The Magic of J.K. Rowling

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows     by J.K. Rowling

759 pp. (US edition), Arthur A. Levine books 2007  ....   reviewed by David P. Stern

      This is the seventh and last of the "Harry Potter" books, an imaginative fantasy about the education of a talented young wizard. Eagerly awaited, it has chalked up record sales and was met with world-wide acclaim.

    Potter's England is not the one we are familiar with: hidden inside it is a magic society of witches and wizards, defying the laws of nature with wands, potions, spells and dark magic, yet still trying (for the most part) to live in a style remarkably like ours. Their secret world stays out of sight thanks to the "ministry of magic," which erases from the memory of us "muggles" any occult events we may have witnessed, so that many mighty peculiar goings-on go unreported.

    To Harry and his friends, though, all that is reality, occasionally rather terrifying reality. Also hidden in this magic landscape is Hogwarts, a boarding school for young magicians, so similar to upper-class English "public schools" of generations past, yet so different. And like earlier books, "Deathly Hallows" focuses on the struggle between renegade wizard Lord Voldermort and the defenders of morality and order, among whom young Harry always sticks out.

    I won't be a "spoiler" and reveal details of the intricate plot and its unexpected twists and outcomes. However, a bit of advice: if you have not recently read the preceding book "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince"--or if you haven't read it at all--do so before starting on "Deathly Hollows" (borrow a copy if you don't have one). Many details in that earlier book play an important role in this one, and a reader unaware of them will miss some of the connections.

    How does one classify these books? One almost needs the magic "sorting hat" to do so. A children's book or one for adults? A fantasy or the stuff of legends? A fad, a flash in the pan--or something future generations will still enjoy? Literature or passing entertainment? And the meteoric rise of J.K. Rowling, from struggling single mom to fame and riches--was it deserved?

    That last one is easy. Yes, absolutely. As for the others, the non-answer "all of the above" probably comes as close as any.

    Yes, it is a children's book. Kids love it, and as many have noted, the book has done wonders for children literacy. On a flight home from Israel, having read a paper reviewing the Hebrew translation of an early volume, I cut out the review and mailed it with a wad of left-over shekels to a cousin in Israel, suggesting she buy the book for her son. She replied: "A miracle! He has never before been a reader, but this book has changed him!" Which suggests not only that Potter's books promote literacy, but that his magic transcends cultural boundaries.

    It certainly fits a typical child's view of the world, focusing on the here-and-now, with scant attention to whatever is out of sight. These are stories in which events of sheer terror alternate with orderly and tranquil life--a wedding, a flirt, a snit, a banquet--during which all perils seem to be temporarily forgotten, until (inevitably) dark danger rears its ugly head once more. How eagerly are sports pursued by Hogwarts students, yet how easily are their deadly dangers ignored--sports like competitive dragon baiting, or "quidditch" played on high-flying broomsticks! Magically, no one ever dies in these contests, no one even gets seriously hurt.

    Yet death stalks this world too, more and more as the story advances. This last volume is darker than previous ones, darker than any other children's book one can recall, so much that some parents have found it too frightening for young minds. Understandably, one tries to shield the young from visions of cruelty, corruption, violence and death. Yet the actual world watched by our kids on evening newscasts is rather bloodier and much more real. Maybe the age of innocence has passed even in children's literature.

    Though these books were created for children, adults go for them in a big way, too, especially adults who like to escape into fantasy, the ones who buy the book for their offspring and then argue over who gets to read it when (one family I know avoided the hassle by buying two copies). It is not everyone's choice--my first copy of "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone," was the gift of a devout Christian lady who bought it as a vacation read, but had second thoughts after discovering that it didn't quite fit the Good Book's command "thou shalt not suffer a witch to live." Still, devout admirers seem to far outnumber detractors.

    Legend or fantasy? So much here can be read as an allegory! So much happens by pure coincidence, at just the right moment! And all these suggestive names! Listen to "Salazar Slytherin" and just imagine the motion and hiss of a snake (cartoon in today's paper, a scared child in an examining room, hiding behind mommy: "No, Emily, the snake pin on my lapel shows I am a doctor. I am not a Slytherin"). Draco Malfoy and Malvolo Gaunt--how could they be anything but malevolent? Similarly, one expects Professor Slughorn to be ponderous and slow, Rita Skeeter to be pesky, and it is no surprise when Professor Lupin is transfigured by the full moon.

    Yet most readers will be too busy to care for such details, too busy following the contorted path of an elaborate fantasy and its huge cast of diverse magic characters, not all human. At first, only some of the magic is revealed, but then, more and more features are added and new personalities appear, often just in time to address some unexpected problem. It is a magic universe, enormously diverse, its rules are few and its author's inventiveness knows no bounds. That, in part, is what lifts this book above so many others on the old theme of Good against Evil. So much detail, so many complications, so many ideas and inventions--all these are one reason why "Deathly Hallows" and books leading to it stand out.

    The other reason is J.K. Rowling's dense and graphic style, painting vivid images in the reader's mind, never wasting words. The action is continuous, the scenery and props shift constantly, and the author's style so lucid that our mind readily follows those changes. Her dense style also motivates readers to pay attention and not skip anything, lest some essential detail be overlooked, and that too encourages literacy.

    The "Potter" films so far have followed the text pretty faithfully. Inevitably that has made them quite long, but audiences do not seem to mind: those hours pass very fast indeed, maybe too fast. Whether "Half-Blood Prince" and "Deathly Hallows" can be squeezed to comparable length remains to be seen, and it would be no surprise--especially for the latter book--if the film version comes out in two parts. But whenever those films appear on the screen, for untold millions of Potter fans it cannot happen too soon.

Author and Curator:   Dr. David P. Stern
     Mail to Dr.Stern:   david("at" symbol) .

Last updated 16 August 2007