Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows — A Review

| July 21, 2007

It is common in “serious” reviews of J. K. Rowling’s works to start with disclaimers regarding her writing — awkward, overly long, inconsistent, filled with excessive and irrelevant details about this ‘magic’ world, and so on.

Give me a break.

Rowling has managed to create one of the greatest phenomenons in the history of literature, and she’s done so by convincing children — you know, those net-besotted, IM-ing, video-game-obsessed manikins — to read thousands upon thousands of pages and beg for more. She’s sold something over 300 million copies of the first six Harry Potter volumes worldwide; the first five volumes have already been turned into highly successful movies, and there’s little doubt the last two movies will do well also. Rowlings has probably done more single-handedly to increase and improve child literacy worldwide than all the government programs ever attempted.

There is a tremendous amount of mediocre, imitative, and downright bad children’s literature out there, including numerous attempts to copy or adapt the Harry Potter formula. There’s also a lot of decent kidlit out there as well. Don’t see them selling 300+ million copies or turning into multiple movie blockbusters, do you? Rowling’s genius lies in creating a world that millions of kids (and not a few adults) want to live in, a world that calls to their better nature while recognizing and accepting their imperfections.

While I (like other adult reviewers) find it frustrating at times at how many problems would be solved or short circuited if these character would just talk to each other, I must also acknowledge — as someone who has raised 9.5 teenagers and lived to tell about it — that this is actually quite realistic behavior, even if it’s not particularly entertaining or satisfying.

Are her books among my personal favorites? Not yet, though I was surprised how much I enjoyed re-reading both The Order of the Phoenix and The Half-Blood Prince this past week in preparation of the release of The Deathly Hallows. I was even more surprised at finding myself moved at a few spots.

So when this morning The Deathly Hallows appeared on my doorstep (via Amazon.com), I did my one major yardwork chore for the day and then curled up with it.

I read it in one sitting and just finished it a little while ago.

My verdict: bravo. Or to make it clearer: Bravo!

I didn’t have to force myself to read it that fast; the book, for all of its 700+ pages, flowed quickly. There were a few chapters early on that I felt might have been trimmed a bit or even eliminated, but once the book gets going, it’s all lean meat and compelling reading.

More importantly, Rowlings is not afraid to have real, unalterable tragedy. Mind you, this isn’t The Trojan Women or Agamemnon — the ending is hopeful and generally happy. But lots of people die — innocent bystanders (including Muggles), minor characters, and major characters as well (see more after the jump), children as well as adults. There is destruction and upheaval. There is evil, and evil often has its way.

But there is good as well, and nobility, and sacrifice, and courage in the face of darkness and defeat. I can think of no better lesson for the current and coming generations of children in our world.

This is easily the best of the seven books, and the movie deserves to be a good 3+ hours long, just to capture the full scope of the final several chapters. More importantly, though, Rowling has created a classic in children’s literature that will last for several generations at least.

Again, bravo!

This ends the spoiler-free section of the review.

SPOILERS AHEAD! DO NOT READ BEYOND THE JUMP IF YOU WANT TO AVOID SPOILERS! SPOILERS AHEAD!

You’ve been warned.

I wept — I actually wept — over Dobby’s death. Yeah, surprised me as well, but that was the point at which I realized how well Rowlings was paying off what she had spent six books setting up. And it’s not even that Dobby or the other house elves have been favorites of mine. The SPEW subplot that has run through most of the series hasn’t been all that amusing (IMHO) and seemed like excess baggage. And yet of all the deaths that have occurred in the last few books of the series — Cedric, Sirius, Dumbledore, and the various deaths in The Deathly Hallows — this is the one that has moved me the most. We are so fond of the wry cynicism of “no good deed goes unpunished” that we often forget that few good deeds go unrewarded as well. And it is precisely because of Dobby’s humble (if not outright meager) lifestyle that his sacrifice cuts so deeply — it’s not as though he knew love, comfort, acclaim, or admiration. Harry gained Dobby his freedom (not from Harry but from the Malfoys) through a clever trick; Dobby gave Harry not just his freedom (from the Malfoys!) but his life through the sacrifice of all he had to offer. Asymmetric salvation, if you will.

And Harry’s act of digging Dobby’s grave by hand, by himself — realizing that Dobby had knowingly taken a knife meant for him — is his true coming-of-age. It is the point at which Harry stops whining, stops running, stops reacting and sets his feet on the path that will lead him to knowingly going to his own death. In fact, I would argue that it is Dobby’s death, above all others, that gives Harry the courage to walk into Voldemort’s camp and let himself be killed, taking a knife (so to speak) not just for his friends but for everyone that Voldemort would kill, injure or enslave.

I’m sure that many reviewers will be put off by the Christian motif of Harry’s near-death experience, but Rowling has carefully laid her groundwork over the entire series to justify all that happens — and, frankly, it is less blatant than Gandalf’s ‘death’ and ‘resurrection’ in The Lord of the Rings. Harry is not “sent back for a little while” as some greatly transformed wizard — it is Voldemort’s own mistake that allows Harry to keep on living, while Harry (unlike Gandalf or Frodo) settles down to a normal quiet life once everything’s over.

Speaking of which — Rowling’s greatest act of courage, and her sweetest writing, is the ‘nineteen years later’ epilogue. Sweet, because she shows that there really can be happy endings after great tragedy. Courageous, because she really has shut down any option of further Harry Potter novels — unless kids want to read about Harry Potter as an adult. Frankly, I wouldn’t blame her if she never wrote another word again; she certainly has nothing left to prove or earn.

On the other hand, I wouldn’t be surprised to see her pick up with James and Lily and Albus and Teddy and Scorpius at some point. Just please, please, please, Ms. Rowling, don’t call it Hogwarts: The Next Generation, no matter what your publishers say. ..bruce..

[UPDATED 07/21/07 – 1949 MDT] A kind and gentle reader pointed out that I managed to misspell Rowling’s name in nearly every spot where I used it (the only correct spelling was likely a typo on my part), plus I misspelled the book’s name in (thank heavens) just one spot. Corrections made.  ..bruce..

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Category: Books, Main, Reviews

About the Author ()

Webster is Principal and Founder at Bruce F. Webster & Associates, as well as an Adjunct Professor of Computer Science at Brigham Young University. He works with organizations to help them with troubled or failed information technology (IT) projects. He has also worked in several dozen legal cases as a consultant and as a testifying expert, both in the United States and Japan. He can be reached at bwebster@bfwa.com, or you can follow him on Twitter as @bfwebster.

Comments (4)

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  1. BrianB says:

    Excellent review.
    And I felt almost the exact same way about the book.
    I’ve been feeling the same way you are in that I’m sick of the complainers saying she’s not that great of a writer, there’s better books out there, witchcraft is evil.
    Fine, whatever, either way, she has somehow convinced millions of kids to read. I love that many of these kids reading were scared of any book larger than 50-100 pages, and now she’s got them devouring 750 page monstrosities. They will never be afraid of a book again!

    Brian

    p.s. I love that your blog is basically about programming/computers, and you throw in anything else that interests you. Too many blogs nowadays are stuck on the mantra of staying on one theme, and avoiding any topic that may alienate readers.

  2. marcus says:

    While reading a column on the UK’s Guardian website, I clicked on a link to this site out of curiosity. Interesting review but I want offer a dissenting view regarding critics who point out Rowling’s weaknesses as a writer. I see nothing wrong in this–your argument seems to be that because she’s popular, everyone should just shut up and not dare to criticize this media juggernaut. Popularity is no measure of quality — American Idol is the US’ #1 show. Remember Danielle Steele’s novels of high class soap operas? They too were hugely popular worldwide. Dickens is one of the few novelists who was both popular in his day and maintains his popularity today. Most popular literature or music or art of the past has been forgotten today. It is correct to point out the fact that Rowling is no stylist, and that she writes what are essentially bloated screenplays. Critics who point this out are aware of the many wonderful children’s books on the past and from today written by truly fine writers: Philip Pullman, Susan Cooper, Frances Burnett Hodgson (author of classics like The Secret Garden and The Little Princess). These critics are also painfully aware that Rowling has somehow convinced people that her books are original–you yourself make this error by pointing out many have imitated her. It is Rowling who is the imitator, she is one of the most derivative novelists I’ve ever read, and to anyone who’s familiar with fantasy and children’s literature. I’ve read fantasy (children’s and adults) all my life and absolutely nothing in her books is original. I remember picking up the first book and thinking “oh please, how many times have I read exactly this?” Ursula LeGuin’s Wizard of Earthsea novels are better written, far richer in their characterizations and deeper in what they say about the human spirit. But none of these writers have the marketing and hype that Rowling has. This doesn’t mean that I can’t appreciate her books, I’ve read them all and enjoy them. I’ll never re-read them nor keep them in my library but they are fun entertainment and I’ve enjoyed the moments of laughter and emotion she’s provided me with. But I think it’s a good thing to have people who actually know literature to challenge the mindless hype and worship of these novels as something innovative, original or literary. It is possible to be both literary and entertaining, as the great children’s writers of the past have proven. It is also possible to be an average writer and very popular, as Enid Blyton proved early in the 20th century with her children’s adventure novels. Blyton’s novels were enjoyable for what they were, as are Rowling’s. But just because she’s popular–with blockbuster movies made of her books and now an amusement park about to be made of her Potter universe–doesn’t mean she should somehow be immune to informed critical judgment.

  3. bfwebster says:

    Marcus:

    I think you read some things into my review that aren’t actually there.

    First, I said nothing about Rowling’s originality. Mind you, I’m 54 years old and have been reading voraciously since I was a wee lad, including most of the authors and books that you cite and many other similar books as well. Robert Heinlein famously claimed that there are only three basic plots (Boy Meets Girl, The Little Tailor, The Man Who Learned Better) and that virtually every piece of literature (at least, that has a plot — I’m leaving out post-modernism for now) follows some combination of those three. I haven’t seen any claims by Rowling herself to great originality, though I will note this: when I first read The Philosopher’s Sorcerer’s Stone [and how it bugs me that the US publisher made her change the title to that], my reaction was, in effect, “Good for her — she found a clever niche and filled it well.”

    Second, I’m not claiming that she’s above literary criticism or that her books are masterpieces of English literature. My point is that such criticisms are irrelevant (and usually accompanied by some degree of sniffing and looking down one’s nose). No one forced millions of kids to read The Sorcerer’s Stone, and if it had been that wretched, nobody would have read the second book at all. I’m a published author (no fiction, not yet anyway), and I know how cut-throat and tight-fisted the publishing world is. Rowling succeeded at what any publisher would have told you was impossible: writing big, thick, multi-hundred page novels for kids. And sales have kept growing with each release. (Note also that Enid Blyton wasn’t competing with television, movies, video games, cell phones and the internet.)

    You may have overlooked my observation that her books are not among “my personal favorites.” I suspect that I may at some future date read the entire series once again, but that will likely be it. Contrast that with my multiple and regular re-readings of The Lord of the Rings, The Riddle-Master of Hed, the Earthsea novels, the various works of Orson Scott Card, Pride and Prejudice (possibly my all-time favorite novel) or The Winds of War/War and Remembrance. For that matter, I have a 44-volume set of the complete works of Jack Vance which I have already read twice all the way through in the past few years and plan to start on again (to review each of them). All those writers, and scores of others, are better writers that Rowling.

    But Rowling wasn’t writing for history or English lit classes in college. She wasn’t writing for literary awards. She was writing to (a) support herself by (b) entertaining children. Lots of people attempt to do that; a few succeed modestly; no one has ever succeeded on the scale of Rowling. My point is that it wasn’t a fluke; whatever her faults as a writer, she has somehow managed to get millions of kids (and adults) to line up at midnight to buy 500+-page books. Writing is hard, writing fiction is particularly hard, and writing fiction that anyone is actually willing to pay money for is the hardest of all (I’m still working on that last part). My observation is that most of the “informed critical judgment” regarding Rowling’s works comes across as self-aggrandizing if not outright jealous (“She may have been successful with the unwashed masses, but let me tell you why her writing is really wretched….”).

    In sum, “marketing and hype” will not compel children to read. Trust me, I know. Rowling’s books sell for one reason and one reason alone: the kids want to read them. No child I know (and I’ve known plenty) will plow through a 500-page novel and then anxiously await the next one because of “marketing and hype”.

    Your mileage, of course, may vary. ..bruce..

  4. jonny says:

    It really is a wonderful book and an enchating fantasy world.

    I would’ve liked a little more romance for Harry and Ginny; but I guess you can’t have it all.

    I reviewed the book myself at http://www.book-reviewz.com/harry-potter-and-the-deathly-hallows/