The Magazine

Magic Alert

The last installment in the Harry Potter saga. Or is it?

Aug 13, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 45 • By LISA SCHIFFREN
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Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

by J.K. Rowling

Levine, 759 pp., $34.99

As the final installment of J.K. Rowling's 4,195-page epic begins, the Lord Voldemort and his Death Eaters are on the verge of capturing the Ministry of Magic and taking over the entire wizarding community of England.

Their goal is to purge society of muggle-born (nonmagical) wizards and restore a "pure blood" wizard standard. For Voldemort to assume ultimate power he must kill Harry Potter--or Harry must kill him, according to an old prophecy. Harry, who is about to come of age at 17, has decided not to return to the Hogwarts School, scene of all previous volumes. Instead, he and his beloved friends Hermione Granger and Ronald Weasley set out to fulfill a mission that Harry had been charged with by Albus Dumbledore, the revered headmaster who died at the hands of Severus Snape at the end of Book Six.

In seeking to become impervious to death, Voldemort had engaged in the darkest of dark magic. He had split his soul into seven parts, keeping one and storing each of the others in an object called a horcrux. One splits one's soul only by the act of murder. Not until each horcrux is found and destroyed can the Dark Lord be killed.

Unlike the previous books, which are plotted around the school year at Hogwarts, and with a mystery solved at the end, Deathly Hallows takes the form of a heroic quest.

So the three teenagers set out, without a plan or much guidance, and only their wits (and the usual entertaining magic) to find the hidden horcruxes in a landscape under siege by a totalitarian force.

That the Death Eaters are searching for Harry, to bring him in to be slain by Voldemort, adds plenty of tension and forward propulsion. Nor is Harry allowed to confide his task to the older members of the resistance--known as the Order of the Phoenix. This cat-and-mouse game continues in various forms until the final showdown.

At heart, the Harry Potter series is a traditional struggle between good and evil, freedom and slavery, love and death. Everyone must choose which side he or she is on, and all choices have great consequences over characters' lifetimes--and even beyond, to their children's.

Rowling has been quoted as saying that she thinks even nine-year-olds are old enough to understand that life is about moral choices. Any book that can convey that to children is a good thing, especially in the world we currently inhabit.

The most critical choice made by many of the characters in the series--up until the very end of Book Five, the movie version of which just came out--is whether or not to believe Harry's claim that Voldemort has returned from exile and is gathering strength. In what originally seemed like an amusing tangent, Rowling has devoted a considerable amount of space to the workings of the Wizard government, known as the Ministry of Magic. Through several volumes the Minister of Magic, one Cornelius Fudge, remained willfully blind to Voldemort's resurgence. His successor, Rufus Scrimgeour, wished to use Harry to reassure the public that matters were in hand, even when no action was being taken.

Now, the Ministry has been taken over without a struggle, and sympathizers inside are happy to start purging wizard ranks of muggle-borns and certain "half-bloods." The Ministry, which has always been able to track witches and wizards who perform illegal magic, now exerts totalitarian control over community members. (Without reading too much into this, since Rowling is no conservative, it is healthy for children to absorb the lesson that the government won't always protect them, and when the stakes are high, individuals must act.)

Of course, the unprecedented popularity of this series--325 million books sold worldwide, 8.3 million of this current volume sold in the United States on the first day--cannot be entirely ascribed to its solid politics. The fact is that J.K. Rowling has imagined an entire wonderful world, including the backstories of most of those who people it. And they are deeply romantic backstories at that.

She has devised funny, charming details--portraits that move and talk, invisibility cloaks, bags that expand to hold vast supplies without getting bigger--and deeply eccentric, often lovable characters. Her ability to plot intricately detailed stories seven books out is legendary. And here, at the end, she really did tie up vast amounts of detail that she had foreshadowed volumes ago. Fast-paced action--yup. The prose moves--which is one way that it keeps children (and the rest of us) reading. It may not be literary--okay, it isn't--and some find it a bit treacly; but as children's literature it is a wonderful shared myth for a time when children's culture is grossly commercialized.