Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: a Septrospective*
It’s been 7 years this month since the Harry Potter series - films, theme parks and other assorted spin-offs notwithstanding - finally came to its long-awaited conclusion, juddering to a halt amid the smouldering wreckage of Voldemort’s freshly-melted horcruxes and a certain heinous epilogue. Like most twentysomethings on 21 July 2007, I devoured Deathly Hallows at breakneck speed - skimming through page after page for ten consecutive hours, terrified that any moment someone might ruin the ending or worse, Hermione would have her head torn off by Bellatrix Lestrange. By the time I was done, twitching and largely blind in both eyes, I couldn’t have told you much about what I’d just read. “Someone dies in every chapter,” I said, handing over the sweaty tome to my brother, still not entirely over Hedwig. “But it was good, I think.”
Perhaps that explains why no one outside Tumblr really talks about the seventh and final instalment of one of the world’s biggest literary slash movie slash everything else franchises. We had close to a decade to re-read the many twists of Azkaban; four full years to slate the endless tome that was Order of the Phoenix. But with Hallows we queued, we read, we mourned the final passing of our childhood and we never thought of it again - until, that is, the movie adaptation confirmed how miserable the whole Albus-Severus business really was.
Like Voldemort, I’m a big fan of the number 7. This anniversary, therefore, is the perfect excuse to abandon my yearly effort to plough through the Booker longlist and instead return to a simpler, albeit highly traumatising world of exploding owls and prolongued camping scenes. How does Deathly Hallows stand up seven years since most of us last read it?
School’s out - sort of
It's hard to deny that the Potter books, while highly excellent, are also deeply formulaic. Even noted wizard-enthusiast Stephen King once lamented the yearly routine of “discovering Harry at home with his horrible aunt and uncle”, shortly before five chapters of obligatory Burrow-then-birthday-then-shopping-on-Diagon-Alley-then-run-in-with-Malfoy-on-the-Hogwarts-Express-style preamble. The final book was surely a perfect opportunity for JK to seriously shake things up, especially when what was heavily hinted in the closing pages of Half-Blood Prince is confirmed shortly into Hallows - Hogwarts is a no-go for the newly fugitive Harry, Ron and Hermione.
Having jettisoned the primary backdrop and spiritual home to the rest of the series, Hallows is initially a disorientating read, especially if you're coming to it straight off the back of the previous six books. You become keenly aware just how much of the series so far was taken up by house ghosts, homework, bitchy McGonagall one-liners and sumptious descriptions of whatever Ron was eating for dinner.
In places this makes Hallows a much leaner, more satisfying book - the Ministry of Magic break-in, for example, would have been tricky for Hermione to mastermind alongside her Arithmancy NEWT. In others, unfortunately, there just isn’t much to fill the gaps. Where there were once classroom skirmishes with Malfoy, we get endless stretches of downtime in a tent. Instead of balancing her academic commitments with brewing illicit batches of Polyjuice potion, Hermione is stuck pondering the same tatty book of fairytales for six chapters.
The book falls awkwardly between two stools. It makes every effort to break with tradition, but then doesn't seem to know what to do with its new-found freedom. It becomes all too easy to slip back into tried and tested Potter formulas, Hogwarts or no Hogwarts: Molly Weasley gets her yearly opportunity to stuff sausages into Harry, Hermione’s still able to advance the plot with her admittedly limited porta-library, Ron behaves like a prick for no real reason, and hilariously the whole thing manages to tie itself up by the end of the school year; Voldemort undone by the academic calendar as per as usual.
Something even more wicked than last time this way comes
If Hallows couldn't quite bring itself to shake-off such classic Potter trappings as Privet Drive and Lee Jordan, it manages a more effective convulsion when it comes to tone.
From Goblet of Fire onwards, we became well-accustomed to pre-publicity honking that “things are getting darker”, by which JK's people generally meant “a minor character and/or Dumbledore is going to die near the end”. Hallows might retain the cosy trappings of a typical Potter yarn, but for the first time everything does genuinely go very dark indeed - and not just in the traditional sense of Voldemort exhuming the remains of his dead father to ensure his return to immortality.
Previous instances of evil-doing in the series tended towards the cartoonish; occasional blonde extras dispatched neatly and painlessly in a flash of green light and accompanying cackle. Violence in Hallows is visceral, bloody and grisly - Nagini emerging from the decomposing, reanimated corpse of Bathilda Bagshot is genuinely nauseating, and no scene in the entire series is tenser than the trio’s imprisonment in Malfoy Manor. Up until this point Bellatrix Lestrange felt more like a pantomime villain, all big hair and maniacal laugh, with a penchant for overblown spellwork. As she slowly tortures Hermione with a good old-fashioned knife, unhinged and dangerous, you finally understand what all the fuss over her Azkaban escape was about - albeit three books too late.
What I’d previously attributed to I’ve-been-reading-this-for-nine-hours-and-need-to-stop-drinking-coffee jitters was actually almost entirely down to the sudden, heavy oppressiveness of a once familiar wizarding world. We joined Harry here on his fairytale escape ten years previously, back when it was all pumpkin pasties and big friendly giants, but in Hallows it completes its steady transformation into something much more closely resembling reality. The Third Reichness of it all was much commented on at the time but, while certainly laid on thick, you can’t say the historical echoes aren't effective. Compare the ever-present threat of enthusiastic ministry collaborators to the occasional cameo appearances by You-Know-Who, who spends much of his time in the final book ineffectually swooping around in search of another wizard’s wand. The real enemy in Hallows is unthinking, unmagical and undeniably human. It’s all the more terrifying for it.
Does anyone know what’s going on
As you are probably already aware, Hallows is the final part of a seven part series, and as such has a serious juggling act to pull-off - first, tie up a tangled, decade-long nightmare of loose ends and provide satisfying closure to millions of fans worldwide. Second, to be an engrossing, standalone adventure in its own right. The title convention of Harry Potter and the Something Something is there for a reason - there always needs to be an storyworthy Something Something.
Here, the Something Something in question are the Deathly Hallows, three mythical objects of such towering power and importance we only hear about them 200 pages before the end of the series. Chapter after chapter is devoted to circular speculation as to where these things might be; why Dumbledore conveniently forgot to ever mention them; why we should care about these rather than the horcruxes we’ve been gearing up to destroy for a good five books. Like Hermione, we spend most of the novel willing Harry to shut the fuck up about that goddamn Elder Wand.
This late in the game, the Hallows are a conundrum too far, and one which wreaks havoc on all we thought we knew about the wizarding world. Their sudden introduction comes with a bucketload of new information about wandlore, significant leaps of faith regarding Dumbledore’s sanity, and some very dubious skating-over the fact that Harry’s been supposedly carting one of the Hallows around with him for seven years. Unlike every other who-dunnit throughout the series, from Sirius Black to Barty Crouch Jnr, the Hallows feel like what I fear they were: a last minute concoction to shunt the plot where JK wanted it to.
It’s not a feeling limited to whatever the hell the Hallows are meant to be. The plot is stuffed to breaking point with bizarre, unlikely coincidences that again, go against everything we ever thought we knew. Summoning dangerous horcrux books through a dormitory window? Sure. Breaking into the wizard bank we've been repeatedly told is impossible to break into? No problem. Dumbledore’s light put-outer? For some reason it also doubles as a Return-Ron-to-Harry-and-Hermione-After-He’s-Been-A-Dick-o-matic. Snitches have memory. The trace charm doesn’t work how you thought it did. Voldemort was convinced his last horcrux would be safe in the Room of Requirement, despite huge piles of surrounding evidence that other pupils may have already found their way in. Voldemort is finally vanquished, ostensibly because Harry disarmed Malfoy some months previously. It’s all so bizarre and unlikely that Dumbledore himself is summoned back from the dead to help Harry make sense of what the hell’s just happened.
With the majority of the book taken up by nonsensical Hallowsing, there’s not a huge amount of time for the loose ends. The major pay-off comes, finally, but squeezed into a single chapter of Pensieve flashbacks, and through yet another moment of sheer chance. Snape and Lily, Lily and Petunia, Dumbledore and Snape - this is the stuff we actually cared about, but it receives scant attention amid the ongoing confusion about Elder Wands and zombie stones. In an alternate universe, Harry and a test tube never managed to coincidentally bump into Snape in his dying moments, and thus never found out about ANYTHING. The end.
I’m being unduly harsh. While a lot of the Hallows stuff is clearly nuts, there’s also more than enough to keep most readers - and myself - happy. The opening chapters in particular, excluding Hedwig’s little accident, are rammed with nostalgic throwbacks. Look, a Potter Stinks badge! Awww, a shard of glass from that mirror you angrily smashed in the aftermath of your godfather’s death. Good times, eh Harry?
It’s a spirit that returns in the closing sections, once we’re back in Hogwarts and every character we’ve ever met is thrown back into the mix. There’s not a lot you can’t forgive after Neville faces up to Voldemort and beheads his pet snake, Professor McGonagall out-badasses herself with an army of tables and armoured statues, and Colin Creevey finally gets what was coming to him.
I suspect I may be in the minority here, but seven years on and I’m still glad Harry didn’t die. When you briefly believe he might, that Dumbledore planned to dispatch him all along, it feels horribly wrong ("This was not what the 11 year old me signed up for," I wailed, suddenly, to my brother's concern). Having Harry survive and spawn terribly named babies with Ginny is in keeping with the spirit of the series, even if Ginny remains forever awful and Harry should have probably patched things up with Cho instead.
This feels like a good place to talk about characters. Shall we talk about characters?
Characters I do sort of wish had died
- Aunt Petunia, in a dramatic moment of self-sacrifice in the opening chapters
You know what I’m going to say next
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is fine. It’s a flawed but fitting finale to a brilliant series of books, one which more than compensates for its dodgy plot with a strong set of characters and page-turning fear that any one of them could die at a moment's notice. Once you tear out the epilogue, it’s a solid 7/10.
What frustrates me most about Hallows is that JK Rowling didn’t even put the most interesting thing about it in the actual goddamn book. As she revealed in a post-publication interview, far from being just good friends with a shared taste for violence, Dumbledore had the hots for Grindelwald. Dumbledore was so enamoured by Grindelwald’s Germanic good looks that Dumbledore was prepared to abandon his family and embark on a global mission to enslave all Muggles. Neither of those things seem particularly Albus Dumbledore, so let's just think about how good looking Grindelwald must have been. Things between them eventually ended in a bloody DUEL, surely the most homoerotic confrontation of all time.
Why JK. Why was all this not in the book. Forget your Fantastic Beasts and the Something Something spin-off - I will not stop badgering you until I can buy the full Dumbledore/Grindelwald prequel. Suggested title: For the Greater Good. Shivers.
* This is totally a word, right?