Review of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

Monday, 23 July 2007

Spoiler Alert! This article reveals portions of the plot, including the ending of the book!

In an article printed in our local Sunday paper, Washington Post book critic Ron Charles decries the decline in the number of American adults reading novels, while simultaneously chiding adults who like to read the Harry Potter series of books. The books are too juvenile for serious adults, he says, and he offers as proof the fact that his ten-year-old daughter asked him to stop reading the fourth Harry Potter book to her right in the middle, saying, "Do we have to keep reading this?" Why did his daughter grow tired of hearing Harry Potter read to her? It might be that she just lost interest in the story, as Charles suggests. It might be that, at ten years old, she wasn't ready for some of the darker moments that occur in the fourth book. It might be that she needed more variety in the books read to her. Or it might be that her dad's lack of enthusiasm for the book took the joy out of the story. Here's how he describes the experience:

For three years, I had dutifully read the "Harry Potter" series to my daughter, my voice growing raspy with the effort, page after page. But lately, whole paragraphs of "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire" had started to slip by without my hearing a word. I'd snap back to attention and realize the action had moved from Harry's room to Hagrid's house, and I had no idea what was happening.
And his daughter lost interest in such a spirited reading of the book. What a shock!

Charles is right that popularity in itself doesn't prove the value of the Harry Potter series (just look at the popularity of reality TV for confirmation!), but neither does a book's failure to become a best-seller qualify it as great literature. Just because Charles prefers a book that has sold 8,367 copies to the Harry Potter books that have sold millions of copies doesn't make him a more intellectual, informed, or discriminating reader. It just means that he has found value in a book that others have yet to discover, and may never discover. Yes, American adults are reading far too few books every year, although I would argue that many non-fiction books--biographies, history, science, philosophy, serious (as opposed to pop) theology--should be considered alongside novels in surveys of reading habits. However, adult fascination with Harry Potter is hardly the problem that Charles thinks it is.

Admittedly, Harry Potter isn't for everyone. Leaving aside those who object to the series on religious grounds (it talks about magic, witches, and wizards--ooh, ahh!!!--kind of like C. S. Lewis's The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe), those who crave a steady diet of murder mysteries, romance novels, science fiction, and especially historical fiction (apparently one of Charles's favored genres) might not like the Harry Potter series, which is fantasy through and through. One thing to remember, however, is that first and foremost, Harry Potter is written for children and adolescents. For that reason, it lacks the harsh language, overt sexuality, and complex plot lines of many books aimed exclusively at adults. Nevertheless, the J. K. Rowling does allow her characters to grow and to experience love and loss. Several characters are morally ambiguous, including Harry himself at times. Over the entire series, Rowling keeps readers' attention by using entangled subplots, suspense, sometimes surprising character developments, and, above all, wit. In the midst of life and death struggles, including the final battle scene in Hallows, she mixes humor with danger in ways that will make even adult readers laugh.

The Harry Potter series has been credited with putting books back in the hands of a generation of children, as well as many adults. The fact that the publishers, Scholastic Inc., printed a first run of 12 million copies for U.S. readers alone, and that more than three-fourths of them were sold within the first twenty-four hours, suggests that the books are indeed encouraging more people to read. Whether the excitement of reading Harry Potter will carry over into reading other books remains to be seen, but no one can deny the impact that the series has had on the reading public.

Now to Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows itself. Like the previous six books, Rowling employs the formula of stretching the action from the summer, near Harry's July 31 birthday, through the end of the Hogwarts school term in early June. Because, like the others, this book revolves around a central mystery, the nature of the Deathly Hallows, it stands as a story on its own. However, it also wraps up the numerous unanswered questions and hanging story lines of previous books in the series in a masterful way. Like her three teenaged protagonists, Rowling has grown as an author between the first book and the seventh, but her foresight in introducing story lines, characters, and conundrums in the earlier books that get final resolution in Hallows is truly remarkable. Even if the answers to questions such as the ultimate loyalty of Severus Snape or the moral ambiguity of Dumbledore can be deduced without too much effort reasonably early in the book, the BIG QUESTION of the book, whether or not Harry--the Boy who Lived--survives is unclear until almost the very end. In the end, it is Harry's willingness to sacrifice his life for others that allows good to triumph over evil. But the book is about much more than just the plot line. As Rowling tells the story, she deals with the themes of love, friendship, courage, self-sacrifice, and even racism, themes that great literature addresses.

So is Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows great literature? Since it is a book directed primarily at young people, perhaps not. It lacks the biting social critique of Catch-22 or Slaughterhouse Five, the religious undertones of The Life of Pi or The Handmaid's Tale, the racial tension of To Kill a Mockingbird or The Color Purple, and the mature content of On the Road or Catcher in the Rye, but since these are all books directed exclusively at adults (though also read by older adolescents), it's not really a fair comparison. The book stacks up well against Newberry Award winners such as The Giver, Holes, and Island of the Blue Dolphins, but in many ways it surpasses them, not just in popularity but in its attractiveness to adult readers. That the Harry Potter series bridges the gap between adolescents and adults reminds all of us adults that we have a lot in common with our kids. If Rowling's portrayal of the struggle of good vs. evil is somewhat simplistic, we're reminded that as moral beings we have an obligation to choose good, to the best of our abilities. Our children know that, though we sometimes forget it. The series champions values such as loyalty and forgiveness without being preachy, and it does it in an entertaining way. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows might not qualify as great literature, but it is a fitting conclusion to one of the most fascinating and original stories ever told in the English language.

© Copyright 2007, Progressive Theology

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