Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: what sets it apart?

What makes the final book of the series so meaningful and complete?

I haven’t posted in a while thanks to numerous life developments and lots of writing done.  If you’re interested in that, see below.

136251Lately I’ve rewatched two Harry Potter films and it’s brought back memories of reading the books, a project I finished in 2015, reading all seven books to my sons. Harry Potter was a known character even before we started the books, and enough of my friends and enough of popular culture centers around Harry and Hogwarts that I thought reading the books would be a good idea.  I am just a few years too old, and was too cynical about fiction at the turn of the century, so I missed the Harry Potter boat until my boys were old enough to hear them aloud.

And it was certainly fun.  Reading books with kids is a completely different experience from reading them as an adult, especially an adult in graduate school.  Prisoner of  Azkaban was incredibly fun, and the prospect of my kids getting excited and staying excited to read books together, especially books over 500 pages, was really exciting.  Finally understanding the jokes and references related to the books was also fun, even if I made sure to tell people right away that I was reading the books to my kids, not just for my own enjoyment.  I finally knew who Tonks was, and that was helpful in my general life.

There are many good things about Harry Potter, the books the films, and even the Universal Theme Park in Orlando, Florida, which I got to visit a few years ago (I expected it to be a total POS, and I was actually quite impressed).  Salman Rushdie pointed out that JK Rowling has disproven the stolidly held (by publishers) belief that kids don’t read door-stoppers, and although I don’t agree that we should shove reading down the throats of all kids, I think it’s excellent that Harry Potter has given kids a literary hero they can read about over and over again.   They’ve also inspired a whole new genre of Harry Potter-derived fantasy books; whole swathes of the fantasy genre would not exist without Harry Potter and its popularity.  My personal favorite new book, The Black Witch by Laurie Forest, is highly derivative of Harry Potter, but I think it is much better than most of the Harry Potter books.

Most importantly, the books are popular, and when books are popular, that’s a good sign.  They are also generally good books, despite their mixed quality.  Nobody really knows how the magic works, but that’s not really the point.  Rowling’s genius idea was to have witches and wizards that already conform to how kids think about witches and wizards.  Witches and wizards have wands and point them at people and utter magic words and stuff goes boom.  That doesn’t really stand up to what seasoned D&D players expect, but it’s enough to base a story on, and more importantly, kids love it.  There are a few sequences that are contrived (such as Dumbledore having to drink all the poison), but the one that gets me the most is that most of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince does not really involve Harry much, to the point where I questioned the author’s ability to write multiple points of view.

Half-Blood Prince is redeemed by a hell of an ending, and the next book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows redeems the entire series from being only a series of books for children about wizards with magic wands.  Reading Deathly Hallows I was often struck, sitting there saying “Wow!” unable to hold myself back from the challenges Rowling set herself with the material in this book.  Strictly from a writing perspective, it’s the only book in the series, except for brief passages in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire featuring Neville Longbottom, that truly uses multiple points of view.  This is a stylistic feature that is so common in science fiction and fantasy that I struggle to know why it’s portrayed as advanced by literary writers (although it’s perhaps because it’s so easy to do it badly).  I was becoming convinced that Rowling just wasn’t going to use multiple points of view.

But then in the Godric’s Hollow sequences, Rowling not only uses multiple points of view, but mixes them in a passage that is so effective that I’ve never seen its equal.  Harry and Voldemort mix their psychic experiences so thoroughly that although the reader can tell who is who most of the time, it is clear that Harry and Voldemort don’t have control over their own minds.  That was a passage that I couldn’t help exclaiming over, reading again and again.  I want to go read it right now.  A funny thing to me is this is exactly the kind of passage that doesn’t come across at all well in film, and the filmmakers didn’t try.

Beyond Book 7’s stylistic changes, there is the matter of its thoroughly more adult themes.  Of course, all along Harry has the problem of being an orphan, never knowing his parents, longing for the family he never had.  Harry has to deal with bullies like Draco Malfoy and other age-typical problems.  These are themes, of course, and none of the books are lacking a theme, but Deathly Hallows excels in dealing with core issues that trouble everyone: love, mortality, jealousy, identity, self-sacrifice.  None of the earlier books in the series deal with these themes so directly, and it is the sense of urgency with Harry’s mortality and self-hood that makes the book so effective. I think most of all this is helped setting: Deathly Hallows mostly does not take place at Hogwarts, does not follow the school year, and therefore we are not convinced that Harry, Hermione, and Ron are children, subject to what every child in our society is subject to (or we might say “subjected to”).

Two sequences in particular emphasize the characters’ maturity and their need to be adults and stop sheltering from the adults in their lives (in fact, the book starts with Harry being failed massively by the adults in his lives, three times in succession).  The sequence where Ron hallucinates Harry and Hermione undressing each other brings up the theme of desire, i.e. not only does Ron desire Hermione, but he desires adequacy.  Harry understands the Muggle world Hermione grew up in: Ron might be a pureblood wizard from a notable family, but he is always going to be weird, especially around Hermione’s parents.  He’s an unwanted child, the best friend of the best wizard, constantly second fiddle: he is–more so than Voldemort–Harry’s shadow, and can’t help thinking that Hermione would want Harry instead, and is only using him as a stepping stone.  This is such a common masculine experience that I was really impressed by how Rowling took advantage of it.  And of course, it’s an advantage of writing fantasy that she could so directly phrase these inadequacies in a hallucinatory/magical event that gets right to the point.

The other sequence is when Harry buries Dobby.  From that point on Harry is  a man: he knows when he is capitulating, he knows when he must sacrifice himself, and when to take charge.  This is one of the many events that makes Deathly Hallows the story of maturation that the entire series led up to.  I would even argue that Deathly Hallows stands on its own as a proper story of maturation and initiation, and the prior six books are just backstory.

If I’ve had one mission in this blog, it’s been to verbalize what sets apart sincere, satisfying storytelling from other less-satisfying stories.  What makes some stories meaningful and sincere (without necessarily being serious), and other stories just a total joke?  The Harry Potter series is a good test case in the factor of theme: the first six Harry Potter books are mostly good.  They are well-written, exciting, suspenseful, imaginative, all of the things that make for a good read.  However, they don’t (with the exception of Harry’s longing for family) deal with specific problems of human suffering and desire.  They don’t confront big questions directly.  Deathly Hallows, on the other hand, does confront these questions, and it is so good at confronting them that it stands on its own.

Now I know what you’re thinking: “Dude, what do you want?  These are books for kids about wizards and witches going around casting spells at each other.”  And you’re right: I don’t expect every book, movie, or play to be about issuesbut you can really tell the difference between stories that are and those that aren’t.  You can take issues too far, like in Joe Versus the Volcano, which confronts mortality so directly that it’s a cartoon.  You can also confront them badly, as in the Star Wars prequels.  I’m not sure if it’s worse to completely avoid issues or to do them badly, but it’s a sin in my book to completely waste good talent by being absurdly stupid by avoiding issues, the way some rock bands do (watch Stop Making Sense with Talking Heads, and see the meaning drain out of the musicians when David Byrne leaves the stage).

The last thing to note is the darkness of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: if you’re confronting death, identity, love, and self-sacrifice, it’s going to be a lot darker than a book that only asks “will they make out?”  This is what I’m looking for, other than a good laugh, when I pick up a book.  A recent article in Grimdark Magazine pointed out that what defines Grimdark fantasy is not the bleakness, buckets of blood, and rape, but an attitude among readers seeking meaning through literature.  Heroic literature, from the Iliad to Harry Potter, has always been a vehicle for understanding the journey we all take through life.  It will be dark because confronting our own mortality is dark, but it’s hopeful because without confronting it, we can’t really live fully.

Updates

So I’ve moved out of New England and back to Colorado permanently.  I am seeking out writing groups, local critique partners, and good places to hang out with writers.  Let me know if you’re a local writer with similar tastes who wants to get toegher.  I haven’t blogged much because I’ve been busy finishing my novel The Last Omen, and my short story The Language of Man.  Both are built around my recent learning about the Late Bronze Age Collapse.  In The Last Omen, the queen of a threatened kingdom must contend with her husband’s madness, the erosion of his power, and his ex-girlfriend.  To save him, she must let the kingdom fall apart, and collaborate with notorious criminals, and confront her own destiny.   It’s with two readers now, and I will query agents with it in September.

The Language of Man, which I’ve already sent to Writers of the Future, is the story of a young wizard who finds a long-lost artifact, a translator between ancient dialects and different kinds of wizardry.  And he’s got a little crush on a princess, another mage.

I’d also like to point out two short stories that excel in being excellent: S.K. Farrell’s “A Little Blood, A Little Fire” blew me away earlier this month, and Karen Osborne’s first published story “An Equal Share of the Bone” was excellent to listen to late last year.  As of now I’m reading Black Sun Rising by C.S. Friedman, and I don’t know how I’ve avoided this author that fits my tastes so well.

But mostly I haven’t blogged here, as if you care, is that it’s summer and I’ve been busy making blowguns with my three boys, and teaching them Shakespeare.

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