Novel * J.K. Rowling * Wizard Dystopia (Pt. 2) * 2007
We know we’re about to get into some heavy shit here because this is the first time Rowling has dropped an epigraph on us. Two of them, even. Both of them are extremely grim and make it extremely clear that things are going to get much, much worse before they get better. If you’re here at book number seven, I would imagine this is to be expected, considering the trajectory of these books so far. I wish I remembered the public reaction to this book at the time. I think this is the only time my wife and I bought separate copies of a book at the same time because neither of us had any intention of waiting for the other to finish. I remember reading for many hours in a row and finishing before 24 hours had elapsed. When it was done, I was very conflicted. I was pretty sure that I liked it, but even then I could see issues people might have with the way the story unfolds. I have reread the entire series a few times since then, however, and every time I appreciate and respect the whole thing a little bit more. I’m at a point now where I’m pretty confident stating that these books get better as they go. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is a goddamn masterpiece.
Of course, the only way Deathly Hallows gets in this position is because of all the work the previous six books have done. That’s not to say that it’s easy to finish. Quite the contrary, ending is maybe the hardest thing to pull off, especially for such a long-running series. The vast majority of the time, the ending falls apart because it feels rushed, or underdeveloped, or is somehow incongruous with the beginning of the narrative. What makes Deathly Hallows special in this regard is that pretty much everything that happens is telegraphed almost from the beginning. Nothing feels cheap, and everything feels earned. I suspect any criticism people might have with the book is either in the middle or with the epilogue. The former because the pacing slows down a bit, which I actually like quite a bit, but I can see people getting impatient with the lack of hot action. The latter, well, okay I’m still conflicted about the epilogue. Obviously I’ll get to that later. In the meantime, however, there’s a lot to work through.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows wastes no time in subverting the established formula from the first six books in the series. The Harry Potter books are, in addition to a few dozen other things, about attending a boarding school. Each book begins in summer, with Harry living at his horrible aunt and uncle’s house. Then yay off to school, and there is a rhythm to the routine of attending classes throughout the year. This basic Hogwarts routine is the foundation for every book in the series, which was established way back in the first book. As the kids get older, however, the routine changes as more responsibility is added to their day-to-day lives. You know, like how life works. That said, it’s Harry Potter, so all the weird shit happens to him. It’s the subversion of the established order which makes a lot of what happens in those first books resonate. In Goblet of Fire, suddenly there’s no Quidditch because the Quad-Wizard Tournament intrudes on the routine, which of course upsets our expectation of how things work at Hogwarts, and the wizarding world at large. Each book introduces its own variety of disruption, but by the time we get to Deathly Hallows, the comfort and routine of Hogwarts has been taken entirely away.
After the events of Half-Blood Prince we expected this, but the absence of the comforting routine of Hogwarts haunts the entire novel. It begins right away when Harry leaves number four, Privet Drive for the last time. The Dursleys are forced to leave because of the danger, and while Vernon is as irascible as ever, Dudley at least seems to finally appreciate the gravity of the situation and gives a surprisingly touching farewell to his long-hated cousin. The final, frustrating safety net of the Dursley household is stripped away and Harry is finally free to embrace the magical world entirely. Unfortunately, he’s probably the most wanted wizard in the world, so Harry can’t actually enjoy his freedom from Muggledom yet. He also learns about the harshness of the new world order right away, and if we were still uncertain about how rough this road is going to get, Deathly Hallows states its intention immediately with the deaths of Hedwig the Owl and Mad-Eye Moody.
I do remember the first time I read that chapter. Despite being in a fever to finish the book, I stopped for a moment and said out loud to the pages “are you kidding me, the fucking owl?” Mad-Eye is one thing, he led a long, dangerous life and went out doing his duty. Hedwig though, shit, that’s just the stark, unrelenting randomness of life and death. Perhaps even more than Dumbledore biting it, the needless, pointless death of Harry’s poor owl really drives home the desperation of the situation. Everyone is in mortal peril. Nobody is safe. If the goddamn owl is vulnerable, nobody can be safe. Not just from Voldemort and the Death Eaters, mind, but from Rowling herself. Killing off Hedwig is an authorial statement of intent for the rest of the book. From here on out, the stakes are as high as you can imagine, and nobody is off the table. I know we were all surprised at what George R.R. Martin does in A Song of Ice and Fire, but despite being “for kids,” Rowling is just as ruthless here. After Hedwig fluffs it, I wouldn’t have been surprised if any one of the Magic Trio bit it either.
The casualties chill out for a while after that first harrowing action sequence, though, which is good because we as readers need to catch our damn breaths. What follows, and what comprises the bulk of the book, is the Horcrux hunt, and here’s where I can see some readers falling off a bit. There are, of course, some exciting sequences that happen throughout the slower-paced middle of the book, but there is admittedly a lot of camping and second-guessing happening. I will defend the shit out of these parts of the book, though. Everything that happens between Bill and Fleur’s wedding and the return to Hogwarts is harrowing and desperate, but are also a vivid description of surviving a totalitarian dystopia. When Harry, Hermione, and sometimes Ron are huddling in their tent away from everyone they love and any semblance of safety, they are living on the ragged edge of a dark, dismal society which is only getting worse as the days crawl by.
The wizarding world had a brush with a dystopic state in Order of the Phoenix. In that instance, Cornelius Fudge used his power to subvert the freedoms and well-being of his citizens because he was afraid of being usurped by Dumbledore. He lost his job anyway, of course, because Fudge was not an actual tyrant. Yes, things got out of hand, especially at Hogwarts, but for the most part there was no permanent damage done to society at large. The real danger was, of course, the return of Voldemort and his dark ambitions, and the real damage done wasn’t necessarily by the High Inquisitor of Hogwarts, but by the willful inaction taken by the Ministry. Now that Voldemort has seized the Ministry, however, we get a firsthand look at what a magical totalitarian state looks like, and you know, it looks an awful like any other authoritarian nightmare.
Each time the Magic Trio makes a move to secure a Horcrux or to find information regarding them, we get another window into the wizarding world beyond Hogwarts, and what that world looks like under the totalitarian rule of Voldemort. On their first excursion, the Trio visits the Ministry of Magic to literally rip a Horcrux from the neck of Dolores Umbridge, who you will remember is the absolute fucking worst. There is no whimsy left in this world, it has all been crushed. Magic is Might now, you see. The wizard racism from the previous books has been weaponized under the new regime, and the entire society has been torn asunder from internal conflict. This is all common totalitarian shit, by the way. The constant suspicion of undesirables, the inability to trust your neighbor, the petty tyranny of sycophants, the propaganda, the baseline of mortal fear, all of it. The only real difference between the Soviet Union and the Voldemort regime is like, dementors. Other than that, you’ve got undesirable registration and show trials and all the trappings of absolute power.
Once they have their Horcrux, the Trio finds themselves truly severed from the larger wizarding world. For quite a long time, they are outside of communication and are forced to rely entirely on themselves. It doesn’t work out so great. And let’s be totally fair here: how self-sufficient were you at seventeen? You’ve got three teenagers, who despite being somewhat experienced in danger and life-threatening terror, are still saddled with the task of overthrowing an immortal dictator. Ron Weasly doesn’t exactly cover himself in glory when he leaves, but his reaction is not exactly unrealistic. And I will stick up for the poor kid at this point, despite being disappointed in him for his emotional overreaction. One, nobody should have been wearing that fucking Horcrux. I can’t imagine why Hermione didn’t just put her foot down and refuse to let anyone wear it. Two, he was understandably upset at the lack of progress, and by that point he had gotten the worst of the danger with nothing to show for it. Three, he comes back. And of course that’s his whole arc, Ron the loyal sidekick. He’s seventeen. He’s allowed to fuck up, and he learns from it. Plus he kills the shit out of that Horcrux, so you know, Weasly redeemed.
The period where Harry and Hermione are on their own is the starkest, most desolate, desperate stretch of the entire series. Everything has fallen apart. The Golden Trio has been sundered. Hope has all but evaporated. They’re out of ideas and running out of emotional elasticity. The absence of the security and warmth of Hogwarts are never more keenly felt than now. As the only two left with any real sense of how difficult and dangerous the last remaining hope of overthrowing Voldemort is, Harry and Hermione have never been more alone. For the record, I’m undecided if they fuck or not. It’s not terribly important, and I think that thematically it makes more sense if they do not. On the other hand, seventeen has a way of subverting theme. Logically they probably bang, feel super weird about it, and never, ever, ever, never, ever, ever tell Ron. Anyway, it is at this point that Hermione makes her big mistake and despite a sweet moment when they realize they’re visiting civilization on Christmas Eve, Harry still almost dies.
This period of exile from the larger wizarding world, where these three characters come to terms with failure and the resulting desperation, is beautiful in its own desolate way. At this point, the magical fantasy of the series is almost entirely eradicated, and they’re just three scared kids way out of their depth. Rowling has done a phenomenal job over the series humanizing these terrifying wizard children by grounding their fantastic abilities in their universal, awkward, teenagery, everyday existence. The time spent in hiding drives home the Trio’s ultimate humanity in their own shivering vulnerability before the great, dark terror of Voldemort. At the same time, while they are in hiding, they’re shielded somewhat form the more overt actions of the State. Hermione never has to register with the Muggle-born Registration Commission. Ron isn’t suffering the daily indignities that he inevitably would as a known blood-traitor at dark-Hogwarts. Harry is still alive and not being executed in a massive public spectacle.
We get a bit of a window into the everyday terror of existing in Voldemort’s dystopia when the Trio visit the home of their friend, Luna Lovegood. Her old man runs an underground newspaper, which usually is no big deal because he’s a conspiracy theorist and a generally harmless goofball. In the new world order, however, he’s a subversive. In totalitarian states, things tend to go poorly for subversives. Especially those without the sense to hide themselves properly. When the Trio show up looking for information, a few things happen. One is a touching moment where they look in Luna’s room and realize that they (along with Neville and Ginny) are basically Luna’s only friends, and how much that means to the sweet little weirdo. I like Luna a lot, you guys. Anyway, after that we get some nice exposition about the Deathly Hallows (which leads to Harry’s critical error). The final thing which happens is the Trio getting a first-hand lesson in how a dystopian regime undermines the social fabric. Luna has been abducted, and her father is forced into moral compromise in a pathetic, desperate bid to get his daughter back. Of course it fails.
Everything goes super bad after this, and nothing gets any better. Everything is nearly undone by Lovegood’s understandable treachery in combination with Harry’s obsession and hubris. The Trio are transported to Malfoy Manor, where we see that life for the lackeys of the absolute ruler aren’t exactly great either. There’s something about this aspect of humanity that I’ll never understand. When you support an amoral, ruthless overlord, why on earth would you think that you’re immune to their narcissistic wrath? Who the fuck would want to toady to a dictator? If shit goes sideways, it doesn’t matter if it’s your fault or not, they’re still gonna kill you. Anyway, it’s a bad time to be a Malfoy. Especially after Dobby shows up and saves the day. I would like to point out that his sudden appearance is not deux ex machina – all the background for his intervention is baked into the book. Rowling is real good at this stuff, y’all.
Dobby’s sudden, heart-wrenching demise indicates that it’s time for the endgame. Seriously, if the owl and the house-elf are fair game, than anyone and anything is, so you better settle in. At this point, the Trio has more cause to hope, and things seem to be moving in the right direction. You’ll note this happens once they’re able to better plug into their support system (especially that support they’re entirely ignorant of, like that silver doe). The resistance radio is a nice touch, but seeing and talking with Bill and Fleur help immensely, placing the Trio back in touch with their people. Of course, they still need to get into some reckless shit, which they do with aplomb. The goblins are neutral, but really they just hate all wizards equally, and there are many hints that they have historic rights to do so. Still, it’s a super cool moment when Harry and his friends jack a dragon and burn it all down. Fuck big banks, am I right?
One of the many threads of Deathly Hallows is the posthumous questioning of the fundamental character of Albus Dumbledore. I’m not sure why Harry has so much trouble understanding that maybe Dumbledore has some skeletons in the old closet, after all it’s been made clear to him that Dumbledore has trouble opening up to people. That’s part of the curse of being the most powerful, most wonderful wizard out there, I guess. It seems Dumbledore made the (probably correct) assumption that others just wouldn’t understand. He’s withheld critical information, and he’s a bit of a user. Of course, Harry has his own issues which prevent him from fully understanding Dumbledore’s full character, including the not so great bits. They’re the same issues that prevented him from realizing that Sirius actually kind of sucks. Both characters functioned as a kind of parent-replacement, and he idealized them both. Now he’s grown up, and with that comes disillusion. And that is never fun.
The Battle of Hogwarts is perfect. It’s the perfect cathartic moment after spending a huge part of the novel in unrelenting, uneasy tension. It’s the perfect culmination of six books of character building. The plot comes together just right. Everything about it feels exactly right, and even the horrible things which happen feel okay. I’m having a difficult time thinking of an ending sequence to a story that is so utterly satisfying, that does so well by its characters and pays off just about everything that has come before it. I don’t know what my favorite part is. I don’t know if it’s Minerva McGonagall going off the fuckin’ chain, I don’t know if it’s Neville finally stepping up and taking over the D.A. like a boss, I don’t know if it’s Molly Weasly swearing, I just don’t know. And since we’ve been forewarned since the epigraph, when the deaths come we are ready for them. They still hurt, but we’re ready. This is war, after all.
I don’t know what bit made my cry the first time I read this book. Probably Snape. That’s the real gut punch of a revelation, right? Poor son of a bitch. Lupin and Tonks happen off screen, so it’s hard to get super worked up about that. Fred Weasly is a huge bummer, but again it’s off screen so it still lacks that visceral punch. Even Snape, at first, isn’t a cause for tears. As far as we know, he’s the bad guy, right? Getting his just desserts for double-crossing Dumbledore? But if you’re here you know how this goes. You know the tragic backstory, the inability of Snape to transcend his base nature in time to prevent tragedy. Of course he did it to himself, that’s what makes his story tragic. He had the inside track when it came to Lily. He was the “nice guy” who had every opportunity but squandered them because he lacked the quality necessary to recognize what he had. More importantly, he was weak, and it was pride which made him weak. Afterward, once Lily was dead, which represented his own personal apocalypse, he was smart enough to realize what he had lost. It wasn’t just Lily’s life, but his life with Lily. Yeah, James Potter was clearly an arrogant jock, and I probably wouldn’t have liked him either. But Severus Snape was an arrogant nerd. If he had put his pride aside, and had a better nature to fall back on, maybe his story would have been different.
So yeah, the Ballad of Severus Snape is a sad one. And if you weren’t moved when Snape produces his Patronus, and it’s a silver doe, and Dumbledore asks “after all this time?” And Snape answers with his customary curt certainty: “Always,” you might was well be dead. Snape is, as Harry says in the epilogue, one of the bravest men I know, but he’s still kind of a dick. He still holds his animosity toward James Potter against the son, who had nothing to do with anything. Here’s a fun thought experiment: if Harry listens to the Sorting Hat and goes to Slytherin, does Snape embrace him? Forget how disruptive that is to the rest of the series, is Severus Snape capable of loving Harry Potter? Does his love for the mother outweigh his hatred of the father? Remember, both James and Lily went to Gryffindor, so House alignment only goes so far. I have to think that if Harry went to the house of green and silver, Snape basically adopts Harry. Severus would make a terrible father, but I bet he’d take Harry’s sorting to be a sign that he was meant to have Lily. Anyway, let’s get out of weird hypotheticals and back to the story. Specifically, what made this stony heart of mine fill up this time.
Look, this isn’t a macho thing. I don’t really subscribe to gender norms, and I certainly have nothing to prove when it comes to perceived masculinity. Still, I don’t usually cry. At this point in my life, I wish I was able to cry more. I can count the stories which have made me cry on one hand, and I’m pretty sure they’re all books. There’s a scene in the final Dark Tower book which always gets me: “In this haze of green and gold,” and if you’re a fan of the series you know what I’m talking about. That might be it? Oh god, I’m an emotionless lizard-person. Except maybe not. Here’s the scene that got me this time. I just re-read it in order to transcribe it and it still got me. In this scene, everything is all fucked up. There’s only one Horcrux left, but Hogwarts is being torn apart. Fred Weasly just died. Harry has no idea how badly it’s going, how many of his friends are dead. Hope is crashing down around him and fuck, Hagrid is being dragged off into the Forbidden Forest, and Harry can’t even deal with this shit. Not Hagrid. So he follows, and then….
“Ron and Hermione closed in beside him as the sounds of fighting behind them grew suddenly muted, deadened, because a silence only dementors could bring was falling thickly through the night, and Fred was gone, and Hagrid was surely dying or already dead….
‘Come on Harry!’ said Hermione’s voice from a very long way away. ‘Patronuses, Harry, come on!’
He raised his wand, but a dull hopelessness was spreading through him: How many more lay dead that he did not yet know about; he felt as though his soul had already half left his body….
‘HARRY COME ON!’ screamed Hermione.
A hundred dementors were advancing, gliding toward them, sucking their way closer to Harry’s despair, which was like the promise of a feast….
He saw Ron’s silver terrier burst into the air, flicker feebly, and expire; he say Hermione’s otter twist in midair and fade; and his own wand trembled in his hand, and he almost welcomed the oncoming oblivion, the promise of nothing, of no feeling….
And then a silver hare, a boar, and a fox soared past Harry, Ron, and Hermione’s heads: The dementors fell back before the creatures’ approach. Three more people had arrived out the darkness to stand beside them, their wands outstretched, continuing to cast their Patronuses: Luna, Ernie, and Seamus.
‘That’s right,’ said Luna encouragingly, as if they were back in the Room of Requirement and this was simply spell practice for the D.A. ‘That’s right Harry… come on, think of something happy….’
‘Something happy?’ he said, his voice cracked.
‘We’re all here,’ she whispered, ‘we’re still fighting. Come on, now….’”
I’M NOT CRYING YOU’RE CRYING. Okay. Okay. No, I’m fine. Okay. First of all, *sniff*, maybe lay off the ellipses, J.K. Rowling (said the ant to the goddess). Secondly, maybe you’re not seeing why this seemingly innocuous scene is making me cry like a little girl with a skinned knee and shit. Like, this scene didn’t even make the movie. Yet I can’t help but read this as the emotional crux of the entire series. Part of this is because I’m hopelessly Luna-biased. I’m happy to admit it, she’s the fucking best. Part of this is because if Luna doesn’t show up with her Patronus like a motherfucking badass, the Trio is fucking done. They’re dead. All is lost. Sure, sure, the Trio does the heavy lifting, and Neville kills the snake, and Molly Weasly murks Bellatrix (“NOT MY DAUGHTER YOU BITCH” is still the A number 1 line in the entire series), and a dozen other people have done their part, but this is Luna’s moment. And she saves them with the power of friendship. Which, okay, when I say it like that it sounds like some Mr. Rodgers-ass cornball bullshit. Yet I’m crying because this oddball weirdo who Harry took the time to care about is there to remind him that hey, we’re all here, it’s okay, it’s all okay, keep going keep going keep going.
I’ve seen the opinion thrown around that Harry should have died. He learns from Snape, in addition to the truth of Snape’s tragic past, that Dumbledore expects him to die for the cause. That his death is inevitable, because Harry Potter himself is the last Horcrux. I’m firmly in the camp that is happy that Harry lives. Fuck the tragic protagonist death, especially in this instance. I don’t care how dark this series gets as the books go on, its roots are still firmly implanted in the whimsical, fantastical wizarding world which captured our collective imagination way back when. And yeah it’s corny but fuck you anyway, sometimes we need that kind of thing. Harry dying would have felt entirely wrong. He’s The Boy Who Lived for fuck’s sake. Besides, if Voldemort’s rebirth is the wizarding apocalypse, there needs to be hope in the post-apocalypse, and that hope is represented by the heroism of Harry and his friends. There’s also the foundational aspect of this series. We’ve followed Harry and his friends for the seven years of his adolescence. A huge part of that is Harry’s growth as a human, a very real coming-of-age. To kill him at the end would invalidate all that character growth. Yes, I know that harsh reality ends lives prematurely every day. I live in America, and am forcibly reminded of that seemingly every other week. I don’t need it in my fantastical stories which dare to present a better world, you know?
So Harry lives and I’m glad. The world of Harry Potter has always been fundamentally idealistic, in that the only social ills are those that come about over your ancestor’s ability to use magic. Nobody is squabbling over religion, or race, or the usual bullshit. Harry is able to win the day because he loves, simple as that. I guess that’s trite. Except, if I were to admit that, I would have to admit that love is trite, and that’s not true at all. It’s a human universal, after all, and it’s pretty clear that Harry is only able to triumph over Voldemort because Harry has an extensive support system based on love and loyalty and friendship while all Voldemort has is your basic fear and power combo. Dumbledore shows up to basically explain that character flaws do not make a person evil, before setting Harry loose to finally make things right. Which he does, even though victory is bittersweet. R.I.P. Fred, and Lupin, and Tonks, and Hedwig, and Dobby, and all the other poor bastards who bite it in the final battle for freedom. And the book ends, with our Magic Trio intact, victorious. And Harry, who has transcended the hero’s temptation of the Elder Wand, proclaims that he’s “had enough trouble for a lifetime.”
That would be a totally acceptable final line, but now we’ve got this epilogue to deal with. My wife hates it. I think it’s fine. She hates it because she refuses to accept that Ron and Hermione end up married with kids. I pointed out that it’s entirely possible that they dated other people and ended up settling for each other. She got depressed. Anyway, I’m not worried about this epilogue, because it’s vague enough to ask more questions than it answers. It think the reason it even exists is to underscore that the post-apocalypse is a return to the whimsical delight of the first novel. If anyone deserves a happily-ever-after, Harry Potter does. He had a rough go of it, after all, why shouldn’t he have a normal life? My only real complaint is the total lack of Luna. I assume she has her own TV show as a quirky magical detective, solving mysteries and learning how to love.
I think it’s Harry Potter’s particular kind of fantasy that brings so many hypotheticals to the fore when I reread the books. Unlike Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones or whatever, Harry Potter is reality-adjacent. The entire premise is that this whole magical world exists parallel to our own, which makes daydreaming about it easier. Also the fact that the characters are so well-rounded makes fertile ground for what-ifs. If the core series is pre-apocalypse, what does the post-apocalypse look like? Do the Trio have to redo their seventh year since they missed their N.E.W.T.s? Or does saving everyone and vanquishing the most powerful dark wizard of all time earn them a pass? Assuming they get to jump right in, what happens in the ensuing power vacuum? I know what Harry says at the end of the novel, but there’s no way a kid who’s been adventuring since he was eleven is going to quit that shit cold turkey. There’s an endless number of stories that can be told on either side of this narrative, you know?
I have a few last questions about the world in general that are fun to think about. First of all, I realized on this read-through that these books take place in a particular place and time. While visiting Godric’s Hollow, Harry sees his parent’s headstones, which have the dates of their birth and deaths. By doing basic math even I can follow, it’s clear that Harry was born in 1980. Therefore the first book takes place in 1991 and the final book takes place in 1997. That’s a particular time and place, which is curious for a series that feels so timeless. I guess at the very least it answers the questions I have about cell phones. Yet much is made about Muggle-born witches and wizards, and how they keep the wizarding world alive. That’s rather the whole point. Yet these eleven year old kids aren’t bringing Muggle culture with them? You’re telling me British kids in the 90’s aren’t listening to Oasis and Blur and shit? Nobody smuggled in a Tupac CD? This weird lack of cultural osmosis is a little thing, but still strikes me as odd, especially when Rowling decided to give the series a hard date.
All that said, who cares. Every time I read this series, I’m somehow still surprised at how good and vital and important it is. You’d think I learn. Yet I still come to it every few years somehow telling myself that I’ve overrated it in my mind, that because it’s a cultural phenomenon it’s somehow not as good as I remember. And then I reread it and right, shit, there’s a reason these things have sold a kerbillion copies and that twenty years later it’s still a cultural touchstone. The books are magnificent. That is all.
A Note on the Movies
David Yates continues to knock it out. The only downside of these final two films is that he inadvertently kicked off a trend of needlessly splitting the final film of a series into two separate releases. To be fair to Yates, if any series deserves to do this, it’s Harry fucking Potter. I like the Hunger Games and all, but it’s not even in the same universe. Don’t even get me started on every other should-be trilogy that’s done this. Ain’t none of you Harry Potter. Please stop. Anyway, both films are great. I was a little surprised to be reminded that the first film covers a lot more textual ground than the second, but considering the pace of the first two thirds of Deathly Hallows, I guess it makes sense. My only regret is that the movie overlooks the scene I highlighted above. There isn’t a whole hell of a lot more to say about these two movies. Like the other Yates movies they capture the spirit, tone, and aesthetic of the books almost perfectly. They’re streamlined versions of the books, and in this instance, it’s hard to ask for much more than that.