Monday, July 23, 2007

All was well

Stayed up until half two this morning to see off Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, which the Doctor read all of on Saturday (due to the rising tides making it impossible to get to Mr Cornell’s 40th birthday party). Some spoilertastic thoughts follow, so come back when you’ve got to the end.


         spoiler space




     is split

  seven ways...

For the first time, it’s not about another year at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. With Harry now 17 and, as a grown-up, suddenly no longer protected by the safe-making magic of love, a whole world of baddies is out to get him – and anyone in the way.

It’s a gripping read, full of violence and excitement right from the beginning. In fact, two major characters are killed in the first action sequence and another is seriously wounded – a shocking, horrific start that sets up that no one is safe. I remember (but can’t attribute) a bit of writing advice that an audience will let you get away with killing all the people in a burning people so long as their pets escape… And the deaths and maimings keep coming.

It’s a brutal book with a high body count, and many of those killings are sudden and abrupt. Suddenly people we’ve come to know well over the last 10 years / seven books are just not there any more – but that’s true of the characters that survive, too. The ending is also rather abrupt, and bar the handful of classmates mentioned in the epilogue, we learn very little of what happens to people after the final battle. Presumably Hermione recalls her parents from Australia. Can we also assume that at some point in the 19 years Harry catches up with the Dursleys again?

This blunt despatch also means that you’re not always sure who you’ve just said goodbye to for good. When Hagrid is dragged off by spiders on page 520, I did think that was him done for – and hoist by his own hairy-legged petard.

In fact, a lot of the book is reported rather than seen, and even when there are big action sequences like Harry escaping Privet Drive or the Battle for Helms Deep Hogwarts, we follow Harry doing something else then later catch up on who didn’t survive. This means that while everybody else is fighting for their lives, we’re following Harry as he goes camping and looks for lucky charms. It’s not that these sequences don’t work, but it perhaps limits the book by having almost all of it told from Harry’s perspective, so that major events are given in reported speech as he catches up with friends.

It may also have to be like this is Harry’s not going to fight. The key thing about the book is that he doesn’t go to war while everyone else does, and it’s the fact that he won’t kill – that his trademark spell is to disarm not wound, that ultimately everything hinges on. It’s telling that he learns a lesson that, at his age, Dumbledore did not – that magical might is not right. After seven years at magical school, the most important thing Harry has learned is when not to use his powers.

Being the last one (and its ending makes that pretty definitive, too), Deathly Hallows revisits many of the characters and settings of previous books in one last farewell tour. We also visit for the first time the house where Harry’s parents were killed, and learn a great deal about the early lives of Dumbledore and Snape. The Dr was especially blubby about chapter 33, but then it was her favourite character being all noble and misunderstood. Which is all suitably goth.

Some of the things we’d predicted were right: about Snape, his real motivations, and Harry Potter’s mum; that R.A.B. was Sirius’s brother; that we’d see Ollivander again. Other things I was completely out on: I had the Hogwarts-hidden Horcrux as either Godric’s ruby-encrusted sword or the Mirror of Erised (artefacts set up in the first couple of books). I assumed either Ron or Hermione (or both) would die, while the Dr had Harry not making it to the last chapter. There were also wrong-feet as I read it: assuming Mad-Eye would return as a reanimated corpse, for example, and assuming we’d find out what that gateway from the end of Order of the Phoenix was all about.

There are some very good surprises – shock reveals of baddies and some major revelations about Harry and his world. It’s a while since I read anything that demanded I keep reading, especially at the end of chapters. There’s also some good closure to character and story arcs all the way along: Ron worrying about the plight of goblins; Mrs Weasley going to war; Neville being the hero.

Also key to the book as a whole is Harry now being an adult and standing on his own. By the end of the series, all the adults Harry once held in awe – his parents, his teachers, his enemies – are seen to be just as flawed and capable of great mistakes as he is.

I’m curious what kids will make of such a brutal and complex book, so lacking in the mad antics and laughs of Harry’s previous adventures.

And by my reckoning (though I’m sure many others have got there first), Harry’s from the class of ‘98, and the last chapter takes place in 2016.


Anonymous said...

The "surviving pets" comment that you may be thinking of is from Malcolm Hulke's "Writing for Television", in which he describes a rule for kid's TV: you can sink a vessel and everyone aboard, but make sure you save the ship's cat.

0tralala said...

Yes! That's it!

It's been driving me mad. Thank you.