Two weekends ago, I found myself accidentally proving the old theory that Harry Potter is a gateway drug to the wider world of serious literature. Standing in the very back of a gigantic horde at my local bookstore at midnight, wedged into a knot of adolescents reading People magazine through oversize black plastic glasses, I picked up and nearly finished a great American superclassic that I’d somehow managed to avoid for my entire life: Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. Under normal circumstances I would have been perfectly happy to go on ignoring it—the paperback had an unmistakable high-school-syllabus stench about it—but I was bored to death and the aisles were clogged with potbellied wizards and it was the only readable book within arm’s reach. A few pages in, I found myself hooked. By the time I got to the register, I was three-quarters of the way through (just after—spoiler alert!—Lennie the man-child mangles the bully Curley’s hand) and all I really wanted to do was finish it. But the employees were all clapping because I was the last customer, so I closed Steinbeck right on the brink of what felt like an impending tragic climax, took my Potter, and left. Ironically, this meant that Of Mice and Men was now suspended at roughly the same point in its dramatic arc as Rowling had suspended the Potter series before Deathly Hallows. So I went home and conducted a curious experiment in parallel reading: a two-day blitz of 860 pages, with a pair of nested climaxes—one hot off the presses, one 70 years old.
I started with Potter. Not since 1841, when New Yorkers swarmed the docks to ask incoming Brits whether Little Nell died in the latest installment of The Old Curiosity Shop (spoiler alert! She totally did), have readers been so simultaneously poised on the brink of a collective climax. My gut, along with the new book’s scary epigraphs, kept telling me that—like Little Nell—Harry had to go. For a children’s series, Potter has been unusually death-obsessed—Harry’s heroism, remember, sprang from the gruesome murder of his parents—and in recent books, the body count has risen quickly: In the previous book, even Harry’s untouchable mentor Dumbledore died. Also, in a larger narrative sense, Rowling owed us. Harry had been too outrageously lucky for too long: He lived for six books in a big bland protective bubble of innocence and nobility and love. As minor characters dropped around him like cursed broomsticks, he lucked his way through unsurvivable encounters with dragons, basilisks, dementors, Death Eaters, and about 34 different manifestations of Voldemort. Now it was time to pop the bubble. We all felt it. Rowling knew it. One of the big reasons we all read Potter so devotedly was that, unlike most kids’ series, there was something serious at stake. And she practically promised us Harry’s death with Book Six’s prophecy about him and Voldemort—“Neither can live while the other survives.”
By now, the book’s final events have been spoiled as thoroughly as a pint of six-month-old cottage cheese in the trunk of a flaming car. And yet I still feel compelled to issue a warning. If you don’t want to know how Harry Potter ends, you need to fling this magazine, very hard and very fast, out of your window or into the nearest vacant horse carriage. Fling it! There’s no time to think! Gaaaaa!
I approached the book with some fear. For one thing, despite the charm and immersive power of Rowling’s magical world, despite her solid instinct for broad, mythic narrative strokes, she’s always had trouble with the basic mechanics of plot. Even by pulp standards, her storytelling is ridiculous. Exposition happens almost exclusively via overheard conversations. Narrative logic falls apart at crucial moments. Every book ends in an orgy of coincidence and revelations and arbitrary switcheroos. (As George Orwell once wrote about Dickens: “rotten architecture, but wonderful gargoyles.”) Since Deathly Hallows was the series-capping megaclimax, I expected to find it ponderous, overactive, dangerously clotted with characters, and confusing. This was pretty much exactly right. All the Rowling signatures are here: She’s still addicted to adverbs and (oddly) the word “bemused,” her caps lock gets stuck at critical moments, foreigners speak in intolerable accents, and everyone stutters uncontrollably at the slightest hint of stress. When the action gets heavy, she cranks the “coincidence” dial up to eleven and flagrantly abuses her imminent-death-thwarted-at-the-last-possible-moment privileges. (In an MSNBC survey of fan reactions to Deathly Hallows, a 10-year-old who claims to have read the entire series eight times observed that, for his taste, the final book leaned a little too heavily on coincidence. I believe this tells us something important.) As for plot, there’s a Mission Impossible–style break-in at the Ministry of Magic and a never-ending camping trip featuring some heavy Lord of the Rings plagiarism and innumerable action sequences in which everyone screams, “No! No! NO! NOOOOOOO!” A few minor characters die; most movingly, Dobby the house-elf. (“And then with a little shudder the elf became quite still, and his eyes were nothing more than great glassy orbs, sprinkled with light from the stars they could not see.”) Much of the book, however, was strangely forgettable.
And then I got to Chapter 33. In a powerful sequence that immediately makes up for much of the prior slog, Harry learns that, in order for the world to live, he has to die. He accepts this with genuine stoic heroism, relishes his last moments of life, and, surrounded by the ghosts of his dead family and friends, marches off to get himself nobly slaughtered. My tear ducts initiated their “misty” sequence; when Harry asked his mother’s spirit to stay close to him, I almost shed an actual tear. The Rowling-skeptic in me kept waiting for the impossible bailout, but it never came: Voldemort smote Harry into oblivion. Suddenly, Potter was a legitimate tragedy. The series had grown up.
Unfortunately, the cop-out—which in retrospect seems as inevitable as I once thought Harry’s death was—comes three pages later. Chapter 35 sees Harry wake up in an ethereal train station (presumably some regional hub halfway along the Heaven-Hell line), where the spirit of Dumbledore gives him special news: Because of the purity of Harry’s self-sacrifice, he’s eligible for a Jesus exemption. He’s not dead. He gets to go back and kill Voldemort. And just as a bonus, his sacrifice has redeemed all of humanity. (As Harry puts it, while he and the Dark Lord circle each other like the knife fighters in “Beat It”: “You won’t be able to kill any of them ever again. Don’t you get it? I was ready to die to stop you from hurting these people … I’ve done what my mother did. They’re protected from you.” I’m not sure, at this point, why they don’t just let Voldemort hang around like an old toothless lion—but I guess that would lack dramatic flair.) After the predictable duel, Rowling wraps things up with an epilogue that is, hands down, the worst piece of writing in the entire 4,000-page series. Harry and the gang, now all thirtysomething and blissfully intermarried, reappear at King’s Cross Station to drop off the next generation of wizards at Platform 9¾ while reveling in har-har family-sitcom humor. The final sentence is remarkably bland and awful, the linguistic crystallization of Rowling’s cop-out: “All was well.”
I’m not opposed to happy endings per se—I’m just opposed to an author trying to get emotional credit for both a tragic and a happy ending without actually earning either. Rowling had been gathering storm clouds for ten years; her fictional sky was as purple and lumpy as a Quidditch stadium full of plums, and the whole world had lined up to watch it rain. She owed this ritual sacrifice to the immortal gods of narrative: either the life of her hero or—infinitely harder to pull off—his convincing and improbable survival. With Harry’s death, the series would have graduated instantly from “light and possibly fluky popular megasuccess” to Heavy Tragic Fantasy Classic. Instead, at the last possible moment, she tacked on an episode of Leave It to Beaver. This is roughly the equivalent of Oedipus Rex’s tearing his eyes out, then stumbling across a wise old friend who tells him: “Hey, guess what, buddy? You know how you just killed your dad and slept with your mom, like the oracle predicted? Well, since you did it all with totally innocent love in your heart, it doesn’t count! Go tell your mom to untie that noose! And look, your eyes just grew back! All is well!” Rowling seems to misunderstand the power of catharsis. It’s not simple reassurance, it’s a primal release.
Meanwhile, back among Steinbeck’s farm laborers, all was not well. In fact, it was terrible. Curley’s wife came out to the barn while Lennie was playing with his puppy, and—you know what? I’m not going to spoil it for you.
Plenty of critics have noted the coincidence of Harry Potter and The Sopranos—the two great pop-cultural myths of the last ten years—ending simultaneously. But the parallel runs deeper. Both series depended on essentially the same trick: smuggling the mundane back into the exotic, normalizing the abnormal. A wizard buying school supplies carries approximately the same defamiliarizing charge as a mob boss going to therapy. Or, as Rowling once put it, a gun is only “a kind of metal wand that Muggles use to kill each other.”
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
By J.K. Rowling. Arthur A. Levine books. 759 pages. $34.99.