harry for his protection. Not everything goes as planned, but Harry finally ends up in a safe house.

While preparing for the marriage of Ron’s brother Bill to Fleur Delacoeur, our trio of heroes (Harry, Ron and Hermione) start planning how they can go about finding the remaining Horcruxes containing fragments of Voldemort’s soul, since if they can destroy them all, then they can bring about the dark wizard’s downfall. Unfortunately, the downfall of some powerful forces on the side of good in the wizarding world leave the three on the run from the ascendant dark lord’s forces, with precious little idea of how to proceed other than trying to stay one step ahead of their pursuers.

Their adventures on the road involve personal conflicts, a variety of traps, and learning some surprising facts about Harry’s family and Dumbledore’s history. They also learn of the existence of the Deathly Hallows, some powerful magical artifacts which could turn the tide against Voldemort, but which – like the Horcruxes – are well-hidden, if they even exist at all.

I freely admit that the fifth book, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, sapped my enthusiasm for the Harry Potter series. It became clear to me that J.K. Rowling was no longer being edited, and she really needed a strong editor, because she too easily fell in love with her own typing. Phoenix badly needed to be cut at least in half, and Half-Blood Prince, though better, was also too long and had long stretches of boring in it. So I didn’t approach Deathly Hallows in a very forgiving frame of mind, since it was another giant tome.

That said, Hallows has some things to recommend it. It’s a very different book from its predecessors, having very little of the “kid’s stuff” feel of those books: It’s all deadly serious, and Harry and friends are mostly left to their own devices, as Rowling puts them in the role of the “last, best hope” for the good guys. The story has finality written all over it: The stakes have never been higher, and the story revolves around Harry’s and Dumbledore’s backgrounds (much as Prince revolved around Voldemort’s), bringing a strong feeling of coming full circle.

But, dammit, the book is still too darned long. It takes nearly a quarter of the book to finally get Harry and company on the road looking for Horcruxes; the pages before are a very, very gradual build-up of elements of the story, and once again I wished Rowling would just get on with it. Heck, the whole first chapter is completely superfluous and should have been cut. I’m still of the mind that Rowling simply fell in love with the sound of her typing, and had enough clout to keep her words from being edited, even though she really, really badly needed some serious editing.

The book takes some strange turns once Harry is on the road, and some of them don’t ring true. And then it still takes quite a while before the shape of the story becomes known. Eventually, the conflict becomes not just the one between the forces of good and evil, but the temptation of the Deathly Hallows for Harry: To follow the course Dumbledore set for him to destroy the horcruxes, or to go for the seemingly-certain victory by seeking the Hallows. This is actually a surprisingly sophisticated conflict for what is otherwise not a very subtle series, and I wish more time had been spent on it, rather than the noodling around which occupies the first half of the book. (The insight into Dumbledore is not uninteresting, but it’s not essential either. A lot of it is spun out of whole cloth just to increase the suspense in this volume, with little connection to earlier volumes.)

Deathly Hallows feels so divorced from the rest of the series that it makes several of the early books feel even less relevant: Goblet of Fire can be boiled down to Voldemort returning from the dead, Order is little more than giving Harry a reason to hate Voldemort because of what he does to Sirius Black, and Prince is partly Voldemort’s backstory and partly the set-up for this book. It feels like you could read the first three books, and then just skim the next three to get to the “good stuff” that’s in here.

And as usual I think the cover of the U.K. edition (pictured above) is much better than that of the U.S. edition. Mary GrandPré’s art is not at all to my taste, so I’m glad to have the British editions instead.

The bottom line in my opinion is that this book is more suspenseful than the two before it, and feels more necessary to the overall story, but Rowling still needed to be seriously edited to cut down the volume of extraneous material and make the story more streamlined and enjoyable. She could still surprise and delight, but not like she could in the first three, shorter books. My final feeling is that I’m glad the series is over because I don’t think I could have pushed through much more of her verbiage, and that’s not a good epitaph for any series. The core magic of Harry Potter was the feeling that Harry was a normal boy who found that he was really extraordinary, but that magic is far in the past. Deathly Hallows is just a straightforward adventure story.

Beyond this point are spoilers for the book, so don’t continue if you don’t want to be spoiled!

The character interplay among Harry, Ron and Hermione is really annoying at times. I completely did not believe that Ron would fight with Harry and then storm off the way he did. Geez, how many times do they have to learn the same lesson again? Okay, I understand that they’re teenagers, but things that real teenagers do don’t necessarily work in fiction, especially heroic fiction. It seemed like every book involved the trio learning to trust each other and believe in their friendship, and always after having some break with one another. It got pretty repetitive.

The book is pretty bloody, with many supporting characters passing away, especially in the big battle at the end. This is always a difficult choice in a book, since a lot of the characters aren’t given much of a send-off due to both everything going on, and the volume of death. It’s very hard to navigate the tension between verisimiltude and dramatic payoff, and I don’t think Rowling’s writing skills were up to the task. While Dobby gets a sentimental send-off, Hedwig’s end feels like it’s given the short shrift, and Lupin – one of the best characters in the series – is just one of the body count at the Battle of Hogwarts.

Lupin is really treated abominably in the story, with his moment of panic when he tries to abandon his wife, Tonks, when she becomes pregnant is just pathetic. It doesn’t even serve the role of letting Harry be an authority figure, since there are plenty of other ways to accomplish that. It’s a scene that badly needed to be cut. Lupin was always something of a tragic figure, and he deserved a better end than this.

(Luna Lovegood’s father Xenophilius – aside from having perhaps the most forced-sounding name in the series – comes off similarly pathetic in a likewise-unnecessary scene, although since he’s a new character as of this book, it’s hard to shed a tear for him.)

Despite mishandling Ron and Lupin, Rowling does provide some nice character moments elsewhere: The departure of the Dursleys ends with a nice exchange between Harry and Dudley. Harry has his final confrontation with Draco Malfoy, and it was nice to see Malfoy shown to be not quite a complete idiot, realizing that he and his family have gotten in way over their head and earning a modicum of redemption. (It’s also hands-down the best action sequence of the book.)

Surely the best suspenseful moment is when the trio are captured by the Malfoys and Hermione is tortured. There were rumors that some major characters – maybe Harry himself – might die in the book, and this was the moment when Rowling made me think she might really go through with it. This scene might be her finest moment as a writer so far. Of course, it would have been difficult to make the story really pay off had any of the three actually died, since the series had taken such pains to make them equals as well as friends. But it’s the threat that it could have happened that made this a brilliant scene.

The book’s epilogue is weirdly unsatisfying. There’s very little there which we hadn’t basically figured out already, so generic is the writing here. It feels very peculiar that Harry fought his way through six years of school and didn’t have the closure of a graduation ceremony. The implications is obviously that after what he’s been through he didn’t need it, but it still leaves the series feeling incomplete: It was always at its best when portraying the wizarding experience, not when dealing with the threat of the dark lord. (Indeed, the early books are at their cheesiest when the Voldemort rears his head.) The epilogue would have worked better had it focused on the specifics of where Harry’s life had gone after the events of the series, rather than the overused “circle begins anew” approach we’re given with our heroes’ children. The Wikipedia entry fills in some other information, but it’s not the facts but their presentation which is the flaw here.)

I wonder how Harry Potter will be remembered in the future? My guess is that 20 years from now it will be recalled as a best-selling series, but not a particularly good or groundbreaking one. Children’s fantasy series such as Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle In Time, C.S. Lewis’ Narnia series, Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising, and John Christopher’s Tripods trilogy (all from the 1960s) are still memorable decades later, for new generations of readers, but I don’t think Harry Potter will be among their company.

4 thoughts on “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows”

  1. Spoilers included.

    My biggest problem with the book was the prominence of the title elements. If you’re looking for stuff to cut – and I agree that, like its predecessors, it needed some editing – that’s gotta be job one. With that, most of Dumbledore’s backstory and the lengthy “Horcrux on tour” segment go away and the book is a lot shorter. While the conflict between the Horcrux-quest and the Hallows is subtle and more adult, and I like the theme, introducing it halfway through the last book of the seven book series, and using it to justify some of the other elements I didn’t like (Luna’s father, Lupin’s panic, various off-camera deaths) left a bad taste in my mouth.

    I disagree that in 20 years it won’t be recalled as a groundbreaking series, though we’ll just have to wait and see. It is possible that if JK Rowling doesn’t write new material, and doesn’t sharecrop out her universe to continue to produce it, it won’t be as highly regarded as the books you mention. (And I really must borrow Susan’s The Dark Is Rising books and devour them; that’s one series I missed, somehow.)

  2. My take on The Dark is Rising series is highly nonstandard: I loved Over Sea, Under Stone, but thought The Dark is Rising was trite. Apparently the film will focus on the latter and exclude the former, which doesn’t surprise me since the latter is by far the more popular, but it’s not at all the stuff I’m interested in. My dim recollection is that I thought the next two books were fine, but that the last book was too abstract and felt like a big letdown. Certainly I think Pullman’s His Dark Materials series by far outshines Cooper’s series.

  3. I agree with your conclusions. I think in 20 years’ time, parents will be hard pushed to get their children to read them “But Mum, I don’t care if it was your favourite thing growing up. I think it’s over-written”.

  4. His Dark Materials rocks. It’s one of the few examples of things-written-for-kids that aren’t written down for kids, if you know what I mean.

    As far as Harry Potter, I’m not convinced that the reading-subsection of children in 20 years will be any more discerning than today’s children. I could make a (cynical) argument that they will be even less discerning, based on several trends in today’s popular fictional entertainment (reality TV, video-game “stories”, sharecropping and franchise entertainment, etc.) I hope they’ll be more discerning than I am, but I fear they won’t.

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