Everyone at the airport had extra baggage with them this weekend, namely the 750-odd-page hardcover Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Some readers had just started, others seemed to be over halfway through already, their faces a mask of exhaustion and anticipation. If it seemed like a race, that’s because it was. The point was to finish the book as fast as humanly possible before the ending or any major plot points were ruined by the professional spoilers who were eagerly posting pages on the Internet and spreading the word as fast as possible. (Anecdotal evidence points to adolescent kids, the same kind who like to tell their younger classmates that Santa Claus doesn’t exist—when, that is, they take a second from pulling the wings off flies—shouting out plot spoilers at the midnight release parties.) In some sense, it wasn’t necessary, as most all the rumors floated before the books went on sale turned out not to be actual spoilers but just snarky guesses. For some reason all this guesswork was deemed grand entertainment by many, including the irritating pair of fellow travelers sitting near me who demanded to know, “Who dies?!”
In any case, the weekend is over, the sales totals are still being counted and exclaimed over (8.3 million!), and the book is finished; what next but the hangover? As someone who has never quite felt comfortable with the term “guilty pleasure,” I do find that to be the term that came up in my mind time and again upon completion of each J. K. Rowling book, and now that I have closed the cover on the series as a whole and thought of the books that I could have read in the same time period, I can safely say: I think I wasted my time.
This is not to claim that all seven of the Harry Potter books, and at least a couple of the films, haven’t provided a decent amount of distraction and escapism over the past several years, and isn’t that all that many books are supposed to give us? Rowling can plot like a demon, and she knows how to implant in readers’ minds an extremely enticing vision of a world where cozy Anglophile reassurance (who wouldn’t want to attend Hogwarts, or have the Weasleys as your surrogate parents?) coexists in intoxicating proximity to extraordinary and duplicitous evil (is that teacher a Death Eater? Are any of my friends?). But there’s a definite shallowness to her writing and characterization that’s hard to escape, and which became more pronounced as the series went on. Each of the characters were given one basic trait—Dumbledore=wisely inscrutable, Harry=impetuous, Hermione=high-revving overachiever; and so on—that was then played upon ad nauseum, with little variation. This becomes especially problematic in Deathly Hallows, a good part of which sticks us with only the Magical Trinity (Harry, Hermione, and Ron), in hiding and on the run after Voldemort’s Death Eaters make serious inroads against the Order of the Phoenix. It’s a tiring situation, and one that makes many sections of the book fly past with little notice, at least until evil rears up again, as it always does.
What, then, is the point of it all? C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, and Philip Pullman created their fantasies as world-defining and philosophical-motivated epics, where entire nations and societies rose and fell in the midst of earth-shattering struggles. To be fair, Rowling was always trying to paint on a smaller canvas, focusing in tightly on Harry and his friends, more intent on exploring the personal dynamic than in making some huge and otherworldly portrait. There’s an intimacy there that Lewis and Tolkien (though definitely not Pullman) missed. But given the sheer number of pages she devoted to her story, Rowling missed a great many opportunities, which became even more apparent by the end of Deathly Hallows. That is to say, the glimpses she gives us of this magical world that coexists with the Muggle one are not just tantalizingly but frustratingly brief. What of magic outside England? How do most wizards make a living? And what is life like for all those people busy fighting off Death Eaters while Harry makes plans with his small band of Dumbledore-chosen compatriots? Rowling’s point of view is so narrowly limited to Harry that it isn’t long before one begins to wish for a different vantage point.
So, who does die? Well, plenty of people; like most fantasy series this one ends with a thunderous battle. But it would take me a moment to remember who most of them were, because even though the series has a large roster of characters, very few of them stand out, except as useful cogs in Rowling’s plot machinations. Already, within a day of finishing Deathly Hallows, its particulars are starting to fade from memory. What stays is a series of iconic images, mostly centered around Hogwarts, and pilfered primarily from the films. The story? It got you from Point A (evil identified) to Point B (evil defined and feared) and Point C (evil confronted) easily enough, but little of it remains with you. Harry himself was a passable enough hero, though by the end the heroics (and sacrifices) of several weaker and more minor characters was much more emotionally affecting.
No Frodo, he. That doesn’t mean Harry had to be, as Rowling shouldn’t be criticized for not writing as dramatically and mythologically as a Tolkien, as smartly as a Pullman, or with as much world-defining intelligence as a Terry Pratchett (whose Discworld books put Rowling’s series to shame in their scope, wonder and humor). But she should be criticized for writing what ultimately comes off as more of a thinly-imagined, young adult, fairytale soap opera than a genuine work of the fantastic. Soap operas can obviously be extremely engaging and intoxicating; they just aren’t well remembered in years to come.