“Do you think the dead we have loved ever truly leave us?” asks sage headmaster Albus Dumbledore in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, responding to Harry’s criticism of himself as “stupid” for believing he’d seen his deceased father the night before.
“Your father is alive in you, Harry, and shows himself most plainly when you have need of him.”
And so it shall be, mutatis mutandis, for readers.
Contrary to gathering hype, the least important aspect of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the seventh and supposedly final volume of J.K. Rowling’s series that goes on sale at 12:01 a.m. Saturday, is what happens.
Will Harry, “the boy who lived,” become the “boy who died”? Will Hermione Granger succumb to terminal swottiness? Will Hogwarts face a trans-Atlantic student-loan scandal and investigation by Andrew Cuomo?
It doesn’t matter, because Harry’s world is fiction. It remains in the hands of its still young (early 40s) creator, who can turn any death into a dream a few years down the line. In fiction, TV or literary, you don’t need a “Sopranos” finish to keep hope alive.
Rowling, who read C.S. Lewis’ seven-volume Narnia series as a young girl, announced long ago that her conception came to seven books. She’s kept to her pledge and written them.
Yet, in an interview last week with the BBC’s Jonathan Ross, she replied, “Never say never” when asked if she’d write more Harry tales in the future.
What matters most about Deathly Hallows is that it marks the long-envisioned end of the most successful young-adult-fiction series in history, a moment, 10 years after publication of the first volume, when the place of Rowling’s Potter novels in culture, pop or literary, can rightly be assessed.
First requirement: Set aside the “Harry Potter phenomenon,” better dubbed the “Harry Bros.” debacle. Ignore that bazaar crammed with every imaginable spin-off, ordained by rights-monger Warner Bros.’ desire to control all revenue streams. Rowling, it’s true, sold those rights on her way to becoming richer than “The Queen.”
But she remains the former single mother and Amnesty International researcher whose inspiring life—adolescent confronted with terribly ill parent, struggling writer and English teacher in Portugal, unemployed mom on public assistance, activist for nontraditional families—would make a livelier movie than last year’s Miss Potter.
Second demand: Recuse your mind from the movie versions, even if they’re loyally tracking the books. Movies aren’t the books they come from. Not never, not nohow.
So you end up—happily—with the novels. And the question of whether Rowling belongs among the masters of the genre: Lewis Carroll, L. Frank Baum, Roald Dahl (insert personal favorites here).
Beginning with the time-honored plot of talented orphan making his way against nasty surrogate parents in a difficult world, Rowling has given us six novels rich in moral wisdom, storytelling panache, droll humor and pure fantasy fun.
Like all classic children’s fiction, the Potter tales teach ethical truths that chime for adults as well. While some come in Dumbledore’s aphoristic summations (“It is our choices,” he tells Harry in Chamber of Secrets, “that show us what we truly are”), more grow directly out of plot and character.
Harry’s early understanding that his mother loved him so much that she died to save him provides Harry with a core of altruism throughout the series, even as he grasps deeper truths about his parents’ deaths and decides how to hit back. Similarly, Hermione’s goody-goodyness, the Weasleys’ benevolent de facto parenting, the ups and downs of Harry and Ron’s friendship—even the roots of Voldemort’s evil—grow out of the realities of their lives.
All this happens in an institutionally dominated world much like any real-world establishment: populated by the selfish and saintly, the ambitious and morose, the giddy and evil. As the books progress, the complex role of the Ministry of Magic vis-a-vis the Muggle (i.e., human) world reflects the growing intricacy of life we all feel as we get older.
Adroitly and satirically, Rowling weaves into the Potter sagas almost all the issues that occupy her as a social activist: class and ethnic privilege (as in Hermione’s “Society for the Promotion of Elfish Welfare”), racism (the issue of “Pureblood” wizard children versus “Mudbloods”), even slavery (in “Goblet of Fire,” the fourth volume).
At the same time, the magic—portraits that come alive, professors who double as cats or werewolves—occurs matter-of-factly. Such is the trademark of children’s fantasy as opposed to science fiction, enchanting the ordinary without dissolving the ordinary into something alien.
Finally, no one should overlook Rowling’s humor. From the first book’s opening portrait of Mr. Dursley, “who didn’t approve of imagination,” Rowling’s wry voice has kept things on course even when plot machinations threaten a reader’s ability to wrap his mind around Harry’s universe. Chapter One of Book 6, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, in which Minister of Magic Cornelius Fudge makes his wonted visit to a new British prime minister, is a comic delight.
Through all these literary virtues, the most crucial motor of Rowling’s art remains simple: She remembers what most of us forget as adults, except when licking our own wounds: the intense emotions children feel in growing up, and facing loss, love and fear for the first time.
Through this cavalcade of achievement by Rowling, the Harry Potter backlash team, peculiarly led by literary scholar Harold Bloom and Christian groups that detect apostasy in Potterville, have demurred.
Some, like Bloom, accuse Rowling of a style “heavy on cliche.” Granted, like Dickens and every plot-heavy novelist, Rowling produces many a workmanlike sentence. Yet, she also turns out enough lovely, ironic phrases to please any aesthete.
Another frequent charge is that Rowling stereotypes too much. But that criticism ignores a literary truism: that lightly indulged caricature is more acceptable in children’s literature than elsewhere.
Children must absorb norms before they can question them. If Severus Snape rings for every child who remembers a teacher/bully, or Hogwarts caretaker Angus Filch incarnates any minor official gorged on tiny power, it’s a pedagogic gain toward more subtle views later.
Think of Rowling’s critics, then, as Dementors.
“Get too near a Dementor,” Prof. Lupin explains to Harry in Prisoner of Azkaban, “and every good feeling, every happy memory, will be sucked out of you.”
Should Armageddon come in our time, grown-up veterans of reading Harry Potter will face off against peers who overdosed on kill-‘em video games. With a new Harvard study telling us that 60 percent of young people between 12 and 17 pay little attention to news—another slice of life that teaches moral lessons—we thank the cosmos for J.K. Rowling.
If you find yourself unsure of Harry’s ultimate importance, take Ron’s description of Hermione’s rule as your directive: “When in doubt, go to the library.”