I’ve spent a good deal of the last two days reading comments on various websites about Deathly Hallows and talking to friends about their opinions. And while I really, really, really don’t want to debate here or apologize (in the rhetorical sense) for every plot point readers dislike, I’d like to write a little about two things that keep coming up in the reactions, and that deserve further thought before everyone hates on them completely. For the record, I have no special insight into these subjects beyond that of a reader who’s had the privilege of thinking about them for seven months rather than twenty-four hours; and this is also of course only my interpretation: I am definitely not speaking for J. K. Rowling or Scholastic or anyone else.
The Deathly Hallows: “What is their point?” some readers gripe. “What role do they serve in this book?” "She had the Horcruxes, she had to add another magical device?" This series, like any fantasy novel in which the characters wield magic, and like much of children’s literature in general, is at its thematic heart very much about power: who has it, how far it goes, the wise use of it, if it should be used at all. Voldemort is obsessed with it, like most evil overlords are, and he sees it as unequivocally good: the more, the better. And this approach parallels his obsession with death, which he sees as unequivocally bad: a weakness (the opposite of power), a failure.
The Hallows combine these two obsessions in three objects and use them to test Harry’s character: Will he chase down the Hallows? Will he take the ultimate power over death? That is certainly what Voldemort would do, if he knew all three existed; it was what Dumbledore wanted to do, when he was the age Harry is in this book; and it would provide Harry with the conventional means of destroying Voldemort—accumulating greater firepower (emphasis on the “power” there) with the Elder Wand, rather than undermining him from within by chipping away at the Horcruxes.
And Harry rejects them. He keeps his Cloak, but drops the stone somewhere in the Forest (there’s a fanfic waiting to be written); and most significantly, he decides not to keep the Elder Wand: He rejects fame, power, and immortality in favor of normalcy and a sandwich. I am not well-versed enough in epic fantasy conventions to know how unusual this is in the genre, the decision that the best use of power is abstention from it; but it is the perfect ending for Harry’s story, when he’s constantly been the victim of power, from page one with his parents’ deaths. His decision proves him truly the opposite of Voldemort, because his understanding of love, power, and death is so much richer and deeper than Tom Riddle’s; and he would not have been able to make that choice (that key J. K. Rowling word," choice") if he were not confronted with it in the form of the Hallows.
And this leads me to the epilogue. It is not receiving much love, I see—some people hate it because it doesn’t answer all their questions, some people hate it because it gives answers they don’t want, and some people just find it cheesy. I think it paid off five essential themes of the series (not just the book):
- Family. At the beginning of this series, who was Harry? A boy without a family, orphaned, friendless, belonging to no community, unhappy in the family he did live with, who gave him no love. At the end, he not only has a wife and children who love him (and whom he loves), he has a godson, many brothers-in-law, all their wives and children, and the acceptance of the full wizarding community.
- Maturity. Harry’s son’s name signifies that Harry has come to recognize Snape’s sacrifice and supreme courage (“Sometimes I think we sort too soon”), and to value those virtues over the pettiness with which Snape treated him at Hogwarts. Such a judgment is the mark of a intelligent, thoughtful, and empathetic adult, so it shows us that Harry has grown up and become wise.
- Fame. We see that Harry is happy being simply a father like the other fathers, and when all the kids on the train are gawking at him, he (and Ron) accept it matter-of-factly, rather than displaying the awkwardness that’s stalked him since his first visit to the Hogwarts Express in Book 1.
- Choice. He tells Albus essentially what Dumbledore told him in Book 2 -- “It is our choices, far more than our abilities, that show who we truly are” -- carrying that wisdom into the next generation.
- Power, or Where Real Happiness Comes From. Repeating a bit things I’ve said above . . . The epilogue is resolutely domestic, with kids squabbling and dads talking about parking—it’s a scene straight out of typical middle-class family life, plus wands. As far as we know from it, Harry is not powerful, he is not super-important, he does not wield any significant power. He is just a dad who loves his family. This, I think, may be part of the reason why people dislike the epilogue so much—the Chosen, special one, the Boy Who Lived, the one we’ve identified with all this time, has become just a regular guy, which means (by fictional standards especially) that frankly his life is a little boring. But J. K. Rowling is showing us clearly that he’s finding his happiness in everyday love and domestic life rather than big fantasy heroism—he is a Jane Austen and not a World of Warcraft hero in the end. And that is a kind of happy ending we can all aspire to: “All was well.”
Finally, some things I love about the book (not all, but some):
- I had to say this line out loud every time I read it: “Vot is the point of being an international Quidditch player if all the good-looking girls are taken?”
- I found a liveblog somewhere where a reader remarked, “I knew Regulus Black was R.A.B. as soon as I saw the handwriting!” This made me throw my arms in the air and shout “YES!”, as we deliberately set the handwriting on the door in the same font as the note to give readers (and Harry) precisely that clue and payoff. Yay!
- Also a good liveblog: The Onion AV Club read.
- “The Silver Doe” is my favorite chapter in the book. I love the wonder of the doe; the miracle of Ron’s return; the awkwardness in the conversation that follows; the pure Ron-torture the locket puts him through (so much delicious pain!); the Harry and Ron hug afterward; and Hermione beating Ron up, because he does totally deserve it. It’s heartrending and hilarious.
- You know what JKR is amazing at? Hairpin emotional turns. Consider all the emotions in that chapter, or in the “Tale of the Two Brothers” or the “Deathly Hallows” chapter, from Harry’s broodiness to the lightness of the radio program (other people, at last!) to the terror at the Snatchers . . . I am so right there with them the whole time. And that ability to pull you into the moment and direct your emotions with ease is one of the things that makes J. K. Rowling such an incredible and popular writer.
- Ron's line about Death having an Invisibility Cloak -- I don't have my book with me, but it's something like "Sometimes he gets tired of running at them and shouting 'Woo! Woo!'" To me that just encapsulated Rowling's magic and humor and interest in death all in a single one-liner.
- The beginning of the "Wandmaker" chapter, where Harry digs Dobby's grave.
- The brilliant payoff for Sirius's mirrors, and Aberforth in general -- I really liked him.
- Jane Austen would have LOVED the fact that Hermione and Ron only kiss after he has expressed his sincere concern over the house-elves—thus demonstrating the completion of his moral education, and therefore his worthiness of Hermione’s love. I love it too.
- The professors defending Hogwarts in the "Battle" chapter: McGonagall waking the suits of armor and telling the desks to "CHARGE!", Trelawney hitting crystal balls, Grubbly-Plank dropping Venomous Tentacula -- in the midst of the grief and chaos, these touches were delightfully funny and in character with the magical world.
- Snape's last request for Harry to look at him, and "the green eyes meeting the black" -- I gasped out loud when I hit that line and realized what it meant.
- I do not cry at books much. I did not really cry when Dumbledore or Sirius died—I had my arms over my head, sure, but my eyes were dry, and I didn't really cry through most of the deaths here. But I wept as I’ve never wept at a book before throughout the chapter where Harry is going to meet Voldemort. Sacrifices for others always do this to me; it's what made me cry in "The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe" (a comparison a lot of readers are drawing) and in "Titanic" (shut up).
- Another favorite line: "Do not pity the dead, Harry. Pity the living, and above all, pity those who live without love."
- Did everyone notice the lack of adverbial dialogue tags in this book? If you did not, do. :-) $300 million bucks -- or however large her fortune is -- and she still listens to her critics and uses what's useful.
ETA: For more thoughts on the epilogue and a theory on Teddy Lupin, click here.