(my review of Harry Potter and the deathly Hallows, part of the Library's Books Sandwiched in program)
I ’ve been to all but one of the other reviews - to check out the competition as it were - and I couldn’t help noticing that the book on medicine was reviewed by a doctor, the military topic by a veteran, farming by a farmer. I wonder what Kate thinks I am - a witch?
Actually, when Kate mentioned at a FOL meeting that she was looking for someone to review HP, I hesitated for perhaps half a nanosecond before waving my arms in the air and screeching “me, me, me”.
Once the excitement faded, however, I realized that this was not going to be easy. Not only do I want all of you to have an informative and entertaining lunch hour, but I want to do justice to an amazing literary achievement. And not being a witch, I can’t relate the content to my life, so I can just talk about the book. More accurately, I am going to read you a seriously abridged version of my first effort, which was about as long as The Prisoner of Azkaban.
I am supposed to be reviewing Book 7: Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows. That is like asking me to review Act 5 of Hamlet. While it is very powerful in itself, without acts 1-4, it doesn’t make an awful lot of sense. So for the most part, I will be talking about the HP saga - all 4000 plus pages!
The popularity of Harry Potter cannot be denied – 350 million books worldwide in 60 plus languages. I’m assuming that everyone knows that it is about the boy wizard and his friends Hermoine and Ron who attend Hogwarts School of Magic and Wizardry, with Dumbledore as the Headmaster. Harry’s destiny is inextricably linked to the epitome of evil, Lord Voldemort, who killed his (Harry's) parents and gave him his scar. His scar is famous. The characters are famous. The author is famous. The book is famous. But is it any good?
As I’m sure you know the books follow Harry’s progress through school. They begin during the summer holidays, the adventure builds during the school year and the climax comes just before the end of term. Books 1,2 and 3 are (relatively) short and have a somewhat Horatio Alger feel - boy takes on a huge challenge, boy saves world sort of thing. And boy is really, really young.
Book 4 - the Goblet of Fire - is huge both in number of pages (734) and in complexity. By the end of this book the dreaded Lord Voldermort has returned, and Harry was the only person on the side of good to witness his rebirth.
Book 5 is a terrible time for Harry because very few people believe his story, accusing him of publicity seeking, the Ministry of Magic denies absolutely that Voldemort has returned, Harry learns about the prophecy which says that he is the only person who can defeat Voldemort, and his godfather dies. Not good!
In book 6, Dumbledore tries to give Harry information that will eventually help him overcome Voldemort, and Dumbledore is killed by Snape the nasty potions master whom only Dumbledore had ever trusted.
The Deathly Hallows breaks the pattern of the other books because Harry doesn’t return to school. Instead he spends a very uncomfortable ten months on the run with Ron and Hermoine, living in a tent, scrounging for food and in constant danger. He is the Ministry’s Undesirable #1 with a 10,000 galleon reward on his head and he has a mission to find and destroy a number of unknown objects each of which contains a portion of Voldemort’s soul. His mentor Dumbledore is dead but not quite gone: even from beyond the grave he finds a way to ensure that Harry has at his disposal the necessary tools to defeat Voldemort when his “high Noon” finally arrives.
Because Harry doesn’t die. I don’t think I’m spoiling the story by saying that: anyone who has read the first six books must have come to that conclusion. It would be so unfair after all he’s been through. Besides, would you spend 17 years lovingly developing an amazing character and then kill him off in the last 50 pages.
Just listen to what JK Rowling said about first meeting Harry:
“I was on a train going from Manchester to London, looking out of the window at cows and I just thought “boy doesn’t know he’s a wizard goes off to wizard school”. I have no idea where it came from. The idea was just floating along the train and looking for someone and my mind was vacant enough and so it decided to zoom in there.
I could see Harry very clearly: this scrawny little boy, and it was the most physical rush of excitement -- I'd never felt that excited about anything to do with writing. I'd never had an idea that gave me such a physical response. So I'm rummaging through this bag to try and find a pen or a pencil or anything. I didn't even have an eye-liner on me, so I just had to sit and think, and for four hours -- 'cause the train was delayed -- I had all these ideas bubbling up through my head.
I can't describe the excitement to someone who doesn't write books except to say it was that incredibly elated feeling you get when you've just met someone with whom you might eventually fall in love. That... that was ... that was the kind of feeling I had getting off the train. As though I'd just met someone wonderful, and we were about to embark on this wonderful affair.”
I repeat that Harry doesn’t die although in a recent review Alison Lurie suggested that he did and was resurrected. I dispute that idea because, one, Dumbledore quite clearly tells Harry that he is not dead. Two, as we see throughout the books, their linked destiny means that what happens to Harry also happens to Voldemort. That means that if Harry dies and is resurrected, then so is Voldemort, and that is not an idea I am comfortable with. There is a third reason, which will appear later.
Harry does have a near death experience during which he has a very informative chat with Dumbledore. At the end he asks whether this is happening in his head, or is it real. Dumbledore’s response is that of course it is happening in his head, but that doesn’t make it any less real. This is one of the captivating devices available in the world of magic: anything can happen. I have to say though, that Rowling doesn’t overdo the idea: the use of magic is quite carefully contained. In fact, there are times when I was almost annoyed at the characters for not using magic to get themselves out of a situation.
There was only ever one possible reason for killing off Harry. Killing Harry would avoid any possibility that there might be another book. (And in parentheses, writing the Harry Potter story in seven installments was a brilliant marketing ploy. Given the difficulty she had getting the Philosophers Stone published, Ms Rowling can hardly have foreseen the almost manic excitement and tension that swelled before the release of later books. Rather than support Barnes and Noble, I ordered my copy of the Deathly Hallows from Storylines in Watkins Glen. I got there as they opened and I was actually shaking with anticipation of the glorious hours of reading that lay ahead– as well as real dread that maybe the order had got lost and that Harry was not waiting for me.)
However, the controversial epilogue gave Rowling a very plausible way to bring about closure because it definitively put an end to any speculation that there might be more books about Harry.
By giving us a glimpse of an obviously content almost middle-aged Harry in a peaceful world, she says many things – good does indeed triumph, life goes on, Harry has come to terms with Snape and the story that she set out to tell is over.
And what a story it is. Of epic proportions, it is like a fastidiously woven tapestry, an intricately plotted story of unsurpassed imagination, rich in detail, peopled by literally hundreds of finely drawn characters who interact with each other and the world around them with spirit and emotion. It’s a tale which unfolds effortlessly in the hands of a truly gifted story teller.
I am hoping that this review will tempt all of you to rush out and buy or borrow the books, but reading Harry Potter is not something to be undertaken lightly. After all there are more than 4000 pages and well over a million words, many of them used only once. There are nearly 400 named characters and close to 200 with speaking parts. There are 128 creatures including ghosts and talking portraits. There are potions, spells, charms and incantations, curses, jinxes. It’s no wonder that young wizards have to go to school for seven years – there is a lot to learn, and we learn it at the same time as Harry does.
Practically everything we know about the magic world we know because Harry has seen or experienced it. The weakness of this approach is that she has sometimes had to work quite hard to create situations in which Harry witnesses an event or overhears a key conversation. His invisibility cloak helps a lot, as does the Pensieve which allows Harry and Dumbledore to examine other people’s memories.
On the other hand seeing the world through Harry’s eyes is a huge part of the delight we feel while discovering the world of magic. It is, in Muggle terms, indeed magical, enchanting, charming, entrancing, even spell-binding.
Obviously, Book 7 wraps everything up. It dots the i’s and crosses the t’s. It also introduces some completely new plot threads. And it continues many themes of the earlier books. Death is central to the whole story. Rowling stresses the suddenness of death and the finality, even though it is clear that those we love never really leave us. A desire to conquer death is even more evident. In book 1 we learn of the Philosopher’s Stone created by Nicholas Flamel. (Flamel, incidentally, actually lived in the 14th century and claimed to have achieved the alchemist’s twin goals of developing the Elixir of eternal life by means of the Philosophers Stone, and of course turning base metals into gold. His story is intriguing in that he disappeared from view for a while and then returned to live in what is now thought to be the oldest house in Paris with considerably more gold than before which allowed him to endow numerous hospitals and other charitable organizations) Harry’s first big adventure prevents Voldemort from getting his hands on the Stone which is then destroyed.
Voldemort’s other efforts to achieve immortality take the form of Horcruxes, a truly horrible idea, repugnant to nearly all the wizarding world. Following an act of unspeakable evil, a willing wizard is able to split his soul and house part of it in another object. Voldemort went further than any other wizard in that he sought to split his soul into seven – that most powerful of magical numbers. He never realized that his most evil act – needlessly killing Harry’s parents and attempting to kill an innocent child as well – rendered his soul so fragile that he unwittingly created another Horcrux – Harry, or more precisely Harry’s scar.
Dumbledore knew this. He says to Harry at the end of Book 2, talking about Harry’s encounter with the teenage Lord Voldermort: So you met Tom Riddle. I imagine he was most interested in you.
Suddenly something that was nagging at Harry came tumbling out of his mouth. “Professor Dumbledore… Riddle said I’m like him. Strange likenesses he said …”
“Did he now?” said Dumbledore, looking thoughtfully under his silver eyebrows. “And what do you think Harry?”
“I don’t think I’m like him!” said Harry, more loudly than he’d intended. “I mean, I’m in Gryffindor, ……I’m….”
But he fell silent, a lurking doubt resurfacing in his mind.
“Professor, he started again after a moment, “the sorting hat told me I’d – I’d have done well in Slytherin. Everyone thought I was Slytherin’s heir for a while … because I can speak parseltongue.”
”You can speak Parseltongue, Harry,” said Dumbledore calmly, “because Lord Voldemort – who is the last remaining descendant of Salazar Slytherin – can speak Parseltongue, Unless I am much mistaken, he transferred some of his powers to you the night he gave you that scar. Not something he intended to do, I’m sure…”
“Voldemort put a bit of himself in me?” Harry said, thunderstruck.
“It certainly seems so”
“So I should be in Slytherin” Harry said, looking desperately into Dumbledore’s face. “The sorting Hat could see Slytherin’s power in me, and it …”
“Put you in Griffyndor” said Dumbledore calmly. “listen to me Harry. You happen to have many qualities salazar slytherin prized in his hand-picked students. His own very rare gift, parseltongue… resourcefulness… determination… a certain disregard for the rules.” he added, his moustache quivering again. “Yet the sorting Hat placed you in Gryffindor. You know why that was. Think.”
“It only put me in Gryffindor “ said Harry in a defeated voice, “because I asked not to go in Slytherin…”
“Exactly” said Dumbledore, beaming once more, “which makes you very different from Tom Riddle. It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.”
(I haven’t quite finished with the quest for immortality, but remember the bit about choices, because that is another very important theme)
Book 7 introduces another route to immortality – the Deathly Hallows. These are three objects of great power, which when united under one master are said to give that person power over death, a sort of three-part Holy Grail. In his youth Dumbledore had actively sought the Hallows until he learned that the desire for power was his great weakness. From then on he eschewed any road – such as being Minister for Magic – which could tempt him to overuse, or abuse his power. Nevertheless, he possessed one of the Hallows, he learnt of another early in the story, and in Book 6, at great cost, he came to possess the third. These were the tools he made available to Harry, which is the third reason why Harry could not have died – at the time of his final meeting with Voldemort he was master of the hallows and therefore, master of death.
Dumbledore’s problem with the Hallows was that they conferred the sort of power that is hard to resist. Corruption, misuse of power, power for power’s sake, tyranny, form the second strong theme in the narrative.
Voldemort is not modeled on the Devil as some might suppose. Rather he strongly resembles Hitler. They both had an obsession with pure blood (a prevalent theme and plot element). They both saw power as strength and were ruthless in the means they employed to gain and keep power. They both used torture, threats, murder, tale-telling, extortion, intimidation, and propaganda to achieve their tyrannical ends. They were both cruel just because they could be. They both succeeded because of the apathy of the masses.
Part of tyranny is propaganda. So another theme is that one should never trust completely what the government, or the media, is trying to tell us. The obnoxious “special correspondent” Rita Skeeter whose poison quill has damaged countless reputations, is a perfect example of what is wrong with the fourth estate.
Choices, as I mentioned, are an important theme. We choose to be what we are. The most important line in all 4000 pages is probably when Dumbledore, explaining why it is necessary to fight Voldemort, says that we must choose what is right rather than what is easy.
And the last noteworthy theme is that love is more powerful than just about anything else. Harry’s mother died trying to protect him, and he was protected for sixteen years by the charm of her sacrifice. It’s not just love, however, it’s all emotion, or what one might call heart. The fact that Harry can feel such grief – and the poor boy has ample opportunity to feel grief - is an essential part of the plot. And due to Rowling’s skill as a writer, we all feel just as keenly the awful losses that Harry suffers.
After umpteen readings I still cry with Harry as he aches for the parents he never knew, as he grieves for his godfather or the house elf he freed or the wickedly funny Weasley who doesn’t survive. Or even his beloved owl, broomstick, or wand.
I do not use the word unique lightly, but I do think it fits Harry Potter – there has never been anything like it. It is boys’ adventure story, mystery, save the world action drama, fantasy on an unmatched scale. The literary work that Harry Potter has most often been compared to is that of Tolkien. But, the Hobbit was the first book that I chose not to finish. I took the Lord of the Rings to Australia – and left it there, also unfinished.
His English is beautiful. But you know, I couldn’t care two hoots about the characters. For me there was no “magic” in the Muggle sense of the word. I could not imagine myself wanting to visit the Shires or get to know Frodo or Bilbo better. With Harry Potter the charm is in the characters, the delight is in the detail. These are people you care about, people you want to know more about.
By detail I mean throw away lines, little asides, clever names, ridiculous passwords, muggle sayings adapted for the wizard world, a tongue-in-cheek account of a conversation and getting it right! If she makes reference to a real person (like Nicholas Flamel) or event it is accurate. And humor. The books are funny , and fun. Even in the grimmer parts, there is a smile or a chuckle lurking round the corner.
I love details such as the throw-away line about a care of magical creatures professor who retires to spend more time with his remaining limbs.
Magic photographs don’t just sit there like Muggle ones, they move. The figures in the many portraits which hang on the walls of Hogwarts portraits answer back, lean against their frames, scuttle from one frame to another to see what’s going on and even leave the castle if they are famous enough to have portraits elsewhere- a very important plot element.
After he and cousin Dudley were attacked by Dementors, the delightfully batty Mrs Figg tells Harry to keep his wand at the ready: there’s going to be hell to pay anyway, might as well be hanged for a dragon as an egg.
Or the nicely phrased exchange: “Are you threatening me, he roared. “Yes, I am” said Mad-Eye Moody who seemed rather pleased that Uncle Vernon had grasped this fact so quickly.
There are a few minor inconsistencies and mistakes. In Nancy Drew or the Hardy Boys, you wouldn’t even notice them. Rowling’s world, however, is so real that you expect everything to be just right.
Wizards are not exactly puritanical because they all enjoy a good party with the odd spot of elf wine or Madam Rosmerta’s best mead, but they are very proper and law abiding. They certainly don’t use bad words. Instead they use oaths like “galloping gargoyles” or “Merlin’s pants.”
I love the interaction between the wizards and the Muggles, which is most clearly seen through Mr Weasley who collects batteries and electric plugs. One of the few pure-blooded wizards left, he lives in a world where the mail is delivered by owls, one writes with quill and ink, one lights one’s house with oil lamps or candles, and the kids go to school on a steam train. Mr Weasley is fascinated by the telephone, turnstiles on the underground, cars!!!! – all the very basic technology of the 20th century that is quite foreign to him. (In fact, apart from the train and a couple of radios, the wizards have as much technology in the 1990’s as they did when the International Statute of Secrecy sent them into hiding - in 1692. a carefully chosen year also known for the Salem witch trials.) At the same time Mr Weasley endearingly says “Muggles , -bless them - they never notice (things like dragons, flying broomsticks etc)”. Apparently Jo had originally planned to let Mr Weasley die after he was attached by the snake, but she liked him too much, so he was reprieved.
Before I get to a couple of other characters, I want to say that I wish Ms Rowling had had the strength to say no to Hollywood. These books were meant to be read, not blown into larger than life special effects sequences, peopled by characters with little depth. In films the plot is necessarily diluted, and although there is a lot of visual detail it is easy to miss. Not to mention some puns which only work when read silently.
But my biggest argument against the movies is that they remove the element of imagination. I must just mention here that the British books have no illustrations at all except for the Hogwarts Crest on the title page, with the school motto: Drago dormiens nunquam titillandus.
The main characters are obviously very important, but not necessarily the most interesting.
Actually it is the minor characters who give the books such charm, Unfortunately, there is not time to introduce them all to you. But there is one I must mention - and the passage is a nice example of her writing, and the fun she must have had; it also shows the young Harry’s genuine sweetness and essential good-heartedness.
We meet Dobby - my absolutely favorite character - in book 2 when Harry is supposed to be in his bedroom pretending that he doesn’t exist while his appalling uncle entertains an important client: Harry crossed to his bedroom on tiptoe, slipped inside, closed the door and turned to collapse on the bed. The trouble was, there was already someone sitting on it.
Harry managed not to shout out, but it was a close thing. The little creature on the bed had large, bat-like ears and bulging green eyes the size of tennis balls.
As they stared at each other, Harry heard Dudley’s voice from the hall.
‘May I take your coats, Mr and Mr Mason?’
The creature slipped off the bed and bowed so low that the end of its long thin nose touched the carpet. Harry noticed that it was wearing what looked like an old pillowcase, with rips for the arms and leg holes.
“er – hello,” said Harry nervously.
‘Harry Potter!’ said the creature in a high-pitched voice Harry was sure would carry down the stairs. ‘So long has Dobby wanted to meet you, sir… Such an honour it is…’
“th-thank you’ said Harry, edging along the wall and sinking into his desk chair, next to Hedwig, who was asleep in her large cage. He wanted to ask “what are you?’ but thought it would sound too rude, so instead he said, ‘Who are you’
‘Dobby, sir. Just Dobby. Dobby the house-elf,’ said the creature.
‘Oh – really?’ said Harry. ‘Er – I don’t want to be rude or anything, but – this isn’t a great time for me to have a house-elf in my bedroom.’
Aunt Petunia’s high, false laugh sounded from the living room. The elf hung his head. ‘Not that I’m not pleased to meet you,’ said Harry quickly, ‘but, er, is there any particular reason you’re here.’
‘Oh, yes, sir,’ said Dobby earnestly. ‘Dobby has come to tell you, sir… it is difficult, sir … Dobby wonders where to begin…’
‘Sit down,’ said Harry politely, pointing at the bed.
To his horror the elf burst into tears – very noisy tears.
“s-sit down,’ he wailed. ‘Never … never ever …’
Harry thought he heard the voices downstairs falter.
‘I’m sorry,’ he whispered. ‘I didn’t mean to offend you or anything.’
‘Offend Dobby!’ choked the elf. ‘Dobby has never been asked to sit down by a wizard – like an equal –‘
Harry, trying to say ‘Shh!’ and look comforting at the same time, ushered Dobby back onto the bed where he sat hiccoughing, looking like a large and very ugly doll. At last he managed to control himself, and sat with his great eyes fixed on Harry in an expression of watery adoration.
‘You can’t have met many decent wizards,’ said Harry, trying to cheer him up.
Dobby shook his head. Then, without warning, he leapt up and started banging his head furiously on the window, shouting, ‘Bad Dobby, bad Dobby!’
‘don’t – what are you doing?’ Harry hissed, springing up and pulling Dobby back onto the bed. Hedwig had woken up with a particularly loud screech and was beating her wings wildly against the bars of her cage.
“Dobby had to punish himself, sir’ said the elf, who had gone slightly cross-eyed. ‘Dobby almost spoke ill of his family, sir…’
‘The wizard family Dobby serves, sir … Dobby is a house-elf – bound to serve one house and one family for ever …’
‘Do they know you’re here?’ asked Harry curiously.
Oh no sir, no… dobby will have to punish himself most grievously for coming to see you, sir. Dobby will have to shut his ears in the oven door for this. If they ever knew, sir –‘
‘But won’t they notice if you shut your ears in the oven door’
Dobby doubts it, sir.
And so it goes on, increasingly noisily, leading to immediate trouble for Harry and a life-long friendship with a most unusual little person.
Also in book 2 we meet Gilderoy Lockhart, a narcissistic phony, best-selling author of such books as Magical Me, and winner of Wizard weekly’s most charming smile contest five times running. He craves publicity, and autographs anything that stays still long enough. Lockhart is always on at Harry about supposedly seeking the limelight, telling him that there will time for that when he’s older, while shamelessly using Harry to promote his own image: A moving black and white Lockhart was tugging on an arm that Harry recognized as his own. He was pleased to see that his photographic self was putting up a good fight and refusing to be dragged into view. As Harry watched, Lockhart gave up and slumped, panting, against the white edge of the picture. CS 82
Harry’s fame - infinitely greater than Lockhart’s - is a core element of the story, and something that is hard for us to imagine. There is NO witch or wizard in the whole world who does not know his story. He’s better known than all the stars in Hollywood, all the politicians, all the sportsmen all put together, and his scar makes him instantly recognizable. It’s only because he hates being famous and goes out of his way to stay out of the limelight that Harry remains as well adjusted and likeable as he does.
Snape reports to Dumbledore that Harry is …’mediocre, arrogant as his father, a determined rule-breaker, delighted to find himself famous, attention-seeking and impertinent.” To which Dumbledore replies “you see what you want to see, Severus. Other teachers report that the boy is modest, likeable and reasonably talented. Personally, he adds, I find him an engaging child.”
What a wonderfully well-chosen word. Harry is a wonderful character. Most mothers would be happy to have their daughter bring him home. He is a true hero. He is a truly good person, but far from being a goody-goody. He is loyal and loving, he is selfless, impetuous and hot-headed. Harry is very quick to anger when there is injustice, unfairness, mistreatment of others, and he speaks his mind freely, which often gets him into trouble. He cares deeply about the people around him.
You the reader, you care too. This is not a fantasy with aliens or mutants. These are characters who you might have met or known. They just happen to have rather extraordinary abilities, but they are all extraordinarily human – even the gargoyles and mandrakes and centaurs seem human.
They are also believable. It seems no stretch to accept the damaged gargoyle that guards Dumbledore’s office saying to Harry, “Don’t mind me, I’ll just lie here and crumble” or Professor McGonagall in her bun and tartan dressing gown, turning herself into a cat at the flick of a wand, or that Quidditch is played on aerodynamically perfect boomsticks.
At a museum dinner in October, I was chatting with a retired Austrian General and ex-ambassador who wondered if I had read Proust. Well, of course I haven’t but it was a wonderful opening for me to ask this very cultured man-of-the-world how he would define a great book.
Without hesitation he replied “One that you don’t want to end” and then he added – wait for it, like Harry Potter!!!!!!!!
I would expand the definition to include a desire to read the book again and again. So many best sellers are read once and then discarded – or donated to the FOL Book Sale. Hundreds of Grishams and Pattersons and Steeles. But how many copies of Harry Potter have turned up? Jill?
I have now read Deathly Hallows five times – and the rest of them a total of more than 50. With that fact, and my definition in mind, I think I can say that the Deathly Hallows is an eminently satisfactory ending to a truly great book.