No spoilers will jinx this story about Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, which is less of a review than a final report card. The twists and shocks of the seventh and final Harry Potter book provide an integral part of the reading experience, and not just in keeping a running tally of who lives and who dies. Having crafted a charming, imaginative formula for six books set at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, J.K. Rowling smashes her template in astonishing ways with her finale.
For any Harry Potter fan, reading Deathly Hallows (or, more accurately, falling under the spell of its narrative) is like having a rug repeatedly yanked out from under your feet. Compared with the previous books, the stakes are so high, the tension so great, it's as dramatically different as, well, high school vs. the real world.
It's certainly a far cry from Rowling's debut novel, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, and the young hero's delightful discoveries of, for instance, playing sports on flying broomsticks. The greatest significance of Harry Potter probably lies in its expansion from an entertaining but easily dismissed kid's book to a series too big and knotty to be easily contained by the label "Young Adult Fantasy." As a pop phenomenon, Harry Potter can be likened to Star Wars, which also seemingly came out of nowhere, enthralled a generation, transformed its industry and reverberated throughout the culture.
Even more, Harry Potter to me resembles the Beatles of this generation, with striking parallels to the way the Beatles' artistry evolved. Both lasted for roughly a decade: Rowling published the first book (under the title Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone) in England in 1997, while the Beatles stayed together approximately from 1960 to 1970. Rowling's first books can be likened to the catchy, irresistible early singles such as "I Wanna Hold Your Hand." Evil undoubtedly existed in Rowling's work (Hogwarts even devotes a dormitory to malevolent magicians), but "The Wizarding World" came across as a wonderful, upbeat locale, in which everyone loves the Weasley twins' practical jokes and such candy as Bertie Bott's Every Flavor Beans.
Rowling could have remained in this breezy tone and kept her global sales and reputation intact. Instead, she continuously darkened and deepened Harry's tale. To oversimplify the Beatles' creative dynamic, it's as if Paul McCartney's sunny love songs gave way to John Lennon's more provocative, politically outspoken attitude. The unsettling, anti-authority themes of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, a book nearly three times as long as Sorcerer's Stone, could be Rowling's equivalent to "Revolution." (Incidentally, people who groused that the film version of Order of the Phoenix was too gloomy will discover that Deathly Hallows makes it look like A Hard Day's Night.)
With its epic length and attempt to reference nearly every character and plot point in the series, Deathly Hallows may be Rowling's Abbey Road, offering a similar density and sense of culmination. With so many beloved characters, some chapters can be comically overcrowded, as if Rowling knows that even the most obscure personality has a fan base, and wants to give everyone a "moment."
Instead of pandering to her readers, Rowling has spent more time pushing herself. It's difficult to consider Deathly Hallows – which features harrowing, upsetting images of a fascist society – as any kind of kid-oriented escapism, or the stuff of slumber parties for kids in their homemade wizard robes. As a prose stylist, Rowling has never been as stylistically innovative as Lennon/McCartney, but she's shown a similar commitment to follow her artistic ambitions and instincts, taking it on faith that her fans would follow. And they did.
At times Harry Potter suggests the scope of a Tolkien-esque fantasy, but it's more of a sprawling coming-of-age story, and Harry isn't the only one who's grown up over the course of the series. Her readers, particularly the youngest ones, have faced far more serious subject matter than they probably imagined when they first boarded the Hogwarts Express. Rowling, too, has matured, using magical metaphors to capture the difficulties of adolescence and depression and, particularly in Deathly Hallows, revealing the morally gray shades in such black-and-white roles as Harry's mentor Albus Dumbledore or his hated professor, Severus Snape. The final Harry Potter book confirms that Rowling, in her willingness to trust her readers and the magic of her muse, is more than simply a paperback writer.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. J.K. Rowling, Scholastic, $34.99, 759 pp.
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