A mythology for our times: reviewing Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

i’m using the American cover because I think the UK/Cdn one looks like assEvery generation needs a work of popular mythology to call their own, one that reinterprets universal, archetypal themes: love and friendship, fate and empowerment, sin and redemption, good and evil. For my generation – those who grew up in the 70s and 80s – it was George Lucas who provided us a galaxy far, far away in which to explore these eternal human concepts. For today’s kids coming of age, it’s a young British chap named Harry who captures their imagination.

Like Star Wars, the Harry Potter books have been dismissed by many as shallow, kiddie fare. But the generation weaned on Luke, Han and Leia are still watching and rewatching those films today – is it wrong to predict the same of the adventures of Harry, Ron and Hermione? Pop mythology appeals to the young and the young at heart alike, to the side of our brain that still cries out for heroes and villains, for archetypal characters that we can place ourselves within, and for some semblance – however slight – of moral clarity.

The scope of J.K. Rowling’s accomplishment is in how she has achieved one of the most satisfying story arcs in the history of modern popular culture with amazing level of complexity, especially given the confines of children’s literature in which she was pigeonholed. A series that began rather unassumingly has evolved into a epic tale that Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows brings to a stunningly elegant conclusion. With its bookends firmly in place, the Harry Potter saga reveals itself as nothing less than the definitive pop mythology of our time.

Yes – maybe even better than Star Wars.

I have a bad feeling about this…

Let me clarify that bold assertion before I single-handedly blow the Internets apart. I think that the movies in Lucas’ original Star Wars trilogy are better films than Rowling’s Potter saga are books. Lucas was, in his prime, a genuine cinematic auteur with a brilliant visual eye and pushed boundaries with his advancements in special effects. In contrast, Rowling has never been a spectacular prose writer; Stephen King’s criticism that Rowling “has never met an adverb that she didn’t like” is the best observation I’ve read regarding her annoying tendency to over-describe everything she touches.

But Rowling’s world has much to admire over Lucas’ as a mythology. For one, the Potter universe treats death more respectfully and honestly than Lucas’ original trilogy did. When Lucas killed a character (which wasn’t very often), he undercut the weight of their death by turning them into ghostly advisors for his protagonists. Rowling, in contrast, uses death to remove advisors and role models from Harry and his friends, forcing them to not only carry emotional burdens but to rely on one another to survive. Rowling also succeeds in introducing coherent, sometimes even complex politics to her universe (which I’ll explore in more depth a bit later). Lucas, on the other hand, almost entirely ignored politics in his original trilogy and his attempt to introduce them into his prequels was horribly bumbled.

The most important difference of all, though, is that Rowling nails the ending. Return of the Jedi gave viewers a satisfying conclusion to the Luke/Vader story arc, but everything else in the film seemed a bit like an afterthought, with Han, Leia and Chewie being reduced to comic sidekicks to the Ewoks. Deathly Hallows, in contrast, feels like the final move in an elaborate chess game that Rowling has been strategically preparing for since the first book (but especially in the last two). Every subplot is dealt with, every mystery is resolved, and every supporting character is given their moment to shine or sin accordingly. And somehow, almost none of it feels forced or heavy-handed – everything is simply in its right place.

Spoiler warning – from this point onwards I’m going to be dwelling heavily on Rowling’s creative decisions in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, spoiling at will. Those who haven’t read the book yet would be best advised to revisit the rest of this review after they do so.

A few minor greviences…

Which may be a weird way of introducing one of my few small criticisms of Rowling’s final Potter book – there’s very little here to surprise. There’s almost nothing in the way of twists: R.A.B. of course turns out to be Regulus Black, Snape of course turns out to be good in the end, and (as much of the Internet had predicted) Harry’s scar is in fact one of the Horcruxes. Even the deaths aren’t really all that surprising: the law of averages suggest that a Weasley had to bite the dust, and the only surprise about Tonks’ and Lupin’s deaths is that we’re not privy witnessing them. That said, would it have been better for Rowling to give us twists that felt wrong in the name of surprise, ones that didn’t treat the story she was constructing with respect?

There is one time, though, that Rowling doesn’t treat her story or the reader with respect: the god-awful epilogue that she places at the book’s conclusion. The ultimate manifestation of Rowling’s desire to over-explain everything, the final chapter skips nineteen years into the future and gives us a picture-perfect scene with several of our protagonists and their offspring heading to Hogwarts. For a series so rife with imagination, there’s something distressing about Rowling giving her readers (many of whom are as old as her characters) a “happily ever after” ending that doesn’t let them connect their own dots about the future of Harry and his surviving friends. On a more personal level, though, I simply didn’t buy that Harry and Ginny’s relationship would last: it was formed out of the hormone-induced craziness of Half-Blood Prince and while it seemed important in the Harry’s character development, Rowling never gave it enough weight to make me buy it as having any long-term potential, no matter how hard she tries through much of Deathly Hallows.

My final nitpick is that, like many of the Potter books, Deathly Hallows has some significant pacing issues, particularly in its middle section as Harry, Ron and Hermione travel in search of the Horcruxes. Not only is this section repetitive – thank goodness someone taught the kids transfiguration potions, otherwise we’d have no story – but it really drags. It’s the aimlessness of the journey that inspires Ron’s fission from the trio, but that doesn’t make it any easier to read. I think the problem is that Rowling wanted to stick within her year-long convention and had to stretch the story out accordingly; a shame, really, because it’s in breaking series conventions that Deathly Hallows achieves some of its greatest successes.

Alone against the world

There are a number of things that Rowling does differently in Deathly Hallows that make it one of the most distinctive, and best, books in her saga. Most of the books have begun slowly, with a scene at the Dursleys or – in the latter books – a peek into the wizardring world beyond Harry. But none have introduced an action sequence as quickly as this Deathly Hallows, rapidly launching into an exhilarating chance sequence through the skies that features one of the most unsettling images of Voldemort yet and the first of the book’s many deaths. Then – after events at the Weasley household turn dark – our three protagonists are abandoned and left on their own to complete their quest. As repetitive as their journey gets sometime, there’s a real charm to the “us against the world” isolation that these chapters of the book bring.

This isolation gets infused with uncertainty thanks the introduction of the Deathly Hallows into the mix, providing Harry with a plot construct not uncommon in the Potter books but unique in its implications this time. Rowling is well versed on introducing red herrings or distractions to throw the reader off the trail of the mystery proper, but the story of the three Deathly Hallows and their combined ability to cheat and conquer death prove something quite different. They represent a genuinely profound choice between seeking power to wield for the side of good or destroying power in the name of undercutting evil, a choice that Harry struggles with throughout much of the book.

Like most heroes in mythologies that entrust greatness to the common people (paging Frodo Baggins), Harry chooses not to seek power but to destroy it. In choosing the Horcrux quest over the Hallows, Potter helps bring full-circle the anti-authoritarian sentiments that Rowling has been cultivating towards the end of her saga, from the questioning of Dumbledore’s wisdom to the overbearing (and terrifying) oppression from the Ministry of Magic.

The faces of evil

On that point, the introduction of Grindelwald into the Potter backstory, along with the silent revolution and seizure of power by Voldemort and his supporters, furthers my assertion that the Potter saga features a more intelligent political worldview than it is often given credit for. Rowling said once that she saw the wizardring world as something of a mirror to ours, and Grindelwald is clearly meant to be the wizard Adolf Hitler. His version of benevolent fascism – fascism for the “common good” – is disturbing, but it reflects a view of evil in the Harry Potter that is far more realistic than in traditional fantasy literature.

Take, for example, the coup of the ministry and the fallout that follows. A lesser storyteller would have made Voldemort into an all-powerful evil that overtakes the land in darkness and enslaves its people. But Rowling instead has Voldemort take over in a midnight coup well-known among the wizardring elite – mostly those at Bill and Fluer’s wedding – but which is rumour and conjecture among the masses. We get to see bureaucrats at the Ministry of Magic buy into the new regime more out of fear and a search for order than belief in their agenda (best epitomized by Percy Weasly, who finally comes to his senses near the end). And we see the Order resort to resort to guerilla radio broadcasts to get their messages to the people and counteract the propaganda of the Daily Prophet.

This is not fantasy fare; this is stark realism, a commentary on how power is seized backed by fear and paranoia. The obsession with Mudbloods and the Voldemort regime’s desire to hunt them down recalls xenophobia of all forms, from 20th century Nazism to the 21st century (so-called) War on Terror. Rowling doesn’t even let the good wizards off easy; we get glimpses into the history of Goblins and house elves and the oppression they’ve face at the hands of wizards “good” and “bad” alike. I’m not saying that Rowling has written a complex thesis on racism here or anything, but she took a bold risk by introducing wizard politics in Order of the Phoenix, and having seen where she went with it, it was a risk that rendered her universe both more timely and timeless at the same time.

The death march

If you’ve been a long-time McNutt Against the Music reader, you may remember a post from way back, almost a year ago, where I argued quite strongly that Harry Potter had to die in the final book of the series. Well, here we are, and as you’ve no-doubt heard/read by now, Harry emerges from the final chapter very much alive. Am I disappointed? Shockingly, no.

The reason for this, I think, is that Rowling has Harry confront death. He enters his final showdown with Voldemort believing (as I did) that because a part of his rival lived inside of him, he too had to die in order to completely destroy it. Harry’s whole life has been surrounded by death from the very beginning, and each one of the three books leading up to Deathly Hallows saw it creeping ever-closer to him (going through Cedric, Sirius, and Dumbledore in the process). For me, the chapter leading up to the final confrontation with Voldemort is my favourite one in the novel because we get to see Harry finally discovering certainty and a clarity of purpose that had evaded him the previous seven years, ever since the shocking revelation that he was a wizard sent him spiraling into a foreign world. For the first time, he knows exactly what he’s supposed to do.

There may be some out there who feel that the way Rowling saves Harry is a bit of a cop-out, but it actually worked for this death-wisher. We’ve known since the gleam in Dumbledore’s eye in Goblet that Voldemort using Harry’s blood to resurrect himself was going to be important, so it’s fitting that it’s what keeps Harry alive while letting Voldemort’s soul within him perish. Not only that, but the revelation comes in a dream/heaven-like conversation with Dumbledore that is one of the book’s highlights, with a parting line from the former headmaster that’s every bit as playful and poignant as the character deserves.

Redemption song

Friendship has always been the driving theme in the Potter saga, and Deathly Hallows makes sure it’s not forgotten (note that Harry doesn’t actually destroy a single Horcrux in the book, relying instead on his friends to help complete his mission). But another theme emerges equally as prominent in Deathly Hallows:that of redemption.

Everyone and their mother were certain that Snape was going to turn out to be a hero in the end, and yet, that didn’t blunt the impact of his vicious death at Voldemort’s hand, nor the heartbreaking memories that he bestows to Harry just before he dies. For an entire chapter, we trace Snape’s past through his childhood love of Lily Potter and his betrayal of her to the moment where he’s tasked with killing Dumbledore to maintain his cover with Lord Voldemort in the sake of protecting the students of Hogwarts and allowing Harry to reach his destiny. A character whose intentions were always in doubt – and whom Harry believed several times were ignoble – turns out to be one of the saga’s most heroic figures. Surprising? Not really. Heartfelt? Absolutely.

Dumbledore, on the other hand, takes a completely different turn in Deathly Hallows but ultimately ends up at the same destination. Rowling takes her most benevolent character and tears him to shreds, revealing a past life of shame and temptation that proves a stark contrast to the wise old man that we’ve come to know. Parts of this back story sometimes seem a little tangential at times (though it comes together in the end), but they serve their purpose well: to deny sainthood to the most saintly figure in the Potter universe. Instead of an all-knowing sage, Rowling retroactive makes her Obi-Wan figure into a character whose entire life has been a quest for redemption.

It’s only fitting, given all this, that Harry does not immediately resort to offensive magic or “unforgiveable” curses when he comes face-to-face with Lord Voldemort; instead, he offers his nemesis one last chance for redemption. “Before you try to kill me,” he says, “I’d advise you to think about what you’ve done…think, and try for some remorse…It’s your one last chance…it’s all you’ve got left…be a man…try for some remorse.” That Voldemort declines is unsurprising; that Harry would offer says volumes of how far he’s come in seven years.

Journey’s end

And how far his loyal readers have come, too. An eight-year-old who discovered Philosopher’s Stone shortly after its release is now the 18-year-old camping out at midnight to get their hands on Deathly Hallows. Rowling gave an entire generation a mythology that aged as they did. When they began to understand and face death in their lives, so did Harry. When they began to look outwards at the troubled world around them, so did Harry. And when they finally reached adulthood and prepared to venture out into that troubled world, so too did Harry.

This is the generation, ultimately, for whom Harry Potter was written, a generation seeking their own mythology to help them understand life, love and everything in between. For those of us Potter fans who are a bit older, who grew up with other stories by our side, we should just thankful to have been privileged enough to go along for the ride.


2 responses to “A mythology for our times: reviewing Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

  1. Pingback: #33 - Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows « Small Victories·

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