Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

by Wardog

Wardog opens the inevitable slew of Harry Potter by bitching and moaning.
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Reviewing Harry Potter has got to be something of a pointless endeavour; I mean, if you like Harry Potter you'll read it anyway and if you don't, well, you probably have more self respect than I do just about now. The truth of the matter is, I don't like Harry Potter any more. Once, upon a time, when they were tautly-plotted, slim-line, above-average children's books I was very fond of them. But now that they're a sprawling, insufficiently edited Phenomenon I can't read them without frustration, and yet seem to be incapable of, you know, stopping. It's depressing, I think I need a twelve step programme. Given that the book has evolved beyond conventional reviewing (and that's not a good thing) here are some assorted observations.

Needless to say: spoilerific, including death spoilers

Plot & Pacing

As in the preceding two books, this is completely wrecked. Although it has a beginning and a reasonably climatic ending sequence (the Battle of Hogwarts, because that's all we ever really cared about anyway, wasn't it?) everything in between seems jerky and uneven. Essentially, it consists of long stretches of exposition interspersed with pockets of reasonably exciting action sequences, as Team Potter infiltrate the Ministry, Gringotts, Malfoy Manner and finally Hogwarts with varying degrees of success and pointfulness. If I was feeling generous, I would comment on the thematic nature of these incursions, and how resonant it is that everything that Harry was introduced to in the earlier books as a source of protection and authority is now corrupted. But I'm not feeling generous; Harry, Ron and Hermione spend an enormous quantity of the book sitting in a magically protected tent in the middle of nowhere, dithering between hallows and horcruxes and reading Rita Skeeter's biography of Albus Dumbledore.

Aside from one or two chapters at the beginning of the book, the Harry Potter books have always been told entirely from Harry Potter's point of view. The reader sees what Harry Potter sees, and hears what Harry Potter hears. This comes with attendant advantages and disadvantages. It brings the reader close to Harry and makes you root for him, it also rigidly controls the flow of information between author and reader. But it also means that for anything to happen, Harry has to be there. That's why he spends such a lot of time crawling around beneath his invisibility cloak listening in on plot dumps. Needless to say, the same holds true of the seventh book; the whole wizarding world is at war but we hear of it as Harry does, through daily prophet articles and occasional communications. There's no sense of scale or grandeur. It's unpleasant, yes, and oppressive but it packs only a limited emotional punch because the reader, like Harry, it stuck in a freaking tent.

Furthermore, a large portion of the book is told through letters, extracts from books, articles, memories, long autobiographical interludes from minor characters who suddenly turn out to be important. It's not precisely tedious but the preoccupation with the backplot, as ever, hinders the build to a dramatic climax. There's even an intermission, I kid you not, an intermission in the final showdown so Harry can peg it off to Dumbledore's office to re-live the last seven books from Snape's perspective. Perhaps I'm old fashioned but I don't think three chapters from the end is a good place for a massive exposition.

I'm not saying there aren't good bits, because there are. Neville kicks Dark Lord ass, for example, Dudley, of all people, has a moment of touching redemption and Luna remains just fabulous throughout. But the book seems to have no sense of itself as, well, a book. Books need to build to something, books need pace and structure, books need to be edited! But as Dan said, it's not a book, it's source material.

Style

Perhaps a demonstration is in order...

A quote from Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets:
"Hang on..." Harry muttered to Ron. "There's an empty chair at the staff table.... Where's Snape?
"Maybe he's ill!" said Ron hopefully.
"Maybe he's left," said Harry, 'because he missed out on the Defence Against the Dark Arts job again!"
"Or he might have been sacked!" said Ron enthusiastically. "I mean, everyone hates him --"
"Or maybe," said a very cold voice right behind them, "he's waiting to hear why you two didn't arrive on the school train."
Harry spun around. There, his black robes rippling in a cold breeze, stood Severus Snape. He was a thin man with sallow skin, a hooked nose and greasy, shoulder-length black hair, and at this moment, he was smiling in a way that told Harry he and Ron were in very deep trouble.

Aww. Just typing that out made me nostalgic for happier times when I actually used to enjoy reading Harry Potter. A quote from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows...
And then with a little shudder the elf became quite still, and his eyes were nothing more than great, glassy orbs sprinkled with light from the stars they could not see.

I know they are very different books and the seventh book is infinitely "darker" (I'll come on to this later) in tone, setting and intent from the second, and I also know that there's something like seven real world years between them. But if this is evidence that JK has developed as a writer, I would like to point out that she appears to have developed a rambling, overwritten and overwrought style in place of the clean, sharp and witty one of the earlier books. You're meant to get better, the more you practice, right?

I could, perhaps, forgive the above but it's not an isolated incident. The stars are cold and unfeeling throughout; it's worse than being in a Hardy novel. And people don't just die, they die with Tragic Gravitas, their "eyes [staring] without seeing, the ghost of [their] last laugh still etched upon [their] face." A little less verbiage and a little less hysteria could have benefited this book immensely.

Character Death: the Massacre of the Minors

Characters die in Harry Potter, we have always known this. JK Rowling makes a big deal of it. It's how we know she is writing Serious Literature for children instead of a bunch of silly books about a teenage wizard. Reading the books, it's obvious that JK prides herself on her portrayal of death and its after-affects on the loved ones of the deceased.
The suddenness and completeness of death was with them like a presence - The Deathly Hallows.

This is at its best when it's understated, for example the lingering psychological consequences of the death of his parents on Harry which seeps through the pages of all the books. When it is all about Making A Point about JK's conception of herself as a writer, it is unsurprisingly less effective. I don't mind that Sirius died, I mind very much that he died to Show Us Something About The Nature of Death.

The Deathly Hallows has a higher death count that Hamlet, except that they're all relatively minor characters including, of all people, Colin Creevy, the poor pointless bastard. This says nothing to me about the harsh and futile nature of warfare, but it does scream "cheap shot." I hate it when authors kill off their emotionally engaging wallpaper characters just because they can and then expect the reader to applaud them for being dark and courageous. I felt exactly the same way when Joss Whedon gratuitously killed off Wash in Serenity. It was easy to kill Wash, he was a great character who everybody loved but he was also completely irrelevant in terms of the plot. His death was a quick way to wring an emotional reaction from the audience without causing the writer any inconvenience to do it.

People die by the bucketload in Deathly Hallows (including Harry's owl, for crying out loud), but none of the deaths are meaningful, with the possible exceptions of Fred, Remus and Snape. Most of them, including Lupin's, occur off camera and are thus stripped of any emotional resonance whatsoever. I can't help but suspect that JK must have loathed Remus, one of her most popular characters, by the end. He spends the whole book dashing in and out of focus being stripped of any plot and then, oh look, by the way he's dead. And Fred was essentially a spare Weasley, having, you know, an identical twin. It's the most cowardly half-hearted selection of deaths I think I've ever encountered.

Against this arbitrary massacre, the survival of all the main characters seems both ludicrous and damnably unfair. I'm not saying that I wanted Harry, Ron, Hermione and/or Ginny to die but if you're going to make a hoo-hah about how being a children's author is like being a cold, callous killer you probably ought to stick by your machete.

Which brings us nicely onto...

Dark, man, dark

I have one answer for this and it's oh pulease.

Having waited around politely for Harry to finish school, Lord Voldemort has finally got round to taking over the wizarding world. Quite a lot of nasty things happen in Deathly Hallows and there's a 1984ish air of secretive corruption and control but Harry Potter's darkness is about as sophisticated as a teenage goth's, and remains about as cosmetic. The nastiness is always a hazy, unconvincing background to the well nigh miraculous survival of all the main characters. Hermione, for example, gets captured by Bellatrix at Malfoy Manner and, although she horribly tortured in a scene that is genuinely chilling for about half a second, she shrugs off the experience with the ease de Sade's Justine. And Hogwarts may degenerate into a horrendous nightmare of cruciatus-enforced discipline but the students respond to this with a Blytonesque "down with those rotters" jolly hockey sticks glee that completely undermines any sense of oppression or abuse.

Similarly, although Lord Voldemort swoops around being threatening and imprisoning wandmakers, the Death Eaters themselves continue to be the most appallingly incompetent bunch of nazi-wanabees ever to grace a page. Not only do they routinely fail to capture or kill (and, occasionally, even recognise) the three teenage wizards who keep infiltrating their strongholds but they spend so much of the book being punished for ineptitude by their own master, it can almost be considered a form of self-harm. Regardless, it's hard to take them seriously as opposition.

It is mildly interesting to see Harry himself stooping to some of the unforgivable curses with barely a qualm. But this seems to be less a case of dark, man, dark than convenient, man, convenient.

Paging Lord Voldemort

This is an aside connected to the general incompetence of the Death Eaters. In the seventh book, the Dark Mark seems to function primarily as a communicator, which means the greatest dark wizard, like, ever spends the book being yanked about the country by his incompetent minions. There isn't a scene like this in the book, but there should be:

Random Wizard: ARGHRGHGH!!
Lord V: CRUCIO!
Random Wizard: ARGH! Mercy! Mercy! I'll tell you everything. Please ... stop the pain.
Dark Mark: [ring ring]
Lord V: I'm sorry, I have to take this... [talking into his elbow] Hello, yes, Lord Voldemort here ... I see ... are you absolutely certain of that? You thought you'd captured Potter fifty pages back. Oh. You've definitely got him this time. On my way.

Remus, Tonks and Sirius

Let's move on to character for a bit. I have always thought the Remus/Tonks relationship felt bolted on, and suspected it was a "ya boo sucks" to fanfic writers which made me even less sympathetic to its inadequate presentation. As Harry and Cho and Harry and Ginny have comprehensively revealed, human relationships, especially romantic ones, are not JK's strong point. But Remus/Tonks, partially because we only ever see it second and third hand, has always seemed particularly lacklustre. Harry, as a protagonist, does not preoccupy himself with the moods and inner workings of his companions; therefore in Half Blood Prince we were occasionally told Remus and/or Tonks looks sad or angry or otherwise distracted but then left to either draw our own conclusions or hear about the reasons long after the events that inspired it.

This unsatisfactory portrayal continues, unabated in Deathly Hallows. Off-camera, they get married, have angst, and Tonks becomes pregnant. Remus comes on-camera long enough to angst further and then retreats back into married bliss. Their child is born (Team Potter are sitting in their tent as usual at this point), Remus evinces delight and then he and Tonks are both killed at the Battle of Hogwarts. To say it's massively dissatisfying and frustrating is to do massively dissatisfying and frustrating things a great disservice.

Oh and as a footnote to this, it turns out that Sirius has girly pics on his bedroom walls. Just to make it absolutely clear that he's straight, completely straight, you got that slashers?

Dumbledore

You would have thought the one concrete advantage to Dumbledore being definitely dead would be avoiding the long Dumbledore Explains The Plot chapter at the end of the book. But, no. Death just isn't the handicap it used to be in the olden days and it happens anyway. Stab me. Stab me now.

Just as Order of the Phoenix tore away the veil of unquestioning admiration and idolisation Harry (and, presumably, the reader) felt for the Marauders in a conceptually interesting but badly executed way, Deathly Hallows does the same for Dumbledore. Harry is forced to confront the truth that his beloved mentor was a real person, a man with faults and weaknesses just like any other. I always found Dumbledore a little difficult to take but it's hard to tell how much that was deliberate on the part of the author (he's the worst headmaster in the world, for example - imagine you were in Slytherin house at the end of Philosopher's Stone, how would it feel to have the house trophy goiked out of your hands by some random world saving after the whole hall had already been decorated in your house colours, saving the world is all very noble and everything but it's hardly a legitimate extra curricular activity) and how far it was me reacting against his role as a plot device, explaining or withholding information on the most spurious personal pretexts to make life easier for his author.

But the fact of the matter is that Dumbledore is too imperfectly drawn in books one to six to be effectively interpreted as anything other than a two dimensional mentor figure. Therefore Harry's Dumbledore-related angst in the seventh book interferes with the smooth running of the plot and feels completely hollow because ultimately it doesn't matter. He's dead, for God's sake, dead. It's just too late in the day to care about Dumbledore's family skeletons and, since he was always presented to the reader as a kindly jelly-bean eating mentor figure, the additional "complexity" feels like an unconvincing and irrelevant ret-con.

That Bloody Epilogue

Of all the stuff that was leaked onto the internet before the book was officially released, the epilogue was the only one I investigated. I dismissed it as a clever parody. It was just too sickening. Draco's receding hairline had to be a joke. The legion of incestuously named rugrats, ha ha, very funny.

Oh wait.

No.

That was real.

It was really real.

Dear God.

Worst. Epilogue. Ever.

Conclusion

Sadly, everyone else I've spoken to (with the exception of Dan, obviously, but we share a brain) has been deeply enthusiastic about Potter. So perhaps I'm just a grumpy old git and didn't deserve to enjoy it.

It still sucks though.


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Comments (go to latest)
Arthur B at 19:21 on 2007-07-23
Don't worry, I am also grumpy about Potter. I briefly considered actually bothering to read ...and the Half-Blood Prince in order to prepare for Deathly Hallows, since I'd stopped after Order of the Phoenix, but in the end I couldn't be bothered - especially after I got around to reading summaries of it, and reading patches of it in Borders.

Thoughts:

- Speaking of cheap shots, doesn't Voldemort randomly kill the Sorting Hat for no good reason?
- And doesn't Voldemort essentially die because of a totally newbie mistake? Which Harry carefully explains to him before Voldemort goes ahead and screws up anyway? Doesn't Harry basically loophole his way to the win?
- Aren't these people overreacting a little?
Wardog at 20:42 on 2007-07-23
Oh I totally forgot about the random death of the Sorting Hat! And, yes, Harry Potter wins by being a PC - he is the Joe Williams of children's fantasy.

That is a slightly over-reaction, yes...but people are not sane when it comes to HP.
Mystiquefire at 18:36 on 2007-08-11
Trust me you are not the only one who thought this book sucked.
Wardog at 21:38 on 2007-08-11
I think I'm so bitter because I was once very into Harry Potter. And I think I've become incapable of recognising its strengths any more. I mean what I've come to think of the puzzle-box aspect of the books (plots within plots) is probably better done than I give it credit for being. For example, according to the friends I have who still like Harry Potter, if you go back, you can genuinely trace a hint of the "true" Dumbledore throughout all the books. Sadly I genuinely can't be bothered.
empink at 12:12 on 2007-08-24

Sadly, everyone else I've spoken to (with the exception of Dan, obviously, but we share a brain) has been deeply enthusiastic about Potter. So perhaps I'm just a grumpy old git and didn't deserve to enjoy it.

No, you are not. My hate for DH grows with time's passing, actually, and though I'm well out of my tween years, I'm not yet a grumpy old git or anything approaching it ;).

Well, I might just be plain grumpy, but that book was enough to make me so, even when I just expected more possibly crappy source material for fanfic, fanart and so on. While it hasn't seemed to have as great an effect on fannish output in my little corner of fandom (mostly because of extenuating wankumstances), what little effect it *has* had has produced fic and art I'm still avoiding. Not because the fans I keep track of are not talented in their own way, but because I still can't bear to read things that are compliant with Deathly Hallows, cracktastic though they may be. Instead of making me chortle at the weirdness of fandom, the cracky ships that have sprung up just make me see more red. More...more epilogue. *shudders*

The whole book was just so *bad*, in places where it wouldn't have taken more than a little judicious effort to be the opposite. The few good bits it had just weren't enough to hold back the tide of useless jokes, stupidities, non-characterizations and daft deaths. It therefore feels hugely ironic that DH is the only HP book I have a copy of to this date (well, a paper copy).

Then again, I doubt I could reread the earlier books now without rolling my eyes and sighing knowing what is ahead for Harry. Incapable of recognising the series' strengths looks about where I'm standing now.
Wardog at 10:54 on 2007-08-27
Many thanks for the comment - one of the problems with DH in terms of fandom, perhaps, is that it closes off more avenues than it opens, if that makes sense. Especially in terms of the Epilogue of Death because everyone is permanently dating the person they were doing at school. I wouldn't say no to a bit of twisted Dumbledore/Grindelward m'self but I can't see it eclipsing the amusing if pointless popularity of Scorpius/Albus-Severus (just *shudder*). Sadly, I have copies of all the books and although I tried to re-read them a few months ago to prepare for DH I couldn't actually get beyond 3. Sigh.
M Harris at 11:19 on 2007-10-04
One of the most irrating things in book seven was Voldemort's lack of a plot or any sort of meaningful action. I spent the duration of the book waiting for him to kidnap people Harry was emotionally attached to and torturing/killing them until Harry came to him. We are continuously told of how unusually smart and clever and intelligent (and handsome)Tom Riddle was. So it is completely out of character to have him become inept. But of course Lord Voldemort being strategic and cunning would mean that Harry would have to form some sort of plan, and as he is clearly incapible of that I guess JKR had to stick with him sitting in a tent for a very long amount of time while Voldemort killed time by killing minor characters.

Another thing that really angered me was JKR writing that Snape based his entire life on the fact that he was in love with some girl when he was fifteen. It made his character lose any sort of depth he had gained through the other books. The dialogue between AD and SS of "After all this time?" "Always." made me want to kill people.

The halfnaked!pictures in Sirius' room could have ONLY been put there as a "fuck you, I'm writing the book" from JKR to the slashers. I have no idea why she felt so threatened that she needed to close that particular opportunity for straying from 'everyone is straight and get married to people they met when they were eleven and have large amounts of children named after dead relatives' Deathly Hallows.

(Hahahaha, Dumbledore/Grindelwald is canon, because she can't write another book to insert girl!porn in to say otherwise.)

Wardog at 12:40 on 2007-10-04
Indeed, Voldemort's ineptitude is particularly annoying in book full of things that are particularly annoying. I remember those halycon days when Voldemort was actually rather scary... the drinking unicorn blood business really traumatised me. To be fair, the whole seven book arc is so unwieldy I'm not sure I could easily come up with a way for Voldemort to have been effective by book 7 without completely hindering Harry's ability to take him out. I think it actually comes to the contradiction that lies at the heart of most children's books (and for that matter a lot of detective stories): why is that the group of feisty kids able to take out fully grown villain when conventional law authorities have failed, or why is this cocaine-saturated amateur able to catch the criminals who have been defying the finest minds at Scotland Yard. Most texts go some way towards smoothing over these inconsistencies (i.e. the Secret Seven always end up alerting the police when it comes to the crunch, Sherlock Holmes is a specialist in a proto-forensic techinque that - although nonesense in the modern day - is unknown to the authorities) but JKR manages to have the worst of all possible worlds: hugely powerful wizard we should all be scared of who has taken over *the entire ministry of magic* versus one short-sighted kid with an expelliarmus.

And, yes, you're right - the whole Lily business makes Snape much less complex and interesting than he used to be.... although I almost hovered on the verge of finding it just a little bit sweet. I was desperate for emotional connection by that time in the seven hundred page monster.

Dumbledore/Grindelward? Ouch.
Isabel at 18:47 on 2008-03-27
"JKR manages to have the worst of all possible worlds: hugely powerful wizard we should all be scared of who has taken over *the entire ministry of magic* versus one short-sighted kid with an expelliarmus." - exactly, and i don't get how she spent most of the HBP banging on and on about the importance of non-verbal spells and then have Snape absolutely kick Harry's ass at the end by using them, only to entirely forget them by book seven so Harry has about a minute to get Expelliwhatsit off while Voldemorte is busy shrieking Avada-kedavra. Actually, considering how many just cringeworthy examples there are of stuff like that its almost pointles listing any one of them. Sigh.

I quite liked Lily and Snape, well I liked Lily being friends with Snape but I deeply resented her just boiling down everything he was as character to that. Speaking of you death of the reader article, along those lines, I read an interview with Ms Rowling where a kid put forward his idea that Snape actually did like Harry a bit only for Rowling to turn around and basically say that no he didnt and that's a load of bollocks and he was only ever acting out of love for Lily, just in case, god forbid, we try and read her characters in any other way than she intended (i.e. as remotely complex or interesting).
Melissa G. at 15:07 on 2009-12-08
So, I've been in a "reading sporks of Harry Potter" mood which led me back to many of the articles here, and I just wanted to point something out about Colin Creevey's death, and maybe someone else has said it already, but...it is not actually possible for him to have been there to die.

It's said that he snuck back from the Hog's Head into Hogwarts to join the battle. The only problem is: he can't have been at the Hog's Head in the first place. He wouldn't have been at Hogwarts that year - being Muggleborn, he would been arrested and sent to concentration camp(?) - so he couldn't have been evacuated from Hogwarts to the Hog's Head to sneak back. And he couldn't have gotten into the Hog's Head from the outside because Hogsmeade has a curfew curse thing that would go off if anyone was walking around the streets late at night. Perhaps he Apparated into the Hog's Head? But why? How would he have even known the battle was going on then?

I know it seems obsessive, but it's just that it was such a cheap shot, and it isn't even possible given the rules she set up. Arg.
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