After all this time it turns out that we have underestimated J.K. Rowling.
Not even her most ardent partisans could have anticipated the triumph that is “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.” For years now we have all speculated upon what might or might not happen in the final volume of her stupendously popular seven-book fantasy series—who lives, who dies; who’s good, who’s evil.
But our guesses have presumed this final adventure was something like a British village mystery to be figured out, when Rowling was in fact concocting the climax to an epic fantasy quest—fit, no matter what her limitations as a prose stylist, to take its place among the very best of its kind.
And yes, Mr. Tolkien, that includes you.
The cover painting by Mary GrandPre, depicting a pivotal moment in what appears a duel between Harry and his nemesis Lord Voldemort, is about the only thing in the book’s presentation that recalls this is supposed to be a children’s story. Like Harry himself, who we first saw at age 11 in “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,” the series has grown up with each succeeding entry.
Rowling opens the text with inordinate solemnity, citing grave quotations about mortality from Aeschylus (“Oh, the torment bred in the race,/the grinding scream of death”) and William Penn (“Death is but crossing the world, as friends do the seas; they live in one another still”).
The Harry Potter series partakes of many genres, among them the boarding school novel and coming-of-age tale, but “The Deathly Hallows” is something else again: It is a war novel—a war between forces of freedom and fascism—filled with battles and close escapes, and betrayals and heroes driven to ground by the apparent triumph of their foes, and daring raids, and friends turning on one another under the stress of near-constant danger.
The first casualties come almost at once. The story opens only a week or so after the end of book six, with Professor Severus Snape, the murderer of Dumbledore, attending a meeting with Lord Voldemort and the other Death Eaters, where he further betrays Harry. Within a few pages the reader is thrown into a thrilling confrontation in which Harry and his friends in the Order of the Phoenix flee from their pursuers.
Soon Voldemort and the Death Eaters have compromised the Ministry of Magic, giving them control over all wizarding Britain. Harry and his staunchest friends, Hermione and Ron, are forced to hide out in the countryside while they plot to fulfill Dumbledore’s last mission, finding and destroying the remaining of the seven Horcruxes—items that contain bits of Voldemort’s soul.
The search takes them to Godric’s Hollow, where Harry’s parents were murdered by Voldemort, as Rowling deepens and darkens the mythology she has developed throughout the series. Everything, despite its enormous complexity, fits right and feels right. Some villains turn out to be not quite so bad, while some heroes are revealed to be less than admirable. Once-minor characters, including house elves Dobby and Kreacher, play big roles.
New parallels are revealed among Voldemort, Harry and Snape, all of whom were abandoned, in one manner or another, by their parents. Harry becomes ever more textured in his humanity as he wishes the burden of destiny and leadership could pass to someone else.
“Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” is not perfectly written—characters sometimes pause to explain things to each other, mostly for the benefit of the reader—but the complicated doings never slow down the galloping narrative. At the same time Rowling’s workman-like prose never hurries, never skimps, never seems shallow.
Events converge on a climactic battle at Hogwarts, the school where all, heroes and villains alike, learned their spells and curses. The pay-off, without giving too much away, is stupendous.
Suffice to say that no reader is likely to be disappointed, regardless of his or her assumptions or expectations. Rowling answers every conceivable question, and some new ones, too. She continues to give value, up to the last word of the last sentence.
Those who condemn these books for promoting “witchcraft” do their own children a disservice. Throughout the series, but never more than in this final volume, Rowling has extolled the grandest of human virtues: hard work, avoiding the line of least resistance, the power of love—romantic love, but especially love between parents and children—the willingness to sacrifice the self for others.
As one character replies when Harry asks if what he’s just seen is real or only in his head: “Of course it’s happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean it’s not real?”
That’s a declaration of real magic, the magic of the imagination, and it could serve as a manifesto for all great fantasy.