LONDON—Rain was flung about in what seemed to be great sloshing bucketfuls, liquefying sidewalks, turning intersections into soppy messes, making basements into lagoons. Then suddenly, it stopped.
By the time “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” went on sale here—at 12:01 a.m. Saturday—it was a clear, bright, brisk night. That which had been blurry with rain now looked crisp and sharp. And so it was, as well, with the most intensely anticipated book in modern publishing history: Now all was visible. Everything was made radiantly plain.
Here in the land of Harry Potter’s birth, it seems fitting that the elements so closely echoed the final volume of J.K. Rowling’s monumental seven-part saga: Chaos, then calm. And while the world has deliciously tormented itself trying to guess how Rowling might end things—who will live, who will perish?—Harry’s last great adventure winds up being far less about clever plot twists and body counts, and more about the emotional and intellectual satisfactions of entertaining profound questions: Why is the world unjust? Why do our friends disappoint us? Why must the good die and the evil sometimes prosper?
“Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” is a dark book—but these are dark times. It almost seems as if Rowling, whose writing has grown richer and more sophisticated with each installment, really is able to see the future and the world’s grim course, and realized a while back that we needed a mass magical entertainment that would seem like simple fun—but that could, in subtly subversive ways, also provide the hope and cheer to enable us to face the very challenges from which her captivating narrative seeks to distract us.
“Deathly Hallows” is very different from the other six books. It is packed with action; it wastes little time with the humorous byplay that is a hallmark of Rowling’s style. Even an early scene with the Dursleys—usually a reliable source of comic relief—is stark and grim. Each of the previous books could probably stand alone, and be read without reference to the others, but Volume 7 requires a knowledge of Harry’s previous trials. One must read one’s way into the heart of “Deathly Hallows.” There are no shortcuts.
And that is why, frankly, all the fuss and blather and bother about early reviews of the book by some media outlets now look a little silly. Who lives and who dies is not the point; the point is a line such as this: “Do not pity the dead, Harry. Pity the living, and, above all, pity those who live without love.”
Never mind who says it, or in what context; that information might be construed as a “spoiler,” and who needs the aggravation? Instead, focus on the wisdom of the words, a wisdom that spreads into all four corners of your thoughts like one of those clammy fogs for which London is famous.
Yet make no mistake: People do die ghastly, horrible deaths in “Deathly Hallows”—and not just people. Creatures too. The book starts out at a gallop and only gets livelier from there. This is a deeply engaging book, filled with love and loss, with crackling action and almost unbearable heartbreak. Rowling resolves every question, ties up every loose end, and delineates characters’ futures with a scrupulousness that never feels forced. In a scene toward the end, set at King’s Cross Station—the embarkation point for students catching the Hogwarts Express—there is an exchange between two characters that is so majestic in the sweep of its wisdom, so achingly sad but acutely true, that it nearly levitates from prose into poetry. It almost becomes music—a rich, grave music, shot through with the sound of cellos.
With the publication of “Deathly Hallows,” we can now look back on the totality of Rowling’s achievement. The 10-year arc of the Potter series encompasses a momentous time in world history. Books live within the minds of their readers, but they also live in the world at large, within the overarching frame of actual events. Consider the touchstones of the beginning and ending of the series, and all that lies between: From the death of Princess Diana in 1997 through the terrorist attacks against America in 2001 and against Madrid and London thereafter, ranging across the economic dislocations prompted by globalization and the deepening divisiveness caused by the Iraq war, the books’ life span corresponds with an ominous and unsettling swath of world history, a time of confusion and unrest and instability.
Does the Potter phenomenon reveal a desire for escapism, a yearning to turn away from dire complexity to wallow in a make-believe world of wizards and magic spells—or, conversely, do the books’ larger themes of good and evil, darkness and light, battling for supremacy, actually represent a brave engagement with this roiling, strife-strafed world?
Books always have two lives: the lives lived by their fictional characters, and the lives that the books themselves have in the world. The astonishing success of the Potter series is a commentary not only on the irresistible power of Rowling’s narrative skills, but also on readers’ hunger for what she has to say. Thus “Deathly Hallows” is many things: It’s a marketing miracle; a booksellers’ bonanza; the capstone to a publishing phenomenon—and, perhaps, its own kind of instructive history.
Are there more significant issues upon which to focus than a mere book? Yes, there are. Will a single book affect the destiny of nations or the progress of civilization? No, it won’t.
But this much we know for sure: For a few precious hours early Saturday morning, one sound drowned out all other sounds, one sound rose above the squabbles of warring factions or the terrible blasts of bombs or the flat crash of coins piling up in the vaults of the super-rich: the crisp turning of pages by millions upon millions of readers, young and old, all around the world.
As a Latin-loving Potter fan might put it: Finis coronat opus. The end crowns the work.