Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. By J.K. Rowling. Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic. $34.99.
For years, J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books have been beyond criticism. There is nothing imaginable that a reviewer could say that would induce previously reluctant people to buy them, or dissuade enthusiasts from doing so. They are a genuine cultural phenomenon.
And they deserve to be. Claims of their efficacy in returning young people, especially boys, to the charms of books in general are likely to prove overstated: it is a characteristic of spectacular phenomena that their charm is not transferable. But simply getting more young people to read these books is a remarkable accomplishment, and one for which Rowling has not always received sufficient credit.
What Rowling has done is to allow millions of young people to grow up along with her characters – and that fact undercuts the argument, currently being made in some quarters, that the seventh and final Potter book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, is somehow “too adult” for young people. It is not too adult for the young people who have grown up reading the first six. They have progressed with Harry from being callow 11-year-olds (or whatever age they were when the first book appeared) to being very grown-up 21-year-olds (or whatever age they currently are). Rowling has escorted them through a decade of their lives and seven years of Harry’s, showing them progress and hope and heartache and joy and wonder, all in a thoroughly accessible style that has made some of the most difficult lessons more acceptable, if scarcely palatable.
That style has come in for considerable criticism – all of which misses the point. Yes, it can be clunky and clichéd; no, it never has the resonance of the styles of the great fantasists of the 20th century, including C.S. Lewis (whose seven-book Chronicles of Narnia was one of Rowling’s models) and J.R.R. Tolkien. So what? Lewis and, especially, Tolkien, can be very difficult reading, and Rowling simply is not. If her style is clever rather than profound, that is scarcely a mortal sin.
As it happens, a newly completed Tolkien novel appeared earlier this year: The Children of Húrin, painstakingly assembled over a 30-year time frame by Tolkien’s son, Christopher. The tolling cadences of Tolkien’s prose resound through it in a way that Rowling’s words never do, and the Tolkienian feeling of spaciousness, of a hugely complex world of whose history this story is only a small part, is pervasive.
And it would be a lousy book for most young people. It is a grand story but a cold one; a complex story whose characters’ motivations are entirely adult. Its resonance comes in part because it is a version of the Norse myth of Siegmund and Sieglinde – but one in which their love produces no Siegfried and scarcely any joy. It is dark and dour, shining brilliantly but without warmth.
In contrast, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is warm and reader-connected. There is no ambiguity in its basic plot of good (Harry and friends) vs. evil (Voldemort and cohorts). But what Rowling does in this conclusion of Harry’s saga – and does very effectively – is to show that life is not as simple as good vs. evil, except in extreme cases. The revelations that flow quickly and furiously through this fast-moving novel shake Harry’s world as thoroughly as do the magical spells and violence directed at him. The more he and we find out about the complexities of Snape and Dumbledore (among others), the more we learn that people are not always what they seem to be, but that they have choices to make, and those choices, as well as their birthrights, make them into what they become. Harry – along with Hermione, Ron and many others – must make choices here that may, or may not, guarantee their survival.
And this understanding of the consequences of choices is, in a real-world sense, a primary value that Rowling has brought to her millions of fans, and a major reason her Harry Potter saga is likely to survive to enchant many additional young readers in the future. Rowling is not an outstanding stylist or even, in many ways, a particularly accomplished plot creator. In those respects, simply among living British authors whose books appeal to young people and to adults as well, she compares poorly with Terry Pratchett (the lively and often outlandish Discworld novels) and Philip Pullman (the profound and elegant His Dark Materials trilogy). But people, young and old, do not read Rowling for literary style or structurally fascinating plots. They read her for the sheer pleasure of entering a world that is outré but not too outré, that is not ours but could almost be ours; one in which the virtues we instinctively know represent goodness – love being paramount among them, as Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows makes abundantly clear – may be under the most vicious attack, may lose out or even be destroyed at times, but are nevertheless the things that make us fully human. Perhaps they are the only such things. And this is why the Harry Potter books, although they can certainly be criticized and critically analyzed, remain beyond criticism for those who have followed Harry through all 4,000-plus pages: although magic pervades these novels, they are really about surviving and – with skill and luck – thriving in our own deeply interconnected, if decidedly non-magical world.