Sales of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows commenced in the United States at midnight on July 21, 2007 (a Saturday). I had spent the previous week in Biloxi, Mississippi, doing relief work with my church’s youth group after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita; we were to go home on the 21st. Sometime around dawn that day, I was handed a copy of the novel by one of my best friends who had received permission from our leaders to go to a local Wal-Mart and pick up copies of the book for those who wanted one. (Obviously, our church had an in with the occult.)
I finished a novel whose six predecessors had consumed a great deal of my time, energy, and imagination over the previous decade in a little over six hours. Aside from a brief walk-and-read outside a McDonald’s somewhere in Dixie, it all got read on a bus. Since then, I’ve read the novel probably a dozen more times (which seems low, but given the condition that the other Potter books are in, it’s probably about right). It’s become a tradition to reread the Potter books every summer since they’ve come out, and this summer is no different.
Here’s the format of this post, which is not totally dissimilar to those “as I watch” reviews of films and TV that I typically do. I’m going to read for an hour at a time, and then mark the chapters/pages that I’ve read; from there, I’ll write on certain things which stuck out to me then, stick out to me now, etc. I’m hoping this will be fun, and I’m also hoping that this will be big enough that I’ll have gotten the Potter out of my system.
Hour #1: Inside flap to p. 136 (Chapters 1-7, left off right before “The Wedding”)
- First thing I’ve got to note here is that I’ve been taking notes on an index card about which things I’m going to focus on. I didn’t do this much work in some of my college classes.
- I remember opening up the book and expecting to see something which aligned with the other book jackets. The fourth book’s basically said everything except “Triwizard Tournament” inside. The fifth lets us know exactly what the Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher was going to be like, and, even more annoying to me, was finding out that Ron became Gryffindor Keeper. By the sixth book, whoever wrote the inside jacket spoilers was getting better about not ruining things: the most specific spoiler had to do with Apparition. The seventh, though, was just about perfect: “We now present the seventh and final installment in the epic tale of Harry Potter.”
- I wrote maybe a hundred words on the epigraphs in this book, which come from Aeschylus and William Penn, but then decided that they weren’t terribly interesting compared to how the topic of grief is handled later. Penn very directly confronts how people should manage grief (“This is the comfort of friends, that though they may be said to die, yet their friendship and society are, in the best sense, ever present, because immortal.”), and it should immediately call to mind a certain quote from Albus Dumbledore (which one suspects he stole from J.M Barrie): “To the well-ordered mind, death is but the next great adventure.” Anyway, the tone of the book is pretty fairly set, and I’ll be trying to keep a running death count of people we know and like.
- Voldemort stopped being an interesting character somewhere in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, which is probably one of the reasons that I overrate Half-Blood Prince as I do: it makes Voldemort as fascinating as he gets during the series. Voldemort was deadly boring with a body, off-screen for the vast majority of OotP, only showing up at the very end for a duel which translated better to the screen than it did the printed page. But then in HBP, he becomes an actual character with stronger motivations than we readers could have really imagined prior. The Horcruxes will get dealt with in more detail fairly soon, but what strikes me most in the early going of this book is how neatly the description of Voldemort’s speech cleaves to Dumbledore’s characterization of Voldemort as a person who has never had or desired a friend: “Voldemort, however, seemed to be speaking more to himself than to any of them, still addressing the unconscious body above him.”
- Probably the best pieces of writing in the first chapter, “The Dark Lord Ascending,” are about Snape. Remember in 2007, when people were still frequenting dumbledoreisnotdead.com seriously, in the hopes that Dumbledore had somehow faked his death and were trying to use quotes from the book to prove their point? (I checked on the website recently, and was unsurprised to discover that the name had changed: it’s now beyondhogwarts.com.) I was reading predictive editorials at mugglenet.com, which was really in its glory then. I link two pieces from Spinner’s End, which was my personal favorite. This one, in retrospect, points out what I think is something of a flaw in the last two novels concerning the number of Horcruxes, but this one is rather more emblematic of the grasping-at-straws approach which characterizes so much foreshadowing. (I imagine she must have been excited when Hermione takes her Ancient Runes textbook with her in case they need to translate them.) Anyway, we took that little trip back in time because when this book came out, even most of the Snape sympathizers were reasonably convinced that Harry had been right about Snape’s loyalties. Rowling, as she was so fond of doing, doesn’t show her hand at all here, creating an “impassive” Snape who doesn’t even acknowledge the cries for mercy of a colleague. As I had never been one of those people who dug on Snape, this was just more fuel for the fire.
- There aren’t a lot of moments in the Potter series that are really dangerous plot holes. Very famously, the first edition of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire reversed the order that James and Lily died, for example, but in the grand scheme of the series’ plot, that’s minor. On p. 14 of the first edition American hardcover, Harry finds a piece of the two-way mirror that Sirius gave him in OotP and then hangs onto it, at which point it becomes incredibly important the rest of the way. This comes after a frustrating series in OotP in which Harry had the totally intact mirror and could have used it twice to contact Sirius. Instead, he uses Umbridge’s fire, gets sucked to the Department of Mysteries, and Sirius gets killed…all because Harry is ticked off at Sirius at the end of his Christmas break and decides not to use the mirrors. This creates a great deal of drama, certainly, but it’s one of those ugly moments in the series where the plot, not the characters, took the reins. (If that concept interests you, and you’re not scared of long articles, read Film Crit Hulk’s brilliant take of how that failure struck particularly in Star Trek Into Darkness.) Having that mirror is doubly frustrating: first, because it’s not good writing, and second, because I just want OotP to go away forever.
- I mentioned before that I thought building Voldemort’s character was what made HBP a successful novel. In fact, short of the minor perfection of Ginny Weasley, learning about Voldemort and his Horcruxes is the saving grace of that novel. Too much of the novel is made up of the perpetual plot standbys of “Ron and Hermione’s sexual tension leads to a lengthy argument!” (Prisoner of Azkaban, GoF, OotP, HBP, DH) and “Harry thinks Malfoy and/or Snape are up to something and won’t rest until he knows what it is!” (Philosopher’s Stone/Sorcerer’s Stone, Chamber of Secrets, OotP, HBP, DH). Add on the running low-stakes argument where Hermione wants Harry to stop using a particular textbook, and it sounds like a minor disaster. But thank God for Voldemort. Finally, we learned something about him, who’d been a largely mysterious figure for five novels, a person whose name went unsaid out of fear and whose deeds are still largely mysterious even after the conclusion of the series. Finally, we were shown and not told with memories that Dumbledore (and Harry) had collected. HBP is one of my favorites in the series, but it also might be the most uneven novel of the bunch.
There’s a lot more going on in DH than HBP, obviously, but learning about Dumbledore’s past raises the quality of DH the same way that learning about Voldemort raised the quality of HBP, even though Dumbledore is much more mysterious. When we learn about Voldemort, we learn about his “magpie” tendencies, his desperate need to be unique, his use of Horcruxes. We’d spent books picking up factoids about Dumbledore (his desperate need for thick woolen socks and raspberry jam, for example), but even less about his background, what fueled his interests. Dumbledore was a white knight for six books whose only motivation was to do good, because that’s what white knights do. For five books, he plays the role of “detached omniscient protector” to something close to perfection…and for the last two, he becomes perhaps the most fascinating character in the Potterverse. That obituary from Elphias Doge. as well as the excerpts from The Life and Lies of Albus Dumbledore, are nearly as fascinating as Hallows vs. Horcruxes.
- I wish Rowling had never given that blasted interview where she said that she’d always thought Dumbledore was a homosexual. All it did was convince lots of people that Dumbledore was gay…and well, where’s the textual evidence? The best textual evidence for it, based on Rowling’s propensity for anagrams (Tom Marvolo Riddle = I am Lord Voldemort), is that “Albus Dumbledore” is an anagram for “Male bods rule, bud.” This is an article from the Los Angeles Times which comes really close to understanding the problem, but unfortunately decided to whack itself with a tree branch before hitting the correct conclusion. Deborah Netburn researches “clues in the book” via Andrew Slack, a social progressive whom she proclaims as an expert in the area. Netburn presumes that since Rowling says Dumbledore is gay, it must be true, and that there were clues left to prove it. This is, of course, half true. If Dumbledore is gay, then there must be textual evidence to support that interpretation of his sexuality. What Rowling says doesn’t matter if the words in the book that she wrote don’t prove her right. Think about it this way: George R.R. Martin could say that Joffrey Baratheon was actually a really nice boy, or that Walder Frey was a sweet and compassionate man, and that wouldn’t make either statement true: the textual evidence doesn’t support that interpretation. Likewise, there’s really not a lot of evidence for Dumbledore’s sexuality in either direction, which is why Slack’s evidence would get him a D- in any college English class. Some of his suggestions are stupid enough to be funny, such as a connection to Leonardo da Vinci or the fact that Dumbledore’s bird bursts into flames, making it flaming…like gay, get it? Other suggestions make me wonder what it means, exactly, to be into “social justice.” Dumbledore was a social liberal who had an unusual fashion sense and was in touch with his feelings, Slack says, and those are all traits that gay men have. Well, cool, but those are also traits that plenty of straight ones do. (Funnily enough, Slack doesn’t mention the torrid relationship that young Dumbledore has with young Grindelwald, which probably has more weight to it than any of the stupid things he came up with.) I don’t particularly care about Dumbledore’s sexuality. It really has no bearing on the events of the series; it’s just as okay to be gay as it is to be straight; even if you disagree with me on that particular point about human rights, a homosexual Dumbledore clearly did just fine without being into girls. What does bother me is that this business about Dumbledore’s homosexuality, a topic which goes all but unmentioned in thousands of pages, is taken as gospel just because the author says he is, even though she hasn’t provided any textual evidence for it. Had to get that one off my chest. (And it’s not just Dumbledore! The Harry Potter Wiki takes everything that Rowling says about her characters as “true,” even when she’s speculating about the future in texts that she hasn’t written. How could she possibly know if Harry and Dudley have a friendly relationship as adults; there’s no discussion of it in any book? Her opinion is really no more important than mine or any other Potter-nerd’s there: there’s no text for us to base our opinion on. Sorry. I’m never going to be able to get this off my chest.)
- Speaking of Harry and Dudley, I personally liked this final encounter of theirs. Uncle Vernon was always going to be an implacable anti-Harry presence, but by the time Harry started spending the better part of his summers at the Burrow or 12 Grimmauld Place, Vernon’s stodgy bourgeois pettiness became about as threatening as Basil Fawlty, and maybe even half as amusing on a good day. Aunt Petunia was always the most interesting Dursley, though she’s rare among the characters in the Potterverse that knowing more about her made her less interesting. Finding out that much of her anti-magic sentiment is based on jealousy (I realize we’re skipping ahead here) was about as rewarding as finding out that Glee’s Karofsky was bulling Kurt because he was also gay. After getting glimpses of Petunia’s ability to care about Harry — taking him in as a baby, not kicking him out of the house in OotP — her departure was a little disappointing. But it’s Dudley who’s most interesting when he and Harry say their farewells, because Dudley has been going through some surprising changes. It’s hard to shake the vision of Dudley as enormously fat, but that’s precisely what we ought to do: in OotP it’s revealed that he’s become a boxing champion, and thus he stays “enormous” but not “fat.” That change in Dudley is the first change that we see in any of the Dursleys, and it gives us reason to believe that Dudley might change further. He does just that when he manages to show concern for Harry in what is, despite the best efforts of Hestia Jones, one of the novel’s more understated scenes. “Sixteen years’ solid dislike” doesn’t melt away or anything, but there’s something more than that there for Harry and Dudley now. With the exception of Snape, it might be the most redemptive part of the book.
- Hedwig’s death, when I first read it, functioned in my mind as a “Wow, Rowling means business” move (if Charity Burbage’s murder didn’t do it); looking back, Hedwig’s death was as necessary as Dobby’s. How else could she so firmly isolate her trio without killing off the individual who could send/receive messages (or the individual who could rescue them when they needed it)?
- Harry saves Hagrid’s life in midair by using one of those Summoning Charms he became so adept at. Remember 2007, when everyone was pretty sure that Hagrid was going to snuff it? This looked like the moment…at least until the next moment. And then the moment after that.
- One of the curious things about the later Potter books is how neatly Lupin manages to slide out of the story. After Dumbledore died, Harry loses all of the father figures in his life, and there’s a passage late in HBP which basically says that. No other father figure really falls into place for him in DH, which is just as well, since all of the previous ones snuffed it within a year or so of accepting that role. However, with apologies to Arthur Weasley and Hagrid, it seems to me that the next figure in line for the job probably would have been Remus Lupin. This early argument with Lupin over the use of the Disarming Charm instead of the Stunning Spell, though, seems to close the door on that particular possibility…and then that door is later opened up and slammed shut when Lupin offers to go with the Trio on their Jolly Horcrux Destructo Rambles. Lupin’s death was hardly surprising, though I was disappointed that somewhere during HBP, he fell in importance roughly to the level of Kingsley Shacklebolt.
- Another fun thing which happens somewhere within HBP is that James Potter stops mattering. Up and through OotP, James is the parent that Harry identifies with, the one who gets mentioned more often, and of course, the one whose friends Harry bonds with. That all gets ruined significantly by the events of “Snape’s Worst Memory,” where Harry realizes that his father may have been just as arrogant and awful as Snape has always intimated. From there, James Potter receives just limited redemption, and it doesn’t really come until late in DH. Slughorn manages to change the conversation about Harry’s parents in HBP, focusing instead of the young Lily Evans instead of the young James Potter. And in DH, a novel which makes Snape, in the surprisingly correct words of whoever wrote this Cracked article, “the hero of the whole damn series,” Lily becomes vastly more important than James. That’s appropriate, I think, if for no other reason than Lily actually gains a personality over the course of these novels; James was always talismanic for Harry, and the value of that talisman (like the Patronus, for example) waxes and wanes as Harry learns more about him.
- Bill and Lupin go off to find Mad-Eye Moody’s body for the reasonable purpose of keeping the Death Eaters from getting it; Tonks and Fleur and Mrs. Weasley all have emotional reactions. Harry and Ron can sit dry-eyed during Dumbledore’s eulogy in HBP; Ginny and Hermione stare into their laps and cry. Rowling has famously described Hermione as her “feminist conscience,” but maybe let’s step back from the “men think and women feel” binary, huh? Hermione certainly functions well as a third-wave feminist (full disclosure: I googled “Hermione feminist conscience” to make sure I had Rowling’s quote correct, came across that very fine article, and read through it. That same website did a chapter-by-chapter read-through of DH a few years ago; I have not read that or any other DH read-through.), but all of Rowling’s female characters become supporting players in someone else’s story. Hermione is Harry’s voice of reason; Cho is Harry’s sexual awakening and Ginny Harry’s sexual fulfillment; Fleur and Tonks are highly capable witches who become wives and fade out of the picture; Lily is important because she provides protection for Harry and builds pathos for Snape; Ariana Dumbledore becomes a haunting influence on Albus and Aberforth. We can go on and on here, but you get the picture.
- It’s stated that the Ministry doesn’t want people to understand just how powerful Voldemort has become; this comes after denying the existence of a risen Voldemort for some time. This didn’t trouble me much over prior readings– read enough Potter and you get used to a Ministry of Magic that’s pretty bad at its job –but this time around it really caught me. This appears to be another case of plot-first writing, where it’s imperative that the Ministry of Magic can’t help Harry fight Voldemort and as such, Rufus Scrimgeour and company need to be just as stupid as Cornelius Fudge and company were if Harry is going to achieve his destiny with enough drama. More full disclosure: after six of these, I’m going to be foaming at the mouth and ranting about how Harry Potter is in fact made in the image of Howard Stark, not Jesus.
- Fun trivia: Mrs. Granger was played by Michelle Fairley in the seventh Harry Potter movie. Winter is coming, Harry.
- “For the second time Ron withdrew his arm from around Hermione…” is a classic piece of Rowling prose. Remember HBP, where Dumbledore “flicked his wand for a fifth time” instead of just flicking it “again”? Another Rowling prose tic that gets me is her propensity to say something like “Ron’s aunt’s hat,” using two consecutive possessives. To her credit, she does those less often than I use massive parenthetical notes, and she’s a gazillionaire, so good on her.
- Mugglenet, and my friends who were on Mugglenet more often than I was, managed to ruin two of the great mysteries of DH for me: 1) is Harry a Horcrux? (which, in my defense, always seemed likely to me) and 2) who is R.A.B.? Thanks to them, it was less a matter of wait-and-see than it was wait-for-it-to-come-up-as-you-knew-it-would. While we’re on the subject, “Gregorovitch” wasn’t much of a mystery anyway, as I’m sure it wasn’t for anyone who’d read GoF at least twice.
- I’m going to date this particular piece in the future by saying this, but Hermione doing her Glenn Greenwald impression with Rufus Scrimgeour is one of the better moments in this book.
- Last major thought from this hour of reading. I think Jo Rowling is probably still suffering from a great deal of Potter fatigue. As Joanne from Company says: “Everyone adores you. What an awful thing.” I used to think that was a cutesy little snippet of faux-cleverness, but apply that to Rowling, whose work is not just adored but feted and fetishized by millions worldwide, who has had massive expectations placed on her by anyone who’s at all interested in the Potterverse. It’s remarkable to me that she managed to get those books done, and remarkable that all of them, even OotP, are entertaining and lovable in their own ways. Here’s a snippet from Beyond Hogwarts:
And while ending the series was also sad, it was also a bit of a relief. “It was this amazing cathartic moment – the end of 17 years’ work,” Rowling said of finishing the series, adding that Harry will “always be a presence in my life, really.”
J.K. again confirmed she may eventually reveal more details in a Harry Potter encyclopedia, but even then, it will never be enough to satisfy the most ardent of her fans.
“I’m dealing with a level of obsession in some of my fans that will not rest until they know the middle names of Harry’s great-great-grandparents,” she said. Not that she’s discouraging the Potter devotion!
“I love it,” she said. “I’m all for that.”
Now that I’ve gotten that out of the way, of course I’d love to see more Potter. I’m torn between what would be most satisfying. A “Harry Potter encyclopedia” would be interesting, surely, but unless it were set up like Bill James’ Historical Baseball Abstract, say, I doubt that would really sate Potter fans. I’d absolutely read a trilogy about the first rise of Voldemort, taken from the point of view of Dumbledore, Voldemort, James, Lily, Snape, Sirius, whoever. (To the best of my knowledge, I don’t know any specifics about how James and Lily and Frank and Alice Longbottom “defied” Voldemort three times. I mean, that sparks the imagination something special.) But I’d also definitely read a Silmarillion for the Potterverse. The trilogy would be less work, though it’s not as if Rowling hasn’t done some work in that area already: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, Quidditch Through the Ages, and The Tales of Beedle the Bard exist now, and in my mind those are all just as canonical as the books in the series. I feel guilty for even wanting those potential books, which would be more high-stress, high-workload, high-expectation pieces for Rowling…but goodness, I would definitely be in line to buy those.
One hour down, another five or so expected to follow.