“That makes me sound a lot cooler than I was,” Ron mumbled.
“Stuff like that always sounds cooler than it really was,” said Harry.
“I’ve been trying to tell you that for years.”
—Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, J. K. Rowling
It’s bizarre, even before reading the first sentence of a book 759 pages long, finding yourself asking: “Is this going to be enough?”
Because this, we know, is The End. A decade of sharing Harry Potter’s adventures comes to a close the moment we reach the final page of this one. No more queuing up for a midnight book release or setting regularly scheduled life aside for 36 consecutive hours just to see who lives, who dies, who teaches Defense Against the Dark Arts this year, and more recently (because they’re all grown up now), who’s snogging. Perhaps not since Dickens’ serialized installments of The Old Curiosity Shop made a global readership lose sleep over Little Nell’s fate has a fictional world drawn such gleeful, nail-biting loyalty into its gravity well. So is this one enough? (No spoilers follow. Promise.)
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Book 7)
J. K. Rowling (Hardcover, Arthur A. Levine Books/Scholastic, $34.99)
Inscribed on the Mirror of Erised are the words, “I show not your face but your heart’s desire.” Harry’s first encounter with self-awareness takes place in front of that mirror and as readers we, too, feel the stab of that loss — Harry’s murdered parents — the tragedy that sets “The Boy Who Lived” against “He Who Must Not Be Named,” the mythic struggle set in motion by evil rebounded upon itself.
Casting about for comparisons, reviewers have lumped Rowling in with C. S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien; which is to say that her world, Hogwarts and all, is fully imagined, consistent within itself. Unlike Lewis or Tolkien, Rowling doesn’t throw her narrative bodily into the Other, but rather lets it perch along the veil between worlds. We have Magic, yes; but we have Muggles, too. And this is Rowling’s signal achievement: her Magic draws us in, but the homely humanity of it all keeps us grounded and defines Rowling’s overarching theme.
From the start, we’ve seen Harry, Ron, and Hermione, students learning the ropes of their world: how to wield their wands and command power. Increasingly, their story bounded over the walls not only of the boarding school but of the Magical world itself: the seventh book only returns us to Hogwarts for the pivotal final chapters. This is the real story Rowling has been telling us all along. Purebloods and Mudbloods, Magic and Muggles.
Do Magical folk enjoy a moral superiority over us Muggles, who need to make do with internal combustion, with sprockets and gears, winches and wires to do the tasks of our world? At least one critic, writing in The Wall Street Journal, argues that Rowling can now be safely admitted to the pantheon of Christian fantasists, citing Biblical quotations and veiled religious iconography in this last book to bolster her case. Excuse me?
Is the very vocal minority who declaimed Rowling’s sinister (perhaps satanic) designs on young people suddenly mollified? What rough beasts are these, gone ’round the bend at last, slouching toward Hogsmeade to be born? Never mind. Those who never came unhinged over Potter’s imagined leanings, who recall Joe Campbell’s work, will recognize Rowling’s theme is agnostic enough. The hero’s innate moral compass does not lose its bearings if not moored to some or other religious icon; it will guide his journey well enough. Never mind.
For Harry, Ron, and Hermione, The Deathly Hallows is their valedictory and most cooperative journey: Harry not only shares the limelight, he fully understands there can be no conclusion made but all together.
Rowling’s books will never be mistaken for Proust’s or Harry’s adventures judged a stunning literary achievement. It was just the tale of one extraordinary orphan trying, with a little help from his friends, to find his way home. It is enough.