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.