Years ago, I read that during Charles Dickens’ serialization of his novel The Old Curiosity Shop, eager American readers gathered at the docks, shouting to the arriving shipboard passengers from Europe: “Is Little Nell dead?”
I have no idea to what degree that actually was the case—but if we still depended on ships to bring us news, there’s no doubt that U.S. wharves soon would be crowded with readers young and old, calling as the sails hove into view: “Whose side is Snape really on?”
“Did Ron survive? Hermione? Ginny?”
“Is Harry Potter alive?”
As anyone not locked in Azkaban already knows, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the final book in J.K. Rowling’s series, is scheduled for release Saturday. Begun 10 years ago, the saga of the students at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry and the evil Lord Voldemort has made almost prophetic the remark in the first book, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,—about the Boy Who Lived: “He’ll be famous—a legend ... there will be books written about Harry—every child in our world will know his name!”
When it comes to perceptiveness, I cannot claim the talent of Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore, whose “shrewd ideas normally turn out to be accurate,” according to one former Hogwarts professor. (And my view of the books is rather ambivalent, given that in the real world, I file the occult firmly under Things to Be Left Strictly Alone.) But here are a few thoughts on what readers might—or might not, or should, or should not—encounter in Harry’s last hurrah.
`WHILE THE OTHER SURVIVES’
“The one with the power to vanquish the Dark Lord approaches,” Sybill Trelawney predicts before Harry’s birth, “... and either must die at the hand of the other for neither can live while the other survives.” So three options for the denouement present themselves: Voldemort dies, Harry dies or both die.
Given that Voldemort’s demise is (pun intended) a virtual dead certainty, that leaves only the question of whether Harry will be standing after the final battle. And the idea of Harry’s somehow sacrificing himself in order to save the wizarding world is a dramatically powerful one.
But there’s a saying about filmmaking: “You never kill the dog.” There are some things that audiences just won’t stand for—particularly young audiences, the kind for which this series has been primarily written. Surely the last thing that Rowling wants is to go down in literary history as the person who, unlike every Dark witch and wizard in the previous books, leaves Harry Potter dead.
Arthur Conan Doyle—who briefly killed off his own famous literary creation, Sherlock Holmes, in 1893—could tell Rowling a thing or two about dissatisfied readers.
SEEING DEAD PEOPLE
“The rumor is that Lily and James Potter are—are—that they’re—`dead,’” Minerva McGonagall says to Dumbledore early in “Sorcerer’s Stone.” “... They’re saying he tried to kill ... Harry. But—he couldn’t.”
Death and destruction have been two of Rowling’s literary tools from the beginning—the tale’s starting point is Voldemort’s murder of Harry’s parents and his unsuccessful attempt to kill Harry. The fourth, fifth and sixth books were notable for the deaths of sympathetic characters: Hogwarts student Cedric Diggory in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire; Harry’s godfather, Sirius Black, in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix; and, most notoriously, Dumbledore in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.
So who is likely to be killed in Deathly Hallows? “I’m just s-s-so worried,” a teary-eyed Molly Weasley says in Order of the Phoenix. “Half the f-f-family’s in the Order, it’ll b-b-be a miracle if we all come through this.” (Indeed, one fan book rates the chances of Molly and her husband, Arthur, of making it out alive as no better than even.)
Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger, Harry’s closest friends? Ginny Weasley, his new girlfriend? Remus Lupin or Nymphadora Tonks, fellow members of the Order? All distinct possibilities, given their opposition to Voldemort and the emotional punch that their deaths would carry.
Here’s another possibility from an unexpected direction: Petunia Dursley, Harry’s nonmagical aunt and Lily’s sister.
“While you can still call home the place where your mother’s blood dwells, there you cannot be touched or harmed by Voldemort,” Dumbledore tells Harry in Order of the Phoenix. “... You need return there only once a year, but as long as you can still call it home, there he cannot hurt you.”
At the end of Half-Blood Prince, Harry apparently has only weeks to go before his 17th birthday, when Dumbledore’s protective spell expires. Given that Petunia is key to that protection, it’s not hard to see how some Death Eaters might decide to pay a lethal visit to No. 4 Privet Drive in the town of Little Whinging. Indeed, the question is why Voldemort didn’t order his followers to take her out long ago.
THE PROFESSOR IN THE DUNGEON
The most hotly debated question on Deathly Hallows eve may not be “Who lives and who dies” but this: “Snape: good or evil?”
Severus Snape is perhaps Rowling’s most cunningly constructed character. “At the start-of-term banquet,” she writes in Sorcerer’s Stone, “Harry had gotten the idea that Professor Snape disliked him. By the end of the first Potions lesson, he knew he’d been wrong. Snape didn’t dislike Harry—he `hated’ him.”
Harry eventually discovers that his father and Snape were mortal enemies during their own school days; that Snape was a Death Eater who passed information to Voldemort that eventually led to the Potters’ deaths; and that Snape unexpectedly became a spy against the Dark Lord before that lethal attack and Voldemort’s temporary downfall.
After the Dark Lord’s return to full life in Goblet of Fire, Snape reassumes his double-agent role for the Order of the Phoenix—but which side is he “really” on? For Harry, that question is answered in Half-Blood Prince, when he helplessly watches Snape use a Killing Curse on an incapacitated Dumbledore.
Yet Rowling has put together her stories so carefully that it’s possible to argue both sides persuasively. Did Snape finally show his true colors in killing the Hogwarts headmaster? Or was even that part of a carefully devised fail-safe in the campaign against Voldemort?
Here’s my take: Snape is indeed working against the Dark Lord, because his former master killed the person he was in love with: Lily Potter.
Dumbledore repeatedly expressed trust in the former Death Eater, who must therefore have given that savvy wizard a good reason to believe in him. And although Snape clearly loathed Harry’s father, it may be significant that the chapter in which Harry magically sees a memory of the future Potions master being humiliated in the presence of Lily (whom he insults) is titled “Snape’s Worst Memory.”
Not that Snape has been feigning his detestation of Harry. As Rowling underlines in the books, Harry is the image of his father, with one exception: He has his mother’s eyes. So Snape, as has been remarked upon, has been faced for years with a person who resembles both his own youthful nemesis and the girl who married that nemesis. And if Snape was in love with the girl—well, it’s hardly surprising that Harry stirs powerful emotions within him.
But even if Snape is working “against” Voldemort, it doesn’t mean he’s whole-heartedly “for” the good guys. (As Black observes in Order of the Phoenix, “the world isn’t split into good people and Death Eaters.”) We may discover in the end that Snape is still quite enamored of the Dark Arts—in which case he may share a fate similar to Voldemort’s even as he contributes to his former master’s destruction. Leaving Harry’s second-biggest enemy at large even after his worst enemy’s destruction might be too much of a loose literary end.
THE LAST TEMPTATION ...?
“If he could be turned,” Darth Vader says of Luke Skywalker in The Empire Strikes Back, “he would become a powerful ally.”
“Yes, yes,” the emperor muses. “He would be a great asset. Can it be done?”
Give a Dark wizard a wand and a place to stand, and he can move the world. So “could” Harry be seduced by the power of that side?
For a clue, look at the Mirror of Erised. When Harry gazes into that magical object—which shows “the deepest, most desperate desire of our hearts”—he sees the family that he has never known.
“No spell can reawaken the dead,” Dumbledore says in Goblet of Fire. But what if Voldemort offered evidence that Dumbledore was wrong, that Harry somehow could get back his family, his godfather and perhaps others—Ron? Ginny?—who are killed in the last book? (And how logical it would be for Voldemort—the wizard who snarled, “There is nothing worse than death, Dumbledore!”—to pursue just such a spell.)
Rowling has given no strong indication that Harry will face such a dilemma. But if he does, it might be Harry’s toughest trial of character.
A LITTLE VERITASERUM
Not that Harry hasn’t been through a great deal during the past decade, but you could almost wish one more knuckle-whacking on him, just for his own good.
Late in Goblet of Fire, an angry Snape threatens Harry with a vial of Veritaserum, “a Truth Potion so powerful that three drops would have you spilling your innermost secrets for this entire class to hear. ... Unless you watch your step, you might just find that my hand `slips’”—he shakes the bottle—“right over your evening pumpkin juice.”
If Harry is vulnerable to any criticism, it’s that he isn’t above a little bit of rule-bending and lying. Well, actually, quite a bit.
Between Harry’s invisibility cloak and the Marauder’s Map (whose powers are invoked by the declaration “I solemnly swear that I am up to no good”) and his willingness to prevaricate, he is quite vulnerable to Snape’s comparison: “Your father didn’t set much store by rules either. Rules were for lesser mortals, not Quidditch Cup-winners.”
Of course, it’s all in a good cause—usually. But Rowling probably would be doing her protagonist (and some of her readers) a favor if, sometime during “Deathly Hallows,” one of Harry’s lies backfired on him in an extremely serious way.
LOVE POTION NO. 9
It is a memorable moment in Half-Blood Prince.
Ron, at odds with Hermione and feeling that his social life had been lackluster, has taken up with the clingy Lavender Brown. At the dinner table, shortly after Lavender arrives and flings her arms around Ron’s neck, a nearby Hermione artlessly reveals that she is going to a party with another boy.
“There was a noise like a plunger being withdrawn from a blocked sink,” Rowling writes, “and Ron surfaced.”
Say this for the author: Sympathetic characters die, and the books get darker and darker—but Rowling has never pushed the sexual envelope with her teenage protagonists. A certain amount of “snogging” goes on, but we’ve yet to catch two students researching the “In Flagrante Delicto” spell.
Long may it last.
Harry has lost his parents, his godfather and his headmaster; he doesn’t need to add his virginity to that list. With great literary power comes great responsibility; let’s hope that Rowling wields it wisely in the finale.
FORGIVING THE TRESPASSES
One final question: At a key moment, will Harry Potter become like Severus Snape?
Late in Order of the Phoenix, as Harry is raging at Dumbledore about his teacher’s hostility toward him, the headmaster admits: “But I forgot ... that some wounds run too deep for the healing. I thought Professor Snape could overcome his feelings about your father—I was wrong.”
At the end of Half-Blood Prince, Harry watches as Draco Malfoy—a junior Death Eater and Harry’s own longtime youthful nemesis—reveals his masterminding of the scheme to kill Dumbledore, and then as Snape uses the “Avada Kedavra” spell on the headmaster. Harry now has the space of an entire book in which to encounter his two foes again.
What will happen when he does, and if he must decide between mercy and retribution? Will he echo the choices of the teacher fixated on old wrongs? Or will he repeat his own actions in “Prisoner of Azkaban,” when he (reluctantly) spared the life of Peter Pettigrew, the wizard who handed his parents over to Voldemort?
“It is our choices, Harry, that show us what we truly are, far more than our abilities,” Dumbledore says in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. When we reach the last word of Deathly Hallows, whatever it is, we will have discovered much about who Harry, his friends and his foes truly are.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Alan Cochrum is a writer and copy editor for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram Editorial Board.