Review of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

Read: 21st July 2007 (it fits in a flight from Sydney to Bangkok).

Spoiler Warning: The following review assumes that the reader has either read all the Harry Potter books or doesn’t mind having the details spoiled for them.

There’s quite an enjoyable series of critiques of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by Daniel Hemmens that have a lot of points in them that I won’t repeat in full:

A quick summary of his points: it’s badly plotted, and why is Harry’s decision to wander off and commit suicide-by-Voldemort on the orders of Snape’s memory of Dumbledore particularly heroic compared to, say, everyone else risking their lives that evening? In addition, it’s heavily guided reading; Rowling has read her fansites and decided that she needs to make sure that everyone knows what the facts are about her universe, as opposed to going on a journey in it armed with one’s own mind.

Plot quibbles

Some quick plot quibbles before I get stuck in. First, Snape’s one-sided love for Lily sounds painfully obvious and yet it seems that not only did no one mention it to Harry (which is perhaps plausible, although Sirius should have brought it up when giving them all that information about Snape-at-school in Goblet of Fire) but no one even actually noticed. Not Lily herself. Not Petunia. Not Mary MacDonald, who apparently carried his threat to spend the night outside the Gryffindor entrance in to Lily. Not Sirius, who would have used the ammunition. Not James, who would have used the ammunition with an extra helping, because of the threat Snape would have represented. Voldemort completely failed to notice this potentially useful way to gain Snape’s total loyalty. Instead, despite a intra-House friendship that sounds like it was quite noticeable between two very different people, no one so much as teased either of them about having a crush on the other. Weird.

Dumbledore’s death seems to have had an implausibly small number of political consequences. There’s some brief mention that Harry had alleged that Snape killed Dumbledore but that the known facts were merely that he was seen fleeing from the scene. But despite the unexpected death and likely murder of a major political figure, there’s no mention of a trial or any kind of investigation into Harry’s claims, despite there being an eyewitness (Draco Malfoy probably wouldn’t be totally reliable, but the Ministry wouldn’t think that).

Next, a problem I’ve had for most of the series is the lack of need for actual magical power or education in achieving anything important. Harry is no magical innovator and Hermione’s just as bad: she won’t ever consider that the textbook might not be perfect. There are a small number of inventors in the series: Dumbledore, Riddle/Voldemort, Snape and the Weasley twins. But innovation and creativity aren’t invited onto the core team. You need only either a mild taste for rule-breaking or a very good memory, one or the other, and nothing more.

In fact, forget innovation and consider the question of mere competency. Harry doesn’t really seem to learn any more spells after the fourth book, except Unforgivables, which are achieved seemingly only by knowing the incantation and bringing a sufficient force of will to bear, there’s no subtleties beyond that. One of the best moments of Deathly Hallows is when Remus tells him off for using Expelliarmus against Stan Stunpike. Of course, it turns out that Remus is dead wrong, that this is the spell needed to defeat Voldemort (Harry tends to get lucky breaks with his choice of wand), but it pleased me at least. Of course, there’s no follow-on discussion about, perhaps, Harry learning or developing new battle spells, lethal or otherwise. I don’t think he ever even follows up on his momentary resolve to learn how to heal minor wounds. No hope of casting magic missile.

Moving along to the plot, my first, and most simple to state, problem with the book is with the Deathly Hallows. The setup in the previous book was that Harry needed to find the however many it was pieces of Voldemort’s soul. This is a computer game plot (hrm, we have 10 levels, now we need 10… plot things… one for each level…) but you can picture the novel that would be written around it. Each piece has an investigative phase, followed by an attempt to find/destroy it which is hindered by some unforeseen problem that is eventually overcome. Each piece gets a roughly even number of pages, perhaps more for the last. Makes for reasonable pacing, maybe nothing to write home about, but OK.

Instead, an entire separate and entirely unforeshadowed set of objects of immense power are really unconvincingly introduced: I can’t believe that in the entire world the only pieces of information about the Hallows are possessed by Xenophilius Lovegood, Gellert Grindelwald, Albus Dumbledore and the entire wand-making community and yet no one who talks to Rita Skeeter knew a thing. Then they’re pursued vigorously and entirely uninterestingly. What do they gain us? The wand defeats Voldemort in an incredibly contrived way. (Hemmens on wandlore: [Hermione] had not won its allegiance by taking it personally from Bellatrix – although as we will learn by the end of the book, casting Expelliarmus on whoever did take it personally from Bellatrix, or on anybody who had ever cast Expelliarmus on Bellatrix at any point in the past, should also have worked) The stone gives Harry yet another entirely uninteresting encounter with those he has loved and lost; and the cloak did exactly what it always did back before it was a Deathly Hallow. That’s all. It’s not even interesting enough that it should have been allowed to waylay even the fairly boring plot arc set up in the previous book.

Secondly, I would really have liked to have seen Harry’s emotional maturity addressed directly. And by directly I don’t mean anything along the lines of Harry was more mature now, or Harry thought that he was more mature now. I mean that there’s a couple of issues where a demonstration of increased maturity would have been a very good addition to the concluding novel.

The most minor example of this is Harry and Cho. It’s been a couple of years, they’re both one relationship along, they both liked Cedric a great deal and got together at an unfortunate time a while back in the aftermath of his death. Why doesn’t Rowling allow them to have a friendly interaction in pursuit of a common goal in order to demonstrate that people in general, and Harry in particular, can move on and up from these things?

A much more serious example is that of Harry’s (nearly one-sided) relationship with his dead parents. And there’s a really neat plot device that could be used for this one. In the first book, the Mirror of Erised told us that Harry’s greatest desire was to have James and Lily beside him. But six years hence, this really shouldn’t be the case. (Let’s ignore for a moment that his last act before his self-sacrifice and the names he gives his children suggests that he doesn’t really let go of this dream and pretend he does, because, well, really.) What better way than another encounter with the Mirror of Erised, showing us that Harry now has some other, more forward-looking, greatest desire?

Something odd about the books in general is that they never move away from confirming that Harry’s dream-parents were almost exactly like his real parents. Sure, James Potter was a arrogant bully at fifteen. But by his twenties he and Lily had constructed a family that Harry really would have liked to have grown up in. When they appear, albeit as memories or ghost-like beings, they behave more or less as Harry would like to be parented (excepting the missing what are you doing, walking off like a lamb to the slaughter? bit).

Both because they’re dead and because they were excellent parents, we miss a whole necessary growing up plot in which Harry realises and (perhaps) comes to terms with their limitations. In fact, probably this is made more necessary by them being dead; a dead parent isn’t a good parent. Instead, we only get a very small amount of payoff for the whole James-was-a-bully plotline, and that’s the very small number of moments when Harry identifies with either Snape, Riddle or both, and never in the presence of either, or in a way that might demonstrate his capacity to move beyond the emotional stunting of both.

In any case, Snape’s actions, particularly as revealed in the Penseive, are only partially coherent. He correctly turns on Dumbledore after Lily’s death, because his actions were meant to save her. Dumbledore buys him off with Lily’s presumed last wish: save the son. Many years later Snape finds out that Dumbledore is raising the son to slaughter. He gets mad. Then… there’s a scene shift and he’s still acting on Dumbledore’s orders. Clever Snape. There’s a different and potentially better book structured as a parallel story to be written here: Harry and Snape both converge from different directions on Dumbledore’s flaws, and this is key, take whatever was good in his plans and improve on them.

Moral quibbles

As for whether Harry is a hero or a fool for walking off calmly to his death after getting second hand at best information that that was what Dumbledore wanted, I don’t so much agree with Rowling’s views on death and heroism (or Rowling-the-author’s views anyway) as not really care. When reading didactic children’s literature I expect to be told heavy-handedly that stealing is Wrong or joining in and having a jolly good try is Right or that imaginative solitary children are Superior or that cheery team spirited children are Superior or any one of a number of contradictory things, pretty much all of which I’m capable of taking issue with simultaneously. In the case of books about good chums doing daring deeds together, when I read them, I tend to ignore it.

However, this brings me to my primary problem with this book, which is that Rowling is working in that kind of setup and then doesn’t follow through. Harry is a hero because of his Harry-ness. That is, Rowling hasn’t had the guts, even though she’s clearly in the right genre, to actually set up a normative morality in which Harry is better than other people. I really had trouble with the number of times the set up was there for some kind of Lesson or other, a couple of them even reasonably interesting, and then it was blown away without anyone confronting a moral dilemma head-on.

Consider, for example, Luna. Our heroes learn that she has been kidnapped as a way to punish her father for his unfortunate exercise of press freedom. They reasonably surmise that she might be having her will to live slowly drained from her in Azkaban. Potential moral dilemma: continue pursing their Quest which will save an enormous number of people but abandon their dear friend to an awful fate, or save Luna at a potentially terrible price? Actual resolution: they try not to think about it and it turns out that she’s locked up in the Malfoys’ basement anyway. Phew.

Consider the uses of the Unforgivable curses by the forces for good. Potential moral dilemma: infringing on the human rights of their enemies in order to save the world, or not? Actual resolution: they merrily use them, no one complains about it, agonises over it or asks them to deal with any consequences of their actions, whether to their victims or to themselves as moral beings. (Something of a carry over from the treatment of Fred’s and George’s actions in the previous books, admittedly.)

Consider the news that students at Hogwarts are under the power of the presumed evil Snape (known to The Trio), that Muggleborn firsties are being initiated into a world where they are immediately persecuted for crimes they didn’t commit (Harry actually comes up with this one himself, and is angry about it for a second or two) and that students are being tortured (not known to them, but considering how Rowling contrived to have them find out about Ginny’s attempt to steal the sword, it could have been). Potential moral dilemma: saving friends and powerless children from the forces of evil versus saving the world? Actual resolution: I think Harry decides that it would be kinda cool to have his parents around, and wouldn’t that stone be useful for that?

Consider Draco’s dilemma. We gather he has lost faith in either Voldemort’s cause or his methods. Potential moral dilemma: help Potter at great personal risk and risk to his family, attempt to outdo Bellatrix in devotion to the cause, or go spend the rest of his life living in a mountain hut and cultivating his beard? Actual resolution: his refusal to positively identify Harry delays the action for a few crucial minutes, although he doesn’t really know what he’s doing. Then he blunders around with his mates in the castle attempting to achieve goodness knows what. Maybe he’s simply avoiding the battle. Harry rescues him and Ron punches him in the nose.

This one is a terrible loss. Firstly, some kind of Message is just waiting to get out if Draco extends a helping hand to Harry. Secondly, there’s a perfect set up. Draco even explicitly reminds Harry that he spent half the previous year in the room of hidden things. Active help from him would be an excellent shortcut to the crucial and time critical hunt for the diadem. Lastly, the epilogue, which has supposedly existed in some form for many years now, reads very much like Draco helped Harry much more than the events of the novel actually support. They have a nodding acquaintance suggesting grudging mutual respect and a mutual desire not to have much to do with each other. One crucial outreach at a moment of high drama in a relationship of antipathy creates that kind of recognition. Blundering about needing to be rescued later to try and sell someone out does not.

Consider finally the question of the ownership of goblin-made objects. We learn from Bill Weasley (who really does seem quite a model of open-mindedness in the face of Other) that goblins regard goblin-made objects as needing to be returned to their maker upon the death of the wizard who commissioned them. Harry needs a goblin-made object in order to fulfil a goal, a goblin demands it back. I was really excited to see this, it sounded like it was going somewhere fun. Potential moral dilemma: honour a solemn promise to an ally at the cost of their quest, or break the promise? Actual resolution: they decide to break the promise but don’t actually have to go through with it or deal with any consequences of their decision because the goblin doesn’t wait to see if they’ll keep it.

Exploration quibbles

There’s a double helping of bad in the goblin subplot: they never canvassed the idea of telling the goblin the truth. This follows on from the incredibly tedious and at most times unbelievable way that Rowling makes the plot last for hundreds of pages: they can’t tell anyone what they’re doing because Dumbledore said not to.

From the point of view of writing an interesting novel, this decision sucks. There are interesting things going on in the adult world. The Order is trying to deal both with its trusted double agent having sold them out to the enemy, and the loss of their leader. Kingsley and Remus both seem to be at least passably good agents for the Order, able to make decisions quickly and act accordingly. Fred and George are now in the business of manufacturing armour (and munitions, most likely), or at least so I assume, it’s not mentioned that they closed up their previously successful business. Bill Weasley has economic expertise and international contacts with humans and non-humans. Some of them are trying to survive employment at the new, improved Ministry.

At the very least, even if they believe that Dumbledore had A Plan and that Harry, Ron and Hermione are capable of seeing it through—and really the faith in Dumbledore is quite astonishing here, not one person suggests that, since Dumbledore is dead, it might be wise to have other living people, with working brains, reviewing the big plan in the light of any new information—there ought to be backup plans and damage control. Is there anyone smuggling Muggleborns out of Britain? Is anyone liaising with any other government or power about intervention? Even a few active plots that get dropped on the floor here; notably the attempts to liaise with the werewolves and giants before they ally with Voldemort.

Meanwhile, over at Hogwarts, Snape, actually a triple agent, is in deep cover and willing and able to see people killed before his eyes without breaking a sweat. Despite this for some reason he’s behaving suspiciously charitably to Ginny and Neville. Neville, Luna and Ginny are leading the (misinformed) resistance and Michael Corner is getting tortured for the cause.

There’s stories in this book. Why did they all take place outside of the narrative frame?