NOTE: Christopher Hitchens writes a review of Deathly Hallows for the New York Times. We know something is amiss when he recommends Philip Pullman over J.K. Rowling.
In March 1940, in the “midnight of the century” that marked the depth of the Hitler-Stalin pact (or in other words, at a time when civilization was menaced by an alliance between two Voldemorts or “You-Know-Whos”), George Orwell took the time to examine the state of affairs in fantasy fiction for young people. And what he found (in an essay called “Boys’ Weeklies”) was an extraordinary level of addiction to the form of story that was set in English boarding schools. Every week, boys (and girls) from the poorer quarters of industrial towns and from the outer edges of the English-speaking Empire would invest some part of their pocket-money to keep up with the adventures of Billy Bunter, Harry Wharton, Bob Cherry, Jack Blake and the other blazer-wearing denizens of Greyfriars and St. Jim’s. As he wrote:
“It is quite clear that there are tens and scores of thousands of people to whom every detail of life at a ‘posh’ public school is wildly thrilling and romantic. They happen to be outside that mystic world of quadrangles and house-colors, but they can yearn after it, daydream about it, live mentally in it for hours at a stretch. The question is, Who are these people?”
I wish that the morose veteran of Eton and St. Cyprian’s had been able to join me on the publication night of “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows,” when I went to a bookstore in Stanford, Calif., to collect my embargoed copy on behalf of the Book Review. Never mind the stall that said “Get Your House Colors Here” and was dealing with customers wise in the lore of Ravenclaw and Slytherin. On the floor of the shop, largely transformed into the Gryffindor common room for the occasion, sat dozens of small children listening raptly to a reading from a massively plausible Hagrid. Of the 2,000 or so people in the forecourt, perhaps one-third had taken the trouble to wear prefect gowns and other Hogwarts or quidditch impedimenta. Many wore a lightning-flash on their foreheads: Orwell would have recoiled at seeing the symbol of Sir Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists on otherwise unblemished brows, even if the emblem was tamed by its new white-magic associations. And this was a sideshow to the circus, all across the English-speaking and even non-English world, as the countdown to the witching hour began.
I would give a lot to understand this phenomenon better. Part of it must have to do with the extreme banality and conformity of school life as it is experienced today, with everything oriented toward safety on the one hand and correctness on the other. But this on its own would not explain my youngest daughter a few years ago, sitting for hours on end with her tiny elbow flattening the pages of a fat book, and occasionally laughing out loud at the appearance of Scabbers the rat. (One hears that not all children retain the affection for reading that the Harry Potter books have inculcated: this isn’t true in my house at least.)
Scabbers turns out to mutate into something a bit worse than a rat, and the ancient charm of metamorphosis is one that J. K. Rowling has exploited to the uttermost. Another well-tested appeal, that of the orphan hero, has also been given an intensive workout with the Copperfield-like privations of the eponymous hero. For Orwell, the English school story from Tom Brown to Kipling’s Stalky and Co. was intimately bound up with dreams of wealth and class and snobbery, yet Rowling has succeeded in unmooring it from these considerations and giving us a world of youthful democracy and diversity, in which the humble leading figure has a name that — though it was given to a Shakespearean martial hero and king — could as well belong to an English labor union official. Perhaps Anglophilia continues to play its part, but if I were one of the few surviving teachers of Anglo-Saxon I would rejoice at the way in which such terms as muggle and Wizengamot, and such names as Godric, Wulfric and Dumbledore, had become common currency. At this rate, the teaching of “Beowulf” could be revived. The many Latin incantations and imprecations could also help rekindle interest in the study of a “dead” language.
In other respects, too, one recognizes the school story formula. If a French or German or other “foreign” character appears in the Harry Potter novels, it is always as a cliché: Fleur and Krum both speak as if to be from “the Continent” is a joke in itself. The ban on sexual matters is also observed fairly pedantically, though as time has elapsed Rowling has probably acquired male readers who find themselves having vaguely impure thoughts about Hermione Granger (if not, because the thing seems somehow impossible, about Ginny Weasley). Most interesting of all, perhaps, and as noted by Orwell, “religion is also taboo.” The schoolchildren appear to know nothing of Christianity; in this latest novel Harry and even Hermione are ignorant of two well-known biblical verses encountered in a churchyard. That the main characters nonetheless have a strong moral code and a solid ethical commitment will be a mystery to some — like his holiness the pope and other clerical authorities who have denounced the series — while seeming unexceptionable to many others. As Hermione phrases it, sounding convincingly Kantian or even Russellian about something called the Resurrection Stone:
“How can I possibly prove it doesn’t exist? Do you expect me to get hold of — of all the pebbles in the world and test them? I mean, you could claim that anything’s real if the only basis for believing in it is that nobody’s proved it doesn’t exist.”
For all this apparently staunch secularism, it is ontology that ultimately slackens the tension that ought to have kept these tales vivid and alive. Theologians have never been able to answer the challenge that contrasts God’s claims to simultaneous omnipotence and benevolence: whence then cometh evil? The question is the same if inverted in a Manichean form: how can Voldemort and his wicked forces have such power and yet be unable to destroy a mild-mannered and rather disorganized schoolboy? In a short story this discrepancy might be handled and also swiftly resolved in favor of one outcome or another, but over the course of seven full-length books the mystery, at least for this reader, loses its ability to compel, and in this culminating episode the enterprise actually becomes tedious. Is there really no Death Eater or dementor who is able to grasp the simple advantage of surprise?
The repeated tactic of deus ex machina (without a deus) has a deplorable effect on both the plot and the dialogue. The need for Rowling to play catch-up with her many convolutions infects her characters as well. Here is Harry trying to straighten things out with a servile house-elf:
“ ‘I don’t understand you, Kreacher,’ he said finally. ‘Voldemort tried to kill you, Regulus died to bring Voldemort down, but you were still happy to betray Sirius to Voldemort? You were happy to go to Narcissa and Bellatrix, and pass information to Voldemort through them ...’ ”
Yes, well, one sees why he is confused. The exchange takes place during an abysmally long period during which the threesome of Harry, Hermione and Ron are flung together, with weeks of time to spend camping invisibly and only a few inexplicable escapes from death to alleviate the narrative. The grand context of Hogwarts School is removed, at least until the closing scenes, and Rowling also keeps forgetting that things are either magical or they are not: Hermione’s family surely can’t be any safer from the Dark Lord by moving to Australia, and Hagrid’s corporeal bulk cannot make any difference to his ability, or otherwise, to mount a broomstick. A boring subtext, about the wisdom or otherwise of actually uttering Voldemort’s name, meanwhile robs the apotropaic device of its force.
For some time now the novels have been attempting a kind of secular dramatization of the battle between good and evil. The Ministry of Magic (one of Rowling’s better inventions) has been seeking to impose a version of the Nuremberg Laws on England, classifying its subjects according to blood and maintaining its own Gestapo as well as its own Azkaban gulag. But again, over time and over many, many pages this scenario fails to chill: most of the “muggle” population goes about its ordinary existence, and every time the secret police close in, our heroes are able to “disapparate” — a term that always makes me think of an attempt at English by George W. Bush. The prejudice against bank-monopoly goblins is modeled more or less on anti-Semitism and the foul treatment of elves is meant to put us in mind of slavery, but the overall effect of this is somewhat thin and derivative, and subject to diminishing returns.
In this final volume there is a good deal of loose-end gathering to be done. Which side was Snape really on? Can Neville Longbottom rise above himself? Are the Malfoys as black as they have been painted? Unfortunately — and with the solid exception of Neville, whose gallantry is well evoked — these resolutions prove to possess all the excitement of an old-style Perry Mason-type summing-up, prompted by a stock character who says, “There’s just one thing I don’t understand. ...” Most of all this is true of Voldemort himself, who becomes more tiresome than an Ian Fleming villain, or the vicious but verbose Nicolae Carpathia in the Left Behind series, as he offers boastful explanations that are at once grandiose and vacuous. This bad and pedantic habit persists until the final duel, which at least sees us back in the old school precincts once again. “We must not let in daylight upon magic,” as Walter Bagehot remarked in another connection, and the wish to have everything clarified is eventually self-defeating in its own terms. In her correct determination to bring down the curtain decisively, Rowling has gone further than she should, and given us not so much a happy ending as an ending which suggests that evil has actually been defeated (you should forgive the expression) for good.
Greater authors — Arthur Conan Doyle most notably — have been in the same dilemma when seeking closure. And, like Conan Doyle, Rowling has won imperishable renown for giving us an identifiable hero and a fine caricature of a villain, and for making a fictional bit of King’s Cross station as luminous as a certain address on nearby Baker Street. It is given to few authors to create a world apart, and to populate it as well as illustrate it in the mind. As one who actually did once go to boarding school by steam train, at 8, I enjoyed reading aloud to children and coming across Diagon Alley and Grimmauld Place, and also shuddering at the memory of the sarcastic schoolmasters (and Privet Drives) I have known.
The distinctly slushy close of the story may seem to hold out the faint promise of a sequel, but I honestly think and sincerely hope that this will not occur. The toys have been put firmly back in the box, the wand has been folded up, and the conjuror is discreetly accepting payment while the children clamor for fresh entertainments. (I recommend that they graduate to Philip Pullman, whose daemon scheme is finer than any patronus.) It’s achievement enough that “19 years later,” as the last chapter-heading has it, and quite probably for many decades after that, there will still be millions of adults who recall their initiation to literature as a little touch of Harry in the night.