Deathly Hallows

Here is my TLS review:
HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS by J.K Rowling
(Bloomsbury 607 pp. £17.99)

reviewed by Roz Kaveney

Last books, whether of a series or of a career, have always to be seen, and are often planned, as a summation as well as a conclusion. They have to make sense of what has gone before and where possible repair the damage of miscalculations and clumsiness in earlier work. If there was an over-arching plan at the start, it will always have been modified along the way, if not in the minutiae of plot, certainly in the overall emotional feel and moral content, of the arc. If ‘Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows’ is, for all its besetting areas of weakness, a significantly more satisfying work than some of its predecessors with which it shares them, it is because JK Rowling is an intelligent writer for whom writing the most popular children’s books in history has been an education in responsibility and power which parallels that of her boy wizard hero.

In plot terms. this is a nightmare of persecution and random malice that resolves into cathartic battle and triumph. Voldemort’s forces take over the Ministry of Magic, and Hogwarts; they persecute and murder mixed-blood wizards in scenes that echo the obvious other persecutions of modern history from the Nazis through Stalin’s purges to contemporary racism. Harry and his friends spend much of their time on the run with no place to lay their heads, accumulating the wizardly plot tokens, embedded correlatives for knowledge both of morality and the past of their world and families, which enable their eventual victory. Many of the good die – sometimes in a shockingly perfunctory and casual manner; many secrets are revealed, not all of which have been clearly hinted at or foreshadowed. This is a dark book which will upset its younger fans – it will also instruct them in the cost of what is valuable.

‘The Deathly Hallows’ has two epigraphs, one from Aeschylus and the other from the Quaker William Penn. The first, from ‘The Libation Bearers’, is an appeal to the cthonic gods to aid the children of Agamemnon to end the hereditary curse on the house of Atreus with a final act of vengeance; the second is a reminder that, for believers in particular, the dead are not dead but influences in our hearts. In a sense all the more real for not being specifically religious, Rowling has rethought these books as a move away from an old law of vengeance and feud to a new law of forgiveness offered, even where it is not accepted, a forgiveness possible because the murdered live on.

This is the most allusive of Rowling’s books. There are obvious and clear allusions to Tolkien and Lewis, her predecessors – Harry’s walk to what he believes to be his death among mocking forces of evil parallels Aslan’s desecration by the Witch and her minions, while his decisions to spare life wherever possible parallel Frodo’s mercy to Gollum and at one point visually echo Frodo’s rescue by eagles from the wreck of Mordor. Less expected is an allusion which may be to Dostoevsky or to William James, or possibly to Ursula leGuin citing them. In that ecstasy allowed to the protagonists of epic fantasy, Harry talks to the shade of Dumbledore in a transfigured and empty Kings Cross station; a small flayed child screams beneath a bench.

That child is a portion of Voldemort’s soul, but also a reference to the tortured child who acts as the linchpin of human achievement in Dostoevsky’s parable. Aloysha, as is wellknown, refused to accept it; Harry makes a different choice. Evil has to be offered options, chooses to be its own doom, and by refusing grace for itself, enable it elsewhere. A key theme of this last volume is repentance – Harry’s oppressive foster family are allowed the grace of embarrassment and quite unlikely villains plausibly and crucially repent.

Crucial revelations about the role of Severus Snape are paralleled by some startling insights into the career of Dumbledore, Harry’s Gandalf, who turns out to have much to repent, not least his ruthless moulding of Harry as a suicide weapon. ‘Deathly Hallows’ is not literally a story about casting youth and magic aside and breaking your wand; it is though a book about moving beyond parents and mentors and their expectations. It is a book about fighting your own battles, not the wars of other generations.

Of course there are faults alongside all this insightfulness; Rowling’s prose is rarely more than adequate, sometimes, as in an epilogue set two decades later, perfunctory and mawkish. She is a little too concerned to revisit old characters and settings – a trip to Gringott’s Bank, for example, is something of an indulgence and the Battle for Hogwarts is a careful ticking off of every detail with which fans have been obsessed. In the end though, ‘Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows’ is a book which reconfigures what started as a silly tale about a public school for wizards into an emotionally powerful moral fable. There are so many worse things children, and others, could be paying attention to.

As always, the printed version is slightly cut for length, so this is my preferred version.

About rozkaveney

Middleaged, trans, novelist, poet, activist
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40 Responses to Deathly Hallows

  1. Uh, no text there. Unless it was a 0-word review…

  2. rozkaveney says:

    Well that’s fixed now

  3. ffutures says:

    Thanks for posting that – I’ve been wanting to read it since you mentioned it.

  4. dichroic says:

    “‘Deathly Hallows’ is not literally a story about casting youth and magic aside and breaking your wand”
    And thanks to JKR for that. I wrote about this yesterday; I am so sick of (in real life) the idea that youth’s the time for adventure and the fantasy corollaries that either magic is a land only permitted to youth or else “death of the magic” endings, in which once the world is saved all the magic/joy has gone out of it. One of the things I love about the HP saga is that adults are allowed to care, to have fun, and when the things they care about are at risk to fight alongside the young protagonists of the story.

  5. dichroic says:

    “‘Deathly Hallows’ is not literally a story about casting youth and magic aside and breaking your wand”

    And thanks to JKR for that. I wrote about this yesterday; I am so sick of (in real life) the idea that youth’s the time for adventure and the fantasy corollaries that either magic is a land only permitted to youth or else “death of the magic” endings, in which once the world is saved all the magic/joy has gone out of it. One of the things I love about the HP saga is that adults are allowed to care, to have fun, and when the things they care about are at risk to fight alongside the young protagonists of the story.

  6. pickwick says:

    Oh, excellent, I’ve been waiting for this too.
    For the first few pages of the King’s Cross chapter, I thought Rowling was heading for another Lewis parallel from ‘Last Battle’, with Harry and Dumbledore moving on to another life similar to this, only brighter. I’m very glad she didn’t.
    Peter Pettigrew = Gollum? Harry’s choice in Prisoner of Azkaban to let him live saves Harry’s life here.

  7. pickwick says:

    Oh, excellent, I’ve been waiting for this too.

    For the first few pages of the King’s Cross chapter, I thought Rowling was heading for another Lewis parallel from ‘Last Battle’, with Harry and Dumbledore moving on to another life similar to this, only brighter. I’m very glad she didn’t.

    Peter Pettigrew = Gollum? Harry’s choice in Prisoner of Azkaban to let him live saves Harry’s life here.

  8. fjm says:

    “allusive” … good word.

  9. smallship1 says:

    Oh, can i second that? One of the things that put me off Susan Cooper’s Dark Is Rising series, in many ways far superior, was the insistence on closing off the magic world at the end.
    “Real life is far more magical.” Sorry, it isn’t. That’s why we tell stories about magic.

  10. smallship1 says:

    Oh, can i second that? One of the things that put me off Susan Cooper’s Dark Is Rising series, in many ways far superior, was the insistence on closing off the magic world at the end.

    “Real life is far more magical.” Sorry, it isn’t. That’s why we tell stories about magic.

  11. dichroic says:

    And not just that – when you’ve just told a story where the magic is an integral part of the adventure, when you close off the magic, you are implying that all adventure has ended. Not being allowed to return to Narnia because you’ve gotten too old is one of the things that feeds the idea I keep encountering in real life that past a certain age you are not supposed to go on adventures any more.

  12. the_maenad says:

    Note that Pettigrew isn’t the only ‘bad guy’ in the book to waver for a moment when faced with the opportunity to kill, and to pay for his weakness (or to redeem himself?) by dying himself as a result.
    Neither is there only one ‘inseparable duo’ which is finally split up by the death of one of its members…
    Bonus point if you spot the character whose death falls under both headings.

  13. the_maenad says:

    Note that Pettigrew isn’t the only ‘bad guy’ in the book to waver for a moment when faced with the opportunity to kill, and to pay for his weakness (or to redeem himself?) by dying himself as a result.

    Neither is there only one ‘inseparable duo’ which is finally split up by the death of one of its members…

    Bonus point if you spot the character whose death falls under both headings.

  14. pickwick says:

    Uh. I’m in the middle of re-reading, and I can’t think, but I have that nagging feeling I should know exactly what you’re talking about! I’ll probably swear quietly to myself tonight when I figure it out.

  15. pickwick says:

    I’m now trying to remember if Crabbe wavered for a moment before releasing the Fiendfyre…

  16. arkady says:

    As I’ve said elsewhere: “Aslan beats the Nazis and saves Middle Earth”. Rowling herself is a member of the Church of Scotland but she has kept quiet about her beliefs because she was afraid that if readers knew, they’d guess the ending, but to be honest she’s not the most accomplished of writers and I think the Christian allegory has been pretty obvious right the way through.

  17. rozkaveney says:

    Oh, that’s interesting. I had largely persuaded myself that she must be a Quaker simply because the book, Aslanishness aside, is quite supple in its ethics and morals, and hopes for redemption.

  18. rozkaveney says:

    I should add that I speak as a lapsed Catholic agnostic with simultaneous pagan and atheist sympathies.

  19. camisado says:

    … But doesn’t every hero story follow that general plotline? The hero sacrifices himself for the greater good and returns triumphantly to lay the smackdown on the villains. Jesus wasn’t the first, and just because Lewis chose to make his children’s fantasy a Christian allegory, I don’t think it’s fair to say every other hero story is just another Jesus allegory. Tolkien was a Christian as well but he was firmly against Lewis’ turning his fantasy into an allegory, and he also denied other people’s claims that Lord of the Rings was another allegory. I guess if you’re a Reader Response type of literary critic, you can say the stories mean whatever you think they mean, but I don’t think just because Rowling is Christian that turns all her work into a Christian allegory. Nor are the ideas of sacrifice or redemption or mercy or other morals solely proprietary to Christianity!

  20. monanotlisa says:

    Here via SelenaK; thank you very much!

  21. Anonymous says:

    I agree. Harry walking to his death may resemble Aslan in LWW, but in the same particulars it resembles the execution of Saddam Hussein. Good book and good review, though; thanks Roz.
    Phil Palmer

  22. Anonymous says:

    I agree. Harry walking to his death may resemble Aslan in LWW, but in the same particulars it resembles the execution of Saddam Hussein. Good book and good review, though; thanks Roz.

    Phil Palmer

  23. pdcawley says:

    Worse than that; the people who had those adventures are essentially murdered by the removal of their memories in TDiR.

  24. surliminal says:

    Yup. I pretty much haven’t seen the reviews, as was avoiding spoilers but from what I’ve picked up tonight, I do wonder at a fandom that complains about the epitaph but does not mind how closely the emotional climax (for me) is ripped from CS Lewis. For myself it did go beyond allusive into failure of imagination. “KX” was much more interesting – perhaps because it did go for references I didn’t get (you mention Dostoevsky, it is still gnawing at me as something else – the whimpering baby – PKD? something druggy.)
    I also felt the deaths – Tonks and Lupin especially – were so perfunctory, not to teach is that war is brutal but beause JKR has still not learnt the basics of pacing and editing – many pages could have been taken from the dullness of their wandering on the heaths and added usefully to the Last Battle ..

  25. dmsherwood53 says:

    Dullness of the wandering on the heaths
    I fealt -nothing more explicitable than that-that the dullness of this passage was deliberate. Can say that whatever effect was stiven for doesn’t make it for me.
    The epilogue is curiously drab.

  26. dmsherwood53 says:

    Dullness of the wandering on the heaths

    I fealt -nothing more explicitable than that-that the dullness of this passage was deliberate. Can say that whatever effect was stiven for doesn’t make it for me.
    The epilogue is curiously drab.

  27. Re: Dullness of the wandering on the heaths
    If I’ve read JKR’s comments right, the Epilogue is the famous last chaper that she’s had written for over a decade. There was a slight re-arrangement to match who ended up dead, but if it’s missed out on JKR’s development as a writer it could explain some of the drabness.
    On the other hand, it shows the survivors in a world of almost humdrum magic, and a new generation of excited children. It’s not as explicit as the ending of The Worm Ouroborus, it’s a more subtle cycle, but it has some of the same feeling.

  28. Re: Dullness of the wandering on the heaths

    If I’ve read JKR’s comments right, the Epilogue is the famous last chaper that she’s had written for over a decade. There was a slight re-arrangement to match who ended up dead, but if it’s missed out on JKR’s development as a writer it could explain some of the drabness.

    On the other hand, it shows the survivors in a world of almost humdrum magic, and a new generation of excited children. It’s not as explicit as the ending of The Worm Ouroborus, it’s a more subtle cycle, but it has some of the same feeling.

  29. You may be right about her allusions. Certainly the Christianness of the last book is pretty obvious, though I don’t think there’s enough there to credit her with any kind of sectarianism; it’s a very general Christianness, but I don’t think it’s anything but Christian (vis-a-vis the commenter who claimed this was a more general mythic form).
    One of my pet peeves about Rowling has been her disinterest in crediting her influences, particularly when so many of them are pretty obvious and her influence would then bring more people to reading the good stuff that she’s made use of. If she’s going to get credit for “exciting kids about reading” she also gets demerits for not giving them some direction other than her self-serving material.

  30. You may be right about her allusions. Certainly the Christianness of the last book is pretty obvious, though I don’t think there’s enough there to credit her with any kind of sectarianism; it’s a very general Christianness, but I don’t think it’s anything but Christian (vis-a-vis the commenter who claimed this was a more general mythic form).

    One of my pet peeves about Rowling has been her disinterest in crediting her influences, particularly when so many of them are pretty obvious and her influence would then bring more people to reading the good stuff that she’s made use of. If she’s going to get credit for “exciting kids about reading” she also gets demerits for not giving them some direction other than her self-serving material.

  31. jmhm says:

    I don’t know – my uncle is a catholic priest and he’s sometimes caught things I’ve missed.
    I think it may be like Groundhog Day – one of those things lots of folks think reflect their way of looking at the way the world is organized.

  32. jmhm says:

    I don’t know – my uncle is a catholic priest and he’s sometimes caught things I’ve missed.

    I think it may be like Groundhog Day – one of those things lots of folks think reflect their way of looking at the way the world is organized.

  33. parallelgirl says:

    *smiles and waves*
    Been saving up this review to read until I’d finished the book….thanks for posting it. Particularly enjoying your explication of some of the literary allusions- having spotted the Christian ones, but not knowing my Dosteovsky!

  34. parallelgirl says:

    *smiles and waves*

    Been saving up this review to read until I’d finished the book….thanks for posting it. Particularly enjoying your explication of some of the literary allusions- having spotted the Christian ones, but not knowing my Dosteovsky!

  35. camisado says:

    It’s called the hero’s journey, and the Christ story is just another one that follows the formula.

  36. camisado says:

    It’s called the hero’s journey, and the Christ story is just another one that follows the formula.

  37. Yeah, you’re the “commenter above”.
    As I said, I think Rowling’s using a specifically Christian allegory of sacrificial death and redemption, with themes of parental love, etc., which are grounded in Gospel rather than in other mythic identities.

  38. Yeah, you’re the “commenter above”.

    As I said, I think Rowling’s using a specifically Christian allegory of sacrificial death and redemption, with themes of parental love, etc., which are grounded in Gospel rather than in other mythic identities.

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