Sunday, July 22, 2007

Book Review: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

Stop, you're both right.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J. K. Rowling. Harry Potter, book 7. Scholastic (Harrisonburg, VA): 2007. 759 pages. $34.99. ISBN-13: 478-0-545-01022-1, ISBN-10: 0-545-01022-5.

Your local dragon blogger now finds himself in an interesting predicament: it is still the weekend of this novel's release, which has occurred with much hype, expectancy, and trepidation. In respect to all the fans, D. G. D. has instructed me in no uncertain terms that I must not discuss the plot in any detail until some weeks have passed. After he gets out of traction, maybe he'll be able to enforce that little rule; but at any rate, I too have some respect for Harry Potter fans, and so I am now going to attempt to honor his wishes in spite of my usual attempts to do otherwise.

So, to be as vague as possible, first point: all the plot threads are tied up. Yes, all of them. All I remember, anyway. Rowling ties up loose threads with such skill that half the time you may not know what she's talking about as she refers throughout the novel to minor events that happened, say, five or six books ago. If you're a really big fan, and a masochist, you might consider rereading the entire series before tackling the finale, in order to jog your memory.

Second point: this is a very, very satisfying conclusion to the series. Fans will not be disappointed. It is possibly the best of them all. Considering it is the seventh in the series, and considering the disappointment that accompanied book 6, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, the novel's high quality is quite a relief. But book 6 is second to last, and such things tend to sag, so the improvement at the end is not much of a surprise.

Third point, which may be a slight (very slight) giveaway, against which I warn the very sensitive: the book has a high body count, but I think everyone already knew it would a year ago. Rowling has previously shown a skill for action violence, and in this novel she gives little reprieve. At the close, the reader may be as exhausted as the characters, especially if he's been reading hard to write a review on Sunday night.

Fourth point: this novel has back stories like you wouldn't believe; soap opera writers will want to take notes. The number of flashbacks is almost bewildering, and yet somehow the pace never slows, probably because the various convolutions in the back stories make for good reading.

Fifth point: Contrary to many, I maintain that Rowling has become (starting with about book 3 or 4), a genuine master of her craft. This is undeniably a good story even if Rowling does not always pen it with a sure hand; I think quibbles with her style or delivery will necessarily be minor ones, and I won't bother with them here.

But enough about the plot (really, that's all you get). Now let's talk about the big issue, the issue that has made these novels a hot topic among Christian bloggers and has probably done a good deal to sustain the novels' fame. Is this book a full-on Christian allegory or an attempt to lure children into the arms of the devil? I must maintain, as D. G. D. has maintained, that it is neither.

Both opponents and defenders of the series will feel their respective positions are vindicated by this book. The novel opens with a quote from Aeschylus's The Libation Bearers (translated by Robert Fagles), which includes a prayer to "dark gods beneath the earth." Those accusing the books of teaching neo-paganism, witchcraft, or Satanism (which, f.y.i., are not to be identified with each other) may consider this the smoking gun. Defenders will, however, note that quoting pagan authors is hardly corban by any sane standard, and will add that, no doubt, it is the final phrase in the quote, "Bless the children, give them triumph now," that Rowling really views as important. No dark gods beneath the earth make an appearance in the story.

Defenders will delight in the novel's numerous intentional or unintentional Christian parallels, which are more explicit than any in the previous books. Here I must give another, very, very slight spoiler warning, but I will be as vague as possible, and present them as a laundry list:

1). Harry retrieves an important object described as a "cross" only by fully immersing himself in water, which produces a death-and-rebirth-like experience (reminiscent of baptism).

2). Especially in the novel's beginning, Harry is irritated with people who tell him to choose what to believe, whereas Harry is interested in learning truth, no matter how painful or uncomfortable truth is. This may be lost on some readers, but the novel is here teaching a basic idea that is the pillar of all sane thought and of Christian thought: truth exists independently of belief and cannot be molded by belief. This is quite contrary to the prevailing view of the culture, which sees truth as relative.

3). Harry's longstanding adoration or hatred of certain characters is moderated as he learns their histories, continuing a theme unevenly delivered in the series, that good and evil live together in everyone (a theme to which no Christian can object). Full forgiveness, however, is in some cases either lacking or not explicit.

4). The novel's heroes state explicitly that they stand for, among other noble things, the power of innocence. This phrase is radical enough to contradict not only the prevailing view of our culture but of any culture.

5). Hermione says to Ron, "Look, if I picked up a sword right now, Ron, and ran you through with it, I wouldn't damage your soul at all." (Sound familiar?) The existence and immortality of the soul is a theme Rowling has developed gradually, and it is vital to the plot of this last novel. The idea that what one does in life has serious consequences in the afterlife is present, as is a graphic depiction of both salvation and damnation.

6). This one includes a slight spoiler alert, but many Christian readers will love it: when the evil Lord Voldemort gains power, one of the first things he does is--wait for it--outlaw homeschooling. German readers won't miss this little barb.

7. Heroes in the story uphold, in no uncertain terms, every human being's intrinsic value and right to live, whereas the villains are champions of killing others in the name of convenience and eugenics.

8). This book proves the whole series to be a thoughtful and reasonably profound meditation on death, a subject Rowling has developed gradually. Personally, I am pleased to see someone confronting this issue squarely in a children's series. The villains of Harry Potter, the Death Eaters, are the same villains in C. S. Lewis's That Hideous Strength: they are those who wish to achieve immortality in the here and now, in this life. In Lewis's novel, they try to achieve it by science; in Rowling's, they try to achieve it by magic, which is analogous to science in the Potterverse.

To speak of death as an absolute evil is not merely an error but a heresy, a heresy to which Harry Potter concocts a strong antidote. Harry Potter acknowledges the immortality of the soul and treats it as a given, but those who try to master death and achieve an immortality in this world become corrupt. If D. G. D. were writing this, he would no doubt pause to direct the reader to Charles Stross's Glasshouse for an inadvertent example of just how corrupt such people can be; immortal, thanks to technology, the characters of Glasshouse have nothing left to do with their existence but entertain themselves, and so they spend most of their time concocting new perversities to stimulated their exhausted sexual appetites; this may look like Heaven to Charles Stross, but I suspect many of his readers, if they are not too disgusted to read it, will easily identify it with Hell.

At one point, Harry Potter sees a biblical quote, The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death (1 Corinthians 15.26). He is horrified, identifying it with Death Eater thinking, but Hermione corrects him: "It doesn't mean defeating death in the way the Death Eaters mean it, Harry.... It beyond death. Living after death." The difference between true immortality and false immortality achieved through technology is here sharply defined.

I could easily go on looking for such things, but I must give space to the other side of the table. Besides a few minor quibbles such as the Aeschylus quote or some "snogging" (how I hate that word!), and besides also the magic, which I insist be discussed as a separate issue, the opponents of the series will note a very, very serious moral flaw, and they will be entirely correct in pointing it out and condemning it. And now my claws are bound, for to discuss this, I must give away what, to a close reader of the series, will appear to be a serious revelation. Though I will still attempt vagueness, I must give a full-on spoiler alert.

And now I continue. This novel contains a mercy killing presented in positive fashion. Rowling's meditation on death is quite good on the whole but ultimately arrives defective.

Those who have claimed the novels are pure as wind-driven snow and those who have claimed they bear the devil's own signature may now pause to wipe the egg from their faces. As we finish the last novel in the epic Harry Potter series, we find in retrospect a competent fantasy series with some flaws (like any fantasy series), some wholesome elements (like any fantasy series), and some Christian parallels (like many fantasy series). It is, in other words, just another highly entertaining and well-written set of fictional books, no more and no less. Over-hyped? Maybe. Beneficial to some? Probably. Harmful to others? Perhaps. In a few years, when the movies are finished, these will be just another set of books to adorn the shelves of the imaginative.

But then comes the question, should your children read them? Because this blog comes from a house full of bachelors, it is the policy of The Sci Fi Catholic not to give parents instructions and to give fair warning before offering them advice. So there's the warning; now our advice is this: your children can read the books, but now that you know it is there, do not forget to discuss with them the immorality of mercy killing (and how it contradicts the prevailing theme of human life's intrinsic value), and while you're at it, you may discuss whether or not some of the physical relationships in the series are too intense or too shallow. There is nothing in these novels, as we see it, to drive concerned parents to keep the books out of the hands of children, but there is also no excuse for failing to discuss their objectionable elements as well as their positive elements. Behold, I have told you beforehand.

The Sci Fi Catholic's Rating for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows:

Myth Level: High (quest, epic storyline, back stories that read like fairy tales)

Quality: High (ferocious, fast-paced, and generally well-written)

Ethics/Religion: Medium (a great deal to praise with one seriously objectionable element)
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